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Consent, Contraception, and LGBT Issues: Sex Ed. Bills States Considered in 2017

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Thirty bills proposed by state legislatures in 2017 related to teaching sexual violence prevention in schools, measures that may have been motivated by widespread coverage of high-profile allegations of sexual assault and violence in recent years, according to a report by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Those bills covered topics like consent, addressing unwanted advances, forming healthy relationships, human trafficking, and violence and abuse by romantic partners.

They were among a larger group of 64 total sex education bills—covering topics ranging from contraceptive use to sexual orientation—introduced in 27 states and Puerto Rico during 2017 legislative sessions. Seven of those bills were enacted in five states: California, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Utah, and Virginia,  according to the report, which was released this week.

The council keeps close watch on what's happening in statehouses. That's because what students learn about sex and sexuality is often heavily influenced by state laws that mandate and restrict what their schools are required to cover—or forbidden from discussing—in sex education classes. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia require sex education in schools, with widely varying requirements and instruction, the organization says. The others leave such instruction to the discretion of local districts.

"The wide range of bills introduced in this legislative cycle are indicative of the differences in sexuality education instruction across the country," the report says. "Some legislators seek to codify sexuality education in the states, while others believe sexuality education should not be taught in schools at all."

SIECUS, which advocates for comprehensive sex education, classified each bill's potential impact on sex education. It categorizes 43 bills as seeking "to advance sexuality education," and four as seeking "to restrict sexuality education."

Nine bills had "neutral impact," the report says, and eight bills had "a mixed impact on advancing sexuality education." This chart, included in the report, breaks down the bills' classifications by subject area.

sex education bills 2017 siecus

New State Laws on Sex Education

SIECUS had mixed reviews for the bills that were passed into law:

  • California passed two new laws. One amends the 2015 California Healthy Youth Act to include instruction on recognizing the "early warning signs of adolescent relationship abuse and intimate partner violence." The other replaces a requirement for instruction about sex trafficking with a new, broader requirement for teaching about "sexual abuse and information about human trafficking."
  • North Carolina's law "makes organizational and technical changes to the statute that governs sexuality education in public schools," the report says, categorizing it as having "a neutral impact."
  • New Hampshire passed a law requiring school districts "to provide parents and legal guardians with advance notice of course materials involving discussion of human sexuality or human sexual education" and to make those materials available for review. 
  • A new Utah law repeals language "prohibiting the advocacy of homosexuality in health instruction." That language was replaced with new text "that prohibits the advocacy of premarital or extramarital sexual activity in health instruction."
  • Virginia passed two laws that both allow for discussions of consent in high school "family life education" curriculum. The measures stop short of requiring such discussions, the report says.

Looking Forward

As I've written previously, many schools' sex education programs do not include the 16 sex education components recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which relate to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy prevention, and sexual decision making.

And some states place restrictions on discussions of issues like contraception and homosexual sex. In one Mississippi county, for example, a community health educator teaches students "how to put on a sock" because he legally can't explain how to put on a condom.

SIECUS said the large number of sex education bills proposed in 2017 is "encouraging."

Among the trends it finds promising: efforts to make curriculum more inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and bills that promote affirmative consent, which is also known as the "yes means yes" approach.

"This highlights a demonstrated motivation to improve the sexuality education young people need and deserve to lead healthy lives," the report says.


Related reading about sex education:

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