Anti-sex-education crusader Bill Wright would have loved me.
In seventh grade, I was just like the tiny blond granddaughter the Republican legislator from Holden hauled up to Capitol Hill last week as a prop for his legislative campaign, House Bill 363. I was the pristine product of a sex-free Utah public education and Mormon parents—innocent, na´ve, clueless.
Then one day, I overheard a boy in the hall at school crudely describing the mechanics of copulation. In an instant, Troy rendered irrelevant my parents’ denial that we needed to have the talk and showed me the limits of my teachers’ silence. It was the end of innocence, delivered by a pimply teenage boy.
And that’s the problem with Wright’s (and my parents’) plan: It’s not rooted in real life.
American teens are shockingly misinformed about their bodies, birth control and pregnancy—Utah kids even more so.
A 2008 study by Self magazine and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found many young adults had “magical thinking” when it comes to sex—unsure of how often to take birth-control pills, unfamiliar with 28-day fertility cycles.
And that was among young adults with some level of sex education. In the information vacuum created by Utah lawmakers, sex ed ranges from abstinence-only programs in four school districts—Alpine, Canyons, Jordan and Nebo—to oblique references from frightened biology and health teachers in others.
(Nothing much has changed over the past 30 years. My AP biology teacher, Mr. Allen, could only point to the picture of the IUD in the textbook. He told students, in what was supposed to be a college-level course, that he couldn’t say anything more. We were free to read on our own.)
Teens are flailing for information—and catching sexually transmitted diseases and having babies in the meantime.
Just over 17,000 babies were born to Utah teenagers between 2004 and 2008. In a survey for the Centers for Disease Control, one-fourth of the state’s teen mothers 15 to 17 years old believed they or their partners were sterile. Another half miscalculated their cycles and believed they couldn’t get pregnant when they did.
Those teen mothers are disproportionately Latina. The same group of kids has the highest rates of chlamydia in the state. Glendale’s STD rate is 32 times higher than the state’s lowest rate in Provo, according to the Utah Department of Health.
Utah kids “don’t know what’s going on,” says Karrie Galloway, CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. “They don’t get a chance to process the little information that they get.”
And ultra-conservative legislators like Wright want it to stay that way.
In 2009, then-West Jordan Republican Sen. Chris Buttars invited Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of You’re Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child, to attack Planned Parenthood’s education programs. The next year, lawmakers killed unusual bipartisan sex-ed legislation drafted by Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay, and Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George. The bill would have given school districts two options: abstinence-only, or a program that included information about STDs and contraception, with parental permission. The plan was backed by the PTA and state school superintendents.
So, of course: “We never did get a hearing in either the House or the Senate,” Hemingway says. “It truly was a good piece of legislation that the Eagle Forum opposed. And when that happens, you are in big trouble up here.”
Normally, conservative lawmakers would pat themselves on the back for the Provo statistic and ignore Glendale’s. But it’s counterintuitive that the same legislators who speculate about immigrants’ “anchor babies” wouldn’t try to discourage births to young Latina mothers if they could.
It wouldn’t take much, just a little real information, to change STD and teen-pregnancy rates in the state. Instead, Wright believes kids are better off with no information.
School “might be the only place that some students hear about abstinence,” Wright said at a Feb. 9 legislative hearing. “We’re not denying them anything.”
With Gayle Ruzicka and the conservative Sutherland Institute pulling the strings, the culture wars are perennial in Utah. But Wright’s drive to keep kids in the dark meshes beautifully this year with national Republicans’ back-up plan for getting values voters to the polls:
Conservatives are reviving the “pelvic wars”—from pressuring the Komen Foundation to sever all ties with Planned Parenthood to crying “religious freedom” when defending Catholic bishops’ right to refuse to provide nurses at church-affiliated hospitals with birth-control coverage.
And like the celibate masters of the Catholic church—who willfully ignore the fact that 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives—Wright chooses to disregard how real life has passed his cause by.
He will insist this isn’t about Planned Parenthood. Still, at the hearing, he donated his time to let leaders of the Pregnancy Resource Center, an adoption-crusading anti-Planned Parenthood nonprofit, testify.
More reasoned heads prevailed on the House Education committee last week. Wright’s bill has been changed to soften outright bans on discussing sex outside of marriage, contraception and homosexuality in schools. But that doesn’t mean the grandpa with a cause won’t prevail upon his nervous colleagues in an election year.
There are 17,000 real-life reasons to send the Holden dairy farmer back to the barn to resume manipulating bovine hormones.
Otherwise, lawmakers will be leaving sex ed to the horny boys of seventh grade.