Although it was April 1, the hearing on the comprehensive sex education bill (AB230), was no joke. Except when it was hilarious — in a decidedly macabre, nihilistic, dark-comedy sort of way.
I sat through four-and-a-half hours of discussion and testimony on AB230 — which seeks to amend and update existing sex ed curriculum, passed in the early 1980s — so you didn’t have to. And what I saw by turns surprised me, moved me, angered me, and hurt me.
In my past life as a traditional print journalist, I spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours sitting through equally controversial hearings and council meetings (in a pre-twitter age before smart phones). I’ve interviewed dozens upon dozens of eager activists, busy bodies, know-it-alls, politicians, educators, curmudgeons, NIMBY Libertarians, and more. So, let me tell you, it takes a lot to move me to tears in a government chambers. And my eyes welled up more than once during the testimony portion of AB230. (PS: It’s not too late to add your opinion to the public record! You can submit your written testimony on the Legislature website!)
Of course, it was no surprise that a hearing about comprehensive sex education would be controversial or even draw a crowd. The conservative, anti-sex-ed crowd — a surprisingly homogenous, lily white, and largely grey haired group — was there in force. One proud grandmother boasted driving in from Pahrump to give her testimony. Alrighty then. Indeed, there were many proud grandparents on the anti side of the room. (I’ve got nothing against grandparents, but there were an awful lot on the anti side.) Many wore their religion like a banner and brandished it like a weapon, intent on cutting out the very heart of sex education in Nevada.
“Strike the whole thing. I am against sex education!” was spoken by more than one in the opposition.
On the other side of the aisle was a more diverse group with people of color, LGBT individuals, students, parents, teachers, at least one clergy member, and even a few grey hairs sprinkled in the mix. I was proud to sit next to Northwest Community Church’s Rev. Greg Davis, who was the first in Las Vegas to testify in favor of AB230. (Full disclosure, I am a member of NCC.) Committee Chairman, Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, was taken so by surprise to see a clergy member speaking in favor, he interrupted to ask if Rev. Davis was, in fact, speaking in opposition.
“No. I’m for this bill. I’m for sex education,” Rev. Davis replied.
Just before the hearing opened up to those in Las Vegas, we watched some truly powerful testimony by people who shared their experience with intimate trauma as a result of a lack of education on healthy relationships, violence in relationships, and what consent to sex means (and how a lack of consent is the hallmark of sexual assault, or rape).
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores gave tearful, raw testimony about growing up in a family of girls who got pregnant as teens. When she found herself pregnant at 16, she went to her father to get money to have an abortion, something she said she had never admitted publicly before. Flores’ story is just another thread in an amazing story of redemption that found a former gang member turn good by getting her GED, then law degree, and who now works as a state legislator. She described being raised, one of 13 children, by a single father after her mother walked out when she was nine. Flores described the hardship that she saw her sisters go through as teen parents and said she was determined to change the cycle. It was inspiring and moving to witness a politician lay bear such a heart-felt and sincere plea for a change in law.
“I had an abortion because I didn’t have access to birth control, or even an understanding of what that meant,” an emotional Flores said. “I didn’t even understand that my worth did not come from men, or sex with men, trying to fill up a hole in me from so much pain.”
Then we heard testimony from Sen. Pat Spearman, who shared her experience planning the funeral of a teen girl named Tessa, who died of AIDS.
“In her final days in hospice she said to me, ‘Pastor, I’m not a bad girl, a fast girl… I only did it the one time. I didn’t know that could happen,'” Spearman recounted. “She made me promise to tell her story, so that no one else had her fate. … My support for this bill is for Tessa. I don’t want to bury another child.”
There was also testimony from more than one survivor of sexual violence, including Nevada Women’s Lobby lobbyist Sara Wainright (my apologies if I misspelled your name), who shared her story of being in a relationship with a police officer who repeatedly sexually assaulted her.
“I didn’t know I was the victim of sexual violence because I didn’t know what that was,” Wainright said, her voice cracking.
And sadly, Wainright was not alone in sharing similar experiences in which survivors did not realize that the violence and trauma they were experiencing would be classified as rape or that there were laws to protect them, a sobering reminder of the prevalence of intimate partner violence as we enter Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It showed how vitally important it is for people to learn about consent. Likewise, I was humbled by the teenage girl who testified right before me who shared that she was a survivor of sexual abuse. I wish I could have been that brave at her age. My hands were shaking as it was, and I am 36. How can we let kids like her down by not fighting for better education?
It was actually at this juncture of the meeting that I felt flush with anger. There were snide comments and snickers coming from the anti-sex-ed side of the room. It was deeply hurtful to me to see grown adults — many of whom were nearly double my age — chuckling during such heart-felt and difficult testimony. For all our philosophical and political differences, I was shocked at the rudeness and, well, inhumanity that was exhibited. You do not have to agree with a person’s politics to have compassion for another person’s pain. There is a defining line between arguing a point and being callous and disrespectful. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I was horrified by the flip reaction by some of the opposing side. Considering so many of them claimed to be Christians, I couldn’t help but think that they had done very little to try and learn and understand Jesus’ teachings. I may not get it right all the time, but I know I wouldn’t laugh at someone who was sharing real pain in a public forum, whether I agreed with their point or not. Even hours later, when I shared the experience with my husband, I started to cry at the kind of injustice that happened. Such a deep lack of empathy for a human being cuts me deep.
I admit, that seeing that kind of rudeness has colored my impression of the opposition’s testimony, which kept us there past 7 pm. Certainly, there were some predictable arguments. The anti-sex-ed folks spoke often about how many children they had and that nobody ever needed to teach them how to have sex. (That’s not what sex ed does.) There were arguments that things were working just fine, so why change it? (Nevada has the fourth highest teen pregnancy rate, for starters.) Many were concerned that updating the sex education law would take power from local communities to decide what education standards they want.
“Why can’t you just have each school district address this on their own?” one woman asked.
My answer to that would be that denying that a 30-year-old law might be out-of-date is ridiculous. We have statewide standards for reading, math, and other core subjects. Why wouldn’t we want standardized sex education, that is taught with the same materials and using the same information, no matter where you live in Nevada? In addition, there are provisions in AB230 for local committees to evaluate curriculum issues. … But we’ll circle back to that.
I was dumbstruck by how often the anti-sex-ed testimony spouted blatantly false information. After listening to several testimonies — in which people had asserted that there were only three STDs back in the “free love” 1960s; that the HIV virus can penetrate condoms; that abortions cause cancer; that AB230 was just a scheme to get kids brainwashed to want abortions and to put “certain ideas” into kids’ heads to encourage homosexuality — I thought my head was going to explode and took to using ALL CAPS in my live-tweets of the meeting. (Sorry about that.) Perhaps the strongest argument for comprehensive sex education in Nevada is to offer remedial courses to adults who spread misinformation! Honestly, telling kids that condoms don’t protect against many forms of STDs is so wrong, it’s potentially a public health issue!
Again and again, we heard from parents and grandparents who fretted that if we teach sex education, the kids will have sex. Apparently, they weren’t listening when testimony was given by policy experts, including Megan Comlossy, who is a policy analyst for the National Conference on State Legislatures, who cited pages of statistics on the correlation between inadequate sex education and high school drop out rates, income potential, and drains on social services. (You can see her full testimony on the Legislature website, labeled NCSL Teen Pregnancy Presentation. -Thanks Elisa.) Ten teens give birth every day in Nevada. Twenty-five percent of teen moms have a second child before the age of 18. And a child born to teen parents is nine times more likely to live in poverty. And the Clark County School District has been identified as one of 25 under-performing, at-risk districts in the nation. One in five of the nation’s drop-out come from those same 25 districts and 16 percent of those account for all teen pregnancies nationwide, according to expert testimony. (I didn’t catch her name. If anyone knows it, let me know and I’ll update.)
Nevada is one of 21 states and the District of Columbia that requires sex education in any form. But Nevada’s sex ed statute is woefully out-of-date. We’re talking about an existing law that was minted when tape decks came standard in cars! AB230 would update the statute to address modern issues — like sexting, social media, and cyber bullying — as well as new information on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention. And, yes, abstinence. Other important areas that the new bill would bring include curriculum on healthy relationships and violence in relationships. As many as 33 percent of teens in abusive relationships don’t report it. And unfortunately, school may be one of the only places where some teens can learn about what a healthy, non-violent, non-abusive relationship is, as well as how to respect yourself enough to know if you are ready for sex and what consent means. In addition, there are lessons on body image, self esteem, eating disorders, sexual identities and gender identities that are inclusive to LGBT individuals. Considering how many people testified today who said, essentially, AIDS is God’s punishment on gay people and that pregnancy is the punishment for having non-marital sex… these are lessons that our youth can use.
And we need standardized, statewide sex ed curriculum because this is not just a “Clark County issue,” as some folks were saying with not-so-thinly veiled racism. More than one person testifying and more than one committee member (I do not know Legislators by face and couldn’t read their name cards) cast dispersions on this issue as, essentially, an urban area (i.e. Clark County) problem. But, claiming that rural communities have no need for sex education because, if you follow their logic, their communities have better morals, just highlights some of the institutionalized racism in that argument. (By the way, new research shows that rural areas have a teen pregnancy rate one-third higher than the rest of the country.) Nevada’s urban areas have more diversity and greater concentrations of people of color. People of color are also disproportionately effected by poverty. It might not always be the case, but a lot of times when I hear someone say that something is an urban problem, what they are really saying is that it’s a black problem or a brown problem, etc. (And by the way, I find it interesting that Nevada rural communities — as represented by those testifying at the hearing — are so high-and-mighty while living off the tax revenue of brothels. There are a lot of religions, people, and communities that view prostitution as a very real sin! … Just sayin’!)
I’m only half-kidding when I joke about the fact that Nevada is the only state with legalized prostitution but no comprehensive sex education. Because it’s not really funny. I have no beef with prostitution. But it’s beyond ironic that we are comfortable voting to allow the commodification of sex (and some might say of women’s bodies) — indeed, some rural communities livelihoods depend on the income from brothel taxes, ahem lady from Pahrump — but the same nice townsfolk are ready to get the pitchforks and torches over comprehensive sex education.
“Just Google comprehensive sex education,” one mom said with disdain. “I am against ‘comprehensive.'”
For all the hand-wringing about how kids were just victims of their hormones, ready to explode as soon as they got some sex education, I kept wondering what they think happens in those brothels every single day — including Sundays. There is a kind of blatant double-standard in this thinking. We must raise our kids with blinders on and use scare tactics rather than medically accurate information? (I admit to chuckling under my breath at the testimony in which someone said, “‘Medically accurate’ is just subjective. It can mean anything.” Actually, no. No it can’t. That’s the point of it being medically accurate.)
“Nevada is unique. You can’t compare it to other states because we have sex on every corner,” one anti-sex-ed woman said.
We are unique. So perhaps we should respond to that uniqueness by implementing a plan to help kids stay ahead of the curves being thrown at them. Because, let’s face it, kids know what Google is.
What our kids need is real information and fact-based education so they can be armed to go into a world that, yes, is filled with sexualized imagery and bad role models. We should want our kids to have the tools to negotiate the tricky situations they may get themselves into — to be able to keep their wits about them. We should give them the knowledge and confidence they need to make positive decisions and know what to do when they screw up.
It’s time for comprehensive sex education in Nevada. It’s time.
[Update: Sheila Leslie mentioned this piece in a Reno News & Review Op-ed.]