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.
Last November, I watched and listened from a corner of a room at the Jackson Convention Center as Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant recited lines from The Lord's Prayer to a crowd of teenagers: Our Father who art in heaven. A local chaplain from the Salvation Army led the invocation; a ballet troupe outfitted in floor-length gowns danced to a religious ballad.
Moments before the event began, there was hip hop music playing so loudly I heard it as I approached the hall from the upper level of the building and could feel it through my feet on the floor. I followed the stream of kids filing out of buses and into the convention center.Then I smelled the popcorn pouring out of the machine right next to the DJ's table along the far wall.
The atmosphere was that of a carnival or a church fundraiser. But it was the governor's "First Annual Teen Pregnancy Prevention Summit," advertised at the entryway by a full-color image of a stretch-mark-covered belly.
During a break in the proceedings, I milled around a line-up of literature tables at the back of the room. There were about 10 tables set up with red runners and chairs. Two of them held pamphlets from the state about teen pregnancy and government resources; another was sponsored by a state "family" organization. There, I found a pamphlet titled "Contraception: The Fine Print, Respect Life" by Susan E. Wills, Esq, which included this passage:
The best way to protect children from the damages of contraception and pre-marital sexual activity is by having two parents that make their values and expectations clear and who participate as a family in religious and leisure time activities... Contraception risks [young girls'] physical emotional and spiritual well being.... For their sakes reject the contraceptive based approach to reducing unintended pregnancies
This event was funded in part by taxpayer dollars. A representative of the Mississippi Department of Health told me his agency paid $1,500 for the space in response to a personal request from the governor.