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Tennessee Sex Education Bill Promotes Abstinence-Only, Warns Against 'Gateway Sexual Activity'

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Tennessee lawmakers added language to the state's abstinence-only sex education curriculum that warns against "gateway sexual activity."

Although Senate Bill 3310 does not specifically define what "gateway sexual activity" comprises, many have interpreted the phrase to include discouragement of anything that has potential to lead to sex -- including kissing, hand-holding and cuddling.

The bill is a response to recent controversies over sex-ed lessons in some Tennessee school districts that mentioned alternatives to sexual intercourse, according to The Tennessean. A 2009 Youth Risk Behavior study found that 61 percent of Memphis City high school and 27 percent of middle school students have had sex -- higher than the national average, according to WMC-TV.

"'Abstinence' means from all of these activities, and we want to promote that," Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson, the bill's sponsor, told The Tennessean. "What we do want to communicate to the kids is that the best choice is abstinence."

The bill would require a "family life education curriculum" that prohibits the promotion of contraception and "any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity."

Much like a bill that passed through the Utah state legislature last month, the Tennessee proposal notes that schools should "exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student's current or prior sexual experience." It also requires that students are taught the "physical, social, emotional, psychological, economic and educational consequences of non-marital sexual activity."

The proposal also creates legal penalties for teachers who go beyond the curriculum to encourage students in ways aside from abstinence. Parents or legal guardians would "have a cause of action against the instructor or organization for actual damages."

Planned Parenthood Director of Education Elokin CaPese told WMC-TV that the bill is broad and unrealistic. Its prohibition of "gateway sexual activity" demonstrations would include health education models, she said.

"It's not detailed enough in a health-based way," CaPese said.

Parents objected two years ago when students at a Nashville high school were taught how to apply a condom, using a plastic model, according to WBIR.

A report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that schools have made little progress in recent years in teaching students about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Among the country's middle schools, 11 states saw drops in the percentage of public schools teaching recommended topics between 2008 and 2010. No states saw increases. Among high schools, one state saw a drop in the percentage of schools teaching suggested topics, and two states saw increases.

Studies have found that comprehensive sex education more effectively delays sexual intercourse among youth and reduces teen pregnancy at a greater rate than abstinence-only education. Still, a 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that abstinence education can delay sex among teens.

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