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Documentary Review: Sex Ed and the State

September 19, 2007

Sex Ed and the State is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at recent attempts to pass a comprehensive sexuality education bill in the 2006 Minnesota State Legislature, following the process from the bill’s introduction through to its final consideration. Begun as a masters thesis project by Jim Winkle as he worked toward his degree from University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, the documentary features interviews with Minnesota legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as representatives of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., Planned Parenthood, the Heritage Foundation, and others with a stake in the outcome of the bill.

Far from focusing solely on the Minnesota proposal, Sex Ed and the State locates the process squarely within the national dialogue about sex ed, opening with former Surgeon General David Satcher’s attempts to release a report calling for open classroom discussion with teens about sexuality and the provision of medically accurate sexuality information. Begun under the Clinton administration, the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior was not released until 2001, and drew criticism from conservative groups and a response from the Bush Administration that the President favored abstinence.

Also on the national level, Sex Ed and the State describes the insertion of funding for abstinence-only sex education (which is not provided for comprehensive programs) into the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, a section Winkle indicates was authored by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Perhaps most shocking to some viewers, after numerous sources of evidence are presented that suggest comprehensive sex ed can reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections, delay sexual debut, and reduce teen pregnancies (and lack of evidence for such from abstinence-only programs), is Rector’s response to this evidence. Rector states, matter-of-factly, “Abstinence at the federal level is not primarily an STD prevention program. It is rather a marital preparation program. Also, it’s not about preventing teen pregnancy.”

In other words, federal funding for abstinence-only education was never about promoting public health through educating our young people, but about promoting marriage, despite the high rate of premarital sex, increasing rates of new HIV diagnoses among teens, and unusually high teen pregnancy rate when compared with other developed nations. It was intended to promote the ideals of marriage, completely alienating those teens who may not ever be legally married due to their sexual orientations, or those individuals who simply may not choose to marry. It also seems shockingly ironic that an act to reduce the number of individuals receiving welfare, at a time when many were howling about women making babies just to get a check, would include provisions that would discourage educators from teaching young men and women about controlling their fertility.

These tidbits alone, startling when coming directly from the source, make Sex Ed and the State worth a viewing. However, in addition to the specific focus on the progress of Minnesota’s House Bill 3708 and Senate Bill 2977, and the state of sexuality education in the United States, Sex Ed and the State serves as a straightforward primer on how a bill becomes a law, from committee referrals and hearings to omnibus bills and closed-door negotiations. Political junkies and political newbies alike can enjoy this documentary, and perhaps leave it inspired to take on sexuality education concerns in their own communities.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2007 9:47 pm

    Well, if the admission that A/O was anything other than an attempt at that kind of indoctrination comes as a surprise to anyone, they just simply have not been paying attention. What is truly sad is that the politicians (from both parties) have forsaken their duty to protect the children (and others) from harm and allowed garbage like this to exist. People should’ve realized there was a problem when Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign for simply suggesting masturbation was normal and healthy. It’s been all downhill since then.

  2. September 19, 2007 9:57 pm

    The thing that was surprising to me is that it was stated so blatantly. I think it often trickles down into less forthright messages, like “We don’t want to send mixed messages, we don’t want to encourage kids to have sex (because that’s bad for them),” and so it’s easy to forget the original message. To have someone say outright, essentially, “yeah, we’re not interested at all in the kids’ health, we’re just pimping marriage,” was a momentary shock even to me. No matter what I think underlies that message, it surprises me when people admit their game, when it is what it is. Does that make sense?

    You know, I was in high school when the Jocelyn Elders resignation happened, and my sociology teacher actually brought it up for discussion, and asked the class whether we thought about what she had said and the ensuing controversy. I think that was one of the coolest moments of high school, in the classroom sense.

  3. October 2, 2007 1:02 pm

    I found this great opportunity for people to consider and speak up about their own sex-education (a topic that is being fiercely debated in political circles.) ISIS-Inc and RH Reality Check have launched a contest called Fresh Focus Sex Ed Video Contest. Film makers must be 15-30 years old and make an original video about sex education that follows one of two themes: 1. Share your sex ed experience so far. Show us how and why it sucked or rocked. OR 2.Redesign how sex ed could be delivered. Imagine that anything is possible.

    Read the official contest rules and submit entries at

  4. stephanie clarke permalink
    May 20, 2010 3:21 pm

    does anyone know if it’s possible to get ahold of the film to show it in an undergrad class at UMN?

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