Partisan School Board Elections and the Future of Sex Education in Utah

Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a law which requires the Utah State Board of Education hold partisan elections in 2018. An ongoing lawsuit aims to reverse that mandate, but if it fails, school board candidates will be required to declare their party affiliation.

Given that Utah is undeniably dominated by the GOP, it is highly likely that partisan school board elections would result in a more conservative board, and subsequently, a more conservative sexual education curriculum. This potential shift towards conservatism would grant even more power to lawmakers who prefer abstinence-only instruction, despite the fact that two-third of Utahns polled, according to the Utah Policy website, prefer the opposite.

Utah has thus far avoided a state-wide implementation of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs, but an abstinence-only narrative remains the norm. Under such programs, fundamental topics like intercourse, homosexuality, and contraception demonstrations are banned from in-class discussion, and teachers are prohibited from answering questions from students about banned subjects.

The goal of AOUM programs is to prevent teenagers and young adults from engaging in any sexual activity, at least until marriage. In reality, such programs preclude teens and young adults from engaging in healthy sexual activity. According to a 2017 review of abstinence-only programs by the Journal of Adolescent Health, students of these programs engage in sexual activity at roughly the same rate as students with more comprehensive programs, but do so with higher levels of risk due to a lack of basic, yet crucial, knowledge about contraception, sexually-transmitted infections, sexual responsibility, or the availability of community resources. Not all Utah teenagers engage in sexual activity, but research demonstrates that abstinence-only education has virtually no effect on teens who do.

Advocates of abstinence-only programs assert that sex education is best taught in the home and only in the home, but let’s be realistic. The vast majority of young adults do not feel comfortable talking to their parents about any topic exceeding the parameters of whatever watered-down explanation of “where do babies come from” they received in the third grade, let alone heavy questions regarding their own sexual activity. I’m betting you wouldn’t, either.

Certainly, parents are fully within their rights to impart a preferred set of morals and values to their children, as well as enforce household rules regarding sexual activity according to religion, science, or whim. However, the truth is that most parents are just as uncomfortable initiating a discussion as their children are – probably even more so. The result is a vacuum in the dialogue that young adults will attempt to fill, with varying degrees of success, with information gleaned from friends, social media, pornography, and memes. Furthermore, the Journal of Adolescent Health reports that abstinence-only programs tend to frame appropriate sexual activity solely in the context of heterosexual marriage, alienating students who identify as anything other than ‘straight.’

At its foundation, abstinence-only sex education is an ineffective fear campaign. It puts students at a disadvantage, abandoning them to sift through the overload of information on the internet for the facts they may not even know they need to know.

Some years ago, I heard a story from a friend who had recently engaged in sexual intercourse for the first time with her then-boyfriend and was told, in an effort towards reassurance by that same boyfriend, that “it wasn’t really sex” because he had pulled out in time.

Even within the safe harbor of marriage, it is clear some individuals have been failed both by their parents and by their education. An acquaintance who worked for some years at a Utah health clinic shared a tidbit involving a young couple who had suddenly become pregnant. The wife was particularly dismayed, telling the doctor, “I don’t understand how this happened – he’s been taking all the birth control pills.” Some time later, this same friend encountered another couple at the clinic who had been trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant; a few minutes of examination revealed a myriad of odd bruises surrounding the woman’s navel.

Research overwhelmingly advocates for the efficacy of comprehensive sex education, in reducing teen pregnancy and the spread of venereal diseases. The CDC notes that the availability of contraception is especially crucial.

NPR reported in June of this year that sixty percent of parents in their teens do not graduate from high school, and over ninety percent do not graduate from college. While the effects of a partisan school board election would be wide in range and scope, and sex education is one of many areas that stand to lose ground, the negative repercussions could be substantial. Higher rates of teen pregnancy have detrimental effects on state health costs, academic performance metrics, potential economic output, and the risk for prenatal complications.

Anyone would agree that schools should be free from both politics and religion. Maintaining a nonpartisan school board is a bulwark against the intrusion of either.

I distinctly remember being told in my own freshman-year high school health class, in between the distribution of plastic beeping babies and before-and-after photos of meth users, that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy.

While this statement is arguably correct in theory, it is also correct that abstaining from driving is the only 100% effective method of avoiding a car accident.

People like driving cars.

People tend to like sex even more.

Let’s just be realistic.


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