Governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that would penalize teachers that promote the so-called “gateway sexual activity” during sexual education class. In addition, the law allows parents to sue sex educators not employed by the school districts if they cover material not on the official sex-ed curriculum approved by the state. Instructors employed directly by the school are immune from lawsuits.
Initially, Haslam expressed reservations about signing the bill, but in an email to the Times Free Press after the signing, the Governor’s spokesman David Smith wrote that in the end, the bill’s language and purpose fit in with the state’s previous legislation and policy.
According to the authors of legislation, the new law just aims to strengthen the state’s commitment to abstinence-only “family life” education. State Representative Jon Lundburg explained that the lawmakers were compelled to act after a recent report found that the state had the seventh-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. and eleventh-highest rate of new HIV infections.
“The shift is that the main core needs to be an abstinence-based approach. Not, ‘hey, I know everybody’s having sex, so when you have sex do this, do this, [and] do this.’ That’s not it,’” said Lundberg.
The clause in the new law that’s been causing the most controversy is the prohibition against teaching of “gateway sexual activity,” which is defined as “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in non-abstinent behavior.” According to Planned Parenthood, one of the groups who plan to oppose the law, the verbiage is too vague and isn’t clear about what kind of behavior is covered under the rubric. Furthermore, the language makes no distinction between encouraging or promoting such behavior and discussing it in the context of a sexual education class.
David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, which pushed the bill, told Reuters the law does not ban kissing or holding hands from discussion in sex education classes. But he said it addresses the touching of certain “gateway body parts,” including genitals, buttocks, breasts and the inner thigh.
Another group to express reservations about the law is the Tennessee Education Association, one of the state’s largest teachers unions. The spokesman for the TEA, Jerry Winters, said that the bill’s ambiguous language puts teachers in a very difficult position with regards to what kind of materials are and are not appropriate to bring up during sex-ed.