At a time when everybody, everywhere, seems to be talking about sexual misconduct, Massachusetts is still having a hard time talking about sex ed.
A bill that would modernize sex education in Massachusetts schools appears ready to die a quiet death for the fourth legislative session in a row — despite its timely attention to healthy relationships and affirmative consent.
Massachusetts is one of 26 states where there is no requirement to teach sex education in public schools — and no way of knowing whether the schools that are teaching it are using unbiased, medically accurate information.
“This seems like a no-brainer,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
“They deserve to learn the rules of engagement as designed by our laws and our norms,” she said. “We can see that what we’re doing now doesn’t work.”
The “Healthy Youth Act,” passed by the state Senate, would require schools that choose to teach sex ed to use a curriculum that’s medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive in covering contraception, and LGBTQ-inclusive. It also calls for sex ed to cover “relationship and communication skills to form healthy, respectful relationships free of violence, coercion and intimidation,” as well as “affirmative and voluntary consent to engage in physical or sexual activity.”
“What does consent mean? What does that sound like? What does that look like when it’s being retracted?” said Representative James O’Day, a Worcester Democrat and onetime social worker, who has tried to get a sex education bill passed in the House since 2011. “Those are really the bigger pieces of this bill that get completely lost as soon as the word ‘sexuality’ is conjured up.”
The bill still wouldn’t make sex ed mandatory; districts and individual families could opt out, as they can now.
Still, Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, asserted that the legislation would give too much control to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which would set rules, ensure compliance with the law, and could recommend favored curricula.
“It’s a very intimate personal topic that touches on families, relationships, faith and it’s in the realm of the rights and responsibilities of parents,” Beckwith said. “Unlike math or geography or foreign languages, it’s a very controversial, sensitive topic. You want to make sure you have parental buy-in and cooperation.”
And while “age-appropriate” and “medically accurate” may sound innocuous, he suggested they may mean different things to different parents.
“I don’t think we should be imposing one definition of those terms,” Beckwith said.
For years, legislators have seemed wary of the sex ed bill, grouping it in with other “controversial bills” — like the transgender antidiscrimination bill that passed last session, said LGBTQ advocate Deborah Shields executive director of MassEquality.
“We literally had legislators telling us, ‘Well, you can have that bill or you can have some of the other ones,’ ” including the Healthy Youth Act, Shields said.
After the bill passed the Senate, a legislative committee eliminated the language requiring that sex ed cover sexual orientation and consent. A dozen Republicans had launched a bill that would have backed off even further, letting teachers opt out of instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs and requiring parents to opt in to sex ed for children, rather than bowing out if they object.
Skittishness only increased when the bill was targeted by opponents on Beacon Hill last month. The Massachusetts Family Institute, which championed the fight against gay marriage for years, objects to teaching middle schoolers about “dental dams,” which guard against sexually transmitted diseases through oral or “oral-anal sex.” Dental dams are referenced in the “Get Real” middle-school curriculum, which was designed by Planned Parenthood and is already being taught in 244 Massachusetts schools and programs. Nationwide, Get Real is one of the programs that the US Department of Health and Human Services lists as effective for teen pregnancy prevention.
Johanna Kaiser, media relations manager for the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, said that programs that teach people how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections have to cover information about oral sex, anal sex, and vaginal sex.
The Healthy Youth Act would require schools that teach sex ed to cover contraception, in addition to the benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity. Advocates think that would better inform Massachusetts students at a time when the national trend is headed in the opposite direction. Last month, the Trump administration signaled it would no longer fund teen prevention programs that cover contraception, in favor of abstinence-only programs. That concerns advocates who say that comprehensive sex ed has proven effective. The teen birth rate dropped 41 percent from 2010 to 2016, Kaiser noted.
It’s unclear how many schools in Massachusetts teach only abstinence — or how many address sex education at all. The Department of Education would not provide data on which school districts are teaching sex ed. However, the state does report what students are saying about sex, through a survey of students at randomly selected schools. According to the 2015 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than half of all students become sexually active during their high school years. Just 14 percent of ninth-graders report that they have had sexual intercourse. By senior year, 60 percent of students had.
At the same time, most students aren’t having conversations about sex with their parents, the risk behavior survey found. Sixty percent of students reported that they hadn’t talked about sex, pregnancy prevention, or STD prevention with their parents within the past year.
“One of the huge arguments that you hear from people is that this is a topic that really needs to be addressed at home,” O’Day said. “Well, guess what? It’s not being addressed at home. That’s a fallacy.”
Beckwith said that children could be taught about appropriate physical boundaries in school, but suggested that a sex ed curriculum should have boundaries, too.
“I think most parents would agree that you don’t need to get into the intricate details of oral to anal sex in order to send a message that we don’t force people to do things against their will,” he said.
Those who work in sexual education and with victims of sexual violence, however, say that not talking about sex doesn’t protect teens from it.
“We teach about all kinds of things that we don’t want them to do,” Scaramella said. “It’s about being knowledgeable in this really complicated world.”Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.