Sex Week 2014 came and went, but issues regarding sex education in Tennessee linger for students of all ages.
"There seems to be this fear that if you give young people information about sex, that they will then have sex," Tory Mills, external affairs coordinator of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, said during a Sex Week lecture on March 6.
Mills spoke and opened up the room for discussion during her lecture, "Afternoon Delight: A Discussion About Politics and Policy in Tennessee."
Written by a selected pool of Tennessee teachers, statewide curriculum standards have historically emphasized abstinence throughout elementary, middle, and high school sex education – or, rather, "Family Life Instruction."
However, recent Senate Bill 3310, in place since 2012, now restricts any instruction pertaining to "gateway sexual behavior."
"So many people now are too nervous to even have these conversations because they don't know what they can and can't say," Mills said. "We don't know what to expect and until there is a situation where it forces legislators to put more clarity in that law. ... It's just too vague."
David Sevier, the deputy executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, confirmed that the Family Life Curriculum standards are generally written by teams of 5-10 people devoted to either elementary, middle or high school curriculum standards. Curriculum standards dictate what a student should know by the end of a specific course or grade.
Although the state sets these standards, implementation is left to the discretion of the local teacher. In this transfer from state to classroom, Sevier sees a disconnect.
"It's not an indictment of the curriculum standard, but an indictment of the delivery system and the curriculum itself," Sevier said. "That's where it all breaks loose."
While the Tennessee Code Annotated recommends certain points for inclusion in the standards, writers may prioritize information as they see fit.
In TCA 49-6-1304, such emphases are displayed, stating that Tennessee schools should exclusively promote abstinence as the sole means for avoiding sexual risk. The bill also prohibits any implicit or explicit messages that encourage students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity. Contraceptive devices may not be distributed, although distributing information regarding contraception is acceptable.
While there is no standard that explicitly advocates sex education based on an abstinence-only policy, Sevier said "the law certainly seems to encourage that."
"Maybe that's why we never got the whole 'put the condom on the banana' demonstration you see in the movies," Caroline Norris, freshman in marketing, said. "My health class didn't discuss anything, actually. We looked at pictures of STDs and talked about how abstinence was basically the only way not to get an STD. ... They did hand out 'iW8' shirts.
"... Maybe these standards made sense decades ago, but they need to get with the times."
Mills agreed that abstinence based instruction, particularly in southern schools, can lead to imposed moral values and the use of shame or fear as tactics to scare students away from sex.
"My job is to give stats," Mills said, "not impose values."
A National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study found that comprehensive sex education programs yield 40 percent delayed sexual initiation and reduced the number of sexual partners, or increased condom or contraceptive use, 30 percent reduced the frequency of sex, including a return to abstinence and 60 percent reduced unprotected sex.
"The more they tell us," Norris said, "the less we have to find out for ourselves."