On the Cusp of a Sex Ed Revolution

Texas has its first opportunity in more than two decades to address gaps in its approach to sex ed.

Lizzie Tribone September 1, 2020

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Dur­ing gym class, they sep­a­rat­ed the boys from the girls and the coach talked to us about puber­ty, and that was it,” Jose Pablo Rojas says, recall­ing the sum of his school­based sex edu­ca­tion. As some­one who iden­ti­fies as part of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty, Rojas, who attend­ed high school in Brownsville, relied on the inter­net to learn about sex and health.

The overwhelming majority of Texans, including 68% of Republicans, support sex ed that goes beyond abstinence-only education, known as “abstinence-plus."

Texas has the sev­enth-high­est teen preg­nan­cy rate in the Unit­ed States. High rates of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tions, sex­u­al vio­lence and mater­nal mor­tal­i­ty — espe­cial­ly among Black women—also paint a trou­bling picture.

Now, Texas has its first oppor­tu­ni­ty in more than two decades to address gaps in its approach to sex ed. On June 29, more than 260 mem­bers of the pub­lic reg­is­tered to vir­tu­al­ly tes­ti­fy in front of the 15-mem­ber Texas Board of Edu­ca­tion (BOE) about revis­ing the Texas Essen­tial Knowl­edge and Skills (TEKS) cur­ricu­lum stan­dards. Those stan­dards reg­u­late instruc­tion in Texas pub­lic schools, and the sec­tions per­tain­ing to health and sex ed have remained unchanged since 1997. As many speak­ers tes­ti­fied, they inad­e­quate­ly serve Texas students.

Sam­mie Sors­by-Jones, a recent high school grad­u­ate from Austin, described how she was in a sex­u­al­ly abu­sive rela­tion­ship dur­ing her fresh­man year. When she approached her sex ed instruc­tor about con­sent and healthy rela­tion­ships, the response she received made my suf­fer­ing feel invalid, like I was imag­in­ing it, and fur­thered both my denial and my silence about being assault­ed,” Sors­by-Jones said.

Maya Pil­grim, a Texas par­ent, tes­ti­fied about how the cur­ricu­lum excludes chil­dren like hers. I’m a par­ent of a non­bi­na­ry child who fears trust­ing their child to schools that nei­ther val­ue nor pro­tect them,” she said.

Twen­ty-nine states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia require pub­lic schools to teach sex ed, but Texas is not among them. If a Texas school offers sex ed of its own accord, it is man­dat­ed to empha­size absti­nence before mar­riage, per the Texas Edu­ca­tion Code. Schools must teach that if used con­sis­tent­ly and cor­rect­ly, [absti­nence is] the only method that is [100] per­cent effec­tive in pre­vent­ing pregnancy.” 

Advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions are propos­ing a series of updates to the Texas stan­dards, includ­ing edu­ca­tion on age-appro­pri­ate con­sent, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­ty, con­tra­cep­tion and the pre­ven­tion of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tions. A 2014 study from the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Health Asso­ci­a­tion shows this more inclu­sive approach to sex ed lays the ground­work for healthy rela­tion­ships, increased con­tra­cep­tive use, few­er teen preg­nan­cies and, espe­cial­ly for LGBTQ youth, less bul­ly­ing, harass­ment and violence. 

Because of the size of the Texas edu­ca­tion mar­ket and its near­ly 5.5 mil­lion school­child­ren, the state has long been catered to by the entire U.S. aca­d­e­m­ic text­book indus­try. While its influ­ence as a cur­ricu­lum trend­set­ter may have waned in recent years (not least because of new dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy that allows pub­lish­ers to more eas­i­ly cus­tomize pub­li­ca­tions), a revi­sion to the state’s sex ed instruc­tion could poten­tial­ly influ­ence what stu­dents learn across the country.

Revi­sions to the TEKS cur­ricu­lum could also spur a polit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive reck­on­ing. It is impor­tant to get elect­ed offi­cials on the record about whether they agree it is time for change and for teach­ing the truth,” says Dan Quinn, research direc­tor and press sec­re­tary at the Texas Free­dom Net­work, an Austin-based grass­roots social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion. A new cur­ricu­lum could demon­strate to law­mak­ers that it is past time to make leg­isla­tive changes that final­ly address real­i­ty rather than per­pet­u­ate failed poli­cies put in place long ago most­ly to please con­ser­v­a­tive cul­ture war­riors.” If change can hap­pen in a tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive state like Texas, [it] could open doors to change in oth­er states as well,” Quinn adds.

A 2020 poll by the Texas Cam­paign to Pre­vent Teen Preg­nan­cy found the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Tex­ans, includ­ing 68% of Repub­li­cans, sup­port sex ed that goes beyond absti­nence-only edu­ca­tion, known as absti­nence-plus.” A major­i­ty also sup­port teach­ing about con­sent and bound­aries, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and con­tra­cep­tion. An over­whelm­ing, bipar­ti­san pub­lic sup­ports the pro­posed revi­sions to TEKS. 

These top­ics can be taught in an absti­nence-first way that ful­ly aligns with … the Texas Edu­ca­tion Code,” says Jen Biun­do, direc­tor of pol­i­cy and data at the Texas Cam­paign to Pre­vent Teen Preg­nan­cy. But if more inclu­sive stan­dards are passed, it’s unclear how much longer the state’s statute on absti­nence can remain polit­i­cal­ly ten­able. In this sense, Texas could be a bell­wether for inclu­sive and com­pre­hen­sive sex ed in a his­tor­i­cal­ly red state.

Work­ing groups made up of experts and edu­ca­tors are cur­rent­ly work­ing on pro­posed revi­sions to the TEKS, and there will be a sec­ond hear­ing based on these changes in Sep­tem­ber. In Novem­ber, the Texas BOE will hold its final hear­ing, then vote whether to adopt the stan­dards. The pub­lic reg­is­tra­tion peri­od to tes­ti­fy will take place in September.

In terms of the risks faced by youth with­out an edu­ca­tion in inclu­sive, fact-based sex­u­al health, Jose Pablo Rojas says, If nobody is there to pre­pare you, then you are basi­cal­ly a sit­ting duck.” 

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