In a Nashville, Tennessee, high- school classroom, about a dozen students watched as a woman from an AIDS prevention group demonstrated how to apply a condom using only her mouth.
The scene in an elective class two years ago angered opponents of sex education, and so Tennessee in May adopted the nation’s first state law defining activities that legislators said lead to intercourse --mutual masturbation, fondling and oral and anal sex -- and banning their “promotion” in public schools.
The law targets groups such as Planned Parenthood, which discusses those behaviors on its website and provides sex education in Tennessee schools. The National Abstinence Education Association says it’s encouraging lawmakers to adopt a similar restrictions to ensure that teenagers all across the U.S. keep their hands to themselves.
“We’ve never seen anything like this become law,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which describes its mission as advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. “It’s so weird, it’s more of a spoof than anything else.”
The Tennessee law bans teachers and outside speakers from promoting or demonstrating “gateway” activities. The term is defined as activity that involves the groin, upper thighs, buttocks, breasts and genitalia. The concept is modeled after the idea that so-called gateway drugs -- marijuana, for instance -- can lead users to stronger intoxicants like heroin or cocaine.
The law lets parents bring complaints against teachers or organizations that violate the ban. It creates civil liability for outside groups, which can be fined $500 if the parents prevail in court. Teachers are exempt from the fines.
“We have every hope that this will serve as a model for other states,” said Valerie Huber, executive director of the Washington-based abstinence education organization.
Planned Parenthood is among groups that have provided sex education in Tennessee schools. It also offers contraception and health screening and runs clinics that provide abortions, which has made it a target of religious groups. Legislatures in Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina cut funding to the organization this year.
In Nashville, Planned Parenthood teaches about 1,000 students a year, said Lyndsey Godwin, education and training director for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. The group provides five hours of training that includes discussion of the risks of touching above the waist and oral sex, she said. Parents can keep their children out of the classes.
Planned Parenthood discusses “outercourse” as a form of abstinence and birth control, said David Fowler, president of the Franklin-based Family Action Council of Tennessee, which led the push for the law.
“Outercourse” is defined as “sex play” without vaginal intercourse on Planned Parenthood’s website. It includes all of the activities the law says now can’t be taught.
Because of the law, Godwin said schools probably will stop inviting Planned Parenthood counselors.
Schools often turn to outside groups for sex education, said Barry Chase, director of Planned Parenthood’s Memphis chapter.
“Teachers and administrators operate under a basic fear of how they may be perceived or reprimanded or attacked for providing information about sexuality, which is one of the reasons they bring in outsiders,” Chase said.
Tennessee since 1991 has required high schools to offer sex education if the pregnancy rate among 15- to 17-year-old girls in a district tops 19.5 out of 1,000. Abstinence must be the main lesson, with contraception second.
Hatch Trovillion, a Chattanooga 14-year-old who starts high school next month, said schools should be able to talk about the full range of sexual activities.
“Those things should be lightly discussed, so people know the risks,” he said. “It’s important for us to know these things before we grow up. You don’t want to grow up uninformed.”
Will Walker, 19, a student at Union University, a Christian college near Memphis, supports the law.
“Teens naturally want to rebel,” he said. “If they’re told this is acceptable and the rest is not, the natural inclination would be to take it one step further.”
The 2010 demonstration on an anatomical model at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School was part of an elective leadership class, said Meredith Libbey, a school-system spokeswoman. Libbey said the lesson was inappropriate and Nashville Cares, the AIDS prevention and education group that offered it, no longer works on school property.
The students incorporated training to become peer sex counselors because of concern over pregnancies, Libbey said.
“We were providing information that is more detailed, more intensive and more graphic than you would see in a school program,” said Joseph Interrante, chief executive officer of Nashville Cares. The demonstration was meant to to show how to protect oneself during involuntary oral sex, and went too far, he said.
Though parents had to give written consent, one girl never turned in her form, Interrante said. She was the 17-year-old daughter of Rodrick Glover, a Christian activist and motivational speaker.
Glover called reporters and the Family Action Council after his daughter described what he called a pornographic display. He said he knew nothing of a permission slip.
“I never signed it, I didn’t see it and the teachers didn’t let me know what it was,” he said.
Mocked on Television
Armed with Glover’s story, the Family Action Council approached the Legislature. Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed the measure in May, and a week later comedian Stephen Colbert got interested.
“Kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station,” he said on his television show, the Colbert Report.
The state hasn’t issued guidance on complying with the law because it expects nothing to change, as Tennessee has required abstinence-centered sex education for 30 years, said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department.
Godwin, the Planned Parenthood training director, said she heard a different story at a Nashville conference last week, where teachers and counselors said they were leery of offering any information about intimate matters.
“They said they were less willing to use outside groups and more uncomfortable with sex education and more scared to answer questions,” she said.
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