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Written by Nikki Murray, Advocates for Youth Intern

You might have heard of the “don’t say gay” bill that had been circulating in the Tennessee legislature. For now, it has died. Not because the legislators suddenly had a change of heart and decided that it was discriminatory to exclude LGBT students, and to shame them. But rather, because they realized that the bill applied to elementary and middle schools, which largely did not have sex ed classes. The legislators feared that if they passed a bill detailing what could not be discussed in elementary and middle school sex ed classes, then the schools that had no sex ed classes at those levels might think they had to implement sex ed classes.

The senate legislators have now passed SB 3310, and the companion bill, HB 3621, is now being debated in committee in the House.

This bill, if passed, will ban health educators from using any instruments in instruction that might be construed as sexual stimulators (sex toys). The wording is so vague and broad, that even anatomical models may be banned. So while you might be sitting in class learning about the basic anatomy of the other sex, you would never get to see an anatomically accurate model of it. This would effectively ban demonstrations on the proper way of putting on condoms.

This bill also uses problematic language when addressing sexuality. If passed, the bill would prohibit instructors from encouraging “gateway sexual activity.” What is gateway sexual activity? According to the bill promoting gateway sexual activity is teaching a “health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity.” This could be anything from holding hands to mutual masturbation, it’s not exactly clear. Holding hands is associated with being in a relationship, and is usually the first physical display of affection a couple presents, followed by hugging, kissing, ect. If one leads into the other, shouldn’t dating in general among students be discouraged, as it might lead into sexual activity?

What is especially troubling is the use of the term “gateway,” most often associated with “gateway drugs.” Many social conservatives conflate sexual activity with drug use, presenting both as dangerous, bad, and unhealthy (as they are often demonized in health classes). By using the same language from anti-drug promotions, they are subtly telling youth that sex and drugs are the same thing, and should be treated with the same amount of caution.
In the film “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Alyssa Wulf of Real Reason talks about the linguistics around sex ed, how sex is often thought of as an opponent or contaminant (sex is “polluting young minds” or bringing about “dirty thoughts” and “filthy language,” it’s something we don’t want our kids “exposed” to; it is something we need to “avoid” or incur “risks,” so we need to be “armed with information” to tackle it). She talks about how the language of abstinence further complicates it but putting “sex in the same category as cocaine”

"The fact that politicians feel they need to be defining medical terms is a huge mistake." says Elokin Capece, director of education at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis. Capece constinues; 

"Gateway sexual activity is not a real health education term, and it frames sex for teenagers as something we need to look at like drugs. As in, there is never a time in which [sexual activity] will be good." 

“The term abstinent brings along with it a whole lot of baggage. You notice that we talk about abstaining from things like illicit drugs, from alcohol. We talk about abstaining being needed after an addiction. So we see patterns in the language that tell us that we’re putting sex in the same category as cocaine, as heroine, sex is something that is scary, that is threatening, it is dangerous, it is compulsive, or like a contaminant.” 

Using the word “gateway” in this bill only furthers this subtle message that sex is bad. By painting sex as bad, you stigmatize and shame the people who engage in sex, since they must be bad, too.

The cognitive dissonance comes in when suddenly, after talking about how bad and dirty sex is and how you should never ever have sex, one is expected to get married (to someone of the opposite sex), and have that dirty filthy sex all the time.
The bill, aside from it’s bad language, also explicitly states that sex must be taught along side (and therefore, constantly be compared to) drugs, criminal activity, smoking, underage drinking and other “risk behaviors.”

We need to change the language surrounding sex ed, we need to make sure that youth have access to information about anatomy, contraception, and non-shaming and supportive places to talk about the questions they have. This bill does none of the above.