clock menu more-arrow no yes
A teacher stands before a classroom full of students.
Sinai Torrejon, program services coordinator at Girls Inc., leads a class discussion on gender and sexuality at Western High School in Anaheim, California, on September 20, 2019.
Arlene Mejorado for Vox

The future of sex ed has arrived. Is America ready?

Even in liberal California, families are pushing back against lessons on gender identity. The battles could be a blueprint for the rest of the country.

ANAHEIM, California — It’s the second meeting of the Informed and In Charge program at Western High School, and today’s activity is called the “sexuality wall.”

The gist is pretty straightforward: At one end of the classroom is a big sheet of paper with “Sexuality?” written in blue marker. “Write down as many different terms regarding sexuality, regarding identity, regarding gender, as you may have heard,” the instructor, Sinai Torrejon, asks the class.

A mix of around 20 students from different grade levels — wearing tank tops and wide-legged pants, ripped jeans and hoodies, false eyelashes and no makeup — grab markers and get to work. They chat among themselves. “I wrote pan — pansexual,” one says. “Asexual means you don’t like nothing, you don’t have those feelings,” explains another.

The students seem calm and comfortable. Though they take the activity seriously, they’re also having fun with it: One of them uses several different markers to write “bisexual” and “lesbian” in letters that look three-dimensional, like they’re popping off the paper.

A teacher stands before a classroom full of students, with a table holding nail polish and other prizes in the background.
Sinai Torrejon, program services coordinator at Girls Inc., leads a class discussion at Western High School Independent Learning Center on September 20, 2019.
Instructor Sinai Torrejon points at a poster labeled “Sexuality??”
Torrejon leads the students in an activity called the “sexuality wall.”
Students write the words “non-binary,” “asexual,” and “poly” on paper posted on a wall.
The students write down terms they associate with gender and sexual orientation.

In fact, the whole classroom has a relaxed feel. The students sit on plastic chairs, not traditional desks. A table at the front holds prizes the teens can win in icebreaker games, like makeup brushes and stickers. One girl casually eats from a container of instant ramen. This is Southern California after all, where open-mindedness and chill are branded exports.

When they’re finished, Torrejon helps the students — all part of a dropout prevention program at Western called the Independent Learning Center — define the terms on the wall. LGBTQ+, she explains, “is a term that is trying to be inclusive of all the other identities and sexualities that there are.” Queer, she says, “can be used as a slur or as a derogatory term,” but now some in the LGBTQ+ community are “taking ownership of that word.”

Next, they move into a discussion of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sex.

“Can someone else tell you what your gender identity is?” Torrejon asks.

“No,” several students say.

“Is it okay to not be 100 percent sure yet?”

“Yes!” is the enthusiastic response from the class.

A bit later, Torrejon tells the class, “You are your own person. You are unique. You are perfect the way you are.”

Welcome to the future of sex education in America. California wants to lead the way.

But even in one of the bluest of blue states, where just about 32 percent of voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2016, programs like the one at Western are getting backlash. In 2016, the state passed a law requiring that schools offer LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed with lessons on gender identity and expression as well as materials on HIV prevention and healthy relationships. Last year, the state released draft guidelines aimed at helping schools put the law into practice, and since then, parents have been pushing back — with some even taking their kids out of public schools so they don’t receive the new sex ed.

The day before Torrejon gave her lesson about gender and sexuality, parents, advocates, and even students protested outside their legislators’ offices around the state, demanding a repeal of the law. One parent, Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, called it “a cognitive behavior modification program to sexualize and groom your children” at a protest not far from Western.

What’s happening in California is a version of a conflict that’s likely to ramp up around the country in coming years. What some parents and conservative groups call “indoctrination,” sex education advocates call changing the world: teaching students to respect each other’s identities and autonomy in ways they hope will lead to less sexual assault, harassment, and homophobia in society at large.

As Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at the nonprofit SIECUS (until recently known as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), told me: “We like to frame sex education as a vehicle for social change.”

The movement toward an education based on acceptance over abstinence

For many people in their 30s and older, the phrase “sex education” probably conjures up images of an awkward assembly in a high school gym, if it conjures up any images at all. Picture Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years, watching his gym teacher trying to draw a diagram of the female reproductive system, but instead scrawling something that looks like a cow.

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic inspired states to get more serious about sex ed, and by the 1990s, most states required some form of HIV/AIDS education. But conservatives almost immediately pushed back, calling for sex education to focus on abstinence, and the messages students got about sex could be confusing — even in California.

A teacher sits in front of a classroom in 1991, holding a sign that says “abstinence (no sex).”
A teacher at the High School of Fashion Industries teaches AIDS prevention in her hygiene class in New York City, on November 27, 1991.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

As a high school student in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I remember getting a classroom visit from a man living with HIV who helped demystify the virus and talked about prevention. I also attended an assembly led by a woman who said that every time you have sex, it’s like putting a piece of tape on your arm and ripping it off, until the tape — which represents you — is covered in hair, disgusting and useless. This, I later learned, is a common abstinence-based lesson.

Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia require some form of sex or HIV education. But only 17 require it to be medically accurate — meaning educators can teach that condoms don’t work or that innate gender differences govern everything from how people look at their fingernails to how they carry their books. And abstinence-based education (now sometimes described as “sexual risk avoidance education”) has become more common, not less, since I was in high school, thanks to support from Republican administrations. By 2014, half of middle schools and a three-quarters of high schools focused on abstinence. The Trump administration has also been a strong backer of the abstinence-only approach — in 2018, it issued new funding rules favoring abstinence-based programs.

One big problem with abstinence-only, though, is there’s no evidence that it works. As Aaron E. Carroll reported at the New York Times in 2017, several studies have found no effect of such an approach on teen sexual activity. It also doesn’t teach students what they need to know about contraception and sexual health if they do decide to have sex.

That’s why sexual health advocates around the country have backed comprehensive sex education for years. Truly comprehensive sex ed should include information on abstinence, but also on sexually transmitted infections and contraception, Driver told me. Lessons should be inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. And it’s not just about avoiding pregnancy and STIs — comprehensive sex ed, Driver said, should also include lessons on healthy relationships, consent, and decision-making, as well as analysis of cultural norms and values around sex and sexuality.

Sex education can be a “powerful vehicle to change societal norms,” Driver said (SIECUS recently made this concept part of its name, rebranding as SIECUS: Sex Ed For Social Change). For example, the rise of the Me Too movement has sparked “a lot of conversations about consent,” she said. But “very few people can articulate what consent looks like.”

By contrast, “what would a world look like if everyone had comprehensive sex education?” Driver asks. “How would the Me Too movement look very differently?”

A “Girls’ Bill of Rights” is posted on a classroom, behind a table holding nail polish and other prizes.
At Western High School, Girls Inc. instructors set up a “Girls’ Bill of Rights” display along with prizes for students.

California might be about to find out. The state has been on the forefront of the movement toward more comprehensive sex education for years. In 2003, the state passed a law requiring that HIV prevention be taught in public schools, and that all sex education materials “be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.”

But critics said the law was too vague, and in 2016, the state implemented the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), which requires that students get sex education that includes information on HIV and pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, gender identity, and more — including abstinence — at least once in junior high and once in high school. All course materials must be medically accurate, and discussions of relationships must be inclusive of same-sex couples.

Since then, school districts around the state have been updating their curricula to comply with the law. For example, Anaheim Union High School District, which includes Western High School and about 16 other junior high and high schools, added lessons on human trafficking and gender identity expression to its high school health curriculum to comply with the law, said Patty Hatcher, a health curriculum specialist with the district.

In many districts, like Anaheim Union, California students get sex education from their health teachers. But some districts also bring in visiting teachers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Girls Inc., a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to fostering the health and education of girls. In many cases, the visitors supplement what the district is already doing. But when there’s no one trained on staff, the outside groups may provide all the sex education required by the state.

Over the course of about 12 class periods, the Girls Inc. program teaches students about menstruation, birth control, STI prevention, sexual harassment, consent, dating violence, and more. Classes are open to anyone who identifies as a girl, no questions asked, according to Jessica Hubbard, director of program services for the Orange County branch of Girls Inc. The organization doesn’t offer an equivalent program for boys, but at Western Independent Learning Center, where most classes are online, students of all genders may also take an online health class that includes sex education.

About 25 miles away in Irvine, also part of Orange County, the district adopted Teen Talk, a research-based curriculum for students of all genders that covers anatomy, STIs, pregnancy prevention, and body image, among other topics. It also includes one lesson specifically devoted to sexual orientation and gender identity, which “does a great job in dispelling myths and stereotypes” like the idea that being gay is a choice, Kelli Bourne, who is in her 14th year of teaching health science at Lakeside Middle School, told Vox. But it also uses language throughout that’s inclusive of all orientations and identities: “Teen Talk does not favor one type of relationship over another,” she said.

Overall, the goal of Teen Talk is to “drive home to kids that there is a range of values” when it comes to sex, Bourne said. And values — whether something is okay or not okay — are at the root of a lot of questions students ask in class, she said.

When it comes to sex and sexuality, Bourne explains to students, some people believe one thing, and others believe something else. Ultimately, “it’s up to you to decide what you believe,” she said, “with input from your parents and your family.”

Conservative pushback is mostly about LGBTQ inclusivity

About a month into the school year, around 20 people gather outside Assembly member Tom Daly’s office, about 10 miles from Western High School. These are the families in Orange County who feel that, despite what programs like Teen Talk say, they’re not getting enough input. They feel their kids are learning values at odds with their own.

At the latest of several “Sex Ed Sit Outs” to protest the law, parents hoist handmade signs with messages like “education not indoctrinate” and “no gender ID ideology.” Some have brought their kids, who play on the grassy median strip next to the sidewalk. A few older students take a more active role.

One first-year high schooler, for example, holds a cardboard sign reading, “AB 329 is a sexual grooming program.” He is here with his mom, but he tells me he also believes that the sex education law violates freedom of religion. “It’s either you’re a girl or you’re a boy,” he says. “That’s what I agree with.”

Meanwhile, many parents say CHYA violates their parental rights. “This law doesn’t respect our beliefs and rights as parents to teach our children how they should behave and live,” one mom, Ofelia Garcia, tells me.

“Even if I didn’t have any grandchildren or children, I would be doing this,” Garcia says. “As a daughter of God, this is to speak for my faith.”

Parents protest on a street corner, holding signs reading “Con mis hijos no te metas” and “Stop sexxx ed.”
Parents protest the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA) outside Assemblymember Tom Daly’s office in Anaheim, California on September 20, 2019.
Anna North/Vox

Garcia says she’s against “the gender ideology” put forth by CHYA, and that she hopes the law will be revoked because “because otherwise our children are going to be against us.”

The fear that sex education will pull kids away from their parents is a common theme. So is a concern about lessons involving gender identity.

Shanda Ellsworth-Lobatos, for example, tells me she started homeschooling her son, a third-grader, after she found out his Anaheim elementary school was planning a Diversity Week but had not notified parents of content involving LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming people.

Students were going to read Jacob’s New Dress, a children’s book about a boy who wants to wear a dress to school, she said. “They had a whole series of things that they were going to do with the children but they were not going to disclose to the parents.”

Ellsworth-Lobatos also said teachers had been told “if a child is struggling with gender identity, not to notify the parents.” On the whole, she said, the school was “lack of transparency” and “parent alienation.”

The Anaheim Elementary School District (separate from Anaheim Union, which includes only junior high and high schools), however, says alienating children from their parents is the opposite of what it intends. “Clear communication with our families is paramount,” Elsa Covarrubias, the district’s director of communications, told me. She said it was absolutely not district policy to keep parents in the dark about children’s gender identity. “We are in contact with parents regarding anything that impacts their children,” she said.

Girls Inc. says it encourages students to talk to their parents about what they learn, and the group hosts evening events where parents can be more informed about the program. Also, CHYA requires that sex education in California encourage each student “to communicate with his or her parents, guardians, and other trusted adults about human sexuality.” And the law allows parents to opt their children out of sex education if they choose.

But parent protests have continued, heating up last year with the release of a state document called the Health Education Framework. The framework isn’t law or a required curriculum — instead, it is intended as guidance to help school districts develop curricula in line with CHYA. But parents soon began protesting My Princess Boy, a picture book about a boy who wears dresses and a tiara, and S.E.X: The All You Need to Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties, a book by the founder of the popular sexual health information site Scarleteen. Parents said the material was too explicit, and objected to teaching younger children about gender identity.

In May, the state removed six books, including My Princess Boy and S.E.X., from the framework, a final version of which is slated to be released early next year. But some parents were unsatisfied, and with the start of a new school year, protests began again.

California’s Orange County, where Anaheim is the largest city, has been one of the biggest hubs of pushback against CHYA (other counties in the blue state where parents have protested include Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco). The county is historically Republican territory. Ronald Reagan launched his political career with a speech in Anaheim in 1965, and Richard Nixon’s presidential library is in the nearby city of Yorba Linda, where he was born. A majority of residents voted for John McCain for president in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

However, Orange County is changing — the county went for Hillary Clinton in 2016; in 2018, Democrats flipped four congressional seats there, turning the county entirely blue. But in some ways, Anaheim feels more like middle America than like Los Angeles, less than 30 miles to the northwest. Near Assembly member Daly’s office, a Hooter’s restaurant advertised “Military Mondays.” And as protesters against the sex ed program lined the sidewalk, more than a few passing drivers honked in approval.

Orange County has always a specific brand of conservatism, though: It’s not the type of place where overtly anti-LGBTQ messages are always spoken out loud. Residents are used to having to curb their language for surrounding progressives. And Republicans in California aren’t known for holding particularly socially conservative views — residents sometimes use the term “California conservative” to refer to someone who’s liberal on social issues but favors low taxes and small government.

All that is to say that some of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by Republicans around the country — like former Virginia attorney general and recent Trump appointee Ken Cuccinelli, who has said that acts of homosexual sex are “against nature and are harmful to society” — are less common here. Aggressiveness is not the norm.

For example, most of the parents on the sidewalk on this September day say their opposition to CHYA is not about homophobia or transphobia, but about their desire to choose what their kids learn. “It’s not about hate or disliking or anything like that,” Ellsworth-Lobatos says. “It’s about my parental rights and what I want to teach my child.”

Then again, there is a minority that imparts a more direct message. At a forum on CHYA held by the Anaheim Republican Assembly the night before the protest, Arthur Schaper, an activist with the “pro-family” group MassResistance, referred to the law as the “California Unhealthy Perversion Act.”

“There has to be a culture shift in this state,” he told the crowd of a few dozen at a German restaurant not far from Daly’s office. “Being gay is not okay. Yes, I just said that. If I can’t say that in Anaheim, we’ve got a problem.”

The benefits of comprehensive sex education are well-documented

What proponents of laws like CHYA have on their side is research and numbers. In California, a large majority of parents have historically supported comprehensive sex education — 89 percent, according to one 2006 survey. Nationally, most parents also support comprehensive sex education.

According to one 2017 study, more than 93 percent of American parents think it’s important to teach sex education in middle school and high school. Meanwhile, 92 percent of Democratic parents and 75 percent of Republican parents said high school sex education should include discussion of sexual orientation.

Unlike the abstinence-only approach, education like the kind students at Western and Lakeside get is also supported by research. Comprehensive sex education programs have been shown to reduce sexually transmitted infections and increase use of contraception — as well as reducing sexual activity, the goal of abstinence-only programs, Carroll reports at the Times.

And the benefits go beyond those typical markers of sexual health. “We know that comprehensive sex ed can help people develop healthier relationships” as well as helping them have “honest conversations with their parents about values,” Driver said.

There’s also evidence that sex education can help reduce sexual assault. One 2018 study found that students who received sex ed that included discussion of how to say no to unwanted sex were significantly less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault once they got to college. Abstinence-only sex education did not have the same effect.

While anti-sexual harassment advocates often emphasize teaching people not to commit harassment and assault, rather than teaching people to avoid it, there’s evidence that education can help in this way too. A 2015 study found that a middle-school program that taught communication and emotion management reduced instances of sexual harassment and homophobic name-calling at school.

A worksheet titled “The Genderbread Person” is seen in a high school student’s lap.
One of the activities in the Girls’ Inc. sex education program is a “Genderbread Person” worksheet, which helps teach about gender identity and expression.

Sex ed can also help to dismantle gender stereotypes. “With comprehensive sex ed, young people are able to reject or unlearn the harmful stereotype that depicts boys as constantly working to ‘score’ by having sex with girls and, conversely, depicts girls as non-sexual beings who are responsible for managing the behaviors of boys,” SIECUS communications manager Zach Eisenstein told me in an email. Some abstinence-only programs, he said, reinforce these stereotypes by comparing girls to Crock Pots (because they supposedly take a long time to “heat up”) and boys to microwaves (which heat up quickly).

When students learn that there are a variety of gender identities and expressions, they “are better suited to identify, question, and reject feeding into harmful gender stereotypes from the start,” Eisenstein said.

After the students at Western wrote terms on the sexuality wall, the class moved on to a discussion of the idea that girls like dolls and boys like action figures, or that girls should be pretty and boys should be strong.

“That language really does have an effect on us,” Torrejon told the class. “We absorb that and we internalize that, and then as we get older we kind of put those stereotypes on other people.”

Inclusive sex education can be especially protective for LGBTQ young people, Driver said. Research shows that when a school has an LGBTQ-inclusive sex education program in place, LGBTQ students are less likely to experience depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and bullying, she added.

Such education has benefits for all students, Driver said, including those who don’t identify as LGBTQ. “Students learn to value other people’s perspectives,” she explained. “They learn to value and have empathy for people who are different from them.”

For proponents of inclusive sex ed, this is the goal: for students to learn not just to protect themselves from STIs and unintended pregnancy, but to treat each other — and themselves — with care and respect. And if they get education like this now, the thinking goes, maybe when these kids become parents, they will be more accepting of their children’s identities and help them make informed choices. Homophobic views like those expressed by Schaper will be less common in the future.

While most parents are in favor of comprehensive sex ed, change is slow.

Despite the research supporting it, and the parents who want it, comprehensive sex ed still isn’t the norm in many places around the country. In part, that’s because education in America isn’t federally controlled. Even with a more supportive president than Trump, the White House only has so much influence over what goes on at the state and local levels. And at those levels, there are enough parents opposed to sex education — and enough conservative groups to back them up — to block a lot of attempts at change.

In other words, implementing comprehensive sex ed remains an uphill battle, but one a growing number of states feel is worth fighting.

If history is any guide, California has often helped lead the way on progressive legislation, from a law loosening abortion restrictions in 1967 to one legalizing medical marijuana use in 1996. And with state legislatures turning increasingly Democratic in 2018, some see a coming “blue wave” that could bring with it more socially liberal reforms around the country.

Then again, if California has taken years to fully implement its 2016 law, change elsewhere in the nation is likely to move even more slowly. For example, when an Arizona school district considered implementing a comprehensive sex education curriculum called Rights, Respect, Responsibility in 2018, the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel sent the district a cease and desist letter. The group said the school district was in violation of an Arizona law banning HIV/AIDS education that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.” The state repealed that law earlier this year, but such restrictions are still on the books in several states.

Because schools tend to be locally controlled, “there’s so much variation among what young people will receive” not just from state to state but from district to district, Driver said. In California, for example, while Anaheim has been on board with CHYA from the beginning, other nearby Orange County School districts delayed implementation, according to EdSource. And while Girls Inc. used to teach sex education across the county, districts started dropping the program when protests against CHYA started heating up. Now Anaheim is the only one left.

For opponents of CHYA and of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education more generally, these delays are a good thing. Education about sexual orientation and gender identity “should be done in the privacy of your home,” Ellsworth-Lobatos said.

But supporters of inclusive sex education say they’re not teaching kids ideology. They’re just respecting who their students are: nonbinary, male, female, gay, straight, asexual, or any of a variety of the above and beyond.

Students talk with each other and a teacher in front of a sign posted on a wall that says “Sexuality??”
During an icebreaker exercise, students and staff ask and answer questions about sexual health.

Sometimes sex education is a two-way street. During the class I visited at Western, students taught Torrejon the meanings of several terms, including “demi girl” and “demi boy,” which refer to people who are nonbinary but with some identification with the female or male gender. People who identify that way “use she/they pronouns or he/they pronouns,” a student explained to the class.

Torrejon says she sees the impact of the Girls Inc. program on the students she teaches: “They’re just so much more confident and comfortable within themselves” after the program, she said.

Like Bourne’s class, the program includes an anonymous question box, but students sometimes leave positive feedback instead. “Just hearing how appreciative they are for being able to learn all this, when they know the stigma on it otherwise, is the best feeling ever,” Torrejon said.

After the September class, I asked a few students what they’d learned. “I learned different types of sexualities and different pronouns,” one told me. “I didn’t really know that there [were] that many.”

Another student, a 17-year-old senior, told me he’d done a lot of online research about gender and sexuality in previous years because for a time, “I wanted to be male.” Today, he uses he/him pronouns but says, “I don’t label myself right now.”

Talking about sex and gender identity always makes him nervous, he told me. After class, he was still “a little bit” nervous, he said — “but a lot less.”

Identities

Why Bernie Sanders just endorsed, then un-endorsed, a California congressional candidate

Identities

Why people are freezing in America’s prisons

Explainers

The past, present, and future of the singular “they”

View all stories in Identities