Although many supporters of the “Don’t Say Gay” bills believe they are “protecting children,” research makes clear comprehensive sex education can prevent incidences of abuse.
“Grooming” may be a bit harsh, but it gets attention, and grooming will certainly be easier for sexual predators under the new “Don’t Say Gay” bills. Within the last year, at least a dozen states have passed or proposed legislation that severely restricts what K–12 schools are allowed to discuss with children about sex, gender and sexual orientation.
For example, Florida HB 1557, just signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, has broad, sweeping language:
“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
As of this writing, we do not yet know what those age-appropriate state standards will be; however these laws have come packaged with preambles and speeches about the horrors of gender-inclusive language in early childhood classrooms and so-called “sexual diversity training.” If the many copycat bills are any indication, open discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation and “explicit” materials will not be considered “age-appropriate.”
So why is that a big deal? Today, the likelihood that a child in kindergarten knows someone with same-sex parents—gay people—is pretty high. Likewise, I can guarantee that most second graders have seen news or TV that references trans people.
Learning to respect gender and sexual diversity is a standard part of anti-bullying curriculums. And naming and identifying sexual body parts, recognizing different types of families, and practicing giving and not giving consent are all standard parts of today’s comprehensive sex education for K-3. Although many supporters of the “Don’t Say Gay” bills believe they are “protecting children,” decades of research makes clear that comprehensive sex education can prevent incidences of abuse.
While comprehensive sex education certainly isn’t the only step necessary for preventing abuse, it is a key tool. According to a recent Columbia University study (2018), college students who experienced comprehensive sex education in high school had fewer experiences of sexual assault in college. Other studies have found that cases in which child sexual abuse victims are not able to use medically accurate language are tough to prosecute and win since many states require clearly identified body parts and actions for convictions—without the use of leading, clarifying questions from investigators. What all this research shows is a clear connection between comprehensive sex education and sexual harassment and assault: Knowledge is protective.
While comprehensive sex education certainly isn’t the only step necessary for preventing abuse, it is a key tool.
And this makes a lot of sense based on what we know about offenders as well. The bulk of the research on rapists, sexual abuse offenders, and sexual harassers confirms that regardless their reasons for committing abuse, most offenders look for easy targets. Children who don’t know which parts of their bodies are “private” are easy targets. Children who don’t have words for for those “private parts” are easy targets. And children that don’t know how to say “no” to an adult, including trusted adults, are easy targets.
Comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education for children in K-3 is essential for setting up the foundations of a secure, informed, respectful and sexually healthy adult. Denying a school district’s right to define a curriculum based on evidence-based research plays directly into the hands of predators who want, very much, naïve and disempowered children to prey upon.
It is also likely a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 that states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
For decades the bulk of response to Title IX in K-12 settings has been focused on sports equity. However, Title IX is also set up to address sexual harassment and assault in educational settings that create environments where the victim is unable to have equal access to education. After all, it is difficult to concentrate on the exam when your rapist is two seats over in your history class.
Most offenders look for easy targets. Children who don’t know which parts of their bodies are “private” are easy targets. Children who don’t have words for for those “private parts” are easy targets. And children that don’t know how to say “no” to an adult, including trusted adults, are easy targets.
At the K-12 level, however, Title IX is synonymous with sports. But we are starting to see that change—for example, schools are starting to lose cases about discriminatory dress codes, including cases where the policy may be fair but its practices target and police girl’s bodies. Schools show that a “deliberate indifference” to complaints about sexual harassment and assaults are being held liable under Title IX. A straight out ban on discussions about sex, gender and sexuality in K-12 surely constitutes a “deliberate indifference.”
Because “Don’t Say Gay” bills thwart a school’s ability to provide sex education that could help prevent childhood sex abuse and gender-based harassment in schools, these laws also seem to violate a core tenant of Title IX—the school’s duty to provide preventative education and to have clear policies and procedures in place to deal with gender-based violence.
“Don’t Say Gay” bills don’t protect children. In fact, although they arise from lawmakers’ ill-fated attempts to protect children, they instead play into the hands of child abuse perpetrators—while also putting school districts in violation of Title IX.