Sex ed is on the mind of legislators across the South. Florida, Alabama and Mississippi are considering bills that could bring major changes to the type of sex education taught in their classrooms.
Every Southern state requires all sex education to emphasize abstinence-until-marriage as the best choice for young people. Under these state laws, schools must emphasize that abstinence is the only way to prevent the unwanted outcomes of underage sex.
While this abstinence requirement is consistent across the South, the type of curriculum can vary by school district. Some states don’t require sex ed at all. Others allow schools to choose from a list of curriculums. Some states leave it up to the school district whether or not to teach sex ed.
Southern states frequently rank among states with the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections including gonorrhea and chlamydia. A report from Human Rights Watch published last year linked Alabama’s emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and gynecologist shortages with high rates of cervical cancer deaths.
Here are some of the changes states are proposing.
Mississippi will decide whether to keep its current sex education mandate, which requires all districts to teach an abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex education curriculum. Abstinence-plus allows for teaching information about contraception. Many abstinence-only curriculums do not.
If Mississippi doesn’t renew its current sex education mandate, which expires this year, there will be no more requirement to teach sex education, nor will there be a restriction on the type of sex ed curriculum that can be taught.
Josh McCawley of Teen Health Mississippi, a nonprofit organization based in Jackson, said some school districts may take liberty to provide more comprehensive sex education, but some may stop teaching sex education altogether.
McCawley is the Teen Health Policy Coordinator for Teen Health Mississippi, an advocacy group that works to support the voices of young people on issues of sexual health and reproductive freedom. Since 2018, Teen Health Mississippi has worked with a legislator to write and present a comprehensive sex education bill in the Legislature.
The organization backed a comprehensive sex education bill, HB 805 this session and planned to support an amendment for HB 143, both bills died in committee. The Legislature could address sex-ed later in the session by amending another bill or through a senate bill. McCawley said if the sex-ed law is renewed, he hopes lawmakers require schools to offer sex ed materials that age appropriate, medically accurate and evidence-based.
In Alabama, state Rep. Laura Hall D-Huntsville hopes to modernize language used in sex education, including removing anti-LGBTQ language from the state sex education requirements.
Hall told Reckon she plans to file the same bill she filed 2020.
The bill, which Hall has not yet filed, would also require sex education materials be medically accurate, which is not currently required under the existing state sex education law.
The bill will also remove this language from the sex education law: “An emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
Bills aimed at removing anti-LGBTQ language and modernizing the state’s sex education curriculum have been introduced since 2018, but neither Senate nor House bills have been successful.
State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who has introduced a similar senate bill for the past three years, co-sponsored a sex ed bill, SB 196, nearly identical to Hall’s bill. Whatley’s cosponsors include Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, and Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham.
“[Passing this bill] is something we need to do. There was no real objection [to the bill] in the Senate last year. Time just ran out,” Whatley said.
In Florida, sex-ed advocates are keeping tabs on one proposal they say could diminish the quality of sex.
State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, is introducing a bill, SB 410, that addresses obscenity, child pornography and other material harmful to minors. Sex education advocates said the bill could reduce access to certain sex education materials.
The bill will also create a process by which any county resident could contest the adoption of new curriculum.
Rodriguez has not responded to request for comment.
“What lawmakers have tried to do for years is connect sex education to child pornography. The logic goes: If I’m showing photos, even just anatomy (it) is child pornography and obscene and shouldn’t be shown.’ The bill also communicates that if we teach a young person about learning about their bodies, that in itself is harmful. This (bill) is actually the opposite. This is trying to pass stigma and shame about sex education into schools,” said Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at Wisconsin-based nonprofit State Innovation Exchange.
Driver said the portion of the bill allowing any resident to contest the adoption of the new curriculum could scare some administrators fearing backlash away from implementing new, comprehensive sex education curriculum.
“Parents generally say ‘Yes we want sex education and we know it should be a priority.’ But there’s a small but loud bunch who say it shouldn’t be taught in school,” Driver said.