Mississippi’s sex-ed curriculum is not notable for its progressive nature. But one thing you can’t say about the Magnolia State is that it follows the advice of some conservative parents who want schools to totally ignore homosexuality. In fact, state law mandates that the subject be discussed, at least briefly: Students are to be told that homosexual activity is illegal.
Mississippi, whose governor just signed a noxious anti-gay bill, is not the only state with such a clause in its sex ed curriculum. Neighboring Alabama requires that instructors teach that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense." In fact, the Supreme Court rendered all state laws against gay sex unenforceable in 2003, when it struck down an anti-sodomy law in Texas.
In Mississippi, the gay-sex-is-illegal mandate is among the less-noticed aspects of a sex-ed curriculum that has seen a fair amount of controversy lately. A Los Angeles Times story last week, by Alena Semuels, focused on the challenges of teaching sexual education in a place where so many communities oppose it—even though the teen pregnancy rate is among highest in the nation. Since 2012, Mississippi has mandated that all districts must now offer some kind of sex ed. But, by law, the basis for the curriculum is abstinence. Classes are supposed to make clear that “a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual intercourse.” The only question is whether classes also include basic information about things like birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. The state leaves that decision, between “abstinence-only” and “abstinence-plus,” to the school districts—although 12 percent have opted not to teach any kind of sex ed at all, in apparent defiance of the law.
The source of recent controversy was an anecdote, from that Los Angeles Times story, about how educators in one community (Oxford) were applying the state guidelines. According to the article, teachers in Oxford had asked the kids to pass around a candy wrapper, from a Peppermint Pattie, to see how dirty it becomes when lots of people are touching it. "They're using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she's had sex—that she's been used," one parent said. "That shouldn't be the lesson we send kids about sex." After the article appeared, and got national attention, the District Superintendent told a local newspaper (the Clarion-Ledger) that the report was misleading, because the district does not use that teaching method today. “We have been teaching an entirely different curriculum in our classrooms in the last two years,” the superintendent said. “We have no knowledge of this particular aspect (example of the candy making the rounds in the classroom) being taught in any Oxford School District classroom.”
That would certainly represent progress, albeit of a modest sort: The evidence I’ve seen suggests that abstinence education doesn’t work and “abstinence-plus” probably isn’t a whole lot better. But at least legislation is moving in the right direction. In Alabama, state Rep. Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first openly gay legislator, has been calling on her colleagues to repeal the curriculum requirement on sodomy laws. She hasn't succeeded, even though activists have gathered tens of thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the requirement. I'm aware of no similar effort underway in Mississippi (although it's entirely possible one is under way).
It's hard to know how many teachers actually follow the state mandate to teach kids about anti-sodomy laws. (I've put questions to a few districts and will update this item if/when I get answers.) But the fact that curricula established two years ago include such a requirement is sobering. Support for same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality generally is rising in the U.S.—and it’s rising quickly. But there is still a long way to go.