Controversial ‘Abstinence Only’ Sex Ed Law Draws Praise, Criticism in Tenn.

Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a controversial new sex education law. According to the bill, the new law “exclusively and emphatically promotes sexual risk avoidance through abstinence” and forbids teachers from mentioning “gateway sexual activity” in the state’s sex education courses.

teens holding handsteens holding handsThe freshly inked legislation, known as HB 3621 in the state’s House of Representatives and SB 3310 in the Senate, bars teachers from discussing sexual activity such as genital touching as alternatives to intercourse. Under the new law, which passed with large majorities in both chambers, instructors and organizations may be fined $500 for discussing so-called gateway sexual activity in sex education classes. 

Reactions to the bill, as well as what “gateway sexual activity” entails, have been mixed.

According to Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), who testified in defense of the bill earlier this year, every member of the state’s House of Representatives “knows what gateway sexuality is.”

“Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there’s no stopping,” DeBerry said during his testimony. “Especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody.”

David Fowler, President of the Family Action Council, assisted state lawmakers in drafting the bill. He recently defined “gateway sexual activity” to as “intentional touching” of “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being.” 

A statement from the Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region insists that the bill’s definitions are too vague, and that abstinence-only education does not prevent youth from getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases or infections.

“Tennessee students need more information about puberty, their own bodies and proven methods that prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease,” the statement reads. “Denying them this prevention information in order to exclusively promote abstinence until marriage does our students a serious disservice.”

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