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The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision was hailed as a victory by many advocates of a womans right to choose. But decades later, many young people still lack the resources to make informed choices about sex choices that could affect the rest of their lives.
On this edition, we bring you a discussion about sex education in schools, federal funding for sex-ed and how advocacy groups and parents are making their voices heard on the issue.
Phyllida Burlingame, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Sex Education Policy Director; La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson, Bay Area Communities for Health Education Community Engagement Specialist; Gabriela Valle, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice Director of Community Education & Mobilization.
Extended Interview with Phyllida Burlingame, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Sex Education Policy Director; La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson, Bay Area Communities for Health Education Community Engagement Specialist; and Gabriela Valle, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice Director of Community Education & Mobilization.
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- This week on Making Contact.
A discussion of abstinence takes place within a comprehensive sex education program.
The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision was hailed as a victory by many advocates for a woman’s right to choose. But decades later, many young people still lack the resources to make informed choices about sex, choices that could affect the rest of their lives.
We didn’t prepare the young person with enough information or education. But we will blame youth for STDs, STIs, for contracting HIV, for adolescent pregnancy.
On this edition, we bring you a discussion about sex education in schools, federal funding for sex ed, and how advocacy groups and parents are making their voices heard on the issue. I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
Let’s talk about sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.
Almost all of us received some form of sex ed growing up. But for many of us, there was a lot left out of those classes. Over the years, many school curriculum have grown to truly educate students in what they’ll need to know to navigate society. It’s a term that’s grown to be called comprehensive sex ed.
Comprehensive sex ed includes information that’s appropriate and accessible for students with disabilities, English language learners, students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Comprehensive sex ed also teaches respect for marriage and all types of committed relationships. But even as times have changed, in many schools that quality sexuality education is still missing.
In 2010, 29 states and Puerto Rico received federal funds to teach what’s known as Abstinence Only Until Marriage. All too frequently, medically inaccurate and biased information is being given out in the classroom. For this week’s program, we asked independent producer and health reporter, Julieta Kusnir to facilitate the discussion between advocates and educators about the state of sex education in America’s schools.
With us, we have Phyllida Burlingame, the Sex Education Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Thank you for being here, Phyllida.
- Thanks for having me. And we also have LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson with the Bay Area Communities for Health Education.
Hi. And Gabriela Valle, the Director Of Community Education and Mobilization for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. She’s on the line with us from Los Angeles. Thanks for joining us.
Hi, thanks so much for having us.
LaRhonda, you have been working inside the classroom and outside the classroom with parents and community members. Can you tell us about what you think is essential to include in a truly comprehensive sex education curriculum?
I think one thing that sort of worked against this whole conversation as being that it’s been portrayed that there’s abstinence education on one side and this word, comprehensive sex education on another side. First of all, most people don’t even know what that means. A discussion of abstinence takes place within a comprehensive sex education program.
A comprehensive sex education program is going to not only give young people medically accurate information about contraception, a discussion opportunity around abstinence as a way of preventing pregnancy, as a way of preventing STDs, but it’s also giving young people an opportunity to practice skills of negotiation, problem solving skills, conflict resolution skills, decision making skills. In a really strong comprehensive sex education program there is a discussion of values, so that every young person in there is able to fit this information into the value system that works for their life.
I encourage young people to go home and have this conversation. Find out what your grandmother thinks about it. Find out what your aunties– yeah, they’re going to get red in the faith and blush and someone may even run screaming from the room. But when they come back, you know, ask them what kind of information they received. Tell them a little bit about what’s going on in your classroom so it opens up dialogue.
There is this assumption sometimes when the abstinence only until marriage folks walk in the room that that’s who they’re talking to, is they’re talking to abstinent teenagers. And that often is not the case. So you may be talking to a 15-year-old that already has two kids, and she’s feeling totally outside of that conversation. So that to me is one of the foundations of comprehensive sex ed. It doesn’t negate their intelligence.
They’re the experts on adolescence right now, because they’re the only people teenagers at this very moment. And they know what’s going on and they really will tell you what they need if we listen.
- We’re about to listen to a clip produced by Charlie Stewart at RHRealityCheck.org. In this clip, we’ll hear students in Savannah, Georgia talk to the reporter about choosing the best program, a sex education curriculum they’re receiving in public high schools. Let’s hear this clip.
For more than a dozen years, the State of Georgia has taught a program called Choosing the Best in its public schools, an abstinence from sex before marriage curriculum that teaches that condoms don’t work.
Abstinence Plus, only thing abstinence plus mentions contraception methods at all. It’s like, don’t have sex.
It doesn’t make sense.
Sex is bad. You don’t have sex before you’re married. Even when you’re married, you only have certain types of sex.
It’s just ridiculous.
Abstinence Plus supposedly mentions contraception.
Only to the negative. It actually does, but it’s only negative. It’s like, condoms do not work at all. Birth control will kill you. Do not touch this stuff at all. Don’t have sex until you’re married because it will be the only thing that will protect you.
I would say sex education in Chatham County shouldn’t be called sex education. It should be called a religion class or something. Because it includes so much stuff on morals and values of a specific religion that not everybody follows. But if you want to be in that class, you have to go by like, you’ll die if you have sex or having sex before marriage is bad.
OK. That was just a clip produced by Charlie Stewart, and RHRealityCheck.org. You can go to that website and see more clips on sexuality education across the nation. So we just heard students from Savannah, Georgia talking to us about what their sexual health curriculum looks like. What do you two think? You two have been working in the classroom and working with school districts across the state for quite a while now. How does that compare to what you have seen?
I believe what they are saying about the instruction of the Choosing the Best program is absolutely accurate in terms of these abstinence only until marriage programs, when they do mention condoms and contraception, it’s only in order to try to convince students that they are ineffective, that they shouldn’t use them. Often these programs say that HIV can pass through a latex condom, which it cannot.
And the goal is to dissuade young people from taking advantage of these important methods of preventing unintended pregnancy, STIs, et cetera. And it’s really a scandal that these programs are being presented to young people and being still funded with federal dollars.
- Phyllida Burlingame, you work with the ACLU working with school districts across the state. Can you talk to us about any time that you’ve seen anything remotely like this outside of Savannah, Georgia.
Yeah, I mean in California we now have a good law on the books, which is very helpful. But there are still school districts in this state that are using abstinence only until marriage curricula. And even here in the Bay Area, which many people consider kind of progressive heartland, there are still school districts. About a year ago, I worked with parents and community members in Fremont, which is in the Bay Area, using a curriculum very similar to that.
And Miranda and I are both working in Sonoma County with again, with parents and community members to try to get rid of another federally funded abstinence only agency that again, says the same thing. If you’re not abstinent until you get married, only negative things will happen to you. And they present misinformation about condoms and contraception. So much as we would like to say, oh, this is a problem of the Deep South or whatever, it’s really not true. This is a pervasive issue that affects school districts across the country.
- And can you give us any examples from curriculum that you’ve seen, perhaps in California, that also furthers this absence only until marriage ideology?
The clip that you just played was from Choosing the Best. And the first time that that curriculum came to my attention was when I first started working on this issue in the mid ’90s. And at that time, these programs are even more extreme than they are today. And Choosing the Best, I believe it was Choosing the Best, had a little segment on how difficult it was to use condoms. And it said that there were 10 steps required to use a condom, and one of those steps was to wash the genital area with Lysol before and after condom use.
Which if you just stop to think about it, that is the most grotesque appalling thing. Some advocates contacted Lysol and said, are you aware that this curriculum is promoting your product in this way? And ultimately, Lysol sent a cease and desist letter to the publisher saying, you cannot use our product in this way. And I’m pretty sure it was Choosing the Best, which is disappointing that it’s still around and you know it’s being funded by federal dollars in Georgia today.
California as far as I know, there are no districts that I know that are using that particular program. But there are many that, they all where kind of the same clothes. A lot of them use the same lingo. They follow the same kind of marching orders. And you know, they’re relatively interchangeable.
- Gabriela, Valle, you work with Latino families and young people, as well as school districts. Can you talk to us a little bit about your experience around sexual health education and what you’ve seen?
What I wanted to add from our work with Latino communities is the inclusion of parents. One of the things that we do is offer trainings that actually help parents get involved in dialogue around issues of sex and sexuality with their children. We often, during this workshop, let Latino parents know that, in a survey, when Latino parents were asked if they support comprehensive sex ed, after being explained what the elements were of comprehensive sex ed, that it had to be unbiased, that it should be culturally and linguistically relevant and age appropriate, that it should include discussion of, not just abstinence, but also prevention.
And when this type of dialogue is able to happen with parents, parents surveyed from the public health institutes, you know, they found that 90% of Latino parents actually would support comprehensive sex ed. And we really lead with this. Because it is a way of challenging the idea that’s out there that Latino parents wouldn’t support sexual health education with their youth about issues of sex and sexuality.
And most of the time they’re able to identify that they themselves, depending on country of origin, depending on age, depending on a number of factors, even some of the younger Latino parents who may have been born here, most of them in most rooms acknowledged that they didn’t have good conversation or education around sexual health. And so then they weren’t able to pass that information on to their children.
- LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson, you’ve been working not only inside the classroom, but also with parents and community members for 30 years now around sexuality education. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you’ve seen and perhaps how things have changed in those 30 years.
I think some of the most rewarding work for me has been the work with parents who come to this conversation, sometimes very nervous. You know, many parents did receive this type of education in schools and certainly a lot of families weren’t discussing this topic. And that seems to be what drives a lot of the fear around this subject area. There’s just not some that takes place in normal conversation.
I think when you get an opportunity to work with parents and you get them to increase their confidence understanding around the topic area, that opens up conversation with their children. So as a health educator who’s been in classrooms with young people, for me it felt almost ridiculous to just have the conversation with young people without having it with the adults who impact and influence their lives far more than I would.
So I’ve seen those kind of coming together of those two worlds, where when young people get the information they go home and talk to their parents about it, which is always encouraged. We want you talking to the adults that care about you the most. And parents loosen up a little bit about it. They realize they don’t have to know all the answers. I think that’s probably the number one concern or fear that I hear from parents.
Like, if I say something about this, and I don’t know the answer, what do I do? And I tell them you say, I don’t know. You know, we’ll find it out together. But to just have the conversation. Know that the place is available for your child to talk to you about it.
Gabriela Valle, you’re the Director of Community Education and Mobilization for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. So you do this work with parents, with community members. Can you talk to us about how you think Latina families or perhaps marginalized communes in general, if they feel effects more so when these abstinence only until marriage or medically inaccurate curriculums get put into the classroom.
- Parents often, especially immigrant parents often assume a almost too positive view of what the education is that their students are getting. So they might assume that their kids are already getting some information about development in their body and what to expect. And then we start having conversation and they realize that’s not happening.
And they also assume that the information that their kids are going to get will be accurate. And this assumption comes from, well, we’re in this country now right? So our students are coming to school in the US. There’s a certain expectation of what curriculum might look like.
And most young people across the US, and we certainly are talking about California, where we look really good on paper. We look as though this is a state where young people should have the right lawfully to access comprehensive sex ed, that that should be what’s offered in their school. But because it’s not mandatory is why we see and hear the different stories.
So on one hand young people are either not getting good comprehensive sex ed or in many cases not getting any sex ed at all. Oftentimes we’ll see that administrators will find ways to get out of this or cover sex ed in three days, somewhere in between driver’s ed training, and some other curriculum. Yet you look at the statistics for adolescent pregnancy in the state, and then oftentimes those numbers are really directly pointed towards Latinos. And your number for adolescent pregnancies are really high.
So we didn’t prepare the young person with enough information or education. We don’t have a lot of programs that support parents in having this dialogue with their kids as they’re interested in. But we will blame youth for STDs, STIs, for contracting HIV, for adolescent pregnancy. They’re the ones that pay the price when we as the adults are not giving them the education that they need, that they deserve. And in California, they have a right to it.
But we find oftentimes that administrators are operating off of their own belief system or sometimes their own misinformation. They assume that parents, whether it’s Latino parents or African-American parents, they’re assuming, oh, well, if we do too much around sex education, the parents are going to complain. Yet they probably in most cases haven’t even talked to parents to find out what it is that people want.
That was Gabriela Valle with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. I’m Julieta Kusnir. You’re listening to Making Contact.
- We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcast, go to radioproject.org.
We now return to a roundtable discussion on comprehensive sex ed hosted by Julieta Kusnir and featuring Phyllida Burlingame, LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson, and Gabriela Valle.
- So both Gabriela and LaRhonda have talked about a law which is now on the books, the 2004 legislation which was enacted, stating schools in California may not use abstinence only until marriage curriculum to teach sex education. Can you talk to us about the law and how this has played out?
The law, we really like to think about it as sort of a reproductive justice, or even in some respects a civil rights law. It’s got a lot of different aspects. It has a requirement that curriculum be accessible to English language learners, students with disabilities. Similarly, it has to be appropriate for students of all sexual orientations, students of all genders.
It needs to include medically accurate information and provide information about all FDA approved methods of contraception as well as about abstinence. So it’s not just saying, you have to cover abstinence. You have to cover contraception. It’s also saying who are all the students in the classroom and how can we make sure that effective health information that’s going to be free of bias is being taught to them as well as to the students sitting to the side of them?
And that’s a really exciting law to have on the books. As we’ve all been saying, the challenge comes in implementation.
- Gabriela, can you talk to us a little bit more about barriers that immigrant communities face to receiving quality sexual health information?
Some of the anecdotal stories that we have from working with young folks and again from hearing from their parents, is that if you take a group of for example, English language learners, if we’re finding that English speaking students aren’t getting either enough or adequate comprehensive sex ed, take English language learners from any cultural background and you’ve now exacerbated that problem times 10. Very few schools have curriculum available to them in any other language.
Oftentimes it’s left to the discretion of the school or the teacher. You layer that with the fact that Latinas in California are the most uninsured. Young women from teens up into their early 20s, we represent the highest number of uninsured people in the State of California. And that net is really wide I mean it really includes young men and women at the age where they’re going to be the most in need to access services.
Phyllida mentioned the Central Valley. And this is an area that California Latinas for Reproductive Justice has been working in for a few years, like ACLU, and a lot of our work overlaps in different areas. And I wanted to say that we actually have a small, but we have a positive, a good story that we wanted to share.
We’ve been doing some work and Visalia in the Central Valley. We took on working with a local community organization there, Act for Women and Girls. They are really good allies. And we were already doing work with their young women. They do a leadership training for young women in the Central Valley, in Visalia.
One of the groups of young women had this very heartfelt and lived experience is where they were coming from when they wanted to work on comprehensive sex ed in their area. So we took on dealing with just one school district, which was the Visalia School District. We got the young women ready to go and speak to the school board to talk about the issues and the need for better comprehensive sex ed, the need for having the same information across the board.
With such a small group of– and they were mostly young Latina women from this community. They did all their homework. They were able to do the research. And they were able to show the school district that, with four high schools in this district, there was four different books in terms of the curriculum that they were exposed to around sex education. One of the books was incredibly outdated and actually had in it some really offensive language when it came to the issue of HIV and AIDS, that still made it sound like, well, HIV and AIDS is a gay man’s issue.
That is completely responsible for that to be happening in 2009 and 2010, when we know HIV so greatly is affecting communities of color, particularly women. And so doing this work together, it’s a small step, but this is where reproductive justice work really needs to be and wants to go. So our win from this comes from the young women going to the Visalia School Board and calling them on it, saying to them, can you explain to us, you are the adults. We are the students.
Can you explain to us why it is that we have curriculum that is old and outdated and isn’t comprehensive? And California state law says we have a right to have comprehensive sex ed if we’re going to have sex education covered at all.
- And can you talk to us about how, if a parent is listening or someone who’s just very concerned around this issue, how can they get involved in their school district?
There is an assumption on many parents that their schools are going to be teaching their students accurate, good information. I think we all come to the school system with the belief that they’re going to be teaching our kids the right thing. And unfortunately, in this particular subject area, that’s not always the case.
So the first thing I would say is to people listening, find out what sex education is being taught in your school district. And if they say, oh, well, we’re teaching abstinence plus or something like that, dig deeper. Because these can often be code words for education that’s not really education. It’s political indoctrination and it should not be in the classroom.
So that’s the first thing I would say. Find out what’s being taught. And if what’s being taught is medically inaccurate, if it’s biased, if it’s political ideology under the guise of health education, then go to the superintendent and say, even if you’re not a parent, as a taxpayer in this district, this is not what we should be teaching our young people. And talk to other members of the community.
Bring other parents involved. Get students involved. Get community based organizations you know that have some standing in the community. And there are organizations out there that have the resources that parents can use. As a parent or as a community member you have a critical role to play in finding out what’s happening locally and then starting the intervention to making change.
- Phyllida Burlingame, you’ve been following this issue, not just on a state level, but federally as well. Can you talk to us about how funding around sex education has changed from under Bush’s administration now to Obama?
Abstinence only until marriage funding actually began during the Clinton Administration. It was part of welfare reform, which is something that people do not typically know. It was introduced by the Republicans, but signed into law by Clinton. However, it ballooned significantly under the Bush Administration. There was a whole new layer of funding that was added during that time. And we have now span as a nation more than $1.5 billion on abstinence only until marriage funding.
So it’s a significant amount of money. And over the past decade, there has been extensive infrastructure that has been built with this funding, both national organizations and then organizations at the local level. That has changed with the Obama Administration. There was about $120 million that went to a program called Community Based Abstinence Education. That was cut by the Obama administration and instead replaced by funding for comprehensive sex education.
Now the new funding under the Obama Administration is not all that we would want it to be. It’s still a little bit narrow in its scope, in terms of its very specifically focused on teen pregnancy prevention. However, it does require that the information be medically accurate, that it include information about condoms and contraception as well as abstinence. It’s a significant improvement. It’s not everything we want, but it’s a significant improvement.
There was however, in the health care reform law that was passed, a continuation of some of the abstinence only funds. It was driven through by the Republicans and it ended up in the final law. So there’s still a stream for abstinence only, while that is now less than the money for comprehensive sex Ed. However, now the Republicans are resurgent in Congress and we expect that there will be attempts to decrease the funding for comprehensive sex education and to increase, once again, the funding for abstinence only.
And one of the things that’s really important is for Congresspeople to hear from their constituents that this would be a significant error and a big step backwards and that it’s something that people in the United States do not want for our students. So listeners out there, this is a real opportunity for you to contact your members of Congress and say, we want our funding to go towards medically accurate, comprehensive sex education. And do not bring back abstinence only. Because that will play a really important role when decisions are made.
- And LaRhonda, could you talk to us a little bit about how you see comprehensive sex ed as part of the umbrella of the reproductive justice movement or how you see that link to justice issues?
If you can’t make choices about your sexuality, you can’t make choices. The right, the intrinsic right, to make those choices about yourself are just all of what social justice is about. And so I think Phyllida and Gabriela both talked about law not being enough. Has to be attitudinal shifts. Access or information not being enough, you have to have access to it. And so I see comprehensive sex ed as a huge tool actually in the fight for reproductive justice.
That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to a roundtable discussion featuring Phyllida Burlingame, LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson, and Gabriela Valle, moderated by Julieta Kusnir. For an extended version of the conversation you just heard, go to our website, RadioProject.org. Thanks to the Mary Wolford Foundation for helping fund this program.
And thanks to Charles Stuart productions RH Reality Check for the excerpt from their video, Georgia Teens Want Real Sex Ed. For a copy of this program call the National Radio project at 800-529-5736 or check out our website at RadioProject.org to get our podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.