The morning after Lauryn had hung out with friends, she awoke feeling physically dirty, like she needed a shower.

Her guilt lingered for days, and at first, she chalked it up to some kind of side-effect from alcohol, since they had been drinking. But after discovering an article on the basics of consent, she suddenly understood why she felt so used.

When one of her friends had kissed her, touched her and gotten on top of her, she wasn’t lucid enough to ever truly say “yes”. Less intoxicated bystanders should have noticed she was in danger, but didn’t know enough to intervene.

“I just kind of realized that just because I hadn’t been, you know, held down and assaulted – even though I wasn’t, like, begging for my life – that something had happened to me that wasn’t consensual. And that the person didn’t even know,” says Lauryn, who graduated from a high school near Houston earlier this year.

“It wasn’t even in their vocabulary to ask me if I was OK.”

She and the other person involved attended the same Texas middle school, where in eighth grade, a crash course that lasted six weeks at most marked her lone exposure to sex education. Her PE teacher even made it abundantly clear that he thought people who didn’t practice abstinence before marriage were inherently less valuable. Class booklets never described sex, much less consent.

“I know that there are a lot of sexual assaults that are more violent than mine – have more malice, have more direct intent,” Lauryn said. “Which makes me really upset that these ones that could be prevented just by educating people, aren’t.”

Squandered opportunity

2020 represents a landmark year for sex ed in Texas, as the state updates its minimum education standards around the subject for the first time in more than two decades.

Since the last revisions, the US supreme court has guaranteed that same-sex marriage is a right, the #MeToo movement has sparked global conversations around sexual misconduct, and LGBTQ+ Pride events have fully entered the mainstream, with major corporations such as Macy’s and Mastercard jumping on as sponsors.

But Texas’s elected officials aren’t aligning themselves with those changes, or even the will of their constituents.

Trojan and Advocates for Youth install a wall of chewed gum drawing attention to shame-based metaphors used in abstinence-only programs in schools as they advocate for quality sex education in Washington in 2019.
Trojan and Advocates for Youth install a wall of chewed gum to draw attention to shame-based metaphors used in abstinence-only programs in schools as they advocate for quality sex education in Washington in 2019. Photograph: PM/AP

Three-quarters of Texas voters believe that sex ed should incorporate standards about respecting people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, and 88% think students should learn about consent and boundaries. Instead, the Republican-controlled state board of education has chosen to rally around fringe beliefs that don’t reflect Texans’ overwhelming, bipartisan consensus, advocates say.

“This is an area where Texas schools are really falling behind and failing their students,” said Ann Thanh Phan, a high school senior in Sugar Land, Texas, and co-founder of Fort Bend Students United for Reproductive Freedom.

Board members have voted down even the most rudimentary amendments to make sex ed more LGBTQ+-inclusive, including defining basic terms such as sexual orientation or gender identity and teaching dignity and respect toward all people. They’ve also objected to the use of the word “consent” and wrestled with the concept, which one of them vilified as “a grooming for pedophiles, and a grooming for sex trafficking”.

“The state board of education, as it exists right now, exists in the past,” said Jules Mandel, an outreach and advocacy coordinator with the Texas Freedom Network. “We’re still seeing the same arguments and the same ideology coming out of the board now that was coming out of it 20 years ago. And frankly, it’s time to catch up.”

Texas’s state board of education did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment. Though school districts can choose to offer more than what’s required, the minimum standards ensure that all Texas students learn the same baseline material.

A legacy of failure

For decades, Texas’s sex ed requirements have condemned generations of students to incomplete curricula, sometimes favoring ideology over science and evidence, advocates say.

“We already have several generations that don’t actually know what sex education is and should be,” says Jennifer Driver, a sex ed policy expert.

Texas education code mandates that educators “present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior … for unmarried persons of school age” and “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior”. Those tenets – and the board of education’s standards that reinforce them – fly in the face of a 21st-century reality, and actually prove dangerous or even traumatizing for kids who have survived sexual violence.

“They’re having the opposite outcome of what their desired impact is, and if they would just follow what the science and the evidence tells us works, those young people in Texas would be in a far better and healthier state,” said Nora Gelperin, director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth.

Texas education code mandates that educators ‘present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior… for unmarried persons of school age’.
Texas education code mandates that educators ‘present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior … for unmarried persons of school age’. Photograph: Alamy

Last year in Texas, a majority of high school juniors and almost two-thirds of seniors reported they had already had sex. But among students who were sexually active in recent months, less than half used a condom during their last encounter and 22.1% used no birth control method – damning statistics that underscore the pitfalls of dogmatic education.

Texas routinely ranks among the highest teen birth rates in the US, and the number of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea are on the rise among youth in the state. “We have a need for this information in Texas, plus we also think that people just have a right to have medically accurate information about their bodies, and about healthy relationships,” said Jen Biundo, director of policy and data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

When Linda Barrón attended high school in El Paso, she hoped to learn how to protect herself in health class, “not because I wanted to have sex”, she says, but because “it might help me in the future”.

“It was to the point where I was like, ‘that’s it? That’s all we’re getting? We’re not getting taught about birth control? We’re not getting taught about condoms?’” says Barrón, now a university student.

Modest victories, devastating losses

So far, the state board of education has maintained some information about contraception and STI screening for middle school students in the revised standards’ current draft, which is accepting public comment ahead of a final vote in November.

Given that health education is mandatory in lower grades but elective in high school, those new requirements “represent an expansion of medically accurate sex ed”, Biundo says, though the particulars are still caught up in a “very strong framework of abstinence”.

The revisions also acknowledge the idea of consent in some sections, though they are often still framed in a way that puts an onus on the person who doesn’t want physical contact, instead of on perpetrators exhibiting predatory behavior.

The standards also outline expectations that students will grasp “the importance of clearly communicating and respecting personal boundaries and why individuals have the right to refuse sexual contact”. Although as of now, they teach young people how to “explain positive and negative peer influences regarding personal boundaries and consent”, Biundo says the reference is due to a technical error and is expected to be removed.

“When we’re not talking about consent, we are setting up situations for sexual violence,” said Dan Rice, executive director of Rutgers University’s national organization Answer, which offers sexuality education resources.

Phan remembers a six-month period in seventh grade – the same year sex ed got nixed from her health class entirely during a truncated term – when boys and girls went around slapping each other around the genitals. She was personally groped in the hallways, as were some of her friends, but at the time they lacked the language to express why they felt so violated.

“Consent is clear when you understand it, but when you don’t, it can seem very complicated and difficult,” Mandel said.

Rendering LGBTQ+ youth invisible

Advocates also fear that the erasure of LGBTQ+ identities from Texas’s sex ed risks exacerbating already urgent health concerns in a state notoriously hostile toward queer folks.

Although the standards do address bullying more broadly, experts excoriated the cognitive dissonance that’s allowing LGBTQ+ issues to be excluded from lesson plans, even as queer youth are especially vulnerable to suicide attempts and substance use in reaction to homophobia and transphobia in their communities.

“When they see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and they know that they are not the only ones, and we remove that feeling of isolation, this can truly be lifesaving information for those young people,” Rice said.

It’s been around two years since Lauryn was assaulted, a tragedy she believes “was less about us failing each other, but more about our education system failing us” because the entire situation stemmed not from isolated malevolence or aggression, but pernicious ignorance.

She still hasn’t told anyone other than close friends – and now the board of education through testimony – about what happened, partly because her assailant was also female and she doesn’t want to deal with the stigma.

“We’re unwilling to talk about anything other than straight, cisgender, Caucasian students waiting until marriage to have sex,” she said.

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