I recently attended a conference where I was presenting on religious stigma and shame in relation to sexuality and sexuality education. From what I can tell, while I was gone, y’all were having your own version of that played out in real time right here in Federal Way.
I have heard reports about the town hall meeting. I’ve read the Facebook posts, calling on local clergy to repent for being supportive of Sen. Claire Wilson’s proposed legislation for comprehensive sexual health education. I have seen the article claiming this will be the downfall of Western civilization. I’ve seen the propaganda about the comprehensive sexuality education “agenda.”
Let’s get a few things clear.
1) Senate Bill 5395 is not about teaching kindergartners about sex, abortion, religion and morality. The actual text of the bill “encourages healthy relationships that are based on mutual respect and affection and are free from violence, coercion, and intimidation” and mandates that the education provided be consistent with Washington state health and physical education K-12 learning standards, which you can find here: www.k12.wa.us/HealthFitness/Standards.aspx
2) Parents are the primary sexuality educators of their children. Always. That means that if you’re talking about bodies and relationships with your kids, they’ll realize it’s OK to talk about it. If you remain calm when they ask questions, they’ll learn it’s OK to ask you. If you don’t talk about anything related to sexuality, they’ll learn that it’s not OK with you to talk about it. And if you freak out when they ask you questions, they’ll learn it’s not safe to ask you. The amount of influence parents have over their children is more powerful than any class they will ever take in school.
3) “Developmentally appropriate” is not just a catch phrase or some agenda to teach your kids about sex too soon. There are learning standards (see above) that professional educators have developed about what is appropriate to teach about topics at what age — from health to math to reading and more. This means that if you are discussing things with kindergartners like asking before you touch someone, understanding how to act if someone says no, and showing respect for folks who are different from you, you are teaching about consent and healthy relationships in a developmentally appropriate way.
4) This is still the United States, with separation of church and state. When this bill becomes law, those of you who want to are free to opt your child(ren) out of any part of it at any time based on your faith beliefs or any other reason. Also, you do not get to opt other people’s children out of this type of comprehensive, inclusive, medically accurate, age-appropriate education because of your religious beliefs. We also still have freedom of religion here in the US, whether you like it or not.
In my career as a school social worker, a youth director at my church, and a sexuality educator in both secular and faith spaces, I have counseled youth who have chosen purity, those who have come out to parents and church family as gay or trans, those who have been in need of emergency contraception, and those who have been forced by parents to terminate a pregnancy. These are real situations that our youth are dealing with, in Federal Way, and in our many varied faith communities.
The question is not “should we be dealing with them?” but rather “how are we dealing with them?”
Are we perpetuating shame and stigma by keeping silent and preventing youth from getting the information they need? Or are we providing education about healthy relationships, the difference between consent and coercion, and more, so that healthier choices can be made more often?
Not every child in Federal Way or Washington state or the United States or the world has a caring, loving family with parents who are willing and able to provide education about how to be in relationship with others. If we can provide this education for those who need it, and amplify it for those who grow up in healthy families, it is our responsibility to do so — in our schools, in our churches, in our mosques, in our synagogues and anywhere else we can promote respect, inclusion, tolerance and decency. Our world is depending on it.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.