Jul 13, 2022 - News

Democrats push for sex education in schools

Illustration of an eggplant and peach drawn on a chalkboard.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Legislation requiring sex education in schools is on the table in the special session set for August, state Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) tells Axios.

Driving the news: Pregnant teens in Arkansas no longer have the option of safe, legal abortion unless they have the means to travel out of the state. Simultaneously, the state does not require schools to teach junior high and high schoolers about safe sex practices.

What's happening: Leding says Democrats will have a bill ready in case the special session moves away from the topics on the call, such as tax cuts.

  • He said while sex ed has always been important, it is more urgent now, adding that opponents of abortion rights should support sex ed because protected sex means fewer unintended pregnancies and, therefore, fewer abortions.

By the numbers: The CDC reported Arkansas had the second-highest teen birth rate in 2020 with 27.8 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19.

State of play: Sex ed is neither banned nor required in Arkansas, leaving curricula up to school districts.

  • If it is taught, the material must stress abstinence, but is not required to include education on consent, contraceptives or preventing sexually transmitted infections. It's also not required to be medically accurate or to be taught by trained instructors, according to the CDC and Sex Ed for Social Change.
  • Most Arkansas schools teach a variation of abstinence-only education, which is regarded by studies as harmful and ineffective, according to an analysis by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
  • Abstinence-only education often relies on fear- or shame-based tactics to persuade students to wait until marriage to have sex, leaves out how to effectively use contraceptives and ignores LGBTQ+ students' sexual health, the newspaper reported.

Yes, and: Teens are having sex anyway. About 42% of Arkansas high school students reported having sexual intercourse, according to the 2019 Arkansas Youth Risk Behavior Survey. For high school seniors alone, it was 63%.

  • This is on par with the national average, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
  • About 30% of sexually active seniors and 21% of total sexually active students reported using no method to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex, according to the risk behavior survey.

Flashback: Leding and then-Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) sponsored a bill in 2021 that would have required sex education in schools. That bill was never voted on, and Leding told Axios he got the sense through talking with other legislators that it lacked enough support to pass.

  • The Education for Health Youth Act would have required sex ed to "address the physical, mental, emotional, and social dimensions of human sexuality," including topics like boundary-setting, body image, consent and healthy versus unhealthy relationships in addition to contraception and preventing sexually transmitted infections.

Zoom out: While Arkansas has a high teen pregnancy rate compared to the rest of the nation, the state and national teen pregnancy rates have been on the decline for decades, resulting in both fewer births and abortions among teens, according to the Guttmacher Institiute.

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