Why Isn't There Consensus On Sex Education?
The nation’s views on sex ed have shifted greatly over the past 30 years.LEARN MORE
A Newsy investigation reveals a push by organized groups to stop schools from teaching what advocates say is critical to preventing sexual assault.
Millions of students returning to public schools across Texas are encountering fallout from a battle over the state's first major update to sex education and health standards in more than two decades.
A Newsy investigation reveals how an advocacy group helped convince the Texas State Board of Education to strike lessons about consent from the state's planned health education standards for the 2022-2023 school year. The board's decision went against the advice of medical experts and organizations promoting teen sexual health, which say comprehensive sex education helps reduce rape and unwanted pregnancies.
"It's not an open communication — to talk about sex," says 17-year-old Kennia Gonzalez, a senior at Brownsville Early College High School in Texas. Gonzalez says her high school does not teach any form of sex education beyond abstinence. "Teachers aren't supposed to talk about it with students," she says.
In fact, Texas high schools are not required to offer students sex education, and if they do, parents must opt in for their children to receive it. State regulations now require those schools that choose to teach the topic to emphasize "the centrality of abstinence education in any human sexuality curriculum."
The state of Texas' high hopes for convincing teens to say no to sex do not appear to be having the intended impact. A 2019 CDC survey of Texas youths showed that nearly two-thirds of high school seniors report having had sex. Texas has the ninth-highest teen birth rate in the U.S., and the state tops the nation in repeat teen births.
Gonzalez says with no sex education being taught by her school, some of her classmates are left with dangerous gaps in their understanding of healthy sex and relationships.
"Men are taught to get what they want without the teaching of consent," she says. "So, they're just like, 'She will say yes because I'm a macho man.' And that's how rape happens."
A spokesperson for the Brownsville Independent School District did not respond to multiple requests for comments about their curriculum.
According to the 2019 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 1 in 7 high school senior girls say they have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse. In Texas, that number is closer to 1 in 5, according to the state version of the same survey.
THE BATTLE OVER CONSENT IN TEXAS
Records from the State Board of Education in Texas, reviewed by Newsy, tell the story of a nonprofit group named the Medical Institute for Sexual Health that played an influential role in convincing the state board to keep consent out of Texas requirements — against the advice of health experts and organizations pushing to prevent sexual violence.
Recommendations to the state board for new standards for the 2022-2023 school year in Texas did include lessons on teaching students about consent at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels. In Texas, middle schools are required to provide some sex education, though a new state law makes parents opt-in first. Educators, parents and other advocacy groups expressed to state officials their support for teaching consent.
The Texas Medical Association and Texas Pediatric Society jointly wrote to the State Board of Education "on behalf of more than 53,000 physicians in Texas" to say they "strongly support adding new standards on boundaries and consent for physical intimacy where none previously existed." The groups added that students should "understand affirmative consent is required in all physically intimate encounters."
The Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers also wrote to the board: "Consent is an extremely important part of any conversation regarding healthy relationships. We believe that it is the SBOE's duty to include clear, informative, and meaningful definitions of consent, including examples of how a student might share their consent within relationships of any kind."
But according to state records, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health and more than 1,000 community members "expressed opposition to any efforts to add language discussing consent" to the state's minimum health standards. The group also told the State Board of Education it supported "the omission of differentiated instruction on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues" for this school year.
The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a Dallas-based nonprofit founded in 1992, is an abstinence-promoting organization active in multiple states. The group distributes guidelines for sex education that, despite the group's name, have been criticized by some in the medical community. Researchers from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins, Case Western and others wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2021 that the group's standards were "seriously flawed from both scientific and human rights' perspectives."
State records show the Medical Institute played a larger role in shaping the new standards in Texas, beyond simply filing comments. The organization's director of science at the time is listed as serving on two of the Texas Education Agency's working groups that drafted proposals for the new health standards. The organization's president at the time, Lori Kuykendall, says she served on multiple working groups that worked "to craft the language" for the proposed sexual health standards. After an early draft of the middle school standards still included consent, Kuykendall spoke at a State Board of Education meeting to say that there was a "slip of consent in grade seven and eight" that remained in proposed standards. She asked the board to "not include consent."
One of the Medical Institute's board members, Dr. Jack Lesch, was tapped by the State Board of Education to serve as one of just six content advisers who took recommendations that came out of the working groups and drafted them into one new proposal for minimum standards for the state board to consider. He recommended the board strike teaching consent from various parts of the new standards, stating: "There are extensive references to refusal skills, safe and personal boundaries, setting limits in the SE's. Therefore, recommend DELETE consent from the topic of decision-making."
Lesch also wrote to the state board to say that introducing consent is "unnecessary" and "also encourages moving toward sexual behavior that is better to delay (avoid)." State records show that some content advisers disagreed with Lesch.
The state board ultimately said it agreed with the Medical Institute's position on omitting LGBTQ instruction from the minimum standards for this school year. As to the Medical Institute's request to steer clear from "any" instruction on consent, the records further note, "The SBOE agrees and has determined that sexual consent was not appropriate" in the Texas standards. The board then "took action to eliminate" a reference to consent.
State Board of Education Chair Keven Ellis did not respond to an emailed request for comment. A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency confirmed basic facts about the state's standards but did not respond to requests for comment about the state board's decision-making on the issue of consent.
Attempts to reach Lesch, the Medical Institute's board member, by telephone, text message and email were unsuccessful. The Medical Institute's then-president, Lori Kuykendall, responded in writing to emailed questions.
"Children under the age of 17 cannot legally give consent to sexual activity and should not be instructed how to," she wrote. "If the goal is to empower children to know when they are being violated and what to do to resist, avoid, or run away from the perpetrator (and ultimately report), then it is logical they would be taught refusal or resistance skills."
Instead of consent, the state board adopted standards that mirrored the Medical Institute's guidance to instruct schools to teach refusal skills and personal boundaries, and state records show they decided to teach even those only "at some grade levels."
"As far as I'm concerned, [consent] is one of the most important things you can be teaching," says Shael Norris, executive director of SafeBAE, a national advocacy group working to prevent sexual violence among middle- and high-school students.
Norris was critical of the state's ultimate choice to teach refusal skills without also teaching consent.
"Instead of putting the blame where it belongs on the perpetrator, the victim takes on that responsibility, and that makes them that much more vulnerable to suicide — if they are victimized and they feel responsible for it," she says.
There is not much academic research yet into the impact that lessons on consent would have on reducing sexual assaults, but studies show that people who have been sexually assaulted are at nearly three times greater risk of suicidal ideation or suicide attempts.
Norris says advocates like her agree that consent lessons can be taught in an age-appropriate, nonsexual manner to children as young as in kindergarten. An example she cites is teaching a young child it is OK for them to say yes or no to hugs, high-fives or other forms of nonsexual touch. This can form a building block to teach other kinds of consent for older teenagers.
The current leaders at the Medical Institute for Sexual Health did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but the group's founder and CEO, Dr. Joe McIlhaney, did answer questions in writing through a public relations firm.
In response to questions asking if the Medical Institute would support any lessons on consent for high schoolers, or "nonsexual" consent lessons for students of any age, McIlhaney said his organization "believes that school-age children understand the meaning of 'yes' and 'no.' We believe that they should refuse sexual advances, and not wonder whether they could or should give consent at such a young age. The answer should be 'no.'"
The American Academy of Pediatrics, representing 67,000 pediatricians, says programs promoting abstinence have "conclusively" been shown not to work but that most comprehensive sexuality education programs studied have been shown to delay the age of intercourse and to promote "protective behaviors" like condom use. And a 2016 UN study of 48 countries found that comprehensive sexuality education leads to "the reduction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, and unintended pregnancy."
The AAP and a host of other medical and educational authorities, such as the American Medical Association and the National Education Association, endorse teaching consent.
Crime statistics from the Texas Department of Public Safety's 2020 report reveal the two age groups with the highest number of reported sexual assault victims in the state were 15- to 19-year-olds and 10- to 14-year-olds. Altogether, a Newsy analysis found that children and teenagers 19 and younger made up more than two-thirds of sexual assault victims in Texas.
Melanie Ramirez, the director of prevention programs at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit associated with 70 rape crisis centers across Texas — and one of the groups that tried to get consent added to the new state standards — says teaching only refusal and boundary skills is outdated and harmful.
"It's reiterating an old notion that if you experience sexual violence, it's somehow now your fault," she says.
"We're not trying to teach, 'Don't get raped.' We're trying to teach, 'Don't rape.'"
A NATIONAL DEBATE
Nationwide, 29 states require that students receive sex education, and 13 require they learn about consent, according to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS. But the battle to change that is hitting state legislatures and local school boards across the country. Alison Macklin, a policy and advocacy director for SIECUS, says in more than 60 years her organization has never seen as many bills proposed to restrict sex education as what happened in the 2022 state legislative sessions.
"This is the busiest we have been in tracking these types of bills," Macklin says.
Lessons about gender identity and consent have also inspired passionate parents and organized groups on both sides of the debate to storm into normally tranquil school board meetings. Some are calling to restrict or do away with sex education in schools altogether.
A Miami-Dade school board meeting made national headlines in July when police were called to remove parents who disrupted the debate on whether to adopt a pair of sex-education textbooks that had references to topics like pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The high school textbook said consent "occurs when someone clearly says yes" in "words, not just body language." The board initially voted to take the books out of the curriculum for this school year, leaving students with no sex-education curriculum, until a new round of upset parents later convinced the board to reinstate the books.
At the Nebraska State Board of Education meeting last August, one individual upset over the proposed standards in that state appeared to threaten a Jan. 6 style insurrection, while others compared the board to Nazis because of the proposed curriculum, which included the teaching of consent.
In Oregon, a nonprofit group called Parents' Rights in Education, or PRIE, recently hosted its second annual summit to train parents from around the nation on how to become more politically active where they live, while trying to vote out school board members who don't agree to keep consent and comprehensive sex education out of school curriculum. The group says on its website it was established in 2011. The group's executive director, Suzanne Gallagher, is the former head of the Oregon Republican Party.
"This is political," Gallagher says. "People like to deny that. They want to think, 'Oh, it's just a school.' It has everything to do with politics. We're flipping school boards."
PRIE's website says comprehensive sexual education should not be taught in schools because "teaching consent undermines any semblance of an abstinence message."
Her podcast website refers to literature that claims teachers who provide sex education are implementing a "Molester's Manifesto," while also claiming in a bullet point "1 in 10 children will experience school employee sexual misconduct."
Newsy traced Gallagher's statistic to a study published by the U.S. Department of Education in 2004. The review included data from an earlier study that found that 1 in 10 students had experienced sexual harassment from educators — which included things like name-calling, spreading rumors, and inappropriate jokes. Though the author of the 2004 review recharacterized this as "sexual misconduct," the Department of Education added a preface cautioning that misconduct and abuse were not one and the same.
Newsy made Gallagher aware of the department's concerns and noted her own podcast website used "misconduct" statistics to support claims about child molestation in schools. Gallagher stood by her website and, at the time of publication, it was left unchanged.
Gallagher says she still believes students are more vulnerable to sexual abuse by teachers if they are taught it is ever OK to consent to a sexual encounter.
"They're going to be thinking, 'Oh, yeah, you know, Mr. Smith, who is just a stud, he said I could," explains Gallagher. "It's setting students up to be accepting of sexual advances from anyone, thinking that it's OK, it's all right, it's perfectly normal, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it and I have a right to it. That goes against the values of many families."
Gallagher says her message is cutting through at the ballot box and has, along with the work of other parents' rights groups, helped force a changeover in school board members in Newberg, Oregon. She also points to Texas as a state where Parents' Rights In Education is active.
"We have a couple groups in Texas. They're on fire there," she says.
Efforts to get sex education out of public schools worry Dr. M. Brett Cooper, a pediatrician who practices in Dallas and is trained specifically in adolescent health, with a master's in education. He spoke publicly to the Texas State Board of Education on the importance of teaching consent while representing the Texas Medical Association and Texas Pediatric Society.
Cooper says he sees firsthand as a practicing physician how common it is for parents to shy away from teaching their own children about sex.
"Parents often come to me when they find out that their child has had sex. I ask them if they've talked to their child about these things before. The answer is usually no."
A Harvard Graduate School of Education survey of 18- to 25-year-olds found that most respondents "had never spoken with their parents about things like 'being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex.'"
Kennia Gonzalez, who says she is the daughter of a teen mother, says that if schools don't teach kids comprehensive sex education, they're going to get it from less reputable sources, like the internet.
"They're going to explore, and not giving them that education isn't going to stop them," she says. "I want the teen pregnancy and [sexual assault] percentages to go down. I just want to see a change."
Zach Cusson and Meghan Sullivan contributed reporting for this story.
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