Health

‘Historic’ Ruling States That Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Isn’t Sex Ed

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In a decision that’s being hailed as “historic,” a judge in California has ruled that health classes focusing exclusively on telling students to remain abstinent until marriage fall short of the state’s comprehensive sex ed requirements.

In his opinion, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black concludes that, given the high rates of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy in the U.S., medically accurate sexual health information is “an important public right.”

Black’s decision narrowly applies to about 40,000 students who attend the Clovis Unified School District. However, since his opinion represents the first-ever ruling on California’s decade-old sex education standards, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — whose legal counsel represented the plaintiffs in the suit — believes it sets an important precedent for the rest of the state.

“This is the first time that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula have been found to be medically inaccurate,” Phyllida Burlingame, the director of reproductive justice policy at the ACLU, told the San Francisco Chronicle. She added that the ruling should send a strong message to other schools that “young people need complete, accurate health information required by law.”

A landmark law implemented in 2003 prohibits California schools from providing sex ed courses that contain medically inaccurate or biased information. It’s one of the strongest state-level sex ed requirements in the country, which vary widely across the U.S. However, previous reports commissioned by the ACLU found that the law hasn’t been implemented evenly across California, and some school districts have continued to provide inaccurate abstinence-based curricula.

The Clovis Unified School District was one of them. In 2012, a group of parents whose kids attended Clovis schools partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and the ACLU to file a lawsuit against district officials, alleging that their kids were receiving inaccurate information in their sex ed classes that could potentially put their health at risk.

The parents objected to the fact that Clovis was using a textbook that emphasized that all adults should abstain from sexual activity until marriage, and that didn’t include any information about preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. They also took issue with the school district’s partnerships with outside groups — including a crisis pregnancy center that disseminates inaccurate information about the risks of abortion — to provide health instruction to students, despite the fact that those groups aren’t qualified to teach comprehensive sex ed.

Plaintiffs alleged that the district was showing students abstinence-focused videos that contained “egregiously inaccurate and biased information,” like comparing a woman who has engaged in sex to a dirty shoe, and suggesting that men are physically unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused. One video, entitled Never Regret The Choice, suggested that homosexuality doesn’t exist by encouraging students to adopt the mantra, “One man, one woman, one life.”

The suit was dropped in 2014 after Clovis Unified School District changed its sex ed policies to bring them more in line with California law. Black, however, ruled that the district is still responsible for paying the parents’ legal fees, since their lawsuit prompted the policy changes.

California is hardly the only state where students receive biased health information that focuses solely on abstinence. There aren’t any national requirements for comprehensive sex ed instruction in public schools, which allows 19 states to continue to require health materials to emphasize the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage. In addition to failing to include information about birth control and condoms, abstinence-only programs typically tell kids that having sex will make them dirty — comparing people who have had sex to chewed up gum, used tape, dirty chocolate, and glasses of spit.

Even though a significant body of scientific research has confirmed that abstinence-only curricula are ineffective at convincing students to delay sex, and don’t prepare them to safeguard their sexual health, these programs continue to be propped up with state and federal funding. Just last month, Congress quietly appropriated $25 million in additional funding for the very same type of abstinence education programs that Black ruled violate the public right to medically accurate sex ed.