Supporters and Critics Respond to Tennessee’s “Abstinence-Only” Legislation

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Last month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed one of the nation’s strictest pro-abstinence sex-education laws, drawing criticism from many organizations for a section barring educators from discussing “gateway sexual activity.”

The sex education law uses the state’s criminal statute on sexual assault to identify certain acts - including groping and fondling - as forms of “gateway sexual activity.” Additionally, family life curriculums within the state are not allowed to “display or conduct demonstration with devices specifically manufactured for sexual stimulation,” an aspect of the legislation spurred by a parent’s complaint following a safe sex demonstration involving a sex toy and a condom by the AIDS-education organization Nashville CARES in 2010, according to ABC News.

Under Tennessee’s new law, parents can sue if such incidents occur in the state’s classrooms, and a fine of at least $500 can be levied against teachers or groups that discuss acts and behaviors prohibited by the legislation.

Public reaction to the law has been mixed, with many proponents championing the legislation as promoting the “value of abstinence” while critics have condemned the law as a barrier to student’s knowledge of “comprehensive sexual education.”

Dr. Joseph Interrante, CEO of Nashville CARES, said that the “vagueness” of the bill language is problematic.

“The sponsor of the bill generally says that these are the types of activities that can lead to intercourse,” he told JJIE. “How broad that term is,” he continued “is still unclear.”

Dr. Interrante fears that the legislation will create additional restrictions regarding the content instructors are allowed to discuss in the state’s sex education courses.

“Our concern is that it will, essentially, prevent comprehensive sexuality, and thus HIV, education to what is a high-risk population, young people,” he said. “What we are doing is providing young people the knowledge and the ability to make choices about risk and risk-reduction which are consistent with their personal values.”

Dr. Interrante also believes that aspects of the law which allow parents to take instructors or guest speakers to court over in-class discussions or demonstrations could lead to a “chilling effect” that keeps teachers or other personnel from discussing certain topics out of fear of legal repercussions.

“This law allows parents and others to bring civil suits against the organization in question if they have an objection to the information that is provided,” he said. “The problem there is, and I think this is really the intent of the law, is to create that kind of liability risk to discourage us from doing these kinds of programs.”

Ultimately, he believes that the law is a needless one.

“We were, frankly disappointed that the governor did not veto the bill, because as far as we’re concerned, the bill is unnecessary,” adding “the issue of challenging the law is certainly something that’s under consideration.”

David Fowler, President of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, pushed for state legislators to pass the bill. He considers the law “an effort to reach high schools and promote the best possible health outcomes for our youth, which is risk avoidance.”

Fowler believes that the terms “abstinence-only” and “comprehensive sex education” are both misnomers, stating that the legislation emphasizes, “risk avoidance instead of risk reduction.”

“There were organization that were, in fact, not promoting the avoidance of risk but encouraging non-abstinent behavior with the hopes that it would reduce the risk,” he said. “By analogy, we do not tell kids to not smoke too much [and] we don’t tell students to not just do hard drugs.”

Fowler said that while curriculums will have to be reevaluated under the law, the legislation doesn’t necessarily change how instructors or lecturers will explain contraception and other forms of birth control and disease prevention.

“In fact, the bill does say that students should understand contraception and they should understand forms of disease control and disease prevention,” he said. “But it is not encouraging kids to go ahead and do anything they want to do as long as they wear a condom.”

Fowler claims that some opponents of the bill want to “actually promote sexual activity” among teenagers.

“We promote in every instance, the optimal health outcome, but some organizations do not do that when it comes to sexuality,” he said.

“The issue is, should the health outcomes encourage our kids to be abstinent, or should we encourage them to be promiscuous?”