California Judge Rules Abstinence-Only Education Isn't Education

Photographed by Jessica Nash
If you have sex outside of marriage, “something bad will happen.” That sounds like a quote out of Mean Girls, but it’s an actual lesson taught to students in the Clovis Unified School District, in Fresno County, California. But, not anymore. A California judge ruled that students have a right to medically accurate and inclusive sex-ed, in a potentially precedent-setting case.

Superior Court Judge Donald Black said abstinence-only sexual education violated California state law which requires that sexual education be inclusive of “pupils of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.” 

Perhaps more importantly, the ruling asserts the right of students to accurate education about their bodies. “Given the high cost of teen pregnancy and similar toll on society of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases,” the ruling states, “the rights vindicated in this suit, access to medically, and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right.”

And that's historic: "It was the first time that a judge has ruled in California that this type of inaccurate, abstinence-only sex education may not be used and has no place in our schools," Phyllida Burlingame, the Reproductive Justice Policy Director for the ACLU told us in a phone call.

The ruling only applies to the 40,000 students in the Clovis district, but, since it's the first-ever sex-ed ruling of its kind, it could set precedent. Which is a good thing, since the problem is nationwide. "Abstinence-only sex education is a problem throughout the country," Burlingame tells us. "[So] this is something that other states with similar medical accuracy requirements should be paying attention to as well.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only twenty-two out of the fifty states mandate sex education. Some states, like California, don’t require that sex ed be taught in schools, but if it is, there are certain guidelines which need to be followed. A full half of states require that if sex ed is taught, that teachers must “stress” abstinence. Nineteen states require that students be told about the importance of reserving sex for marriage. Only thirteen states require that instruction be medically accurate. 

Multiple
studies have found that abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective, they’re actually counter-effective. A 2008 study found that when abstinence-only education was compared with comprehensive sex education, teenagers who were given a comprehensive, accurate education were 50% less likely to get pregnant.

The California ruling started with a 2012 lawsuit, when a group of parents in Fresno sought to improve their kids' sex-ed. The Guardian reports that the lawsuit alleged that teachers gave little to no information on contraception or STD prevention, promoted heterosexual relationships, and compared a woman who had sex before marriage to a dirty pair of shoes.

While the ruling means great things for the students in Clovis School District, there are still thirty-eight states that don’t require any sex education at all. So, while this is a positive step for California, we can only hope that other states can take it to heart as well. Because Judge Black is right — “Ensuring access to consistent, legally appropriate sexual health education is not an insignificant benefit.”
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