Teaching kids about sex and sexuality makes a lot of adults uncomfortable. Our society has a lot of hang-ups about the subject, even when it comes to the habits of consenting grownups. So when the conversation turns to how best to educate our children on the matter, our own insecurities and biases tend to overshadow the debate.
Last year Wisconsin passed the Healthy Youth Act as a long-overdue response to the growing problem of teenage pregnancy and STD rates in the state. The law ensures that any school district that teaches a human growth and development class provides comprehensive, medically accurate, unbiased and age-appropriate information to students, including methods of contraception.
The move was controversial from the outset, as pro-life groups and conservative legislators expressed concern that the law would cause school districts that disagreed with the new requirements to drop the classes entirely. They also disliked that abstinence-until-marriage wasn't the main focus of the curriculum.
Since Republicans won control of both the executive and legislative branches, they've been quick to introduce a new bill - the Strong Communities, Healthy Kids Act - that would rewrite the law so that abstinence can once again become the central tenet of the classes. The legislation, which has already passed the Senate and now just awaits a vote in the Assembly, would also drop the provision requiring school districts to notify parents if they decided not to offer the course at all. It would change the definition of what's "medically accurate," giving more leeway to school boards to determine what information to rely upon when deciding on a curriculum.
This is a dangerous move, but it represents just one of many fronts in an ongoing effort by social conservatives to roll back any progress made toward gender and sexual equality.
Research has shown, time and again, that abstinence-focused sex education tends to cause more harm than good. Kids who aren't given accurate information about contraception and how it works aren't any more or less likely to have sex than those who are. Seventy percent of all teenagers do so by their 19th birthday, according to the Guttmacher Institute - but they are more likely to end up pregnant or infected without the right information.
Simply keeping this information from them in the hope that it will stop children from engaging in sexual behavior is nave and unfair. Further, the emphasis on abstinence until marriage is most harmful for LGBT children. In case you've forgotten, Wisconsin voted in 2006 to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, so right now there is no way for a gay teenager to "wait until marriage."
At a recent public hearing on the new bill, one young man's testimony against it really brought this issue home for me. Kevin Bachhuber, who identified himself simply as a member of the LGBT community, asked the bill's author, Sen. Mary Lazich, "Abstinence for someone like me would be, what, a lifetime?"
In other words: If you're gay, no sex for you, ever.
That's the not-so-subtle subtext of bills like this and one heck of a brilliant tactic. Though some legislators fought to make sure there was language included that bans bias against students for their sexual orientation - and good on them for it - what all of them seem to be missing is the fact that such a curriculum is, by its very nature, discriminatory.
It's not just LGBT kids who are harmed by these sorts of bills, though. When the message is that sexuality is dangerous, everyone suffers.
Instead of this "disaster prevention" approach, what we should really be teaching is, simply, good sex. That means giving kids the necessary skills and confidence to say no if they want and yes when it's time.
There are maddeningly few places in the country where this is happening, but one example exists in Philadelphia's Friends' Central School, in their Sexuality and Society class. There, teenagers are taught a comprehensive curriculum that focuses on helping them better understand themselves and respect others so that they can make informed decisions about when and how to have sex. The class is a safe space where the teacher can speak with students frankly about everything from dating and orgasms, to contraception and STDs, to abstaining from sex.
This sort of education not only helps kids make better choices in the near term, it sets them up for better, more meaningful relationships as they grow up.
The so-called Strong Communities, Healthy Kids Act won't do that. It's a step backwards when we can least afford it. The Healthy Youth Act has only been law for a year, and Wisconsin would do well to give it more time to have a positive effect. Already it and complementary programs have helped to dramatically lower the teen pregnancy rate in Milwaukee. The evidence is overwhelming.
We have to stop hiding the truth from our kids. They will always seek answers to their many questions. Whether they get it in the shadows, from Internet porn and hearsay, or in safe, nurturing and honest environments is up to us, as a society, to decide. The trick, then, is learning to put aside our own anxieties and hang-ups and really, truly, think of what's good for the children.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician.