It's not even noon, yet Stratford High School's Room 2008 is already uncomfortably warm. About 20 sophomores and juniors fan their gleaming faces with folders and miscellaneous papers, surrounded by giant posters lining the room. On one, cartoon sperm swim around a Venn diagram comparing male and female sex organs.
One kid says a friend told him a condom was part of the male anatomy. A few chuckles break out, but by and large the kids are alright.
"That's interesting," says Lyndsey Godwin, a Planned Parenthood education and training instructor who regularly visits schools across the Metro Nashville Public School District to teach hormonally charged young adults the ins-and-outs of reproductive health. "But totally incorrect."
Godwin proceeds to discuss a wide array of topics, from avoiding risky sexual behavior to more philosophical questions. One question clearly strikes a chord.
"When do you know you're ready to have sex?" Godwin asks.
Silence falls over the room. Then, at once, an explosion of answers.
"One at a time, please," Godwin chides.
A boy sporting a flat-top haircut raises his hand and answers her question with a question: "Like, do you mean if you're ready, or emotionally? 'Cause when you hit puberty, your body is ready, but your emotions may not be."
It's a surprisingly deft and nuanced response, one that the Planned Parenthood rep encourages. As a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and an employee of one of conservative Christianity's favorite punching bags, she believes matters of faith and sexuality aren't black-and-white issues.
"Theologically, I see both faith and sexuality as inherent parts of the human experience," Godwin tells the Scene. "We are sexual beings. We are also beings who interact with faith. Even an atheist or agnostic is interacting in a faith-filled culture. I feel like sex is not necessarily bad or evil. We simply have to figure out how to have good conversations about it that our youth can benefit from."
As she tells the students, sexual values can vary from person to person, but it's their personal values and sense of responsibility that matter most when making smart decisions about sex.
The homeroom teacher appreciates the dialogue. She's taught lifetime wellness at Stratford High for the past eight years. For each of those years, Planned Parenthood has been a regular fixture in her East Nashville classroom.
"Simply, they're relatable," says the teacher, who asked that her name be withheld. "It's realistic, it's up to date, it's current information. They give kids a different perspective in what's going on outside in the community that I, as a teacher, cannot provide."
Unfortunately for her and her students, however, soon Godwin may also have a hard time providing it. And for that, they can thank the Tennessee legislature.
Hot off their recent hits "The Monkey Bill" and "Don't Say Gay," the members of the General Assembly left another flaming bag of legislation on the state's doorstep as lawmakers hustled out of town: a bill designed to keep abstinence at the heart of state sexual education programs.
Currently awaiting the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam is SB 3310/HB 3621, aka the "Tennessee Integrated Sexual Education Bill," which would reduce Godwin's reality-based approach to a "one-size-fits-all" treatment. Worse, opponents claim, it would further the aim of religious conservatives to wipe Planned Parenthood off the map.
On its surface, the new law would prohibit public-school curricula from promoting as-yet-undefined "gateway sexual activities." Sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto (R-Hermitage) and Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the bills passed their respective chambers by wide margins. They also garnered Tennessee another spate of outraged and/or contemptuous headlines across the country, most prominently on The New York Times op-ed page.
"Teachers must stop demonstrating gateway sexual activity," said anti-pundit Stephen Colbert in a segment last month mocking the legislators' intent. "It's not enough to ban showing how to put a condom on a banana; we have to stop teaching our kids how to French-kiss a cantaloupe."
To his credit, Gotto clarified what "gateway sexual activity" means, telling the Knoxville News Sentinel on April 30 that the new law would not, as speculated, penalize mere handholding. Instead, "gateway sexual activities" would be limited to descriptions of "sexual conduct" as laid out by existing Tennessee code.
It remains to be seen if Haslam — who recently stamped his first veto, on the so-called "Anti All Comers" bill — will reject the bill, sign it, or (more likely) allow it to lapse into law without his signature. The Scene contacted the governor for comment, but did not receive a response as of press time. Nor did sponsors Gotto and Johnson return calls for comment.
State education statutes already mandate that public-school sex-ed classes must explicitly promote abstinence. The new law intends to make it practically the only permissible focus, despite overwhelming evidence that leaving out open acknowledgment of sexual practices makes sex education less effective from a preventative standpoint. An Auburn University study on "Sexual Health of Young People in the South" issued in March, to cite one example, found that the South's high birth rate and poor sexual health were "due in part to a lack of investment in the region in implementing medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education programs."
Yet to hear the bill's proponents talk about it, keeping abstinence in the classroom is not only the solution to addressing Tennessee's high birth rate, but a handy excuse to sue the pants off Planned Parenthood instructors like Lyndsey Godwin if they run afoul of its provisions. The legislation's chief architect, former state senator and Family Action Council of Tennessee lobbyist-in-chief David Fowler, championed this aspect of the bill in a video featured on FACT's website.
"Most importantly, what this bill does is it makes it clear that outside organizations that might come into schools to teach sex education are not allowed in the school systems if they promote, encourage or condone sexual activity among our children," Fowler said. "Furthermore, and most importantly, it actually empowers parents by saying if schools do allow in outside groups that promote sexual activity with their children, the parents can sue the outside organizations."
The Scene observed a 90-minute sexual education seminar conducted by Godwin in a Stratford High classroom. Three times throughout her presentation, she mentioned abstinence as the only 100 percent effective means to avoid pregnancy or contract a sexually transmitted disease. As for anything more titillating, sorry to disappoint legislators who expected, say, big ups for analingus. Godwin's low-key presentation seemed well within the bounds of the new bill, vague as it is.
But while the national media have pounced on the bill's supposed criminalization of "gateway sexual activities" and made hay with banana jokes — "We don't use bananas," Godwin says — it's the bill's underreported punitive measures that lay bare its true intent: to litigate Planned Parenthood into oblivion.
Under the law, if Godwin were to fail to prevent Little Sally from goofing off and jumping into Little Johnny's lap, then their parents could sue the instructor and her employer for damages, attorneys' fees and courts costs, in addition to levying a $500 civil fine — simply because Tennessee "sexual contact" codes define the inner thigh as a no-no region. Conversely, the punishment for public-school teachers is limited to the school district's disciplinary mechanisms.
Fowler, Johnson and other supporters of the bill argue that such measures are necessary following a pair of anecdotal sex-education controversies, which upon closer examination emit far more heat than light.
The groundswell began in the spring of 2010, when Hillsboro High School allowed an instructor from Nashville CARES to teach students about contraception using a plastic phallus. As WSMV reported, "The controversy arose after staff at Nashville CARES who were training the student leaders used a plastic model and a condom to demonstrate how barrier methods can prevent transmission of disease. A father of one of the students also complained about the class after he heard about the material discussed at school."
Then, in the fall of 2011, a teacher at Knoxville's Hardin Valley Academy forgot to send home permission slips in advance of a Planned Parenthood demonstration not unlike Godwin's. According to Metro Pulse, sophomore Alaynna McCormick told her mother Kym about the unauthorized lesson, which reportedly contained scientific information that cast doubt on the McCormicks' Catholic-derived natural family-planning methodology. All hell subsequently broke loose, with the local Catholic diocese admonishing Planned Parenthood for promoting sex to children.
"With both of those incidents, a local board of education dealt with those issues, with the laws that are already in place," Godwin says.
As the nation's largest provider of abortions to the poor, Planned Parenthood has long been a target of Tennessee conservatives, who last year sought to eliminate the organization's government funding. An amendment to the 2011 Tennessee state budget proposed by Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) — the sex-ed guru of "AIDS Was One Guy Screwing a Monkey" infamy — slashed $1.2 million in Title X funding for the organization. Nationwide, conservative-leaning state legislatures whacked millions of dollars in Title X funding from the nonprofit.
But since abortions account for only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's total services, the cuts hit hardest where the organization helps strapped public health services most: testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
In October 2011, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Memphis was forced to eliminate its after-hours HIV and syphilis testing services — the only program of its kind in the state — which serviced primarily working-class African-Americans. Fowler essentially declared Mission Accomplished.
"At this point, we have no money going to Planned Parenthood," Fowler said on the Focus on the Family-affiliated website CitizenLink. "And we did it in a way where we're not getting our pants sued off because we didn't prohibit money from going to Planned Parenthood."
Yet in February, U.S. District Judge William Haynes issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from withholding those Memphis clinic funds, effectively moving forward Planned Parenthood's $150,000 lawsuit against the state.
Now, the same GOP that fought to cut the organization's funding — and thus jeopardized Memphis' STD testing clinic — is pulling a 5-g Immelman turn by implying that this new abstinence-focused bill will somehow address Tennessee's HIV/AIDS infection rate.
"I would submit that what we're doing now perhaps is not working, and perhaps greater clarity and specificity in the code with regards to this subject matter is in order," Johnson told the Senate Education Committee April 5. "One other thing I think should be pointed out is we have the 11th highest HIV infection rate in the nation among those ages 13-19. I submit that we do have a problem in the state of Tennessee."
According to data from the Tennessee AIDS Advocacy Network, African-Americans account for 65 percent of HIV infections in the state despite representing only 17 percent of the population. With most of Tennessee's African-American population residing in Memphis, it stands to reason that the best course of action to curb HIV infections would be to fund more testing clinics, not to close the only one they have. The Auburn study corroborates those findings, adding that poverty is the primary reason for poor sexual health in the South.
A public educator who opposes the legislation argues that the people advancing it — e.g., Campfield and Fowler — don't necessarily know what they're advocating. She says she met with Gotto, one of the bill's sponsors, to try to persuade him of the facts: that abstinence-centric sexual education is the reason for, not the solution to, Tennessee's high pregnancy rates. Although she said she found him very nice, she left empty-handed.
"At the end of the day, my question to him would be how many [legislators] sat in a classroom and watched a Planned Parenthood presentation versus what they heard from word of mouth?" she says. "Not many, I'd guess."
It wouldn't be the first time Tennessee lawmakers were found oblivious to the inner workings of the classrooms they're targeting. Skids were placed on the aforementioned "Don't Say Gay" only after legislators discovered that the bill's provisions — to prohibit discussion of gay lifestyles in kindergarten, elementary and middle school classrooms — didn't apply. As Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) said, "We found out there really is no sex education curriculum in K-8 right now."
The fact that so many legislators would consider any bill without seeking first-hand knowledge of its impact, the educator laments, is a simple matter of class.
"This is a bill that was written by middle-class people who send their kids to schools in middle-class classrooms," she says. "When you have the resources that they have, and you don't have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, you can take the time to talk to your kids about sex. What a bill like this does is it completely isolates inner-city youth, and I think [the legislators] don't have a clue about it at all."
Well, best of luck.
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