Can boys have babies? Can two people of the same sex have a baby together? What is acne? How old should you be to use tampons?
These are some of the questions asked by fifth grade students during a recent sex education class at the Phalen Leadership Academy at Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48 in Indianapolis. About 20 students sat through the hour-long lesson; some fidgeted, others giggled, and they had a lot of questions.
A health educator with Indianapolis-based nonprofit LifeSmart Youth — an organization funded by federal, state and philanthropic dollars that provides sex education to students in schools across Indiana — led the lesson. It included explanations of what to expect during puberty, the reproductive systems, and how to use tampons and pads.
Research shows comprehensive sex education beginning as early as kindergarten can lead to better health outcomes for students, including preventing dating violence and understanding healthy relationships. But advocates for sex education fear that a new wave of conservative-led attacks on sex education could have a chilling effect on the availability and quality of the information students receive.
Tammie Carter, CEO of LifeSmart Youth, said misinformation about sex education has already impacted their organization; she says two districts they work with have chosen not to have the group back to teach elementary-aged students. The reason: parental pressure.
“And that was directly from the schools,” Carter said. “[They said] that in this political climate, there's too much political pressure for us to be able to do this level of programming right now.”
Carter declined to name the schools. She hopes to win them back.
The challenges now facing LifeSmart Youth are not contained to Indiana. In recent months, sex education has been politicized and lumped together with conservative-driven concerns about what students are learning about race and what books they have access to in school. Lawmakers in New Jersey are fighting over sex education standards that introduce lessons related to gender and sexual orientation in elementary school.
Some conservative groups and politicians across the country say schools use sex education to promote LGBTQ identities and pornography in the classroom. While there’s no evidence to suggest these claims are true, the assertions have inspired fear and outrage among some parents.
‘I was painted as a groomer’
Ashley Robertson is a former teacher who provides private sex education workshops to both children and adults in Indianapolis. Robertson, a Unitarian Universalist, adapted the sex education curricula used by the church for her lessons. She said her goal is to make comprehensive and LGBTQ-inclusive sex education available to people outside the church community.
Robertson began advertising a sex education summer camp for kids in grades three through five earlier this year. She posted it to her Facebook group, where she curates content related to sex education and helps answer parent questions.
In March, the post was shared by a conservative activist parent group. Then, conservative figures and media outlets republished images and picked up insinuations that Robertson sought to harm children.
“I was painted as a groomer. A pedophile. Someone who is stealing the innocence of children, someone who is talking to children about things that are not appropriate, which isn't what I do,” Robertson said. “Everything I teach is age appropriate.”
Robertson lost her camp venue after the business received numerous threatening messages and calls. Robertson said she was also the recipient of hateful messages and at least one death threat.
“The people in my team were feeling scared. And I was feeling scared,” she said. “I mean, there were threats of violence and all sorts of things said that were untrue.”
Robertson said the attack on her character has destroyed her reputation online.
“That was probably the hardest part of all of this,” she said. “Just like, how is it that a bunch of hateful people have that kind of power?”
Sex education isn’t mandated in Indiana schools. And if it’s taught, state law says sex educators must emphasize that abstinence is the expected standard for students. The best way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to establish a monogamous relationship in the context of marriage, according to the law, which was last updated in 2018.
In contrast, Robertson’s summer camp lesson plan includes subjects like bodily autonomy, active listening and communication, the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how to identify coercive behavior. The in-person lessons will also cover what to expect in puberty, contraception methods and STDs.
Robertson said the five-day camp is a response to an unmet need. It costs $200.
“Many of the parents who have kids who don't fall along the gender binary, they're like, ‘I really need my kid to hear from someone else that being a nonbinary kid is awesome and fine,’” she said. “And so a lot of these parents, many here in Indiana, who are not served by what's currently offered (in schools), have just contacted me.”
A recent trend
Nora Gelperin says the sex educators she’s spoken to feel like they’re being targeted.
Gelperin, director of sex education and training with Advocates for Youth, a national organization that lobbies for increased access to comprehensive sex ed, said this is a recent trend driven by “right-wing extremists that are very emboldened to find individual educators by name, address, posting phone numbers, sharing information about their daily schedules.”
“So our teachers are really feeling under personal attack, are really worried about their job security, and most of all, are worried about the health and safety of the students that they're charged with educating each and every day,” Gelperin said.
Gelperin said educators who identify as LGBTQ and people with multiple marginalized identities are particularly vulnerable to attacks from right-wing groups.
Gelperin and other advocates say the movement against comprehensive sex education has joined forces with conservative-led movements against critical race theory and LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum under the banner of “parents rights” and “school transparency.”
In 2022, there was a 413 percent increase in the number of “divisive concept” bills proposed in state legislatures compared to the prior year, according to a recent report from SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, a national group that advocates for inclusive sex education. That list includes highly controversial curriculum bills that failed to pass in Indiana.
Additionally, there were 73 “parental rights” bills introduced this year, including the Florida law opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, according to the report from SIECUS.
“It's all part of the same movement by well-funded far-right organizations,” Gelperin said. “They all have the goal of confusing and frightening parents.”
The parents’ rights movement
Micah Clark said he hears from parents who are “horrified” by the sex education their children learn about in school. Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, a conservative lobbying group, said remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic increased parents’ awareness about what’s taught in school.
“I think you have this movement coming out across the nation of parents who are concerned about things being taught to their kids that they didn't know about before,” Clark said.
Clark has lobbied for sex education policies in Indiana that would require parents to opt their kids into sex ed, versus an opt-out policy. The state passed a law in 2018 that requires schools to notify parents twice before they provide sex education to students. If they don’t respond, the student is automatically opted in. The law also requires schools to provide summaries of the instruction that will be provided.
In previous decades, Clark said parents were concerned about sex education promoting sexual activity. Now, he said the concern is focused more on what students are taught regarding sexuality and gender identity.
“The concern from parents I hear more is: Is there an agenda to promote kids into certain behaviors that parents disagree with or they consider risky, alternative lifestyles?” Clark said. “It's not just males and females and birds and bees. Now it's into the whole homosexual issue and transgender issue.”
Clark believes more transparency is the solution to these concerns.
“If schools just lay out, ‘look, here's what we're teaching. Here's what we're showing, we're not trying to hide anything. We're not trying to groom kids,’” he said. “I think there should be consensus on that among parents.”
But when parents disagree about what should be taught in schools, it’s unclear that transparency alone can solve the problem.
Carter, the CEO of LifeSmart Youth, said her organization makes their lesson plans available to parents. The group also hosts parent nights in both English and Spanish, but Carter said they’re poorly attended. She also knows the vast majority of parents are supportive of their work. And she’s had some success convincing parents who are fearful.
“Some girls do start their periods in fourth grade, or even third grade, or 8, 9 years old, and they should have this information,” Carter said. “And I think when that light comes on, parents change their mind. But I know there are some people who are just dialed into what their beliefs are around things, and they don't even give you an opportunity to talk.”
The stakes for kids
Carter said if more parents want increased access and availability of sex education — especially medically accurate, comprehensive sex education — they need to advocate for it, because the lack of sex education can have devastating impacts on kids.
“When you don't have these tools, we see more domestic violence, we see more teen dating violence, we see more kids harming themselves, just not being empowered and self confident,” Carter said. “And I think those are high costs to pay in our community.”
A 2020 analysis of research on sex education found that comprehensive sex education beginning in elementary school that addressed topics beyond pregnancy and STDs could prevent sexual violence, child sex abuse and transmission of diseases and unwanted pregnancies, as well as promote the development of healthy relationships and an appreciation for sexual diversity.
Gelperin, with Advocates for Youth, agrees that parents who support this type of education need to make their voices heard.
“The very health and safety of our nation's students is on the line. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that sex education can save lives,” Gelperin said.
In the meantime, Ashley Robertson, the sex educator from Indianapolis, plans to continue to educate children and parents. Despite the attack on her character, she said she’s received numerous messages of support and more requests for her services. Robertson still plans to host a sex education summer camp this year, and she’s expanded it to include middle school students due to interest from parents.
“Because the number of comments and people sharing things and people messaging me has just kind of exploded since this happened,” Robertson said.”So it's needed. And I'm supported. And I'm still here.”