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The Young Heroes Battling America’s Sex Ed Crisis

Our sex education is a disaster — but we still can’t take it out of schools. That's why, in Washington, hope for the teen sexual health crisis rests on a hotly contested bill

Every day until the election, we’re introducing you to one character or issue whose fate centers around the political state of sex and gender. We’ll discover which freedoms are at stake, what battles are being fought and what sex in a free country really looks like, all in honor of unfucking a system that seems increasingly hellbent on fucking up fucking. Welcome, everybody, to UnFuck America.

On March 11th, hundreds of terrified parents gathered on the steps of the Washington State Capitol Building. Undeterred by the looming pandemic and bitter weather, they were there to protest a disturbing new policy: The government was trying to brainwash their children. 

Their main problem lay with a new comprehensive sex education bill, which had been signed into state law earlier that month. The parents — along with many local Republicans — believed that it was a “pornographic,” “perverse” and “dangerous” piece of legislation. If it took hold, they claimed, all innocence would be lost: Pre-teens would be taught how to sexually express themselves, and 5-year-olds would be getting lessons in masturbation.

Brandishing bright homemade placards, the protesters huddled together and pleaded for a reversal of the bill. There were chants to “veto school porn,” block “grooming” and “stop polluting minds.” This kind of education was simply too much too soon, they argued — someone had to save their children.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. The bill, SB 5395, is a pretty wide-ranging piece of legislation, with a very loose set of guidelines. The only real requirement is that sex education is taught in all schools, and that it remains age-appropriate, evidence-based and medically accurate.

The bill isn’t just about sex, either. It mandates more education around relationships and social development, as well as any broader issues related to sexuality. Kindergarteners are taught about managing feelings and maintaining friendships, for example, while older students learn about consent, contraception and STI prevention. The bill also ensures that lessons are LGBTQ-inclusive, with resources and support available for any gay, queer and trans students who may be struggling. Similar bills have already been passed in California, Illinois, Oregon and New York, with citizens in Colorado and Texas fighting for such sex ed reform to be established in their states.

If the stats are to be believed, these kinds of bills should be a no-brainer. A health impact analysis of SB 5395 found that there’s “strong evidence” that the sex ed therein would improve both reproductive and sexual health outcomes for students. If that wasn’t enough, district representatives can choose from a wide selection of curricula, with individual school board members — including parents — having a full say over what their students get taught. The education on offer is also, crucially, not compulsory: If any parents take issue with it, they’re free to remove their child from the lessons. 

In other words, SB 5395 is almost as diplomatic and unintrusive as a state law can be. So, what, exactly, is the problem here? Why were all these parents braving biting winds and a deadly virus to protest a piece of legislation that is, ultimately, optional?

In the U.S., such face-melting defiance of proper sex ed is nothing new. Sex education has always been an ideological battleground, one that’s less about reality and more about the myths we tie to it. Opponents don’t seem to be all that interested in the genuine effects of comprehensive sex ed (studies have consistently proven that it reduces teen pregnancy and STI rates), and instead prefer to be guided by their own, often warped, sense of morality. Because of this, much of the country remains stuck in the past: There are currently only 13 states required to teach medically accurate sex education, and 29 push abstinence as the most effective form of contraception. Additionally, there are still six states that ban any talk of homosexuality in the classroom (in Alabama this is taken even further, with teachers legally required to stress that same-sex relationships are “not acceptable”).

I grew up in the South, and my comprehensive sex education was called ‘nutrition and wellness,’” remembers Skylar Hansford of Wenatchee Pride, a Washington-state-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering the local LGBTQ community. “In that class, I learned how to make chocolate mousse, how to bake bread, how to take a pregnancy test and I learned about birth. At no point did I learn about STIs, sex or abortion. And I didn’t learn anything about contraceptives.”

This prudish attitude is more expected in certain areas — many of the abstinence-only states are in the South — but in Washington, it’s less talked about. Despite being home to the largely liberal Seattle, the eastern portion of the state is decidedly more conservative, with a predominantly Republican voter base. It’s in these districts where most of the SB 5395 pushback is brewing.

Sophia Arnold, a high school student and founder of Youth Against Sexual Violence (YASV), is based in one of these areas. Growing up, she struggled with the state’s restrictive sex education policy, having had her own undisclosed “issues” with sexual violence. After being dismissed by her teachers and counselors, however, she decided to start her own support group with other survivors in the school. “There was a lot of indifference,” she says. “When I spoke to my principal and asked him to work with me, he straight up told me that [sexual violence] wasn’t an issue.” 

Angered by this injustice, she founded YASV last December. The advocacy group — which lobbies to reform education laws and change sexual harassment policies — is currently active in 20 states. As well as pushing for legislative change around the country, they run campaigns, consent workshops and fundraising events. “In the beginning, people weren’t too happy with what we were doing,” Arnold recalls. “We got doxxed, despite being minors, and all our addresses were leaked on Twitter. There was also speculation that I was running a child sex ring. It was crazy.”

Despite all this pushback, Arnold continues to press forward. Her goal with YASV is to step in and fix what the government is refusing to — and there are plenty of issues to choose from. For instance, one Washington Youth Health Survey from 2018 found that 20 percent of 12th graders had reported receiving unwanted sexual touching, highlighting that consent is still worryingly misunderstood in the state. There also appears to be a major sexual health crisis on the horizon: STIs have been on the rise in Washingtonas well as everywhere else in the country — with syphilis rates doubling among 15- to 19-year-olds. 

The introduction of comprehensive sex education would solve many of these problems, but its future in Washington looks doubtful. Despite many of their complaints being factually inaccurate, opponents of SB 5395 (all of whom declined my interview requests) are doing whatever they can to get the bill overturned. And so far, it’s working; more than 264,000 signatures were gathered earlier this year in an effort to force a referendum on the bill (the most to overturn an existing bill in the last four decades), with a public vote now set for November 3rd. 

But if facts don’t work, then how do we ever improve this situation? Are we just doomed to repeat these pointless battles, in every state, until we die? Or could there be, somehow, a more radical alternative?

Fortunately, there are plenty of nonprofits like YASV and Wenatchee Pride working to fill the role that government won’t in terms of comprehensive sex ed. Along those lines, in California, Planned Parenthood has experimented with opening “wellbeing centers” on some high school campuses, offering testing, treatment and advice to students whenever they need it (a move that hasn’t been welcomed by everyone, obviously). Organizations can even bypass the school system altogether by training students to become Youth Outreach Workers, who are individual educators that their peers can turn to directly. 

There are also countless apps available — e.g., AMAZE uses cartoons to give parents and children new ways to talk about sex, safety and puberty. Capptivation is another that focuses on supporting sexual assault victims in high schools and colleges, giving them the chance to anonymously seek guidance and connect with local advocacy groups. Planned Parenthood offers a confidential online “Chat/Text” service as well for any teens looking for support.

These third-party alternatives are a good way to side-step the ideological battlefield of sex ed, giving parents and teachers the chance to make their own choices. Plus, they’re effective. In the words of Sara Flowers, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, “It’s important to understand that sex ed in schools isn’t the only place where sex education happens, neither historically nor currently. It’s always been a partnership in schools and out-of-school spaces.”

However, you still can’t guarantee that sex ed will reach everyone this way. Some students may not ever hear about the apps, and instead end up stumbling on some unreliable advice online. Similarly, some schools — with the backing of overprotective parents — may not feel it’s necessary to partner with any sexual health support groups. And without any state regulation of the sex ed curriculum, teachers would end up being free to spread their own, maybe biased information — whether that’s abstinence, homophobia or the belief that women’s bodies naturally reject their rapist’s sperm.

Making sure that comprehensive sex education is mandated, then, is likely the only way to cause meaningful change. After all, it’s “an equity issue,” explains Laurie Dils, sex educator of the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction — i.e., enshrining this education into law means that more people will be exposed to it. “All students in our state education system deserve the same access to medically accurate information about human growth and development and sexual health.” 

YASV’s Arnold — who has struggled with getting her abstinence-only school to cooperate with any of her proposed sexual violence initiatives — shares Dils’ sentiment. For her, localized individual outreach should be considered as a stepping stone rather than a long-term solution. “I’d say that the best outcome would be for sex ed to be mandated by the state,” she argues. “You can’t depend on every household in the state to be providing this kind of education and having these kinds of talks with their kids. It’s really important that the state steps in, too.”

Hansford, who still feels let down by her school’s non-existent sex ed program, also agrees: I was fortunate enough to have parents who were both educated and very open about these kinds of talks. But not everyone will have someone to teach them that if the school system fails them.”

In the meantime, if SB 5395 is overturned on Tuesday, Arnold already has a plan — and a potential redraft proposal — ready to go. “If it does get reversed, I’ll be out protesting,” she tells me, calmly. Mainly, she would ask state senators to remove any reference to kindergarten and elementary school education, even if it’s harmless, as she thinks “that’s a large force behind the pushback.”

Whatever happens, many progressives in eastern Washington remain — despite everything — optimistic. Because while that side of the state remains predominantly red, the citizens I speak to all agree that things are slowly changing. “There’s a growing momentum of a more progressive mindset,” says Felisha Rodriguez, another Wenatchee Pride board member. For her, it’s only a matter of time before the state’s education system starts to follow suit. 

“There is a community divide, there’s no denying that,” she concludes. “But with each rally and march, folks are finding the courage to speak up for what they believe in.”

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