Campaigns to Undermine Sexuality Education in the Public Schools

Document Date: April 1, 1998

The Need For And Benefits Of Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Children and teenagers confront a barrage of information and situations related to sexuality. Guidance from families and schools is key in fostering teenagers’ healthy sexual development and responsible behavior. Far more adolescents are sexually active now than was the case in recent decades. Fifty-six percent of boys and 50 percent of girls aged 15-19 report having had sexual intercourse. Every year, nearly one million teenage girls become pregnant, and about 80 percent of those pregnancies are unintended. 1 Rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS infection, are on the rise among teenagers. Comprehensive sexuality education can be critical in giving young people the information and skills they need to make responsible decisions and to protect themselves. By “comprehensive sexuality education,” we mean a thorough, accurate curriculum that examines such subjects as human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior and health, and society and culture.

The ACLU believes that the full exercise of reproductive rights depends on having access to complete information. Moreover, efforts to limit information about sexuality constitute censorship and run counter to the American tradition of encouraging the free flow of ideas.

Current Status Of Sexuality Education In American Public Schools

Many states sponsor some form of sexuality education through laws, regulations, or recommendations. At present, 19 states require that schools provide sexuality education, and 34 states require instruction about sexually transmitted diseases and/or HIV/AIDS. 2 Although these statistics suggest that sexuality education is widespread in American schools, the quality and comprehensiveness of this education vary considerably. In some places, teachers of sexuality education are prohibited from mentioning topics such as intercourse, masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, or condoms. Only five percent of American students receive truly comprehensive sexuality education. 3

Groups That Seek To Undermine Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Despite widespread parental support for sexuality education in public schools, these programs sometimes engender concerted opposition. Some of the opposition may come from people who have inadequate information or misinformation about the programs; their concerns are usually allayed through education about the content and aims of the program.

However, other opposition comes from groups that are opposed in principle to comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. They argue that such education usurps parental rights and encourages “immoral” premarital sexual promiscuity in the young. National organizations that have publicly criticized comprehensive sexuality education in the schools include Focus on the Family, Citizens for Excellence in Education, the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, the American Life League, the Eagle Forum, Parents Roundtable, the Christian Coalition, the

National Coalition for Abstinence Education, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, the Educational Guidance Institute, the National Monitor of Education, and the Research Council on Ethnopsychology.

People who organize opposition to sexuality education in local communities may be affiliated with these organizations. The local groups they organize may have names such as “Citizens Advocating Responsible Education,” “Concerned Parents/Taxpayers,” or “Coalition for Excellence in Education.” 4 These local groups employ a wide variety of tactics, from censoring library books to attempting to pack school boards in order to control curricular decisions.

Attempts To Ban Or Derail Comprehensive Sexuality Education Curricula

Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education may attempt to ban it outright or to derail curricula that are thorough in their treatment of sexuality, reproduction, and HIV/AIDS. Hundreds of school districts across the nation have confronted organized opposition to such programs. Although most school districts give parents the opportunity to exclude their children from participation in sexuality education programs, many opponents seek to block comprehensive programs for everyone.

Their fundamental indictment is that such curricula “usurp parental authority.” Opponents criticize comprehensive sexuality education curricula on many grounds, not all of them connected in obvious ways to sexuality. In particular, their complaints cite certain features of the curricula: naming anatomical parts, journal writing, promoting self-esteem, role-playing, “psychotherapeutic approaches” to education, non-directive education, and outcome-based education.

Promotion Of “Abstinence-Only” Curricula

Groups that seek to undermine comprehensive sexuality education frequently promote alternative sex education curricula such as: Sex Respect; Facing Reality; Me, My World, My Future; Sexuality, Commitment and Family; Choosing the Best; Families, Decision-Making and Human Development; Responsible Sexual Values Program; Safe Sex; and Reasonable Reasons to Wait. Called “abstinence-only” curricula, these programs instill fear and shame to discourage teenagers from engaging in sexual activity. They generally provide little information that can help sexually active teenagers protect themselves from pregnancy or disease. These curricula are laden with scientific and medical inaccuracies, sexist and racist stereotypes, and religious prescriptions for proper behavior and values. 5 Focused on delivering a “single unmistakable message,” the abstinence-only curricula censor important information about human sexuality.

Federal Support for Abstinence-Only Education

The proponents of abstinence-only curricula got a big boost from the enactment of the 1996 welfare law, 42 U.S.C. § 710, which included a $50 million-per-year, five-year-long appropriation of funding for abstinence-only education. The funding is administered by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau and its state analogues. States have to contribute three “matching” dollars for every four federal dollars they receive. The combined federal and state funding can be used for various purposes such as media campaigns, programs in public schools, or programs outside of public schools. To be eligible for this funding, programs must focus exclusively on “teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.” Programs that emphasize abstinence but also discuss contraception and other means of protection are not eligible.

Restrictive “Stress Abstinence” Legislation

State laws and regulations requiring schools to “stress abstinence” in their sexuality education courses have proliferated in recent years. Because abstinence from sexual activity is the only 100 percent foolproof way of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, comprehensive sexuality education programs appropriately stress abstinence. All instruction about alternative preventive measures begins from the premise that abstinence is the best prevention.

However, some of the new laws and regulations seek to stress abstinence to the exclusion of all other information. Some even seek to impose a “word-count and stopwatch” approach, which would specify how much time must be devoted to abstinence in every class session. This attempt to micro-manage the classroom is counterproductive because it crowds out other needed information and stops genuine education from taking place. Teachers cannot truly educate if they are given a script to read and told that they cannot deviate from it to discuss open-ended questions that students ask. Such laws and regulations can also require school districts to incur heavy costs in replacing curricular materials already in use, draining schools of scarce financial resources.

The ACLU Opposes Campaigns To Undermine Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Efforts to derail comprehensive sexuality education or to impose abstinence-only curricula violate civil liberties. The ACLU opposes the use of curricula designed to suppress critical information that teenagers need to protect their health and control their lives. The ACLU also opposes the use of curricula whose content reflects bias on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, race, and class.

How To Combat Campaigns Against Comprehensive Sexuality Education

1) Organizing Community Support: One of the best ways to support comprehensive sexuality education is through a statewide or local coalition. Health educators, school board members, school administrators, parents, health professionals, clergy, and students should work together to establish and protect comprehensive sexuality education programs. They should obtain the information that will enable them to argue forcefully that comprehensive sexuality education can be a major influence in persuading teenagers to postpone sexual activity and to protect themselves from disease and premature pregnancy. 6 Parents or other knowledgeable individuals should be monitoring each school district and reporting to the coalition when action is needed.

2) Selection Of Curricular Materials: It is crucial to know which curricula are thorough and accurate, and which ones are based on distortion and the inculcation of fear. In contrast to abstinence-only curricula, there are also some “abstinence-based” curricula that emphasize abstinence but also provide comprehensive information about contraception and other methods of protection and, in addition, offer valuable instruction in communication, negotiation, and refusal skills. 7 Although schools cannot use the new federal abstinence-only money to fund any curriculum that covers contraception, some schools already have these curricula in place. Where these curricula are presently in use, you should ensure their continuation, and you should encourage other schools to adopt them with non-federal funds.

3) Keeping Abstinence-Only Programs Out Of Public Schools: Contact your state’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau and find out who is administering and awarding the federal abstinence-only funding. Write to these officials or committee members and explain why you do not want to see abstinence-only programs in the public schools. Urge them to channel the funding to programs and media campaigns outside the schools. Such programs and campaigns are preferable to allowing abstinence-only programs to become entrenched in the public school system.

4) Public Education: Supporters of comprehensive sexuality education have the vital task of supplying the public with correct information about the content and goals of sexuality education programs and countering opponents’ charges or disinformation. Letters to the editor, presentations to editorial boards, appearances on radio and cable TV, public forums, open houses, and voter guides are among the most effective means of cultivating public support for comprehensive sexuality education.

5) School Board Elections: Although the ACLU is nonpartisan and never opposes or supports candidates for electoral office, school board elections are occasions for public discussion and education on civil liberties issues. School board members often make the ultimate decisions about curricula, and some candidates run stealth campaigns in which their positions do not surface. Do not let this happen in your community. Take steps to ensure full public disclosure and debate by all candidates of their positions on sexuality education.

6) Legal Challenges: Several legal challenges have been brought against the use of abstinence-only curricula. In 1991 the ACLU of Wisconsin assisted parents who tried unsuccessfully to get the Department of Public Instruction to halt the use of Sex Respect in the East Troy school district. In 1992 six families and Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida challenged the Duval County School Board’s use of Me, My World, My Future because it violated a state law requiring comprehensive sexuality education. The plaintiffs dropped the lawsuit in 1996 after the school board adopted a new comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents in Shreveport, Louisiana, had partial success in their lawsuit to challenge the use of Sex Respect and Facing Reality in junior and senior high school. In 1994 the state court of appeals enjoined the use of certain passages in the curricula that were held to violate state law governing sexuality education.

Some Of The National Organizations That Support Comprehensive Sexuality Education For All Children And Youth By The Year 2000

The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Public Health Association, Child Welfare League of America, National Association of County and City Health Officials, National Council on Family Relations, National School Boards Association, Office of Family Ministries and Human Sexuality of the National Council of Churches, United States Conference of Mayors, and YWCA of the U.S.A. are among the many advocates for comprehensive sexuality education.



2 Patricia Donovan, “School-Based Sexuality Education: The Issues and Challenges,” Family Planning Perspectives, July/August 1998, p.189.

3 SEXUALITY INFORMATION AND EDUCATION COUNCIL OF THE UNITED STATES (SIECUS), “Responding to Arguments against Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” Community Action Kit, 1997.

4 PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY, “The Religious Right and School Boards: The 1992-93 School Year,” Executive Summary, p. 9.

5 Leslie M. Kantor, “Scared Chaste? Fear-Based Educational Curricula,” SIECUS Report, December 1992/January 1993, pp. 1-15.

6SIECUS, Community Action Kit, 1997.

7 “Abstinence-Based Programs That Work,” SIECUS Report, December 1992/January 1993, p. 12.

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