Though most of us are still not quite sure what it is, the concept of “gateway sexual activity” is back, or at least a ban on teaching about it is back.This time it is Republicans on the Ohio House Finance Committee who are worried about our young people heading down the wrong sexual path. So worried, in fact, that they are willing to impose fines on anyone who teaches about such sexual activity. That’s right, an amendment to the budget passed by the committee yesterday would prohibit providing or distributing condoms or other contraceptives on school grounds and ban any instruction that promotes “gateway sexual activity.” Teachers or organizations that violate this ban could be subject to lawsuits by parents as well as a $5,000 fine.
Some of us remember the first time we heard this phrase; it was last year when Tennessee Republicans passed a similar law that became the butt of national jokes because no one knew what a “gateway” behavior would be — a kiss, a foot rub, an expensive dinner? The law didn’t define it but lawmakers in Tennessee promised that we would know it when we saw it. As I reported for RH Reality Check at the time, one legislator explained in testimony on the floor:
“Everybody in this room knows what gateway sexual activity is. Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there’s no stopping, especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught, and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody.”
I can’t say that this explanation helped enlighten me though it did infuriate me with all of its judgment and blame. Like many others, I preferred comedian Steven Colbert’s snarky take on it:
“Kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station. We desperately need to intervene earlier to keep kids from engaging in… all the things that lead to the things that lead to sex.”
In an effort to avoid any similar confusion (and perhaps prevent being made fun of on Comedy Central), Ohio legislators provided a definition of “gateway sexual activity.” And, because teenage sexual behavior is so bad as to be felonious, they took the language straight from the state’s criminal code. So schools cannot promote:
“…any touching of an erogenous zone of another, including without limitation the thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, or, if the person is a female, a breast, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person.”
Despite this very clear definition of behaviors that Ohio lawmakers think will inevitably lead to teens boffing like bunnies, I imagine that teachers in the state are still confused as to what they can and can’t say. After all, sexuality education is not about promoting specific behaviors, it is (among many, many other things) about helping young people think critically about those behaviors they will and will not choose for themselves. I suppose, though, that such confusion, combined with a hefty fine, will have the exact effect that lawmakers want; teachers will play it safe and say nothing.
As Damon Asbury, a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association told the Dayton Daily News:
“I don’t think we should have teachers put on trial for teaching a prescribed curriculum. It takes you back to the Scopes Trial.”
Kellie Copeland of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio told the Dayton Daily News that she also opposed the ban noting the amendment appears to be an attempt to ban comprehensive sex education programs in schools. She added: