As Grace Semler Baldridge arrived in Birmingham, Alabama to investigate the city’s sex education for the second episode of her Refinery29 webseries State of Grace, Alabama’s state senate passed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country. While Baldridge was still reporting this story, Governor Kay Ivey signed the bill into law (though it has yet to, and maybe never will, go into effect).
Baldridge sees Alabama’s abortion ban as at odds with its sex education — which is basically nonexistent. “You can’t not educate people on something, not talk about something, and then effectively punish them for the silence that you implemented,” Baldridge says.“It was overwhelming to me that a local government that was not mandating sex education was regulating the results of having sex."
In the United States, just 24 states require that sex education be taught in schools, and only 13 require that sex ed be medically accurate. Additionally, six states have “no promo homo” or “don’t say gay” laws — laws that prohibit discussing the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light or at all. Only two states prevent the promotion of religion in sex ed classes. Alabama has “no promo homo” laws on the books, and it does not require or regulate sex education. In fact, Baldridge could not find a single Birmingham high school that taught it. And young people badly need accurate information about sex: Alabama ranks 11th in the country for teen pregnancy and Birmingham has the 17th rate of newly diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS in the nation.
In the episode, Baldridge speaks to a doctor; a self-described “Southern queer mom”; educators at an LGBTQ+ youth center; and an activist for anti-choice, abstinence-only sex education. It’s clear that when it comes to sex education in this country, we need to do a lot better by young people.
As Baldridge puts it, “The lack of regulation and the stigma surrounding sex education has resulted in a stalemate that is harmful to the mental, physical, and emotional health of American students. We need to be talking about sex. Education is a human right. We can’t deny American students the right to understand their bodies and the ways in which they can protect and accept themselves.”