Utah Getting More Regressive on Sex Education

In the middle of national hearings on birth control access and the passage of state laws punishing women who receive abortions, Utah has been doing something stupid. Most of us were distracted. April Gardner was not. I followed events through her Twitter feed and asked her to write a guest post since most people still don’t know this happened.

Utah’s Legislators Ignore the Purpose of Education and Expose Students to Harm

Over the last month, Utah’s conservative legislators in the House of Representatives have made a mission of pushing conservative morals into an education policy that is a solution in search of a problem. What’s more, in doing so they have not only ignored the entire purpose of educating the next generation, but they have created an environment that will leave Utah’s youths far more vulnerable than they are under the current curriculum standards.

Utah’s existing approach to sex education in high school already allows parents with strong religious or moral feelings on human sexuality to keep their children ignorant about their own bodies and sexuality; in order to participate in sex education, parents must opt their children into the classes. The default path for students is ignorance. And the current Utah state curriculum is arguably already abstinence-only in its implementation. Utah Administrative Code R277-474 requires:

  • Prior written parental consent must be obtained before including any aspect of contraception in the curriculum.
  • Teachers may not teach the advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods or devices.

Preventing advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods is so close to abstinence-only education as makes no difference. All that is left to discuss if you ban encouragement or advocacy is to point out the existence of contraception and note rates of failure compared to abstinence. We already do our children a terrible disservice in providing incomplete approaches to human sexuality, but for the very conservative religious politicians, the current approach does not allow them great enough control over the state’s adolescents. The Utah House passed a bill making things worse last Wednesday.

There is no demand by local schools, parents or communities that our current (and shamefully incomplete) approach to health education be altered to align with conservative moral ideals. The state’s Republican governor has publicly stated he thinks the current standards are working fine for Utah’s schools. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Bill Wright (R-Holden) acknowledged to the Salt Lake Tribune that his bill to allow schools to discontinue any sex education (rather than stick to abstinence only) was his idea and no school or district had supported or asked for such a move.

In an article published Saturday, March 3rd, the Tribune found that although parents have the option of withholding permission to attend health classes, virtually none do so. In that piece, Wright was unable to point to any sort of parental outcry that led him to propose this legislation. (In fact, the state Parent Teacher Association and Utah Education Association oppose this legislation as harmful.) He justified this by speculating that despite state law requiring parents to be notified two weeks in advance of what will be covered in health curriculum, they may not be provided with sufficient detail about the health curriculum to be covered.

During the initial House committee hearing for this bill on the 9th of February, it became clear that the only vocal proponents of this measure are ultra-conservative lawmakers and moral crusading busybodies from groups like The Sutherland Institute, United Families Utah and Utah’s Eagle Forum. It is depressing to see an institution like the Sutherland Institute that doesn’t support public education having so much influence on the very institutions it seeks to undermine. Critics of the bill did not even question the importance of promoting abstinence over all other options, but simply tried to point out the damage the bill would do while proposing amendments to mitigate the harm. I felt great ambivalence when BYU professor Cougar Hall was a voice of reason, pointing out not only that we already have opt-in abstinence only education, but going on:

It’s immoral to withhold life-saving information from a segment of our population because it doesn’t fit our value system.

The committee successfully appended two amendments to the bill to mandate parental involvement in creating sex-education curriculum, clarify that the legislation can only affect health curriculum (it was pointed out that it could ban many works of literature as written) and strike language that prevented any discussion of non-abstinence. The version of the bill that passed the Utah House of Representatives manages to remove public schools’ already limited ability to teach sex education by prohibiting any instruction on contraception. It also gives school administrators the option to skip even abstinence education unilaterally, cripples teachers’ and administrators’ ability to aid students needing counseling or guidance by legislating limits on speech, massively increases risk of transmission of STDs and rates of unwanted pregnancy through ignorance, and creates an environment in which anti-gay bigotry and bullying can thrive as we’ve seen in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district (recently covered in Rolling Stone.)

In a year where we have seen an unprecedented attack on women, sexual health and reproductive freedoms, it’s striking just how transparent and honest religious conservatives are about their motives. It’s all about sex and how much they don’t want you to enjoy the freedom to fuck if you want to, or at the very least, you should suffer consequences for being a slut who couldn’t keep your legs closed. Wright, for example, made this abundantly clear:

We’ve been culturally watered down to think we have to teach about sex, about having sex and how to get away with it, which is intellectually dishonest. Why don’t we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating? [emphasis added]

For all the talk of keeping our children innocent and being able to instruct our children what we believe as a matter of private religious freedom, the fact remains that this is all irrelevant to the purpose of education. It has always bothered me that sex education is unique in the way it is discussed when compared to other subjects: it’s exclusively discussed in terms of the present. But education is for the future. We don’t promote the learning of mathematics, history, literature, science or art simply for their own sake now, but because doing so prepares young people for their lives as adults and gives them tools to advance and contribute to society.

Yet when we discuss the healthy development of human sexuality, it is always forgotten that education is meant to prepare students for adulthood; the conversation shifts about how we “shouldn’t be teaching kids how to have sex.” (Thanks, Sutherland Institute for highlighting the conservative idiocy that claims if you don’t teach kids about sex, they just won’t have any!) Conservatives would rather take advantage of religious conscience and parental control ideas to shroud sexuality, sexual fulfillment and life satisfaction in layers of shame, gender conformity and authoritarian control than to take proactive and useful steps to help teens grow up to be healthy and responsible adults. It is just too easy to claim to think of the children and their lost innocence to prevent anyone from taking a long hard look at the goal of demonizing sex for everyone.

Just listen to how Representative Wright speaks so prudishly (the middle school curriculum was so dirty he can’t even talk about it on the radio, seriously?) on local NPR program Radio West, where he suggests that individuals have no need to learn the “nuts and bolts” of sex education until marriage, and from what I can tell, there’s no need to learn about controlling fertility at all. After all, Representative Wright has ten children.

Of course, the fact that education is primarily about the future of students does not mean the present is irrelevant in regards to teaching about responsible human sexuality. The ages at which people begin sexual activity and rates of teen pregnancy and STD infection make that abundantly clear. We have more than enough evidence to show that abstinence ignorance only education does not work. Nothing more should need to be said, yet here we are again.

Many also raised concerns that educators would be unable to adequately address the needs of students experiencing sexual and domestic violence, STIs or who find themselves pregnant. Sadly these concerns are well founded. Utah’s rates for STIs largely increased from 2006-2010. We’ve already seen how health outcomes worsen when schools are only allowed to teach abstinence only education for teens, and it is completely unconscionable to reduce the options open to those in schools to aid students.

I’m particularly heartbroken how dismissive many Republican legislators were given Utah’s dismal record for sexual violence. While Utah has been below the national average for non-sexual violent crime for more than fifty years, Utah’s sexual violence rates exceeded the national average in 1990 and has remained there ever since. The Utah Department of Health has a surprisingly well constructed breakdown of the state of sexual violence in Utah, making it abundantly clear that this a serious problem of great scope.

Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that occurs at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. One in three Utah women will experience some type of sexual assault in their lifetime and one in eight will be raped. In 2008, Utah’s reported rape rate was 63.7 per 100,000 females compared to the U.S. rate of 57.4 per 100,000 females. However, the majority of rapes (88.2%) are never reported to law enforcement, indicating that sexual violence in Utah is grossly underestimated.

I can only imagine how much more we compound the problems of shame, untreated infection, unwanted pregnancy and underreporting of sexual violence by irrevocably tying sex to moral depravity. Sadly it doesn’t surprise me that only 12.7% of sexual assault victims in Utah seek medical exams following their attacks. Making sex seem even more immoral to Utah’s teenagers can only exacerbate these problems.

I’ve been disappointed that in most of the news coverage and analysis of House bill 363, most people focus so heavily on the extreme abstinence element that they miss some of the other elements of the bill, including the option for schools and districts to fail in their duties as educators by simply remove all sex education and codifying into law the idea that being gay is wrong and immoral by preventing teachers from even suggesting it is normal or a healthy variant of human sexuality. Even more disturbing, the bill was originally written to forbid even discussing sex outside of marriage or homosexuality. Wright was championing a bill that was anti-sex-education and our own version of a “don’t say gay” bill rolled all into one.

That we got a watered down version of the anti-gay prejudice than what was originally sought is no cause for cheer. As we have seen in Anoka-Hennepin, a legal ban against any interaction that seems to “advocate or encourage” being gay leads to educators so confused and fearful of what constitutes encouragement that they do nothing at all as GLBT teens are falling apart. The conservatives in our legislature are asking school teachers, guidance counselors and administrators to betray their duty to do what is best for Utah’s children and it is nothing short of theocratic malice.

In fact, malice is a good way to describe almost everything about this bill. It is a perfect example of unnecessary and overreaching policy that no one wants but religious extremists and which does significant harm. In the horrific series of attacks on women’s bodies and freedoms to control their lives and fertility, a seemingly routine push by a conservative state to move to even more strictly abstinence system of education has understandably not sparked the same level of scrutiny and outrage it really deserves. We need to shift the way that we discuss sex education to recognize that we are giving students tools to become healthy, happy and responsible adults and keep religion out of the equation entirely.

I’ve more or less given up hope that my legislators will consider my opinions when considering legislation; our respective values are so out of sync that we may as well be from different planets. But it’s one thing to reject the opinions of a constituent that is a feminist, sex-positive, atheist… It’s quite another to ignore the wishes of the vast majority of conservative Utah parents who go through the hassle of opting their children into what little sex education is offered year after year. I only hope that by speaking out, our elected representatives will remember that they work for our best interests and will reconsider making this monstrosity law.

Utah Getting More Regressive on Sex Education
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13 thoughts on “Utah Getting More Regressive on Sex Education

  1. 1

    I was wondering how a state like Utah could possibly become more regressove when it came to sex ed. You sure cleared that up for me. I am not sure if it is better for me that parents have to opt in to a sex ed program this filled with missinformation. I think I could trust the overwhelming majority of parents to to a better job than the politicians are letting these schools do. Hell, probably learning about sex from your friends is better than learning about sex from one of these programs. That is just sad.

    Thanks for keeping us informed April.

  2. 2

    Puritanical sexual ethics seems to fuel sexual violence, probably because it’s usually tied to the idea that women are to blame for the sexual conduct of men and it’s sort of a part of rape culture in general.

    The legislator’s quote that the ‘honest’ truth is that the consequences of premarital sex are devastating is something that is not just untrue but meaningless. Plenty of people have it and are not devastated, and feeling like it’s devastating is largely the produce of being taught that it is.

  3. 4

    I believe it should be a parent’s right to raise their children in the way that best meets or follows their ideals. For some this means not introducing sex education to 4th & 5th graders in school but rather relying on parents to teach children what is right and wrong. Junior high or middle school seems like a much better time as hopefully most parents have given their talk about sex or at least enough to answer questions that may have come up. H.S. on the other hand should have a sex education class as this seems to be the time most kids start to experiment due to having a lack of a strong family talks and explanations on what is OK and what is not. I blame first the parents for not guiding and teaching their childern what is morally correct as well as what is age appropriate for TV, movies and even radio shows. Second I do not think it helps that the media is becoming more lax on what is allowed on TV.

  4. 5

    dan-o, I believe you have managed to represent pretty much everything wrong with the way conservative views dominate public policy. I wonder, did you even read what was written?

    1. Did you fail to notice that the current policy is essentially abstinence-only (sometimes called abstinence plus)?

    2. Did you see that it is very carefully spelled out that the default path for all public school students is ignorance again, under the current policy?

    3. Are you seriously saying that teenagers have sex because their parents are weak/immoral plus the media is eeeviil?

  5. 6


    1. Per my response you should have understood my stand on this. I think it SHOULD be taught in HS therefore I disagree with the disctrict’s decision.
    2. See my response to #1
    3. Sort of, yes kids do choose the wrong path(s) because they were not raised in a proper manor. Do I think the Media is evil? I do think as per my post (did you even read my post) that the media has a big impact on youth in making decisions, but I also believe it is up to the parents to make sure they are not watching shows they deem inappropriate for their age. It is surprising how many parents do not use the age restricted feature on their TV.

  6. 7

    dan-0, I’m afraid I’m still not clear on your stance here, so I’ll ask a slightly different set of questions.

    Since you think that sex education is appropriate in junior high and high school (where it’s halfheartedly taught in Utah), do you support or oppose the current policy of opt-in abstinence education?

    If you support the current policy, what is your comment regarding the current push to remove what little useful information currently exists in Utah’s sex education system?

    As for adolescents and young adults choosing “the wrong path,” I’m really starting to think I should have included a small tangent about the just how “devastating” sex outside of marriage really is in the original post. Maybe I’ll write up something later on how happy I am I had sex before I was married.

  7. ema

    The version of the bill that passed the Utah House of Representatives manages to remove public schools’ already limited ability to teach sex education by prohibiting any instruction on contraception.

    Shorter Utah politicians: Public schools are prohibited from teaching knowledge.

    On a more serious note, I don’t understand how it’s possible to pass a law like this. Aren’t there any state standards on HS education? A required baseline of knowledge?

  8. Pen

    @dan-o – the only moral issues in sex are consent and consequences. Sounds like Utah is failing pathetically on both counts.

  9. Pen

    I’m really starting to think I should have included a small tangent about the just how “devastating” sex outside of marriage really is in the original post.

    I think you don’t understand that the goal of these extremists is to make bloody certain it’s devastating by seeing to it that sex outside marriage is attended by as many ill consequences as possible and a total lack of respect for oneself and one’s partners. Mind you, sex within marriage could still be pretty devastating according to their values – more kids than you know how to feed and women as sexual chattel, why not?

  10. 11

    In this case I agree with you (radicals), did I just say that. I believe in H.S. the youth should be opted in and parents can opt out if they prefer no sex education. I do of course disagree with sex before miarriage. I know one of you will have some stats stating differently but over my life of talking with both christian and non-christians it seems the ones who either lived together or had sex before marriage had a much higher divorce rate….I know you will have stats that say otherwise. This is one mans observation from college to currently having 2 kids and seeing and chatting with many different couples who are or were married at one time.

  11. 12


    I think you don’t understand that the goal of these extremists is to make bloody certain it’s devastating by seeing to it that sex outside marriage is attended by as many ill consequences as possible and a total lack of respect for oneself and one’s partners.

    You know, I almost wish that I hadn’t picked up on this and especially how much more loud and extreme the conservatives have been about attacking women as sexual beings lately. It would make me far less cynical about humans right now.

    It’s abundantly clear that Wright wants to codify that I should be ashamed of knowing how to have “sex and how to get away with it.” It is abundantly clear that this has nothing to do with helping public school children maximize healthy/happy outcomes, especially when you consider that his ten children have all been home schooled so he has no personal stake in the issue whatsoever.

    We are talking about a bill proposed and supported by those who don’t even support public schooling (whether Wright or the Sutherland Institute or Utah’s Eagle Forum or…) choosing to intrude on the official state curriculum standards. Gayle Ruzicka of the Eagle Forum (*teeth grinding*) periodically lobbies to remove fundamental aspects of the biology curriculum by pushing to pull evolution or at the very least, weaken it substantially.
    So dan-o, you’ve clarified that you support Utah’s current health curriculum system. Can you please address whether you agree with the majority of Utah’s very conservative parents that this proposed change is a bad idea?

    Because while we “radicals” would love to see health curriculum changes based on the evidence we have of what works, the stupid thing we’re talking about here is the incredibly regressive move to remove even the option of partial sex education from Utah’s parents. Do you support removing this choice to opt-in for parents?

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