Disinformation and the Sex-Ed Wars
By: Jamie Gregory
It’s certainly nothing new for a sexual education book to be challenged or even banned in school and public library systems. It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley has been on the hit-list for almost two decades (throwback to 2005). But the underlying problems parents and politicians have with sex-ed in public schools is concerning when incongruously paired with a growing emphasis on educating students against disinformation.
This past summer, the Arizona Department of Education met to discuss some proposed changes to sex-ed instruction, which is already pretty vague in that state. No curriculum is mandated by the state, and it isn’t even a requirement for sex-ed to be taught in public schools. However, there are guidelines for those schools offering instruction: no work can be graded, boys and girls must be taught separately, parents opt their students into instruction. All materials and instructions must “stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are mature adults” (Arizona Administrative Code 3.b.i.). Not specifically mentioned: teaching medically accurate information and anything about pregnancy/STI prevention. The proposal would have changed those two items, as well as allowing boys and girls to learn about sex-ed in the same classroom. But the Arizona Republic newspaper reported that the meeting was so intense, the state board decided to drop the issue.
Unsurprisingly, during the meeting, opponents slid down the ever-tempting slippery slope, holding up It’s Perfectly Normal (which I guess they forgot students are not required to read) and asserting that Planned Parenthood is involved in creating school curriculum.
This article from Phoenix New Times reports that Republican State Representative Kelly Townsend advocates for the removal of It’s Perfectly Normal from public and school libraries.
The objections are typical, although one was reported which shows political motivations and the spread of disinformation. The article reports Arizona Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers as asserting that the book “encourages youth promiscuity with the goal of increasing abortions and STDs to the financial benefit of health care providers like Planned Parenthood.” What might begin as a perfectly valid conversation about the appropriateness of sexual health books for elementary-aged students quickly turns into a conspiracy theory about Planned Parenthood brainwashing children into having sex so it and other organizations can make money from abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, even selling body parts…selling body parts.
On the other hand, Arizona did repeal the statute prohibiting schools from including information promoting a homosexual lifestyle back in April 2019, which is more than I can say about where I live in South Carolina. The South Carolina Code of Laws states in SECTION 59-32-30: (5) “The program of instruction provided for in this section may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.”
There is scientific disinformation at work here. Are we really suggesting to students by law that homosexuals are the only people who can contract and spread sexually transmitted diseases? By extension, in South Carolina, public school educators can’t even mention entire groups of non-heterosexual people, as if they don’t exist. How does that affect the development and mental health of students who don’t identify as heterosexual or gender binary or whatever is deemed acceptable by the South Carolina State Legislature?
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship (citing information from the Center for Disease Control), 9 out of 10 LGBTQ students experience bullying, teasing, and sometimes violence, and 1 out of 3 have had suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide.
Schools as institutions of learning have a responsibility not to spread disinformation which negatively affects other students’ mental health and general safety and well-being.
The bottom line is, many people are very uncomfortable with public schools making information available which normalizes sexual education and eliminates the fear which drives so much of this disinformation. The truth is, sexuality is only a part of our identities as individuals, not the sole defining factor for those who do not identify as straight or cisgender. It has nothing to do with a person’s morality, and our young people need to learn that.
South Carolina State Representative Seth Rose (D) has recently proposed legislation specifically requiring media literacy instruction in public schools. While the focus on this initiative is due to the influence of social media, his comments are relevant to this discussion because he says he’s concerned that students cannot distinguish fact from opinion. How about ensuring that instructional standards themselves don’t spread disinformation?
We cannot claim to be concerned about media and information literacy skills and at the same time teach openly false information to students. Especially when that false information carries serious emotional and mental (and perhaps even physical) consequences.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.
I was tarred and feathered for this in Rainier Oregon. Fight on.
Former Rainier School District and Rainier City Library Director