The thrust of sex education classes taught in Tennessee schools will stay the same under a controversial bill awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the Department of Education.
The so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill seeks to punish teachers and third-party groups that promote “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior” and rewrite state code to emphasizes abstinence education — both issues that caught the national spotlight this year.
“It really will not do much to change the current curriculum, the ways schools operate currently,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman.
Lawmakers easily passed the bill after much debate in the Legislature about whether abstinence education works, whether definitions of “gateway sexual activity” are too vague and whether teachers can get in trouble for not discouraging hand-holding, hugging or kissing.
The legislation points to the state’s current definition of “sexual contact” as “intentional touching of any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”
“Intimate parts” is defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being” in state law.
Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s unsure what action he’ll take on the bill. From his study of HB3621 so far, “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice,” he told reporters last week after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new science building at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
But bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto says the law’s current definition of abstinence isn’t clear enough.
Abstinence is “being interpreted as anything goes as long as your action will not result in a pregnancy. That’s exactly the way it’s being taught today,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville.
According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Tennessee teen pregnancies is down 19 percent to 9,254 pregnancies in 2010. But the pregnancy rate is still among the top 10 in the nation.
In the House, the bill passed 68-23 with some bipartisan support. The bill won near unanimous approval in the Senate with only one holdout, Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.
“We want to teach our children to be abstinent, but in the event that they don’t listen to us, we need to protect our children and see to it that they don’t fall victims to unwanted or unneeded pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said on the Senate floor shortly before the bill passed.
Democratic leaders in the House were split on the issue, with Caucus Leader Mike Turner saying the bill was merely an example of Republicans being “obsessed with sex this year” and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh saying bill is flawed only because it does little to address teenage pregnancy.
Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, instead, says the state finds itself in a quandary between supporting personal freedoms and trying to legislate behavior to stop unwanted pregnancies.
“We have a whole state department that takes care of somebody else’s mess,” he said, adding that one school in his district was home to 70 girls who had become pregnant.
“We can’t tell people what they shouldn’t do. Well, when we don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, then we end up paying for what they do. At some point in time, we have to say, change the behavior,” Deberry said before voting for the bill.
Critics cite another rub: The bill would give parents the power to file complaints against any instructor or organization that promotes or demonstrates any sort of sexual activity.
Only instructors teaching sex ed and promoting “gateway sexual activity” would be subject to discipline. If the individual is employed by an outside group to teach the material, the teacher or its organization can be fined up to $500. Science teachers, instructors verbally answering students’ questions about sexual activity in good faith and teachers of other courses would not be subject to discipline.