Comprehensive sexual-health education inched closer to becoming a mandate for all Washington public schools Wednesday as the state Senate resurrected legislation that failed last year.
Dividing along party lines, senators voted 28-21 to advance Senate Bill 5395 to the House, where a similar bill would require every Washington school district to teach some form of sex education in kindergarten through 12th grade. Opponents of SB 5395 — which maintains parents’ rights to opt their children out of such instruction — argued the legislation strips local school boards of the opportunity to work with families to set their own standards for sex education.
Current state law only requires schools to teach students about HIV and AIDS prevention every year, starting in the fifth grade.
After Education Lab published a quick explainer of the proposed changes, you asked us about parental input, the connection between sex education and sexual activity, and the meaning of unwanted sexual contact.
Below, you’ll find the answers to some of these questions.
Why do people still think that sex education at a young age could cause an increase in sexual activity?
A reader from Snohomish County sent us this question, and another from Bainbridge Island asked it in a different way: “Does Rep. Vicki Kraft cite any credible data for her assertion that teaching younger kids about sex leads to more sex [as] teenagers? As I understand it, the opposite is true.”
In our FAQ, state Rep. Kraft, R-Vancouver, said she opposed introducing any topic related to sex — including reproduction in animals — to students in the elementary grades, arguing that those kinds of conversation lead to more sexual activity when those children become teenagers.
There’s conflicting research on this question. A national study released in 2012 found a link between sex education and a delay in the first time both women and men have sex. In that study, researchers at the Guttmacher Institute — a New York City-based research and policy agency focused on reproductive health — analyzed survey data from about 4,700 young people and concluded that “respondents who had received instruction on both abstinence and birth control were older at first sex than their peers who had received no formal instruction and were more likely to have used condoms or other contraceptives at first sex.”
An earlier Guttmacher study from 1986 found the opposite: “Adolescent women who have previously taken sex education courses are somewhat more likely than those who have not to initiate sexual activity at ages 15 and 16.” That study noted there’s no difference in sexual activity at ages 17 and 18, and the effect of prior sex education remained small.
There’s no state-specific information in the 2012 study, but a survey that Washington youth take every two years shows the share of eighth graders reporting ever having sex fell from 17% in 2010 to 9% in 2018. The share of high-school seniors reporting ever having sex declined less dramatically, from 53% in 2010 to 47% in 2018.
If the new mandate is implemented, will parents have an opportunity to review the curriculum with the teachers?
Yes. Neither House Bill 2184 nor SB 5395 would remove the existing right of parents and guardians to review the sexual-health curriculum offered in their children’s schools.
Current state law requires parents to file a written request to review those materials with their local school board, the principal of their children’s school or the principal’s designee.
Under both bills, parents also could still opt their children out of any sex-education instruction, again provided they submit a written request. And HB 2184 would add affirmative consent and bystander training — knowing how to intervene to prevent the sexual assault of another person — to sex-education classes. The proposed legislation would require school districts to consult with parents and guardians about what those lessons look like before the mandate would start in the 2020-21 school year.
What does unwanted sexual contact mean?
One reader from Queen Anne wondered about this sentence and corresponding graphic in the FAQ guide: “More students in the eighth and 12th grades have reported unwanted sexual contact and dating violence, according to the Healthy Youth Survey.”
The reader asked exactly what “unwanted sexual contact” means, and a legislative report from the state superintendent’s office provides an answer. The Healthy Youth Survey, according to the report, asks youth whether they have ever been in a situation where someone made them engage in kissing, sexual touch or intercourse when they didn’t want to.
For eighth and 12th graders, the share of students reporting unwanted sexual contact has steadily increased between 2014 and 2018, while 10th graders reported a slight dip in 2016.
“Students are reporting higher rates of sexual assault and dating violence each year,” the report reads. “Recent research shows comprehensive sexual health education as a promising approach to sexual violence prevention.”