Longform

Sex Ed the Texas Way

Teenagers have a favorite word, one they deploy frequently. An easy way to ensure its arrival in conversation is to bring up sex education.

"The abstinence stuff is awkward," says a teenage girl, rolling her eyes. Whenever the teacher breaks it out in class, "everybody's laughing."

It's an overcast afternoon, and the girl is standing in a cluster of friends outside Skyline, a large public high school in Pleasant Grove. There are six teenagers in the circle, four girls and two guys. The girls are wearing track shorts and high ponytails; the guys are looking at the girls. With the exception of one shy girl, all of them say they've been sexually active for some time.

"I lost my purity ring at the club," one of the guys cracks.

"Mine's getting detailed," the other dude tosses back. They high-five.

"Abstinence ain't gonna help," another girl chimes in. "People lost it already. Most people are having sex."

At Skyline, there's a class specifically for pregnant students. "We call it the pregnancy pact," one of the girls explains. "They're shopping for their prom dresses with their bellies out like this." She pantomimes an enormous pregnant belly and winces dramatically.

This group all swears that they're good about using condoms. They buy them at the neighborhood Walgreens. As is the case for all Texas public schools, condoms can't be handed out during sex ed at Skyline. Many schools choose not to make condoms available at all.

"I'm always strapped," one of the dudes crows. The girls roll their eyes and groan in unison, then feint like they're going to walk away before quickly coming back.

Some of the Skyline teens have had sex ed during their health classes. Others haven't; their teachers felt too uncomfortable and skipped right over the subject, which they're allowed to do under state law.

"Or they talk about it real fast," one girl says. One teacher, who's also a track coach, dealt with the subject in one sentence: "Get pregnant and I'll whoop your ass."

This is the way sex ed looks in Texas, the way it's looked for years: Under the law, abstinence has to be taught as the first and best choice. Everything else — talking about contraception, disease prevention, even teaching sex ed at all — is strictly optional.

That may be about to change, at least in Dallas. A small group of Dallas Independent School District parents is determined to implement a better sex-education curriculum, replacing a current curriculum that's respectable in some spots but outdated or just plain weird in others.

This is still Texas, though. Standing in the way of those parents and their desire to keep their kids well-informed, non-pregnant and STD-free for just a little longer? Elected officials, state law, DISD's very cautious lawyers, cost and a little deceptive advertising from the organization who will likely take over sex ed in Dallas schools.

In other words: Before it gets better, it's gonna get awkward.


Premarital sex is like jumping off a bridge.

Premarital sex with a condom is like jumping off a bridge wearing elbow pads to cushion the fall.

Premarital sex is like a beautiful gold statue in the middle of the town square that turns a "putrid shade of green" after the townspeople manhandle it, each thinking just one little touch wouldn't hurt.

Your virginity is like a wrapped present. Try not to let too many people tear at the paper.

Premarital sex is like a frog slowly boiling alive in a pot of water.

Premarital sex, you've probably gathered, is like a bunch of awfully weird stuff, at least according to the sex education most students in Texas public schools receive, which by law must stress abstinence as the only acceptable choice for unmarried teens. Sex-ed classes have to devote more time to abstinence than any other behavior, emphasizing that it's the only "100 percent effective" way to prevent pregnancy, STDs and "the emotional trauma" caused by premarital sex. When condoms and other forms of contraception are discussed, teachers have to talk about their effectiveness in real life rather than "theoretical laboratory rates."

"Texas State students, you ought to see them," says David Wiley, a health education professor at Texas State University and a critic of abstinence-only sex ed. He marvels at some of the misconceptions his students lug to his classes — the male student who asked about his risk for cervical cancer, the female ones who "have no idea how" their own birth control works.

In 2009, Wiley and another professor reviewed sex-ed curricula across the state for the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning research and advocacy group. They found an astonishing variety of skits and teacher demos involving things like unwrapped, melting candy and leaky balloons. The skits were frequently paired with religious references, sexist assumptions about men and women, homophobia and a lot of fear-mongering about death and disease.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan