Gateway Sexual Activity: Fact or Fiction?

Spurred by a classroom demonstration involving a sex toy, Tennessee recently enacted a pro-abstinence sex education law that is among the strictest in the nation, which includes bans educators from promoting “gateway sexual activity.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed this “no holding-hands” bill, as critics have labeled it, into law in May. According to drafters of the bill, HB 3621/ SB 3310, this so-called “gateway sexual activity” includes any discussion of “intentional touching of the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being.”

Governor Bill Haslam in “Tennessee’s Civil War on Comprehensive Sex Education and Teen Sexuality”

Let’s see what some of the topics this narrow definition excludes from sex education: oral sex, masturbation, mutual masturbation, breastfeeding, anal sex, menstruation, genital anatomy, pap smears, and well… sex in general. With all these topics banned, sex education in Tennessee will be anything but valuable, reliable sex education, so in other words, abstinence-only education. But without these topics, will students even learn what they are supposed to be abstaining from? Probably not.

Moreover, sex education classes will be required to “exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience.” Glad to know legislators at least recognize that they are consciously discriminating against 70% of the teen population who have had premarital intercourse by the age of 19.

But the evidence shows that the more we teach teens about sex, the more likely they will have sex, right?

WRONG. Evidence shows that comprehensive sex education programs that provide information about abstinence and effective use of contraception can help delay the start of sexual activity and increase condom use among sexually active teens. Therefore, banning the teaching of “gateway sexual activity” is fallacious (some may say felonious) because it is  in direct opposition to students’ right to medically accurate, safe, and reliable sex education.

Even more outrageous is the fact that the discussion of whether the law would help reduce Tennessee’s high teenage pregnancy rate was absent from the debate in the Legislature. This law was simply an irrational response to a disgruntled parent’s comment after he found out an anti-AIDS group had visited his daughter’s class and demonstrated safe oral sex with a sex toy and condom: “When you start bringing sex toys in, at a point you’re stimulating kids to have sex.” Because demonstrating how to put a condom on a realistic phallus, rather than a banana, is going to turn his daughter into a sex-craved “slut.” Under this law, such classroom visitors and educators can be fined $500 by parents for teaching their kids how to protect properly themselves from STDs and HIV!

Can you image what would happen if that 70% of the teen population who have had premarital sex used condoms or another form of birth control every time they were sexually active? Can you imagine the positive sexual health outcomes if all teens used condoms the first time they had sex? I can. But these fantasies will only become reality if schools continue to move towards comprehensive sex education, not away from it like Governor Bill Haslam is taking Tennessee’s schools and certain Mississippi school districts.

Creative Commons Image by: Flickr

 

Alifa Watkins

Alifa Watkins is an honors student at American University (Washington, DC) majoring in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her interests in sex education and youth sexual health motivates her research, blogging, and activism for comprehensive sex education, more progressive attitudes about adolescent sexuality, and the improvement of sexual health outcomes in America.