PROVIDENCE — State Sen. Tiara Mack says she was expected to sign an abstinence pledge when she was 11 years old. By taking that pledge, she promised not to have sex until she was married.
For Mack, a gay woman who grew up in the conservative Christian South, that was where any discussion of sexuality stopped. It was, she said, a “fear-based curriculum.”
“There was no conversation about what it meant to be gay, of what a healthy relationship looked like,” the Providence senator said. “Sex education is about learning about gender and gender roles, about what it’s like to grow up in a single-parent family. It’s about all the things I wish I had gotten. It’s about knowing I wasn’t alone.”
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Mack plans to introduce legislation to amend the state's sex-education law to require that courses include discussions of gender and sexual orientation, and that they “affirmatively recognize pleasure-based sexual relations.”
It would not change the requirement that abstinence be taught as the preferred method of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Sex education would be introduced in sixth grade and, in the early years, focus on such topics as healthy relationships and healthy boundaries. More complex topics would be taught in later grades.
Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, has already introduced the legislation in the House. She and Mack say the bill teaches students to have autonomy over their bodies, to accept that gender and sexual identity are fluid and nuanced, and to make smart choices if and when they decide to have sex.
'... to override the parent is wrong'
But critics say the language usurps the role of parents and injects the government in matters best left to the family.
“For us to override the parent is wrong,” said Rep. Sherry Roberts, a Republican from West Greenwich, during a House Education Committee hearing last week.
Like the existing measure, the new bill gives parents the ability to opt out of having their child attend classes where these topics are discussed.
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Opponents took special issue with wording in the bill that calls for instruction to "affirmatively recognize pleasure-based sexual relations.”
They wanted to know if it would encourage sexual activity, disconnecting it from marriage or procreation.
Former state Rep. Doreen Costa said she was “shocked and appalled” by the bill, adding, “If I ever find out that my grandchild is taught this, I’ll put him in a private school. Teachers are not parents.”
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Wendy Becker, a professor at Rhode Island College and former director of Youth Pride, a gay student group, said she knows “only too well the tragic consequences” of not having "accurate information about gender and sexuality."
Moreover, she said, research has shown that a comprehensive and inclusive sex education program reduces teen pregnancy and partner violence. Too many existing sex-ed courses make LGTBQ students feel “worthless,” she said.
Some find 'pleasure' a big problem
Parents like Ramona Bessinger, a Providence school teacher, clearly felt otherwise. She called the wording about pleasure-based sex “disgusting.”
“It’s not for the school committee to decide what is age-appropriate" instruction, said another parent, Rachel Weir, of Johnston. “There is no place in school to discuss pleasurable sex. If I thought a teacher was talking about an orgasm, I’d want her job.”
In a letter to the House education committee, Robert Chiaradio Jr. of Westerly called the bill “an outright attack on our kids, under the cover of 'education.'"
“There is no place in our schools for discussion of pleasurable sex, and relating such to race, or any other attribute,” he wrote. “There is also no place in our schools to comprehensively educate our kids on gender identity. This bill must not see the light of day. If you care about our kids, which the ten Democrat sponsors clearly do not, you should toss this bill in the dumpster.”
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A student's viewpoint
Naomi Blank, a student from the private Wheeler School and a member of Young Voices, wrote that her early sex-education class “left me with more questions than answers and led me to turn to friends and books for guidance."
“Having open, informative conversations about sex would allow students to feel better about themselves and their sexuality, regardless of what it might be,” she wrote. “Putting this bill into place will prevent students from unknowingly finding themselves in harmful circumstances and will ultimately lead us, the youth, toward a brighter future.”
Mack said her bill is about teaching students to feel good about their bodies. It’s also about telling them to how to say no to unwanted sexual overtures and to establish clear boundaries.
“Sex should and can be a pleasurable experience,” she said. “We need to engage our young people around creating healthy relationships, what it means to address sexual harassment, to be against a culture of rape. We should not fear these conversations."
'Trusted adult' not always a parent
In her former role as a sex-education teacher in Providence, Mack said, many students came to her with questions.
“Many of these young people never had conversations about sex with their parents,” she said. “Young people are exposed to predatory behavior at a young age because they don’t feel empowered to have that conversation. They are persuaded into thinking they did something wrong.”
If students don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents, they should be able to seek out a trusted adult in their school.
“Not talking about sex doesn’t make it disappear,” Mack said.
The bill does not mandate a specific curriculum; individual school districts would still be able to craft their own sex-education programs.
Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI lawmakers sex education bill causes controversy