The XX Factor

The Consequences of Conscience-Based Sex Education

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As Jezebel reported this morning, Utah’s legislature is on its way to approving an incredibly restrictive and convoluted sex education bill that would allow schools to choose whether they offer the classes at all. Oh, and even discussing the existence of contraception would be basically forbidden, the one exception being in cases where a brave student overcomes ignorance and/or fear of embarrassment to directly ask the teacher about it. Republican Rep. Bill Wright, who said he was moved to action after viewing sex education materials designed by Planned Parenthood, introduced the bill, arguing that abstinence was really the only lesson required:

“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,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden. “Why don’t we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating?”

Apparently many of Wright’s fellow politicians agreed with him; the measure passed the House 45-28.

It goes without saying that this bill is way over the top—an opinion that was voiced even by some of Wright’s Republican colleagues—and it will hopefully be stopped in the state Senate. But the prospect of giving schools the ability to choose whether or not to offer sexual health classes—in what amounts to a “conscience clause,” the likes of which are being used to excuse pharmacists from providing Plan B, for example—raises a troubling question. What happens when some students receive sound, thorough instruction and others are left out?

When I was in middle school, sex education was a standard part of the curriculum that started with age-appropriate material in the fifth grade (though parents were allowed to opt out for their children) and continued into early high school. In seventh grade, we were supposed to learn about contraception, but my science teacher (for reasons unknown) refused to teach the class. However, because the grade was split into sets of team-teachers, other friends of mine still got to practice putting condoms on bananas, and you can bet they were more than happy to talk about it. So in a schoolyard game of telephone, I did learn about contraception: It was a kind of dirty plastic wrap that had something to do with sex and fruit.

Luckily, I eventually gained more accurate information from other sources, but you get the point. If teachers—all teachers—aren’t providing the same basic instruction to all students, then teens will fill in the gaps among themselves. And the misconceptions about contraception use that spread that way could be more dangerous than no information at all. Kids don’t live in a vacuum; even if you don’t like the idea of teens having sex, it’s a far better bet to know that they have the best understanding of contraception possible than to depend on some combination of luck and “good influences”—even well-intentioned parenting—to get them through. It’s just a question of quality control, and here, as in business, abiding by the standards shouldn’t be optional.