I never saw a condom until I was in college and had to figure out how to use one. Granted, I grew up in a house with older parents, where my father abruptly switched off Who’s the Boss? because it was ‘too racy,’ and my mother (a nurse) gave a version of “the talk” that was so clinical it was nearly incomprehensible. But also, I grew up in Indiana, a conservative state that mandates abstinence-only sex ed — or educating students not to have sex at all — in public schools.
I don’t remember what we did learn in high school health class (except, for some reason, proper teeth brushing technique, which does not bode well for the dental hygiene of young Hoosiers). There was certainly no condom-on-banana demonstration. And no discussion of hormonal or barrier birth control methods, or accurate information about STI transmission, sexual behavior, or unplanned pregnancy.
There was, however, a daycare center. You could go to this daycare and learn childcare skills…and drop off your baby while you went to class. It was obvious even to me, the most sheltered girl in the Midwest, that abstinence-only education was a sad joke.
Things only seem to be getting worse for young people in Indiana. Indiana Senate Enrolled Act 65 says that, starting this fall, schools need to send home a summary of what students will learn in their sex ed classes. Then, parents may either consent or decline for their students to receive sex ed.
Act 65 also includes, explicitly, “sexual orientation or gender identity.” Indiana lawmakers are playing an old game here, equating knowledge of your sexuality and non-normative gender identities with being NSFW: as bill sponsor State Senator Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) explained, “teachers…are going beyond the standards and are getting into what I call more sensual, more nitty-gritty stuff, almost to the area of pornography.”
It’s bad enough that Kruse implies that students only need knowledge of heterosexuality. But requiring students to get written permission to learn makes it less likely that they’ll get the knowledge they need. On top of this, not everybody has an understanding or stable guardian at home to give permission. It also denies sex ed to children of socially conservative families who are likely not getting accurate or complete information about sexuality at home.
But this isn’t just an Indiana problem. For years, the federal government has funded only abstinence-only sex ed in public schools. Schools or local governments that wanted another kind of sex ed have to pay for it themselves. Every state legislature or local school board election endangers education about students’ bodies, identities, and sexuality.
Even if you’re not a teenager or not having sex, this issue affects you. A 2004 report for House Democrats found that abstinence-only education reinforces “gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness.” What we teach students about sexuality and identity shapes the current American culture — which, let’s face it, has not been great on this issue. 1 study found that 81% of women and 43% of men say they’ve been sexually harassed, and we just elected a president who brags about grabbing women by the pussy. Oh, and abstinence-only sex ed does not reduce teen pregnancy rates. In fact, it usually increases pregnancy rates.
While abstinence-only education was strengthened under President Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, the current Republican-led Congress has increased funding by $30 million. They’re also pressuring the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Disease Control (neutral institutions tasked informing Americans) to advocate for “normalizing sexual delay.”
So, if this feels like a prequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, vote for representatives who think that education should be based on evidence, that we shouldn’t treat sex like it’s a bad thing, and that we have a responsibility to give young people information that will keep them safe and healthy. Get registered and vote November 6 for your Congressional representatives, and in 2020 for President. Vote for your state and local representatives, and school board. Or, you know, blessed be the fruit, I suppose.