When I attended public school in Laredo, sex education was nearly non-existent. The only thing I remember learning about sex in my health class is that sex would lead to pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. We learned nothing about how to prevent pregnancy or STIs, nothing about consent, nothing about sexual orientation.
At that time, two high schools provided daycare services for teen parents. I appreciate that the district created a solution to a barrier teen parents faced in completing school, but I wonder if the district ever considered that comprehensive sex education might also help with student retention and lowering the rate of teen pregnancy.
For the first time since 1997, the Texas State Board of Education is considering changes to the sex education curriculum. And these changes are long overdue. The majority of Texas school districts teach abstinence-only or nothing at all about sex education, according to the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, which in 2019 published a comprehensive report on the state of sex education in Texas.
Many abstinence-only programs used in Texas schools teach inaccurate information about contraception, according to the think tank; they also promote “promote dangerous stereotypes about gender and sexual assault, ignore or even disparage the existence of LGBT people and ignore or distort information about abortion." Many topics are limited to the high school curriculum, leaving middle school students with a limited understanding of STIs and puberty but no thorough education on consent or sexual harassment and dating violence.
The State Board of Education’s current draft of the revisions, submitted in February 2020, includes contraceptive methods, STI prevention and treatment, consent, and sexual abuse/harassment and dating violence prevention for grades as early as sixth.
As welcome as these additions would be to the curriculum, the proposed revisions still do not include any information on abortion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And in a state like Texas, which so often lets ideology rather than science dictate public policy, there is no guarantee that the majority conservative 15-member Board of Education will adopt any of these new topics when they vote in November.
With this sort of leadership making decisions, it should be no surprise that effective, comprehensive, science-based sex education has been sorely lacking in the Texas public school health curriculum for decades. It should also come as no surprise that Texas has the nation’s ninth highest teen birth rate and the highest rate of repeat teen births.
In June, the board held a 16-hour long hearing during which constituents spoke either for or against proposed changes to the sex education curriculum. For all 16 hours, I listened to testimony after testimony of individuals opposed to the changes, many of whom asserted that teaching consent to young students would encourage “risky sexual behavior.” How do you teach students to minimize risky sexual behavior if you don’t want them to know anything about sex?
Twice, two different board members disclosed that they either were confused about consent or didn’t know what consent is. (!!) There are 5.4 million students currently enrolled in public schools in Texas, and these are the board members who decide whether or not our students will learn about consent.
But there is cause for hope. Throughout the hearing, I was moved to hear current and recently graduated students giving public testimony supportive of the suggested changes, especially of informed consent. Many stated that they felt that the sexual violence and abuse they experienced while young could have been prevented or addressed sooner had consent been part of the health curriculum. Another individual shared that it was only after they became a volunteer at an organization that provides sexual violence support that they realized what they had experienced was in fact sexual assault.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of such a realization. Many of my own friends, male and female, realized after the fact that their first physically intimate experiences were not consensual. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every experience was traumatic, but it’s alarming just how easy it is to brush aside what we now understand as sexual assault because of social norms. How many Texas students are experiencing this because schools won’t teach consent? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three female rape victims experiences sexual violence for the first time between the ages of 11-17.
Consent was the topic of my testimony to the board. Specifically, I wanted to stress the importance of teaching consent and its intersection with sexual orientation. From my own experience, I found that ignorance of one made me vulnerable to abuse and manipulation I grew up in a very Catholic, working-class household with two working parents whose priority was ensuring that we were well fed, clothed, and doing well in school. I don’t fault them that it escaped their notice that they hadn’t taught me, the youngest of four, about sex. I suppose they expected that I would learn something useful in school. They were wrong.
Many people assume that entering into a relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend means implicitly consenting to all physical intimacy milestones, from hand-holding to kissing to sex. For many of my female-identifying friends and me, we were just passive recipients of such milestones. None of my “firsts” were consensual.
Learning about sexual orientation and healthy relationships would also have been enormously beneficial to me as an asexual person who has experienced sexual violence.
Asexual individuals do not experience sexual attraction. When told to abstain from sex, my response was, “duh, of course!” It seemed obvious to me because I had never once had an interest in sex. I never learned that asexuality existed as a valid sexual orientation in school. I only realized that I was asexual in my third year of college.
Until then, I had spent years assuming there was something wrong with me for not feeling similarly to my peers who were entering into romantic and sexual relationships. I experienced many uncomfortable sexual advances that I assumed I should have wanted because I was in a romantic relationship with people I liked. At least, that is what heteronormative literature and movies had taught me about romantic relationships; that was the only sex education I had.
I now know that these advances were in some cases sexual assault and in others, rape. My education did not give me a foundation to understand that I could say “no” to someone I was dating at any time in our intimacy. I never learned that being a passive recipient of physical advances is not a “yes.”
Without understanding healthy relationships, I allowed people to invalidate how I felt. They argued that I couldn’t know I didn’t want to have sex if I’d never had sex, or that I just hadn’t had enough sex or “the right sex” with the “right person.” They thought I was mistaken in how I felt and that only they could fix me.
There’s nothing about me that needed to be fixed. If only my romantic partners and I had learned about consent and healthy relationships versus abusive relationships. If only we had learned that there are people who experience sexual attraction and those who do not, and both are valid and worthy of respect. If we had, perhaps I could have been spared those experiences.
I know that I am not the only LGBTQ+ person who has a story like this. During the State Board of Education hearing, there were several testimonies from current and former students who disclosed similar experiences. They told of the abuse they experienced from peers because they were LGBTQ+ and the pain of having their identity unacknowledged and their needs unaddressed in the health curriculum.
It’s unclear whether the majority of the State Board of Education was moved at all by the public accounts given at the public hearing. The more conservative members of the board seemed most interested in testimonies from those opposing the expansion of sex education. The board’s next public hearing will take place in September, in advance of the final vote in November.
As one of the most influential and powerful elected bodies in Texas, the State Board of Education has the ability to impact multiple generations of Texans. Will the board decide to ensure that the next 20 years of Texas students will learn comprehensive, inclusive sex education? If not, the board will continue its legacy of failing Texas youth.