The state has America's highest rates of teen childbirth and young-adult HIV. But a new bill forbids contraception demonstrations in the classroom.
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Last fall I sat at friend's dining table in Jackson, Mississippi, talking with people about sex, politics and religion. These subjects are rarely mentioned individually in polite Southern company -- the idea of discussing them all at the same time took on an air of scandal.
As it happens, these topics are my specialty as an investigative reporter, and Mississippi lured me by topping two national lists: the state is the most religious in the union and has the highest teen birth rate. So I was intrigued when House Bill 999 (HB999) -- which for the first time ever requires that sex education be taught in public schools -- passed the Mississippi legislature. Sex itself is a politically and religiously charged subject anywhere and in Mississippi you can take that to the power of 10.
Around my friend's table was an informal gathering of six experts who, combined, had close to 200 years experience working in child services, teen pregnancy reduction, reproductive health, and state funded programs like Medicaid. (I was the youngest person in the room by 20 years.) Some were reproductive rights advocates. Others were former state employees or members of the religious community, including one ordained minister. They had seen it all when it comes to sex education, public policy, and how the deeply held religiosity of Mississippi impacts both.
One of the experts, Betti Watters, was a 30-plus-year advocate for young women and head of Teen Pregnancy Mississippi Campaign. A tiny powerhouse of a lady in her 60s with perfect white platinum hair and pearls, Watters started her career in social work specifically in the area of adoption. Over the years, she turned her energy toward pregnancy prevention. Along with many others, she'd been pushing for sex ed in public schools for decades.
The passage of HB 999 should have been a fulfillment, at least in part, of Watters' life's work. But when the subject was mentioned, she laughed and rolled her eyes. Although she concedes that getting any sex education bill passed in Mississippi is a minor coup, Betti says the bill has changed beyond recognition since it first entered the political process. "I laugh even though it's not funny," she explained, "because if I didn't laugh, I wouldn't be able to keep fighting this fight." The group around the table shared a series of knowing looks that I'd come to recognize during my month reporting in Mississippi. The looks meant, For better or worse, this bill, as hobbled as it is, is progress.
Sex education is divided into two basic camps. The first is evidence-based, providing information about contraception and basic sexual health. On the other side, there is the abstinence-only-until-marriage form of sex education, which offers little information on contraception (except to cite often incorrect failure rates).
House Bill 999 mandates teaching abstinence-based sex education in all Mississippi public schools. A school district may decide to teach an "abstinence plus" curriculum -- encouraging abstinence while providing information about contraception -- but even in those cases, the bill bans demonstration of proper condom use.
Under HB 999, each school district is allowed to choose a curriculum from a pre-approved list selected by the State Board of Education. The law does not, however, require the Board of Education to consult with the Department of Health as it approves curricula. So non-health professionals have worked in a vacuum, approving abstinence-only programs like Choosing the Best and WAIT Training. Neither program has been deemed effective by the US Department of Health and Human Services. And both have come under fire over the years for teaching erroneous information about the transfer of HIV and relying on virginity pledges and in-school mock wedding ceremonies.
HB 999 also allows a school to teach that homosexuality is prohibited by a section of the state legal code titled Unnatural Intercourse, which lists "crime against nature, with mankind or beast" as a Class I felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (Because of the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, Mississippi probably wouldn't be able to enforce this provision, but it remains on the books.)
As Watters suggested, the original version of HB 999 was very different. I spoke to several people involved in crafting the first draft and shepherding it through the entire legislative process. Concessions had to be made. The deeply held religious belief that sex is only appropriate within the context of heterosexual marriage overshadowed the prevention of teen pregnancy and HIV -- the issues the bill had been intended to address.
"We top the best of the worst lists," says Sanford Johson, an advocate of comprehensive sex ed and the head of Mississippi First. Along with having one of the nation's highest teen pregnancy rates, Mississippi is currently first in the nation for child poverty and increases in HIV infections among young adults.
Johnson and his team have successfully implemented abstinence-plus programs called Draw the Line and Respect the Line in a majority of districts in the Delta -- including the largest school district, which encompasses Jackson. But, in order for these comprehensive programs to be approved by the state under HB 999, condom demonstrations had to be removed.
So Sanford made a video that quickly went viral, calling it "How to Put on a Sock." In the video, Sanford shows his viewers to choose the appropriate sock for the "shoe related activity." He instructs them in how to roll the sock completely onto the foot and calf -- not just halfway. Then and only then, he concludes, can the properly socked foot be placed in a shoe -- be it athletic or dress.
The video cannot, of course, be shown in class, nor is it a part of any official curriculum. But it demonstrates the lengths to which comprehensive sex ed advocates in Mississippi must go to make sure sexually active teens get the information they need.