Sex education overhaul endangers Florida youth and public health

Supporters of reactionary education repression demonstrated at a School Board meeting in Jacksonville, FL, last year. (Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union)

By the Women’s Commission of the American Party of Labor.

The Florida House and Senate have passed HB 1069—a bill to overhaul sex education in schools—amidst a nationwide wave of legislation targeting reproductive rights and the LGBTQIA+ community. Florida has been leading the charge on this front, passing several regressive bills with the endorsement of Governor Ron DeSantis. In HB 1069, sex education in public schools is to be drastically changed, particularly at the elementary level. The text of the bill explicitly states that materials must be removed from elementary schools which are “pornographic;” “depict or describe sexual conduct;” or are “inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.” The Department of Education will have the authority to hold school boards accountable for meeting these standards, with an additional amendment allowing for parental review of materials. The bill has recently passed in the state Senate and is expected to become law with DeSantis’ approval.

Beyond elementary school, the bill outlines a very narrow set of topics that are to be discussed in sexual health education for grades 6 through 12 – including an unscientific, transphobic, and misogynistic definition of biological sex – and grants greater powers to the Department of Education and more opportunities for parents to prevent their children from learning about sexual and developmental health.

As discussion on the floor of the legislature began on the language and implications of this bill, questions arose for which the sponsors and authors of this bill had to grapple. When asked if this bill would prohibit discussion in elementary schools on menstruation, Representative Stan McClain confirmed, “It would.” This includes restricting menstruating children from talking about their own experiences.

According to the bill, sex is to be defined as “the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role, as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.” Lawmakers also want schools to conform to this view, stating that “sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth that biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring; and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.” A lot of the language in this bill is strange, particularly the absurd phrase “reproductive function at birth,” which is an impossibility since reproductive functionality doesn’t begin until puberty. The current scientific understanding of biological sex is very different from how it is defined in this bill. Biological sex is usually informed by external, visible physical characteristics observed at birth; however, biological sex is not binary and is a cluster of characteristics not always visible, including external and internal structures, chromosomes, and hormones.

Even these strict and reductionist policies for sexual health education are limited to what the Department of Education considers to be appropriate for certain age and grade levels. As previously mentioned, sex education materials are to be removed entirely from elementary schools, preventing education from reaching younger students, for whom this education is equally as valuable. The boundary of sex education not being allowed for fifth graders but being allowed for sixth graders is arbitrary and harmful. An important consideration that this bill does not address is that children reach puberty at different ages, not just in middle school and junior high. One of the intentions of this bill is to prohibit the discussion of menstruation in elementary schools, ignoring the fact that many children begin their periods at this time. A meta-study of three decades of research demonstrated the harm of removing sexual education in schools, endorsing National Sex Education Standards that require even kindergartners to understand basic concepts like consent and how to identify abuse.

The right-wing rhetoric surrounding this bill and others like it is that of “parental rights,” to argue in favor of granting parents more control over what materials are shown to students in schools. The argument Republicans publicly make is that parents should have a choice of how they raise their children: if parents do not want their child to receive sex education in school, they can choose to keep that education from them. In Florida, parents already have the ability to opt their children out of sex education sessions, and this right was already further empowered with the passage of Florida HB 545 in 2021, changing the “opt-out” policy to one in which parents must “opt-in” to consent for their children to be educated on sexual health. However, HB 1069 would allow parents to further request the removal of such educational materials from school districts altogether. The districts will be required to publish lists of which materials have been removed (after determining that they do not meet the standards outlined by state law) as well as lists of materials that were not removed with an explanation of why they are allowed to stay. After this review, public committee meetings will be held where parents can protest against the inclusion, or petition for the removal, of such subject matter. The parental review process and the oversight of the Department of Education will not require any consultation with health experts or teachers, whose lesson plans and day-to-day jobs will be changed by this bill.

A 2015 study showed that up to 94% of parents of elementary school aged children think there is some benefit to having sex education in schools before grade 6. A significant majority of the parents polled cited such benefits as children learning how to prevent or respond to sexual abuse, how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and how to prevent pregnancy. These results indicate that the proposed bill in Florida is in opposition to general opinions of parents across the political spectrum and from various religious faiths. According to the conductors of this study: “If parents were aware that the majority agreed with sexuality content being taught in schools, they may be more committed to supporting school health educators in advocating for comprehensive sexuality education requirements in elementary schools.” These results indicate that the parental review measures in HB 1069 will only cater to a very small minority of parents, who will make changes for all students in a school district.

It is clear that the consequences of this bill passing will be a decline in public sexual health. Restricting access to sexual education directly decreases how informed children and adolescents are pertaining to matters of their own bodies. HB 1069 confines sexual education to instruction on abstinence, without any discussion of contraceptives. Abstinence-only sex education is not effective in preventing either teen pregnancy or STI transmission, both of which disproportionately affect teens of color, low-income and rural teens, and those belonging to LGBTQI+ communities. Florida is also restricting options for teenagers who become pregnant. Several bills have been introduced in Florida to limit abortion access (HB 1033, SB 1076, SB 300, HB 7). Teenagers who become pregnant are the most likely age group to seek out and receive abortion care, with terminations accounting for 25% of pregnancies in people under the age of 20. With Florida limiting both sex education, which helps young people learn how to avoid pregnancy, and limiting abortion, something that is vital care, many young women will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies, experience traumatic birthing processes, and have a more difficult time accessing education and other opportunities that they otherwise may have. Despite reactionary rhetoric that pregnancy is what the female body is intended to do, similar to what HB 1069 lays out, pregnancy is very dangerous with many health risks associated with it, not limited to life-long disability and even death. The combination of limiting access to contraceptives through lack of information, and limiting access to abortion, will change or even end the trajectory of the lives of many young people in Florida.

Percent of pregnancies ending in abortion by age, 2017. (Figures based on Child Trends’ calculations of abortion data in the U.S. between 1973–2017 from Guttmacher Institute, 2021.)

Additionally, without education on contraceptives and safe sexual practices, the risk of contracting an STI due to unprotected sex increases. STIs can be very serious for the individual who contracts them, and pose a public health risk. The CDC has published recommendations for sexual health services in schools, stating, “Other school programs, such as condom availability programs, school-based STD screening events, and sexual health awareness campaigns, can improve students’ beliefs and attitudes about condom use and STD testing, and their use of SHS (Sexual Health Services).”

The lack of education in schools on menstrual health is another huge problem that this Florida bill will exacerbate. Many students start menstruating in elementary school, and with no school-based information on the topic, they may not have a proper understanding of this development in their health. Lack of education can lead to young girls not accessing hygienic period products, increasing feelings of shame, and causing confusion as to what is happening to them. Periods have been cited as a source of young women missing school due to related symptoms, lack of access to period products, and shame. Not being able to speak about their experiences with having a period can cause students to not speak out when they need help accessing products or healthcare surrounding menstrual health. This may make it more difficult for students with serious health conditions to speak out or even recognize an abnormal period, which may lead to long term health issues.

Additionally, withholding education from children at a young age on all topics concerning sexual health and development means lack of knowledge on sexual abuse. Educating young children on their own bodies, and what behavior from others is inappropriate, can allow children a better chance at reporting sexual abuse. Children should have an understanding of what types of interactions are abusive, especially in the context of sexual abuse. Teaching kids which body parts should be considered ‘private,’ and that people should not touch them is very important in getting them out of abusive situations. Sexual education includes giving children resources on reporting sexual abuse and the vocabulary to be able to tell a trusted adult about it if they need to. Bills that prohibit discussion of all sexual matters in school will limit the opportunities for children to report and escape sexual abuse, a reality that an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will face.

Legislation restricting sexual education will also have negative impacts on educators, who will be held responsible for complying with the standards laid out by the bill. In Florida, where sexual content in schools is already under stricter laws than other states, educators are facing consequences for not meeting the nebulous standards of the restrictions. For example, a Florida middle school principal was forced to resign after complaints of showing inappropriate sexual content to students. The content in question was Michaelangelo’s Statue of David, a historically important art piece depicting a nude Biblical character in a non-sexual manner. As even more restrictions are placed on educators in Florida, it is inevitable that cases like this will continue to occur. These pieces of legislation can cause teachers to lose their jobs for simply providing education to students, if the educational content includes factors the reactionary government or parents disagree with.

With more educational regulations, potential lawsuits, and added bureaucracy with the new laws, such as the parental review process discussed above, more state money will be spent. With legislation that Florida has enacted, such as the “Stop WOKE Act,” the state has incurred costs of at least $16.7 million as of December 2022, reported by the Miami Herald. These costs are passed on to Florida taxpayers. HB 75 and SB 242, the two bills to bring about free menstrual hygiene products to public schools would have an estimated cost of 3.3 million, assuming the same costs incurred per student seen in California who had a similar bill pass. This means the costs of the “Stop WOKE Act” could have funded a free menstrual hygiene program 5 times over, or roughly the same funding needed to enact the program in not just Florida, but also Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Texas (based on census data here). Meanwhile, the Florida state government fails to provide adequate funding to a litany of issues, ranging from widespread poverty and homelessness, climate change, and public health. Adding more legislation, of which the only purpose is repression and promotion of backwards ideas, reveals deep rooted governmental neglect of the population as more funds will be funneled into expensive lawsuits and investigations.

The backwards and proto-fascist lawmakers in Florida must be challenged for the sake of both public health and the future of young women in the state. With a government that actively works against the interests of the people, it becomes all the more necessary to build networks of community support. The people of Florida are coming together to protect each other from the repression being enacted by their government. Volunteer organizations, such as SWAN, are helping Floridian women access reproductive health resources. Meanwhile, youth organizations such as Students For Socialism at University of South Florida are regularly organizing in resistance to state repression and engaging in community aid. More organizations are continuing to be built to support those targeted by laws in Florida and push for a better future. Nationally, larger coalitions and organizations have publicly accessible resources for education and materials, such as Sex Ed for Social Change and Planned Parenthood’s resources for parents to discuss sexual education with their children. It is vital for both the people of Florida and people across the US to organize against the rise in fascism and protect the most vulnerable.

Categories: Education, LGBTQIA+, U.S. News, Women

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