Utah’s Legislators Ignore the Purpose of Education and Expose Students to Harm

This piece was originally published on Stephanie Zvan’s site, Almost Diamonds as a guest post.  I was incredibly honored to contribute and help people keep up to date with the overwhelming slew of attacks on human sexuality in the last several months.  Update: since  this was first written, the Utah Senate has also passed this incredibly stupid measure.  The Senate leadership suspended rules to pass this before any questions or even the third reading of the bill.  Thousands have signed a petition to Governor Herbert to stand up to the legislature and veto the bill in order to restore choice to Utah parents who opt their children into sex education every year.

Over the last month, Utah’s conservative legislators in the House of Representatives have made a mission of pushing conservative morals into an education policy that is a solution in search of a problem.  What’s more, in doing so they have not only ignored the entire purpose of educating the next generation but they have created an environment that will leave Utah’s youths far more vulnerable than they are under the current curriculum standards.

Utah’s approach to sex education in high school already allows parents with strong religious or moral feelings on human sexuality to keep their children ignorant about their own bodies and sexuality; in order to participate in sex education, parents must opt their children into the classes.  The default path for students is ignorance.  And the current Utah state curriculum is arguably already abstinence only in its implementation.  Utah Administrative Code R277-474 requires:

• Prior written parental consent must be obtained before including any aspect of contraception in the curriculum.

• Teachers may not teach the advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods or devices.

Preventing advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods is so close to abstinence only education as makes no difference.  All that is left to discuss if you ban encouragement or advocacy is to point out the existence of contraception and note rates of failure compared to abstinence.  We already do our children a terrible disservice in providing incomplete approaches to human sexuality, but for the very conservative religious politicians the current approach does not allow them great enough control over the state’s adolescents.  The Utah House passed a bill making things worse last Wednesday.

There is no demand by local schools, parents or communities that our current (and shamefully incomplete) approach to health education be altered to align with conservative moral ideals.  The state’s Republican governor has publicly stated he thinks the current standards are working fine for Utah’s schools.  The bill’s sponsor, Representative Bill Wright (R-Holden) acknowledged to the Salt Lake Tribune that his bill to allow schools to discontinue any sex education (rather than stick to abstinence only) was his idea and no school or district had supported or asked for such a move.

In an article published Saturday, March 3rd, the Tribune found that although parents have the option of withholding permission to attend health classes, virtually none do so.  In that piece, Wright was unable to point to any sort of parental outcry that led him to propose this legislation.  (In fact, the state Parent Teacher Association and Utah Education Association oppose this legislation as harmful.)  He justified this by speculating that despite state law requiring parents to be notified two weeks in advance of what will be covered in health curriculum, they may not be provided with sufficient detail about the health curriculum to be covered.

During the initial House committee hearing for this bill on the 9th of February, it became clear that the only vocal proponents of this measure are ultra-conservative lawmakers and moral crusading busybodies from groups like The Sutherland Institute, United Families Utah and Utah’s Eagle Forum.  It is depressing to see an institution like the Sutherland Institute that doesn’t support public education having so much influence on the very institutions it seeks to undermine.   Critics of the bill did not even question the importance of promoting abstinence over all other options, but simply tried to point out the damage the bill would do while proposing amendments to mitigate the harm.  I felt great ambivalence when BYU professor Cougar Hall was a voice of reason, pointing out not only that we already have opt-in abstinence only education, but going on:

It’s immoral to withhold life-saving information from a segment of our population because it doesn’t fit our value system.

The committee successfully appended two amendments to the bill to mandate parental involvement in creating sex-education curriculum, clarify that the legislation can only affect health curriculum (it was pointed out that it could ban many works of literature as written) and struck language that prevented any discussion of non-abstinence.  The version of the bill that passed the Utah House of Representatives manages to remove public schools’ already limited ability to teach sex education by prohibiting any instruction on contraception.  It also gives school administrators the option to skip even abstinence education unilaterally, cripples teachers’ and administrators’ ability to aid students needing counseling or guidance by legislating limits on speech, massively increases risk of transmission of STDs and rates of unwanted pregnancy through ignorance, and creates an environment in which anti-gay bigotry and bullying can thrive like we’ve seen in Anoka-Hennepin school district (recently covered in Rolling Stone.)

In a year where we have seen an unprecedented attack on women, sexual health and reproductive freedoms, it’s striking just how transparent and honest religious conservatives are about their motives.  It’s all about sex and how much they don’t want you to enjoy the freedom to fuck if you want to, or at the very least, you should suffer consequences for being a slut who couldn’t keep your legs closed.  Wright, for example, made this abundantly clear:

We’ve been culturally watered down to think we have to teach about sex, about having sex and how to get away with it, which is intellectually dishonest.  Why don’t we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating? [emphasis added]

For all the talk of keeping our children innocent and being able to instruct our children what we believe as a matter of private religious freedom, the fact remains that this is all irrelevant to the purpose of education.  It has always bothered me that sex education is unique in the way it is discussed when compared to other subjects: it’s exclusively discussed in terms of the present.  But education is for the future.  We don’t promote the learning of mathematics, history, literature, science or art simply for their own sake now, but because doing so prepares young people for their lives as adults and gives them tools to advance and contribute to society.

Yet when we discuss the healthy development of human sexuality, it is always forgotten that education is meant to prepare students for adulthood; the conversation shifts about how we “shouldn’t be teaching kids how to have sex.” (Thanks, Sutherland Institute for highlighting the conservative idiocy that claims if you don’t teach kids about sex, they just won’t have any!)  Conservatives would rather take advantage of religious conscience and parental control ideas to shroud sexuality, sexual fulfillment and life satisfaction in layers of shame, gender conformity and authoritarian control than to take proactive and useful steps to help teens grow up to be healthy and responsible adults.  It is just too easy to claim to think of the children and their lost innocence to prevent anyone from taking a long hard look at the goal of demonizing sex for everyone.

Just listen to how Representative Wright speaks so prudishly (the middle school curriculum was so dirty he can’t even talk about it on the radio, seriously?) on local NPR program Radio West, where he suggests that individuals have no need to learn the “nuts and bolts” of sex education until marriage, and from what I can tell, there’s no need to learn about controlling fertility at all.  After all, the Representative Wright has ten children.

Of course, the fact that education is primarily about the future of students does not mean the present is irrelevant in regards to teaching about responsible human sexuality.  The ages at which people begin sexual activity and rates of teen pregnancy and STD infection make that abundantly clear.  We have more than enough evidence to show that abstinence ignorance only education does not work.  Nothing more should need to be said, yet here we are again.

Many also raised concerns that educators would be unable to adequately address the needs of students experiencing sexual and domestic violence, STIs or who find themselves pregnant.  Sadly these concerns are well founded. Utah’s rates for STIs largely increased from 2006-2010.  We’ve already seen how health outcomes worsen when schools are only allowed to teach abstinence only education for teens, and it is completely unconscionable to reduce the options open to those in schools to aid students.

I’m particularly heartbroken how dismissive many Republican legislators were given Utah’s dismal record for sexual violence.  While Utah has been below the national average for non-sexual violent crime for more than fifty years, Utah’s sexual violence rates exceeded the national average in 1990 and has remained there ever since.  The Utah Department of Health has a surprisingly well constructed breakdown of the state of sexual violence in Utah, making it abundantly clear that this a serious problem of great scope.

Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that occurs at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. One in three Utah women will experience some type of sexual assault in their lifetime and one in eight will be raped. In 2008, Utah’s reported rape rate was 63.7 per 100,000 females compared to the U.S. rate of 57.4 per 100,000 females. However, the majority of rapes (88.2%) are never reported to law enforcement, indicating that sexual violence in Utah is grossly underestimated.

I can only imagine how much more we compound the problems of shame, untreated infection, unwanted pregnancy and underreporting of sexual violence by irrevocably tying sex to moral depravity.  Sadly it doesn’t surprise me that only 12.7% of sexual assault victims in Utah seek medical exams following their attacks.  Making sex seem even more immoral to Utah’s teenagers can only exacerbate these problems.

I’ve been disappointed that in most of the news coverage and analysis of house bill 363, most people focus so heavily on the extreme abstinence element that they miss some of the other elements of the bill, including the option for schools and districts to fail in their duties as educators by simply remove all sex education and codifying into law the idea that being gay is wrong and immoral by preventing teachers from even suggesting it is normal or a healthy variant of human sexuality.  Even more disturbing, the bill was originally written to forbid even discussing sex outside of marriage or homosexuality.  Wright was championing a bill that was anti-sex-education and our own version of a “don’t say gay” bill rolled all into one.

That we got a watered down version of the anti-gay prejudice than what was originally sought is no cause for cheer.  As we have seen in Anoka-Hennepin, a legal ban against any interaction that seems to “advocate or encourage” being gay leads to educators so confused and fearful of what constitutes encouragement that they do nothing at all as GLBT teens are falling apart.  The conservatives in our legislature are asking school teachers, guidance counselors and administrators to betray their duty to do what is best for Utah’s children and it is nothing short of theocratic malice.

In fact, malice is a good way to describe almost everything about this bill.  It is a perfect example of unnecessary and overreaching policy that no one wants but religious extremists, and which does significant harm.  In the horrific series of attacks on women’s bodies and freedoms to control their lives and fertility, a seemingly routine push by a conservative state to move to even more strictly abstinence system of education has understandably not sparked the same level of scrutiny and outrage it really deserves.  We need to shift the way that we discuss sex education to recognize that we are giving students tools to become healthy, happy and responsible adults and keep religion out of the equation entirely.

I’ve more or less given up hope that my legislators will consider my opinions when considering legislation; our respective values are so out of sync that we may as well be from different planets.  But it’s one thing to reject the opinions of a constituent that is a feminist, sex-positive, atheist…  It’s quite another to ignore the wishes of the vast majority of conservative Utah parents who go through the hassle of opting their children into what little sex education is offered year after year.  I only hope that by speaking out, our elected representatives will remember that they work for our best interests and will reconsider making this monstrosity law.

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