Earlier this month, a Tennessee high schooler recorded an abstinence education assembly spearheaded by two right-wing leaders — and after details emerged about the topics discussed at the public school event, medical experts confirmed that they weren’t “completely accurate.” Health officials refuted some of the material, and local politicians expressed surprise that Tennessee’s public school students have been receiving false information.
As the Tennessean reports, the conservative speakers included Joi Wasill — who founded a nonprofit organization with strong religious, Republican, and anti-abortion ties — and Beth Cox, a member of a Tennessee county school board. The two women delivered an hour-long presentation for the freshmen and sophomores at Hillsboro High School. Wasill and Cox told students that all medical textbooks confirm that life begins at conception, there’s a new STD spreading around the country that’s worse than AIDS, contracting STDs will leave women infertile, and having sexual relations with eight different partners is the equivalent of drinking a whole classroom’s spit.
Cox told the young women in the room that if they became single mothers to boys, their sons wouldn’t have the necessary male role models in their lives to teach them “hunting, fishing, playing ball, all those things that teach them how to be a man.” During the second half, after Wasill took over, she asserted that “fetus” means the same thing as “baby” and adoption should always be assumed to be the best option. If a girl is pregnant, send her straight to the nurse and give her prenatal vitamins, Wasill recommended. She also warned that abortion carries the risks of internal bleeding and death.
Dr. Mary Romano, the assistant professor in Vanderbilt’s Division of Adolescent Medicine, told the Tennessean that Wasill and Cox don’t have all of their facts straight. Many of their assertions are taken out of context — for instance, STDs only lead to infertility if they go untreated, and there’s no medical consensus about when life begins. Similarly, a spokesperson from Tennessee’s Department of Health said the agency is unaware of any new STD that is “worse than AIDS.” Wasill was likely referring to widely-debunked reports of a new strain of gonorrhea that health experts do not believe is actually comparable to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Another local school board member, Michael Hayes, told the Tennessean that he was “surprised” by the information imparted to students at the abstinence assembly. “Fortunately, I believe the Hillsboro High School kids are smart enough to separate fact from fiction and that some of the opinions and scare tactics used in the presentation they will know are incorrect,” he wrote in an email.
But even if students are able to discern the presentation’s factual inaccuracies, they’ll still be left unequipped with the actual knowledge they need to safeguard their sexual health. Romano pointed out that scare tactics intended to dissuade teens from becoming sexually active don’t actually work, because young adults tend to believe they’re invincible from any negative repercussions. Instead, teens need factual information about prevention methods.
“What you want to do is have the teen walk away with knowledge and skills. Teach me skills to negotiate that situation. If I’m going to have sex, who do I go to for information?” Romano explained.
Nonetheless, Tennessee students aren’t receiving those skills in their health classes. The state’s sex ed classes aren’t required to be medically accurate, and there’s nothing preventing public schools from hosting the type of conservative presentation that took place at Hillsboro High School this month. Last year, the state Senate actually pushed to make Tennessee’s abstinence-focused curricula even more conservative by proposing a ban on any mention of “gateway sexual activity,” like hand-holding.
Notably, details about Hillsboro’s recent abstinence assembly are coming to light only because a high school student had the foresight to record it. That’s true for similar abstinence programming across the country, which often goes unchecked until students begin speaking out. In West Virginia, one public high schooler made national news after protesting an abstinence speaker who imparted “slut shaming” messages and misinformation about sexual health during her presentation. She received backlash from members of her conservative community, including her principal.