Democrats’ new sex education bill targets abstinence instruction

Elementary school students in classroom
Photo: Taylor Flowe/Unsplash
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Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have introduced legislation that would fundamentally alter how students learn about sex education in K-12 schools and college campuses by requiring comprehensive sex education and barring federal funds from going toward abstinence-based instruction. 

The Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act was introduced in both chambers this week after previously being introduced in 2021. The bill would also offer grants for comprehensive sex education programs. Critics of the approach say targeting sexual risk avoidance programs is misguided.

The legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Barbara Lee of California, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Alma Adams from North Carolina. Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey. 

There is no text of the reintroduced legislation yet in the federal legislation. But the previous version of the legislation introduced in 2021 would mandate that public K-12 schools and colleges teach students no longer learn about abstinence in their sex education classes and instead receive comprehensive sex education that includes topics like Reproductive Justice and gender identity.

The legislation would bar federal funding for abstinence, also called sexual risk avoidance, and remove existing laws that currently require discussing the risks associated with sexual activity. It would also strike prohibitions on funding for instruction that encourage students to have sex. 

Mary Anne Mosack, president of sexual risk avoidance non-profit Ascend, told Chalkboard Review that the Democratic lawmakers behind the bill are tone-deaf and that sexual risk avoidance can empower and prepare students for positive choices. 

“The sponsors of the Real Education Access for Healthy Youth Act show themselves to be alarmingly out-of-touch with the growing concern and outrage over the aggressive sexualization of children and adolescents in America’s schools,” Mosack said. 

“This misguided bill calls for the elimination of increasingly in-demand sexual risk avoidance education programs that empower all students with the knowledge and skills they need to avoid sexual risk, build healthy relationships and make positive choices for their futures,” Mosack continued. 

The Real Education Access for Healthy Youth Act would amend current law that requires federal funds to go toward education to “include information about the harmful effects of promiscuous sexual activity and intravenous substance abuse, and the benefits of abstaining from such activities.”

The comprehensive sex education bill would remove that requirement and the current limitation that no “funds appropriated to carry out this subchapter may be used to provide education or information designed to promote or encourage, directly, homosexual or heterosexual sexual activity or intravenous substance abuse.”

It would replace that language with “All programs of education and information receiving funds under this subchapter shall include information about the potential effects of intravenous substance use.”

It would also amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to remove sections of the law that prohibit using funds “to develop or distribute materials, or operate programs or courses of instruction directed at youth, that are designed to promote or encourage sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual.”

The bill would also strike the 1965 law’s prohibition on providing contraceptives in schools as well as requirements that sex education or HIV-prevention education are age-appropriate and include instruction on the health benefits of abstinence.

In addition to what it would remove from existing law, the legislation would require that sex education and sexual health services are “evidence-informed, comprehensive in scope, confidential, equitable, accessible, medically accurate and complete, age and developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive, and trauma-informed and resilience-oriented.”

The bill would also require information about the prevention, treatment and care of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and abuse; it would also stress the importance of consent and autonomy.

It would also “provide information on gender roles and gender discrimination” and “provide information on the historical and current condition in which education and health systems, policies, programs, services, and practices have uniquely and adversely impacted Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander and other People of Color.”

Sex education in the legislation is defined as “high-quality teaching and learning that is delivered to the maximum extent practicable, following the National Sexuality Education Standards of the Future of Sex Ed Initiative.” 

Those guidelines were created in collaboration with three organizations: Advocates for Youth, Answer and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change. SIECUS has championed comprehensive sex education and the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act.

“SIECUS, alongside our congressional champions and community partners, call on public officials at all levels to support legislation to implement and prioritize age-appropriate, accurate, equitable, culturally response and trauma-informed sex ed curriculums in schools while discouraging shameful, non-inclusive and inaccurate programs that suppress and withhold information about sexual topics,” Christine Soyong Harley, president and CEO of SIECUS, said in a statement Tuesday.

The legislation would also award grants to elementary and secondary schools, colleges and educator training as well as a grant program to provide youth-friendly sexual health services to young people – defined as those between the ages of 10-29.

Sexual health services include sexual health information, education, counseling, all FDA-approved contraception, gynecological care, HIV treatment, substance use and mental health services, abuse services and other prevention, care or treatment services. 

The introduced legislation would prohibit federal funds from going toward sex education or sexual health services that “are medically inaccurate or incomplete,” “promote gender or racial stereotypes or are unresponsive to gender or racial inequities,” “fail to address the needs of sexually active young people” and “fail to be inclusive of individuals with varying gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations,” among others. 

Advocates of comprehensive sex education argue that teaching kids about foundational, age-appropriate concepts at a young age helps lay the groundwork for future relationships. 

Chalkboard previously reported that experts argue teaching kids medically accurate terminology for body parts can help students report abuse. Critics of comprehensive sex education argue that teaching children about consent and sex encourages them to engage in sexual behaviors. 

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at bclarey@franklinnews.org.

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