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Used tape. A dirty toothbrush. A rose with no petals. A chewed up piece of gum. The list goes on.

Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

Sex Will Burn You, and Other WTF Moments from Abstinence-Only Sex Ed—Jennifer Chou

Abstinence-only sex ed programs are notorious for using tragically bad sex metaphors to push their harmful agenda. Earlier this year, John Oliver brought attention to the “dirty shoe” metaphor that shames teen girls for having sex.

Parents in Redding, California recently learned that their eighth-graders’ school would be teaching that “sex is like a fire” —dangerous and scary, outside the “fireplace” of marriage.

In other words, the students would be receiving abstinence-only-until-heterosexual-marriage sex ed.

State law requires any sexual health education provided in California public schools to be medically accurate, complete, and unbiased. Instruction that only teaches abstinence is strictly prohibited.

We see this happen more than it should. State law requires any sexual health education provided in California public schools to be medically accurate, complete, and unbiased. Instruction that only teaches abstinence is strictly prohibited.

In this case, parents of eighth-graders in the Enterprise Elementary School District—which includes middle school—were sent a letter telling them that a group called Elevate would be on campus the following week to provide abstinence curriculum. One concerned parent who received the letter contacted the ACLU.

We sent a letter to the district warning them that this kind of selective and misleading education violates California law. We also reminded them that abstinence-only education in California public schools can come at a high cost—as Clovis Unified will tell you.

Deeply flawed and seriously out of compliance

A closer look at the materials Elevate was planning to use in the district—the Heritage Keepers curriculum— revealed it to be deeply flawed and seriously out of compliance with California law.

For starters, the materials contain zero instruction on contraception other than abstinence. California law requires that sexual health education include information about all FDA-approved methods of contraception.

Even more disturbing, the discussion of abstinence in the curriculum leans heavily on fear and shame.

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An entire chapter is dedicated to that lengthy metaphor about how “sex is like fire.” The curriculum argues that like fire outside a fireplace, sex outside marriage can “burn you and hurt you” and “seriously harm you and those you love.”

First of all, it’s inaccurate and harmful to teach students that sex can only be acceptable and healthy within the confines of marriage. And let me be clear—Elevate’s “fireplace” of marriage definitely doesn’t include same-sex married couples.

In fact, the curriculum completely ignores and stigmatizes LGBTQ students and their families. All references to relationships in the Heritage Keepers materials are of heterosexual couples. It describes marriage as between and man and a woman and goes on to say that only through this kind of marriage can a relationship create a “whole” and “complete” family.

The curriculum cites the anti-LGBT organization Focus on the Family and claims that people who live together outside this definition of marriage have relationships that are “weaker, more violent, less equal and more likely to lead to divorce.” Perhaps needless to say, this is not an objective, science-based claim as required by California law. Not to mention it’s completely wrong.

These are just some of the curriculum’s “highlights.” The bottom line is that curricula like Heritage Keepers has no place in our schools. Youth need and deserve accurate, inclusive sex education. Anything less and we’re failing them.

After receiving our letter, the district notified us that it will reevaluate its sexual health education, hold off on using the Heritage Keepers curriculum, and provide updated instruction in the spring. Now students in the district can benefit from information that’s actually accurate and helpful.

But Enterprise is not the only district in California that needs to update its curriculum. Situations like this are exactly why the ACLU of California and other partners passed the California Healthy Youth Act this year.

Even stronger sex ed law takes effect in 2016

Starting January 1, complete, accurate sexual health education will be mandatory for all public school districts in California. The California Healthy Youth Act also strengthens existing sexual health education law by requiring schools to teach a fuller range of topics that every student needs. For instance, materials and instruction will need to affirmatively address sexual orientation.

The additional requirements in the Healthy Youth Act will give school districts both the obligation and the incentive to provide sex education that supports all students in making decisions about their health and relationships.

The victory in the Enterprise district also underscores the critical role parents can play in ensuring their students get the education they deserve. Eighty-nine percent of California parents support comprehensive sexual health education that includes information about condoms and contraception as well as information about delaying sexual activity.

California parents who are concerned about inaccurate, incomplete, or biased sexual health education in their kids’ schools can contact the ACLU of Northern California.

Jennifer Chou
ACLU of Northern California