Did you hear the good news about Mississippi and sex education?
I didn’t think so.
As a Mississippian working on social justice issues, I routinely advertise our state’s rankings: highest teen birth rate, highest child poverty rate, highest obesity rate, etc. It is easy to portray Mississippi in a negative light because it is the worst state for women, particularly women of color and women at or near poverty.
While recognizing the state’s dire statistics, it’s still important to realize that Mississippi is making enormous progress in sex education policy. Progress may not be obvious to the casual observer but it is happening.
The Mississippi legislature passed a law in 2011 that requires every school district to adopt a sex education policy (“abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus”) and a corresponding curriculum approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Of the state’s 152 school districts, 81 adopted an abstinence-only policy and 71 adopted an abstinence-plus policy.
Mississippi’s sex education law is not perfect. The law requires gender-separate classrooms, bans condom demonstrations and instruction, requires parents to “opt-in” their teenager (vs. the more progressive “opt-out”), and defines abstinence-plus as almost identical to abstinence-only. And, the Mississippi Department of Education has approved Choosing the Best, a well-known, fear-based abstinence-only curriculum, which can be used in schools who adopt either the abstinence-only or the abstinence-plus policy because of the law’s weak definition of abstinence-plus. Unfortunately, many school districts, even those that adopted an abstinence-plus policy, will teach Choosing the Best. (It still makes me laugh that Choosing the Best includes a mock marriage ceremony that, under Mississippi law, must be performed in gender-separated classrooms.)
Still, before this year not a single school district had adopted any sex education policy, and the fact that 47 percent of the districts adopted abstinence-plus policies is groundbreaking. This is progress.