Students met in the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy Thursday morning to discuss the sexual education law in Tennessee and how it may be improved.
Part of the week-long lineup of Sex Week events, the brunch at Afternoon Delight: A Discussion About Politics and Policy in Tennessee, provided a way for students, faculty and staff to satisfy their physical and intellectual hunger.
The speaker, Tory Mills, the external affairs coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee and 2009 UT alumna, started the event with a discussion about Tennessee's 2012 revised sex education policy.
The Family Life Curriculum has been dubbed by critics as the "No Holding Hands Law" due to its explicit promotion of abstinence-only education.
In her lecture, Mills defended the need for comprehensive sexual education.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee was the 12th worst state for chlamydia, ninth worst for gonorrhea and 19th for primary and secondary syphilis in 2012.
The Planned Parenthood representative encouraged attendees to offer their own thoughts on the legislation, of which few had heard. While many in attendance expressed concern about leaving teenagers without proper education.
The law, like those in other states, requires that any county with a teen pregnancy rate greater than 9.5 births for every 1,000 girls must provide some form of sex education. However, it forces educators to "not endorse student non-abstinence" and "not promote gateway sexual activity."
According to Mills, the confusing language has led many health educators to carefully pick what they teach. While the law also allows outside educators such as social workers, Planned Parenthood or Just Wait to be fined if they are found promoting gateway sexual activity in school, such a case has yet to come forward.
Toward the end of the lecture, Mills asked students to break apart and come up with what kind of sexual education they think should be taught in high school. Unsurprisingly, many suggestions came back asking for all options to be taught without bias.
"Big, meta-analyses of studies have shown that comprehensive sex ed can help you delay onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity and reduce the number of partners," Mills said. "And when a person does choose to become sexually active, [it can] increase the likelihood that they will use contraception."
Joan Heminway, the W.P. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Law, was in attendance as one of the faculty advisers for Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, the organization that sponsors Sex Week.
While Heminway said she is uncomfortable with some of the naming and content of certain events, the overall goal of promoting sexual education is what is important.
"The audience is not me," she said. "The audience is students. That's who need to be there."
Coupled with understanding what her own children were lacking in Knox County public schools, Heminway said meeting SEAT organizers Jacob Clark and Brianna Rader convinced her of the need for more sexual health education.
"I felt I got a better sex education program in New York in the 1970s than my kids got in Tennessee for the 2000 – 2010 time frame," Heminway said.