Here in Charleston, SC, we like to think of ourselves as a progressive stronghold in an otherwise conservative state — and with good reason. After all, our county did vote for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election, Bill Murray has made us his second home, and, thanks to Spoleto, our art scene is renowned across the country. And while we do enjoy many aesthetic hallmarks any self-respecting modern city should posses, our policies and laws show that where it matters, the “good-ol-boy” approach to government is still very much the norm here in the Holy City.
During an October 24th meeting, the Charleston County School Board voted unanimously against a proposal that would have improved the quality of sex education for seventh- and eighth-graders in the county. The board was propositioned by one of their subcommittees, the Strategic Education Committee, to approve an updated edition of an existing textbook, Making A Difference; this is an abstinence-based curriculum which is already in use in public schools throughout Charleston.* The board approved the renewal, but only under the condition that major edits be made, specifically the removal of Appendix A, which happens to be the only part of the textbook that actually describes and demonstrates pregnancy-prevention techniques. The removed sections of the textbook provided teachers with fun and interactive ways to talk to kids about difficult topics such as: how to talk to a same-sex partner about STIs, birth control methods and how to use them, and how to identify and avoid an unhealthy relationship. During the meeting, only one educator stood up to speak to the board on this matter. Not only did he inform the board that he, a sex-ed teacher in Charleston County, had been unaware of the new textbook proposal, but that he and some of his fellow health teachers felt their existing training in these areas was inadequate. He went on to say they felt uncomfortable just approaching the topics of safe sex practices with their students.** The board then went on to approve unanimously the removal of Appendix A, some members chuckling as they did so.
Now if you were raised in the South Carolina public school system, this whole situation might not come as a big shock to you. South Carolina is not known for having the best public education system in the nation, but the state is also notorious for its teen pregnancy and STI/HIV-contraction rates. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, in 2013 South Carolina was ranked number 13 in the nation for teen pregnancy, and Charleston was ranked number 39 on the top 100 US cities for reported AIDS cases. What should not come as a shock to any is why Charleston, despite being one of the most progressive cities in the state and despite these grim statistics, is so regressive in its sex education policies – after all, we did vote the men and women into office who are making these decisions.
Appendix A’s most vocal opponent was Tom Ducker, one of the board’s oldest members at the time. He is quoted in the Post and Courier as saying that, by using materials they cut from the book (the bits that used role-playing and jeopardy-type games to approach difficult topics), teachers were “ . . . increasing [middle schoolers’] interest in sex. And I don’t think most middle schoolers are even thinking about sex.” In a day and age when onset of female puberty is around ages 10-14, and male puberty between 12-15, we simply cannot afford to assume that middle schoolers are not thinking about sex. Studies have shown that early intervention — teaching our kids about safe sexual practices when they are experiencing the changes of puberty — increases their chances of avoiding STIs and unwanted pregnancies. Studies also show the best way to reduce teen pregnancies is not through abstinence-based programs, but through talking about contraceptives, pregnancy prevention, and providing students with the knowledge they need to avoid disease and early parenthood. In fact, a study evaluating the efficacy of the Make A Difference curriculum shows that 6-months after their participation in the program, students who participated in the abstinence-only portion were no more likely to abstain from sex than those who had pregnancy-prevention education. So it seems reasonable to assume that if abstinence education is not keeping kids from having sex — the one goal it is designed to achieve — then we have no excuse to continue withholding the invaluable tools of pregnancy prevention from our state’s children.
It might be worth mentioning that Charleston is not the only county in South Carolina guilty of promoting these archaic practices. The state law is designed to be conservative, and provides parents with the final decision in how, or if, their child is educated in these matters. In fact, one of the main arguments abstinence advocates use to avoid teaching pregnancy prevention is that it is ultimately the parents’ duty to teach their children about safe sex, not the state’s. Not all adults, however, have the same level of understanding on this topic. It is easy to imagine a parent who was raised in an education system similar to the one their child is now in (i.e., one that did not teach comprehensive sex education) might not have the tools they need to teach their children properly in the first place. The only way to ensure all South Carolinians are receiving proper and thorough safe-sex knowledge is to teach it in schools. Keeping pregnancy prevention out of schools only perpetuates the vicious cycle of ignorance that got our state into the contemptible situation we find ourselves in now.
So . . . what now? We know the lay of the land, but where do we go from here?
We show up, and we start to pay close attention to our local government. The future of women’s reproductive care in America is more uncertain than ever. With an executive branch-elect about to take office that is fighting tooth-and-nail to restrict women’s access to safe abortions and reproductive health care, we have a renewed and urgent responsibility to ensure our children are properly educated in pregnancy prevention and safe sex practices. Now is the time to strengthen ourselves at the community level by attending the meetings where these types of decisions are being made, and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Charleston: It is no longer enough to say we support a progressive township, but at the same time ignore the actions of elected officials who are holding our children back from a brighter, healthier future.
Now come on, Charleston. I know we can do better than that.
*The whole point of abstinence-based education versus practical pregnancy prevention education could take up an entire book, but for the sake of brevity, I decided to assume equal understanding of that topic for this article. If you would like more information on this topic, feel free to visit the CDC website, or read this report commissioned by the federal government.
** I would be remiss if I withheld the fact that he brought this to the board’s attention partly using their uncomfortable feelings as a justification to avoid teaching the students about these topics altogether, and in an attempt to promote an abstinence-based education program he was involved in creating. This was not in an attempt to sway the board to include the materials on the aforementioned topics.