At Knox County Schools, Where’s the Education in Sex Ed?

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

You might have a problem if your sex ed teacher tells rape jokes. Or if he warns girls against catching “ho-itis.” You might have a problem if students leave class thinking condoms don’t work or if your curriculum includes slides that serve as anti-abortion propaganda. You might have a problem if teachers are afraid to teach, students are afraid to ask questions, and nobody knows if it’s working.

Knox County Schools has a lot of problems with its current sex education curriculum, as documented by Heather Duncan in her March 17 Knoxville Mercury cover story, but they all seem to arise from what appears to be a guiding principle: If you have sex with someone you aren’t married to you’ll probably get an STI, you might get pregnant, but most certainly you’ll be damaged goods and nobody will ever love you again. It’s a virginity cult and it’s corroding the curriculum and endangering our children.

Take item number 17 in the high school Family Life and Human Sexuality Curriculum:

“What are you saving for whom you will marry? This is a rhetorical question where we encourage students to think about what their future marriage will look like. Will they be able to offer their diamond zone or a list of people they have slept with?”

Do they follow with a fairy tale where Prince Charming woos his always virginal princess? The idea that virginity has some intrinsic value, like a prize, might have its origins in a time when abstinence was the only protection from infection. It became a religious value, although these days it remains so only in particular sects of certain religions. Yet Knox County Schools has employed a sex educator who clearly speaks from one particular sect of Christianity. And according to respondents in a survey from the activist group Just Educate, he is allowed to stand before our students, some who are parents already, and tell them if they’re having sex, they won’t be loved; and if they’re not heterosexual, something is wrong with them; and if they are sexually assaulted, they might want to reconsider how they dress. Teachers who would otherwise offer students a more fact-based approach are gagged by the state’s intentionally vague “gateway sexuality” law. 

According to Duncan’s Mercury article, research has shown that comprehensive sex education—offering detailed information about contraception, consent, and healthy relationships—is more effective at reducing pregnancies, infection rates, and even sexual activity. Dr. Kathleen Brown, director of UT’s Master’s of Public Health program, was quoted in the article as suggesting Knox County conduct an outcome-based evaluation to measure the current program’s effectiveness. A 2012 UT study found a majority of parents and students favoring a curriculum that covered more topics than just abstinence and the biology of sex. And yet, Tennessee state law mandates that Family Life instruction should “promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence and encourage sexual health by teaching students the consequences of non-marital sexual activity.”

In other words, scare them to death at 14 but then leave them clueless by the time they’re seniors (when 55 percent report being sexually active), or in college, or how long after that? Let’s compare the consequences of “non-marital sexual activity” with the consequences of unprotected sex on a person’s health. Or let’s not. It would be an excellent idea to endorse comprehensive sex ed or, at least, repeal that “gateway” bill—but we could drop a brick wall of evidence on the heads of some of our legislators and they’d ignore it to keep believing what they want to believe.

I suspect one reason our state law is so restrictive and Knox County tolerates an educator who teeters on the line of religious instruction is to defend against a small but extremely loud contingent of parents who will scream bloody murder if they think their kids—or anybody’s kids—are being taught anything that does not strictly adhere to their own narrow values. Forget the public in public schools! These people are bullies, and it’s easier to throw skewed information at students than to fight a bully, particularly one who claims, speciously, to hold the moral high ground. But if we caved to every sanctimonious bully, we’d be teaching creationism rather than evolution. Why then are we risking our children’s health?

There’s no equivalent to “ho-itis” for the boys in the presentations offered by Knox County’s sex educator. Think about that. When a teacher says “Why buy the cow if I can get the milk for free,” who is the cow? What is the milk? Who’s doing the buying? Is this really the message we want to be sending in 2016, this same old toxic brew of “boys will be boys,” and girls get to choose between being a slut or a prude? What is this saying to our boys? To our girls? How is this encouraging “sexual health?”

The reason we encourage our kids to choose abstinence is because we want them to be ready physically and emotionally before engaging in sex, not because their virginity is somehow sacred. When they are ready (and particularly if they aren’t), we want them to know how to protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancies. Whether they are 16 or 26, the information should be accurate. Some students have parents who can offer the information they need but far too many don’t. Reading the comments from the Just Educate survey is heartbreaking for all the reported shaming, but one young person’s comment continues to haunt me: “I don’t know how to have safe sex.”

If we respect our students, if we care about their health and safety, if we want them to take us seriously on this most serious subject, then we should offer a sex education curriculum based on evidence and facts rather than a fairy tale.

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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