By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century.
When first introduced to Women’s Studies in college, I initially gravitated toward studying the educational discrepancies I noticed in my high school regarding sex education. Growing up in a relatively small town in the Bible Belt south, I can assure you, there were several. I look back at the startled young woman, realizing for the first time, that her Physical Education and Health classes were nothing more than half facts and shame tactics, and I’m thankful that my college professors were encouraging that I explore that missing part of my education more. In this post, I’ll be looking at state sex education laws, the heteronormativity of the curriculum, and some long term effects of skewed facts and questions left unanswered.
In my freshmen year college dorm room, I found myself talking with my peers about our experiences with sex education. Students from northern states quickly realized that their experiences were vastly different from those of southern states. Those of us from Kentucky thought we might have similar experiences if we went to public schools, but we found that was not the case. According to federal law, states are allowed to determine their sex education curriculum. Broadly, states’ choices range from one of three mandate options: “sex education,” “HIV education,” and “sex education and HIV education.” Within that’s collection of options, states are allowed to push abstinence only education. Looking at the map below, you can see which states ascribe to which educational theory. Notice a pattern?
Yep, that’s right, a lot of southern states coming in strong on that abstinence only curriculum. Digging even deeper, we find that several states, Kentucky included, allow for each county or school district to decide the sex education curriculum. In some states, the Superintendent of a school district can decide what the curriculum will include. In others, site based councils (which often include parent membership) decide what is taught. That kind of power in the hands of few, with varying agendas, leads to inconsistencies in educational outcomes.
As you may have noticed earlier, when I listed the main types of routes for sex education curriculum, they are all based to some degree in the assumption that sex happens between a cisgender male and cisgender female. The phrasing of abstinence only and other aspects of sex education are extremely heteronormative. That is to say that, in most teacher’s curriculum, straight and monogamous relationships are set as the norm. With that comes strong and harmful gender norms that pigeonhole young people. One study even found that the curriculum taught in several schools, because it plugs heteronormative relationships so strongly, promoted homophobia.
When we look at the sex education system in the US, there are several long term effects. Mentioned above, one ends up being a complete intolerance for people in relationships that are non heteronormative. Another is a higher rate of teen pregnancy and STIs in states that lack more comprehensive and medically accurate sex education. Another is a friend from college not knowing that the urethra and vagina are two different holes. The system is flawed and it leads to unhealthy relationships with others and our own bodies. If you get nothing else from this piece, look at this website to see what your state says about sex education. If you can reach out to your local school board and ask what the curriculum is and find out if it is medically accurate. Work with parents and site boards to create more inclusive and comprehensive sex education.