Documentary Review: Sex Ed and the State
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.