The Backlash Against Sex Ed

The Backlash Against Sex Ed

The right is inflaming another front in the culture war.


Shanel Soucy seems like she would be a champion of what’s come to be known as “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE): the teaching of basic anatomy and reproduction, plus all the complications and joy that go along with sexuality. Soucy is a 40-year-old biracial woman, with one Black and one white parent. She’s an electrician and a storied local barber in Worcester, Mass. She became a mother at 14, lived in and out of shelters—and briefly out of her car—until she got her first apartment at 19. She raised three boys, “mostly” on her own, she said.

I felt a connection with Soucy during our hour-long phone conversation, even though I had tracked her down because she’d run for a seat on the Worcester School Committee last fall in a polarizing campaign opposing the city’s new sex-ed curriculum. Soucy had lost, but in some ways she’d won. Along with the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, which is connected to the Family Policy Alliance and the Family Research Council, Soucy and her supporters mounted a campaign urging Worcester parents to take their children out of the new sex-ed program. “Opt Out of Pornographic Sex Education” signs went up around the city, Massachusetts’s second-largest. More than 13 percent of district families have now opted out of the curriculum—a higher rate than for most cities in that traditionally blue state, Soucy said—and the number is rising.

“The number of families who opted out of any local sex-ed curriculum went from eight, before I started my campaign, to 3,400 after,” she added.

Soucy counts the opt-outs as a victory and predicts the number will keep growing. The Massachusetts Family Institute even gave her its Citizenship Award for her “commitment to our Judeo-Christian values.” But Soucy said she’s an “independent,” not right or left, just concerned about her kids—and yours.

Cara Berg Powers, an educator who’s been fighting for comprehensive sex education in Worcester since 2017, is proud of the new K-12 curriculum, but the battle isn’t over yet, she said: “In some ways, what’s gone on in Worcester foreshadowed the national conversation and controversy [over CSE], but now it’s being influenced by that conversation. There’s a feedback loop here.”

As CSE’s opponents get more extreme, we don’t know where the loop will end. Soucy doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, and she’s not sure why the battle has to get so ugly. “I have deep compassion for people struggling, living in pain and hopelessness,” she wrote in a follow-up e-mail.

But the battle is getting ugly nonetheless.

With the nation focused on Florida’s adoption of a Parental Rights in Education bill, which places restrictions on teaching or even mentioning sexual orientation and gender identity, especially in grades K-3, little attention is being paid to similar bills in the pipeline elsewhere. According to Education Week, at least 30 pieces of legislation around the country “would variously circumscribe LGBTQ representation in the curriculum, the pronouns that students and teachers can use, and put limits on school clubs, among other things.” Most of these bills are making their way through the legislatures in red states like South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Indiana. (Alabama already has a law comparable to Florida’s.) Nebraska scuttled an attempt to develop state sex-ed guidelines in 2021 after a backlash from conservatives and Catholics. “The opposition peddled fear and misinformation,” said Lisa Schulze, the education and training director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha. “It was heartbreaking.” Jim Pillen, the winner of the Republican primary race for governor (who defeated the Donald Trump–endorsed candidate, Charles Herbster, who was accused of groping women), declared last year that “Nebraska should have no state sex education standards—these are decisions that should be made by parents, not bureaucrats.”

Some of this backlash seems homegrown, involving parents like Soucy who are genuinely confused by or concerned about the relatively recent sex-ed guidelines adopted or proposed for their schools. But much of it is fomented and funded by the usual right-wing suspects, including the Heritage Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council, all of which have been leaders in tearing down public education and promoting private schools, as well as conservative policies at the local, state, and federal levels. There are also the newer groups like the Family Policy Alliance (affiliated with the Family Research Council) and Stop CSE (created by the right-wing Family Watch International), which in turn have inspired state and local affiliates to advance an anti-CSE agenda.

“These are old networks and opponents, but I don’t think they are ‘reawakening.’ They never went away,” the longtime LGBTQ activist Evan Wolfson told The Daily Beast in April.

At its most basic, “comprehensive sex education” refers to a curriculum that goes beyond the teaching of basic anatomy, bodily changes during puberty, and how to prevent pregnancy and STIs that many of us received decades ago in middle and high school. “Comprehensive” programs typically include instruction on bodily autonomy, recognizing and reporting sexual abuse, and basic anatomy lessons in the early grades. In later grades, they include issues of consent, bullying, methods of contraception, information about the right to abortion, and issues of gender identification and sexual orientation. Research shows that these more comprehensive approaches reduce teen pregnancy, delay the age at which teens commence sexual activity, lessen the spread of sexually transmitted infections, and promote teen health overall. Only 30 states require any form of sex ed, though in states that don’t, some school districts decide to do so anyway. Nevertheless, some school districts don’t teach sex ed at all, and most adopt their own local standards, in consultation with the community. In most schools, whatever sex ed is offered is confined to a few days, or maybe a week, in the school year.

What worries CSE advocates most is that even cities and suburbs in blue states like Massachusetts are seeing a growing opposition to new sex-ed standards. More than 100 protesters stormed an April Family Life Advisory Committee meeting in Maryland’s Frederick County, less than 50 miles from Washington, D.C., to block discussion of implementing the state’s new health education standards there. “Maryland family life and human sexuality instruction shall represent all students regardless of ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression,” the state guidelines say. One protester came to the podium early in the meeting to warn committee members ominously: “This is gonna be hard for y’all.”

Indeed it was. The crowd shouted, swore, and interrupted committee members and district speakers for about an hour and a half, until the meeting was shut down. “We have two genders, male and female,” said one angry man at the mic. “But you won’t [teach] kids religion?” Kris Fair, the executive director of the Frederick Center, an LGBTQ advocacy group, brought a group of young people to the meeting but left early. “I felt it was no longer safe to keep the young people in the room. I took them out,” Fair told a local radio station.

In Westfield, N.J., protests erupted after a Republican state legislator cherry-picked potential resources for the local sex-ed curriculum, with her allies insisting the new state and local standards were promoting “sexualizing children” and “transgenderism.” Fox News ran the story repeatedly. The offending statements came from sample lesson plans that are not required under either the state’s or the Westfield district’s standards. Still, the uproar forced Democratic Governor Phil Murphy to tell reporters that he was “willing to entertain” revising the standards. Later Murphy said his focus was on tailoring the curriculum to make sure it’s “age-appropriate.”

In Colorado, which has been a leader in developing comprehensive sex education standards, deeply red Delta County voted to not even bother to incorporate comprehensive sex education locally—the state doesn’t mandate it, but does provide funding to incentivize it—because of protests and counterprotests. “Everyone is being crazy,” Delta County Superintendent Caryn Gibson said about the decision, after a two-year process to craft local standards. The Family Policy Alliance helped organize the counterprotest there, as elsewhere.

But this burgeoning movement took a more menacing turn after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s top communications aide suggested that anyone who opposed the state’s new law was a “groomer”—a derogatory term for someone, stereotypically a gay man, who grooms children for sexual abuse. Fox News hosts and right-wing politicians mainstreamed the notion that opponents of the Florida law, or supporters of comprehensive sex ed generally, are “groomers” or even “pro-pedophile.”

The right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, last seen ginning up panic over a nonexistent “critical race theory” curriculum in public schools, has moved on to ginning up panic over a nonexistent sex-abuse crisis he attributes to public school “predators” and the way they teach about gender and sexuality. Why? “The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues,” he recently told The New York Times.

Some of that sentiment is fermenting in the same online sewers that produced the QAnon conspiracy theory—that top Democrats are running a child-sex-trafficking ring—and also helped plan the deadly January 6 insurrection. QAnon’s believers were violent then, and it’s frightening to think what they might do now. If you believe that LGBTQ teachers, or even straight sex-ed teachers, are “grooming” children for sexual abuse, then violence can seem justified.

For instance, in Hartford, Conn., a school nurse falsely claimed on social media that an 11-year-old student was being given puberty blockers—hormones that enable young people who identify as transgender to prevent the onset of puberty—without the parents’ knowledge. When the report surfaced on right-wing websites, including, a platform that facilitated the planning of the January 6 violence, school district officials received death threats. “The superintendent is supporting leftist grooming in her schools. She needs to be executed by our judicial system,” a poster known as ProudAmericanKorean wrote, and then attempted to dox her—but the home address was out of date. Other posters suggested that educators be fed into “woodchippers”; a few posted pictures of nooses and rope.

Advance Democracy, a liberal research group, first revealed the threats to Hartford’s superintendent and other violent anti-educator rhetoric on right-wing websites. The group is best known for its work tracing the pre–January 6 threats of violence on the Internet, especially on (which morphed into Advance Democracy’s founder, Daniel J. Jones, heard stories of threats against educators and school board members over teaching sex ed and saw them as yet another threat to democracy. “These poor people are purely public servants,” he told me. “This is dangerous.”

“We’ve made a lot of progress since the ’80s and ’90s,” said Nora Gelperin, the educational director of Advocates for Youth. “But it’s gotten really scary out there. These issues of personal safety are new. Educators are getting death threats.”

What’s behind this frenzy? A data point in a Gallup poll released in February jumped out at me: 21 percent of Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2003, report they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender—something besides “heterosexual.” “Change is a-coming,” Gelperin said.

But despite the new generation gap, this is an old fault line in American politics. As People for the American Way noted in the 1996 report “Teaching Fear: The Religious Right’s Campaign Against Sexuality Education,” the right’s sex-ed panic goes back at least to the 1960s, when the Christian Crusade published a pamphlet titled “Is the Little Red School House the Place to Teach Raw Sex?” and the closely associated John Birch Society denounced fledgling efforts to teach even limited forms of sex ed in schools as a “filthy communist plot.” Much of the opposition originated as a reaction to the growing demands for women’s rights, especially the right to decide when or even whether to become a mother. As the anti-feminist titan Phyllis Schlafly put it in 1981, “The major goal of nearly all sex education curricula being taught in the schools is to teach teenagers (and sometimes children) how to enjoy fornication without having a baby and without feeling guilty.”

Despite the activists’ furor, though, the right wing made few gains. In 1983, The Washington Post reported, “The vociferous opposition to sex education spawned by fundamentalist and New Right groups in the 1970s and early 1980s…has been submerged by quiet, grassroots alliances of parents, educators, clergy and lay people who believe courses in human sexuality have a place in the schools.” Later in the decade, the HIV/AIDS crisis seemed to offer an opportunity for the two sides to work together. Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, even endorsed programs that taught about sex—gay and straight—as well as condoms.

“There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it [should] include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The need is critical and the price of neglect is high. The lives of our young people depend on our fulfilling our responsibility,” Koop said in 1986. He went on: “The best protection against infection right now—barring abstinence—is use of a condom.”

But instead of cooperation, the AIDS epidemic spawned a bitter schism between “abstinence-only” programs and a broader approach that included teaching about sexuality, condoms, and “safe sex.” Reagan directed millions of dollars into the two main abstinence-only groups, including one founded by Schlafly. Their narrow curriculum was adopted by school districts in Florida, Louisiana, California, Illinois, and others. In one film promoted by the abstinence-only curriculum “Sex Respect,” a student is seen asking a teacher, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” The teacher replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”

But in the mid-1990s, groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the American Psychological Association, along with American academics, found that it was the competing, comprehensive curricula that postponed sexual activity for teens and also increased the use of condoms, central to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. And the pendulum began to swing back to a more comprehensive approach to sex education under Bill Clinton. (Not that it was a golden age: It was Clinton, remember, who pressured Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign for suggesting that masturbation might slow the spread of AIDS and “perhaps should be taught.”) Pandering to a resurgent Christian right, George W. Bush injected new federal money into teaching abstinence; Barack Obama zeroed it out, though private groups continued to fund it. By now, parents are largely on board with a comprehensive approach: A 2017 overview of reliable survey data found that 93 percent of adults supported teaching sex ed in high schools, 84 percent in middle schools, and large majorities favored curricula that covered contraception, consent, and sexual orientation issues. The momentum seemed to be with the advocates of expansive curricula focused on teaching about sexual consent and safety, as well as gender identity and acceptance of LGBTQ families and children.

Until recently.

Shanel Soucy is deeply concerned about many of the same issues CSE is trying to address, but her worldview leads her to a fundamentally different approach.

Despite having been a teen mother, Soucy praises the sex ed she received. “When I was in high school in the ’90s, we were taught ‘sexual risk avoidance,’” she said. “Teachers asked me into their classes to share my experience as a teen mom. Which is hard. Now they’re teaching ‘Sex is natural and normal and for pleasure.’ Sure, but tough consequences come with that. And they’re exposing kids to these ideas at a very young age.”

Though she was active in her three boys’ schools, Soucy knew nothing about what the local school committee did. Then she got a flyer one day at her son’s youth group, and it opened her eyes.

“It said there was going to be a big discussion on sex ed at the school committee,” she recalled. “They shared excerpts from the curriculum, and I couldn’t believe it. It was very age-inappropriate.” Planned Parenthood, she added, was behind it. (Though a Planned Parenthood–guided curriculum had been proposed years earlier, it was rejected, and the one adopted in 2021 had no connection.) “So I went to the meeting, and I realized it was real.”

When I asked what was “pornographic” about the new curriculum, as the “Opt Out” campaign claims, Soucy pointed me to a cartoon video that’s available as a resource for the fifth-grade curriculum, featuring a boy masturbating to what she said sounds like porn music. (She acknowledged that it’s only a resource available from the sex-ed video provider, not a part of the curriculum.) But Soucy insisted that most Worcester parents prefer a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of abstinence. She also claimed that the new sex-ed curriculum was “forced” on unwitting parents with little notice.

Soucy and I had a friendly conversation, but at one point she turned the tables on me. “I looked you up. I know who you are,” she said, chuckling—meaning she knew I was likely a supporter of CSE. She asked me some questions, starting with why I thought the comprehensive approach was important.

I fumbled for words, and started with the notion that it helps LGBTQ youth, and kids with LGBTQ parents, feel affirmed, safe, and accepted in the community. There are high rates of depression, drug abuse, and even suicide among teens in that community, especially for those who are transgender. “But what about the majority?” she countered. I’m not sure how learning about those things hurts straight kids with straight parents, but I admit I didn’t say that.

I asked her whether, as a teen mother, she could have benefited from a more comprehensive approach to sex ed than “risk avoidance”—one that emphasized the importance of bodily autonomy, reproductive health, and contraception?

“No,” she said flatly. “When you’re having sex at 14, or 12, you’re not thinking about any of that. It’s about escaping dysfunction. It’s not a means of pleasure.”

I noted that research shows comprehensive programs help teens postpone sex and avoid pregnancy better than abstinence-only models. “I’ve looked at those studies,” she said. “They’re sketchy. A lot of the research is run by Planned Parenthood.” Some of it is, but a lot of research today is independent. And all of the respected studies find the same results: Students who get comprehensive sex ed are more likely to report sexual abuse if they experience it; they also become sexually active later, are more likely to use protection when they do, and are more likely to avoid pregnancy and STIs.

I soldiered on. The early-grades curriculum, I told her, is at least partly designed to help children recognize and report sexual abuse. Can she see at least that as important? Again, Soucy said no: “The majority of [abused] kids know what’s happened to them—but if you tell, you get taken out of your family and put in foster care. So a lot of kids know but just don’t tell.” I’m sure that’s true for some abused children, though not all, but her assertion is heartbreaking nonetheless.

Finally, I asked if she shares the increasingly common conservative notion that those advocating comprehensive sex-ed programs are “groomers” or even pedophiles.

“Oh, I think that’s rash—I don’t name-call,” she answered. “I just feel like this is a matter of exploitation.” Sexual exploitation? No, she said, and returned to the idea that Planned Parenthood is behind Worcester’s new curriculum, which she insisted is preying on “vulnerable people, broken people. And it sets [Planned Parenthood] up for a lifetime of clients.”

Cara Berg Powers, like Soucy, is a Worcester parent and an unsuccessful candidate for the school committee, in 2019. The similarities end there.

When the committee approved its CSE curriculum in May of last year, “I jumped for joy,” she told me. Powers, who teaches education at Clark University in Worcester, disputes Soucy’s claim that the new curriculum was “forced” on parents with little notice or transparency. “This had been going on for more than five years,” she said, citing a task force that brought community groups together to plan a curriculum. “There was an incredible level of transparency on this—we didn’t get that transparency for our math curriculum!” she added jokingly, although she wasn’t kidding.

The task force “was an incredibly comprehensive process,” she continued, involving educators, community groups, and parents. It’s true that one of the curricula it considered was designed by Planned Parenthood, but the task force settled on a compromise alternative. Conservatives on the school committee nevertheless shelved it in 2019 after being lobbied by former committee member Mary Mullaney, a Catholic activist. As a compromise, Mayor Joe Petty directed a committee to take another crack at a new curriculum. They began almost immediately, Powers recalled.

There were several meetings about it in 2020 and 2021, she said, “and Shanel attended at least the last two.” They were held on Zoom, during the pandemic; it’s possible the level of participation wasn’t entirely clear, Powers allowed. But turnout was high: At least 30 people spoke at the final meeting, and most favored the new curriculum, she said. It was adopted on May 6 of last year. But the backlash began immediately. And even after Soucy lost her school committee race, it continued unabated.

Powers is proud of her victory but knows she might have to fight again. The CSE curriculum the board chose—“Rights, Respect, Responsibility,” or the “Three Rs,” produced by Advocates for Youth—is now being taught in Worcester classrooms. But Soucy and her allies are still trying to get parents to opt out. “They were harassing parents about it in the pickup lines after school,” Powers said, until school officials asked them to stop.

Powers’s 8-year-old daughter recently had a three-day unit of the new curriculum, and she wanted more of it. Her daughter, she said, knows trans and nonbinary people, “but her pronouns are she/her/hers. She’s clear about who she is, but she knows gender is not the most important thing about people. And she doesn’t understand: What harm is there in letting all people be themselves? It’s really about control—that parents think they can stop their kids from being trans or being gay.”

One sample lesson plan for first graders in the “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” curriculum, now used in Worcester, Westfield, N.J., and hundreds of other districts, has been singled out by anti-CSE activists and the media. The lesson is not required to be taught in full anywhere; it’s “suggested.” But that hasn’t stopped activists from using it as an example of everything that’s supposedly wrong with CSE.

The lesson plan is called “Pink, Blue and Purple,” and most of it is a straightforward primer on how to avoid sex stereotyping. It starts with a choice of cards to send to new parents: Should they be blue for a boy and pink for a girl? Why? The lesson explains there’s no reason to use gendered colors. It goes on to say there are no specific “girl toys” or “boy toys” and no “girl jobs” or “boy jobs.”

It continues: “You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts. You might feel like you’re a girl even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘boy’ parts. And you might not feel like you’re a boy or a girl, but you’re a little bit of both. No matter how you feel, you’re perfectly normal!”

It’s the quote heard round the world, from the New York Post to the Daily Mail to The Washington Post. The Bulwark’s Cathy Young, one of the news site’s stable of anti-Trump conservatives, featured it in a purportedly balanced piece about the sex-ed wars in April. Young, to her credit, came out against the Florida bill as “bad law.” But she also suggested that advocates of CSE are pushing complex concepts at children who are too young—and she used the body-parts section of “Pink, Blue and Purple” as one example. Young seemed to think a compromise was possible.

I put that proposal to Advocates for Youth’s Nora Gelperin. “We’re not willing to compromise on someone’s identity or their families’ identities,” Gelperin responded. “The more you yield, the more they’ll decimate sex ed.” Plus, she added, “we already have parental opt-out.”

Alison Macklin, the state policy and advocacy director at SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, agrees. “We are policing teachers in ways we never have before. There is no teacher in the world who is espousing that people become gay or trans! I’m always asking people who make these claims, ‘OK, give me an example.’ And they can’t.”

One educator, still reeling from the attacks on the “Three Rs” curriculum, agreed to let me share an e-mail they sent as their school district reviews its curriculum. “It’s always made out to be about a wildly radical agenda,” the teacher wrote. “But if people in my position can try to understand a bit about why parents may be uncomfortable about discussing details about gender at younger ages, then [the other side] should be able to consider that there are so many young people in crisis and education could help with that. The intention behind these standards is to save lives.”

Dr. Kathleen Ethier, who runs adolescent health and sexuality programs at the Centers for Disease Control, said the best CSE programs save straight kids’ lives too. “These policies and practices that are being pushed back on help all students,” Ethier told me. “Studies show the anti-bullying and anti-harassment curriculum helps everyone. Heterosexual kids have lower rates of suicide attempts and lower rates of sexual assault [than students who don’t get such teaching]. All of these things support all young people.”

Meanwhile, in Florida, the new law hasn’t gone into effect yet, but teachers are already feeling the chill. Michael Woods, a 29-year teaching veteran in Palm Beach, had a colleague preparing a lesson about the US space program. One slide in the curriculum featured the late Sally Ride, the first woman in space, who also happened to be a lesbian. “She just cut ‘lesbian’ out of the slide. She felt she had to,” he said.

Woods emphasized that Florida has no sex-ed requirements. It’s a point that often gets lost in the controversy: With no sex ed required, the state’s prohibition on discussing sexuality and gender in the early grades is basically intended to make sure young children are never taught, or don’t have it acknowledged or respected, that anyone in their lives is LGBTQ. (In later grades, the Florida bill bans teaching on gender and sexuality that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” a standard that teachers say is too subjective.) Some anatomy is taught in the fifth grade; a broader “health” curriculum starts in the sixth.

Woods is a science teacher who also teaches kids with disabilities. When I reached him by phone, he’d just come from teaching the five-day sex-ed curriculum for ninth graders. It dealt with Internet safety and cyber-bullying, but only one day was devoted to discussing gender identity and sexual orientation—“mainly defining ‘what is LGBTQ?’ We actually stress abstinence,” Woods said, “but if you’re choosing not to be abstinent, [we also cover] ‘here’s how you protect yourself.’”

Woods is proud to be public about being gay. “I came out very late, because I was afraid of losing my job. I’ve never identified myself as a gay teacher, but now I have to,” he said. His multi-year contract gives him protection others don’t have.

But the “groomer” slur rattles him, Woods continued. To those using it, he would say: “You don’t understand how dangerous that word is. Do you understand the consequences of that word?” He began to choke up. “I’m a Special Olympics coach. That requires people to have trust in me. I’m a prom sponsor. I chaperone the senior class trip.”

A surprising number of people resisted talking to me for this story. Teachers and school administrators are running scared. Advance Democracy’s Daniel J. Jones thinks the “consequences” of this nasty rhetoric go beyond distrustful parents and even job loss. Having studied the way online threats turned into bloodshed on January 6, he warns, “We should not be surprised if this turns violent.”

Cara Berg Powers said some of her education students are having second thoughts about their chosen profession. “My students are scared they’re going to be called ‘groomers.’ They’re afraid they’ll be in danger. One is a trans woman—she said, ‘Being a teacher is all I ever wanted.’ But now she’s thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t.’”

“People ask me, ‘Are you afraid of losing your job?’” Woods said. “I’ve got 29 years here. This is my way of speaking up for students.

“This topic is not going anywhere,” he adds. “And neither am I.”

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