Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The state of Florida is at war with knowledge and information.
On the heels of the controversial law opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the Miami-Dade County school board has rejected two proposed sexual health education textbooks after outcry from conservative groups. Students in Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest school district in the nation, will be denied basic, scientifically accurate information about sexual health, all because a group of right-wing reactionaries deems this information too dangerous for teenagers and young people. As Alejandro Serrano, director of the Miami-Dade chapter of County Citizens Defending Freedom, the right-wing group that mounted a campaign against the textbooks inaccurately put it, “much of the content is not age appropriate, usurps parental rights and is scientifically inaccurate and not factual.”
We shouldn’t expect this kind of censorship to stop at Florida’s borders. Just as abortion rights have fallen, conservative school districts in multiple states are banning books (and training their sights on books about race and LGBTQ issues), prayer in public schools is back with a stamp of approval from the Supreme Court and same-sex marriage and contraception are again controversial on the right.
Sex ed may be yet another wedge in the right’s insistence of waging battles on every front in a growing culture war. At a time when anti-abortion Republicans are clear that they would force 12-year-old girls to give birth, they should probably also teach those 12-year-olds about their bodies and about birth control.
The sex ed textbook dispute in Miami-Dade County is particularly egregious. It’s worth reading through the sections of the textbooks flagged by County Citizens Defending Freedom. These texts recommend talking to a trusted adult about bullying and questions about sexual health (the term “trusted adult” is apparently so suspect that the opposition group highlighted it in yellow and underlined it in red).
Also at issue: The textbooks say that some people who get pregnant have babies, some place their children for adoption and some have abortions. They say abortions end a pregnancy, and are different than birth control, which prevents a pregnancy; they explain what emergency contraception is but assert that it shouldn’t be relied upon as a primary means of contraception. They classify withdrawal as unreliable when used to try to prevent pregnancy.
The textbooks also advise that teenagers can ask their doctors questions about what information those doctors are required to disclose to a teen’s parents and inform young people that safe haven laws allow new parents to leave their infants at certain facilities without legal punishment. They define sterilization and discuss that some people may never want to have children. And these texts distinguish between biological sex and gender identity – something conservatives may not like, but nevertheless a reality in the world we live in.
None of this information is age-inappropriate for middle and high school students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the time they graduate high school at 18, more than half of American teenagers have had sex, and one in six boys has sex by the age of 15. In Florida, 22% of teenagers are sexually active by 15 and 5% – which shakes out to roughly one kid in every middle school classroom – are sexually active before they turn 13, according to the state’s Department of Health.
Florida high school students are also more likely to use drugs or alcohol before sex than birth control pills.
Comprehensive sexual health education is an unmitigated social good. Students who receive comprehensive sex ed – which includes medically accurate information about contraception and sexual health – are more likely to delay sex, more likely to use contraception and condoms when they do have sex and less likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant.
One comprehensive study of three decades of sex ed in the US found that medically accurate comprehensive programs also reduced homophobic bullying, reduced intimate partner violence and made students less tolerant of it and strengthened efforts to reduce child abuse.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that age-appropriate sex ed begins in childhood and continues throughout a person’s life, and that comprehensive sex ed programs include the very information Florida conservatives object to: Information about contraception, sexual abuse and consent and gender identity and sexuality.
Of course, the Miami-Dade County school district knows this. But the current textbook debacle is not about protecting kids; it’s about controlling them and the information they have access to. These parents seem to think that if students are simply not taught about human sexuality – or are indoctrinated into conservative wishful thinking that LGBTQ people don’t exist and abstinence until marriage is the norm – they won’t have sex.
We know, after decades of research, that isn’t the case – students who are kept ignorant about sexual health don’t forgo sex – they simply have riskier sex and are more likely to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy. And overwhelming majorities of parents agree, and want their kids taught about everything from STIs to pregnancy prevention to sexual orientation.
But a small, powerful and loud minority of fringe conservatives are trying to take this information away from all students. It feels like a throwback to the abstinence-only sex education wars of the early 2000s, because it is – these activists are trying to move us back in time.
These were then and are now meaningful and important battles. Already, conservatives across the US have succeeded in limiting women’s access to health care and students’ access to information. As a result, they are making many lives smaller, shorter, more constrained and less free.
Every person deserves accurate information about their bodies, their sexual health and the experience of their human sexuality – whether or not that information comports with conservative ideals. But if this far-right minority gets their way, as they already have with bans on books and abortion and speech about LGBTQ issues, students across America won’t have the basic information that will keep them safer, make their sexual experiences better and potentially save their lives. Which is why we cannot ignore what’s happening in Miami-Dade County – and why reasonable people everywhere need to get in this fight for the rights of young people to learn the facts about sex and sexuality.