On Sex Ed, “Our Side” Is Finally Fighting Back

On Sex Ed, “Our Side” Is Finally Fighting Back

On Sex Ed, “Our Side” Is Finally Fighting Back

The new group EducateUS is creating a counter-movement to the conservative groups stoking a culture war over sexuality education.

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When the nation began to emerge from our collective Covid lockdowns two to three years ago, some public education advocates noticed that parents were developing strange new fears about what was going on in their children’s classrooms. Conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, the Family Policy Alliance, and others suddenly began translating the phobias that once powered debates over masking, vaccines and remote learning into curriculum battles, specifically over whether and how to teach sex education in public schools. In the past three years, urban and suburban districts in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, and Georgia faced newly contentious school board meetings and suddenly contested school board races over sex ed, especially over the teaching of LGBTQ issues and anything related to “gender identity.” The backlash has been no mere red-state panic: In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin won an upset race for Virginia governor at least in part on parents’ fears of what was being taught in sex-ed classes.

Formerly quiet board rooms where new sex-ed curricula used to be calmly vetted blew up into shouting matches; educators accused of promoting “wrong” ideas faced death threats. That year, Education Week reported that 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.”

When I covered this movement two years ago, many sex-ed advocates I spoke to lamented that there weren’t many—maybe not any—groups solely devoted to supporting sex ed in schools. But over the last few months, a team of organizers led by the group EducateUS: Changing Sex Ed for Good, building on research by Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth, and others, has been developing ways of building support for sex ed from the classroom to school board chambers to local libraries to the ballot box. With support from the Harnisch Foundation and the Equality Federation, the group hired Gutsy Media to develop three 30-second digital ads based on messages they honed through testing.

“Sex ed has been a third-tier priority for the left,” says Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director of EducateUS. “But we’re finding it can poll better than abortion.” Earlier research by Planned Parenthood found that roughly 96 percent of parents want sex ed taught in high school, and more than 80 want it taught in middle school. EducateUS shared its new data exclusively with The Nation. (You can view the ads here, and and get the background on the research here.)

In 2022, Moms for Liberty made its first round of political endorsements, winning a healthy number. But its success was short-lived. The group’s candidates won fewer than one-third of school board seats where they had sought Moms for Liberty’s endorsement in 2023. The Brookings Institution observed the largest change in the suburbs, where the win rate dipped from from 54 percent to 34 percent.

EducateUS won three of the five seats where it backed school board candidates last year. But it is not declaring victory yet. “There are still a lot of places where people feel parents alone should be in charge of sex ed,” says Dr. Tarece Johnson-Morgan, a Gwinnett County School Board member in Georgia who has fought these battles on the ground. Last year, in a tough fight, the board adopted a new health curriculum, but opted to leave out its sex-ed components. They’ll revisit that decision this year, she says, and she believes EducateUS’s research and advertising will help her cause.

What EducateUS has tried to do is not merely poll attitudes but to test messaging that can lead to action in support of sexuality education—whether that’s voting for a school board candidate who shares your views, or lobbying an elected body to support your issues, or sharing its persuasive tested messages via social media. Its research began in 2022, and developed into a full-blown set of surveys, message development, and advertising in the second half of 2023. Ultimately, it surveyed 15,170 respondents across four surveys.

This week, the group and its partners are releasing messaging that they say has been shown to spur action, along with three ads that anyone can license, to share via social media, e-mail, or as an education tool to get folks organized. Overall, their research shows that support for sex ed increased between 2022 and 2023, with very little ground game going on.

Dr. Cara Berg Powers was my guide to the fraught politics of sex ed back in 2022. As a prominent supporter of sexuality education in schools, she’d lost a race for a school board seat in Worcester, Massachusetts. And even after her district adopted a progressive sex-ed curriculum in 2021, she had to watch as another school board candidate, Shanel Soucy, used her anti-sex-ed campaign—though ultimately unsuccessful—to organize more than 3,000 local parents to opt out of letting their kids take sex ed. (Parents have almost always been able to opt their kids out of sex ed, in big cities and small.)

Now Powers chairs the board of EducateUS. She feels like our side is catching up. “This issue has been really badly done for a while,” she notes. “Young people and sexuality can make us feel icky. It threatens a lot of us. But I think we see, with EducateUS, people are coming around to believe young people deserve honest sex education.”

Some of their winning messages were surprising to me. When I first wrote about this issue, I thought that pushing the message that sex education helps kids recognize and report child abuse was compelling. But for these survey groups, it was not. “Most people see it as a negative, marginal message that doesn’t affect a lot of people,” Powers notes (though it silently affects more people than any one knows). Soucy, herself a child survivor, told me flat-out two years ago that sex ed wouldn’t help abused kids like her: “No,” she said firmly. “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.” EducateUS says the days of pushing a “narrow, stigma- and fear-based message about unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections” are behind us.

The ads that broke through and moved people to action are remarkably joyous, not ominous. One of them was nicknamed “Break the Isolation.” It deals with the incomplete business, even in 2024, of moving teenagers back into school and into their lives, comfortably, post-Covid. Sex ed “has been shown to reduce bullying, and help kids develop healthy relationships,” the ad notes. And yes, there’s a closing nod to sexuality, and it’s sweet. It ends with the tagline: “Sex ed: It’s not what you’ve heard, and just what they need.” This ad moved the most people to action, overall. Ads focused on fighting bullying were especially effective with men and conservatives.

Another ad, “Know Means Know,” spotlights the youth empowerment that sexual knowledge represents. “They trust us, because we trust them,” it begins, as a young man hops out of a parent’s car, excitedly, to begin his school day. This one has an edge: It identifies that there are forces opposed to sex ed. “But some don’t trust them with any of it, and they’re getting bolder every day.” We see images of angry parents carrying signs saying things like “Education not sexualization” and “Too much too soon.” The ad concludes: “The time to fight for sex ed is now—because know means know.”

A third, “Liberation,” is a tribute to Black empowerment. “Black people have been fighting for bodily freedom since we came to this country,” a woman’s voice intones. “The fight for Black liberation continues. A vote for sex ed is a vote for bodily freedom.” Although the ad mainly features Black people, it motivated positive action among all races tested, but was far the most motivating to Black viewers.

“We have to remember people of color are our natural constituency,” Friedman told me. They test most strongly in favor of all of these messages. On average, people of color were found to be 14 percent more likely to take action for public school sex ed over their white counterparts. Compared with the first surveys EducateUS did in 2022, white men are improving and are showing themselves to be receptive. “We didn’t find a ‘gender gap’ on sex ed support this time around,” Friedman says. Some of the messaging tests particularly well with Republicans and even conservatives,” she says. “Don’t write anyone off!”

When they license the EducateUS ads, for free, groups will be able to develop their own closing message. It might be about elections, depending on the organization’s tax status, or it might be around supporting new policy or curriculum.

Jaclyn Friedman is a lifelong anti-sexual-violence advocate whose first book, Yes Means Yes, popularized the idea of affirmative consent. Talking on college campuses, she says, “I kept hearing the same thing from students, which was that they were so incredibly grateful to have this new-to-them information, but wish they had had it six or eight years ago so they wouldn’t have had to go through what they had already been through.” With American sexuality education already watered down and even unavailable to some students, Friedman was appalled watching the backlash that developed as we emerged from the nightmare of Covid. “Eventually, I couldn’t avoid the fact that I was failing these students.” Friedman and partners put together the funding to launch EducateUS, and a counter-movement was born.

Promoting sex education in schools has long been excoriated by conservatises. The John Birch Society railed against in the 1950s, and anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly put it this way 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.”

There seemed a chance for détente in the 1980s, however, as we learned more about the spread of HIV and AIDS, and the way healthy sex practices, especially the use of condoms, could limit it. Even then, some conservatives opposed it—or insisted that abstinence be the main message. But Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, came out for teaching about gay and straight sex, and the role of condoms in reducing spread of the disease. “The best protection against infection right now—barring abstinence—is use of a condom,” he wrote in 1984. Still, war broke out between those preaching only abstinence and those who wanted a more comprehensive curriculum. In one film shown in “abstinence only” classrooms, 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 subsequent research showing the health benefits of a more comprehensive approach, even in terms of mental health, mainly won the day, and comprehensive sex-ed curricula spread in school districts around the country. Until recently. Now, along with book bans and other curriculum restrictions—like Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, restricting what elementary students can learn about gender and sexuality—a new movement to cut back on classroom sex-ed instruction has gained ground. It trades on some deeply pernicious myths and lies, especially about gay teachers using sex ed and other means to “groom” young people “sexually.”

The “groomer” slur particularly rattled a Florida teacher then with 29 years of classroom experience when we spoke two years ago. To those using it, he says,”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.”

EducateUS hopes to combat fear and bitterness with a compassionate and commonsense advocacy for sex ed that centers students’ needs, especially as we reckon with the way three or more years of school lockdowns took a grave toll on the ability of young people to connect—socially, with their friends, and not just sexually.

At a Zoom meeting April 16 to preview the ads and the new research, more than 70 people showed up, and the mood was excited. Some represented major national advocacy organizations, while others were with smaller, state-level nonprofits; there were folks from organizations that endorse progressive school board candidates, as well as a couple of candidates themselves. The chat function crackled with questions but mainly emojis and other signs of elation. This group knew they were seeing something brand-new in the world of sex ed, and they couldn’t wait to learn how to use it.

Rosalie Wong, a leader of New Jersey’s SWEEP—“Suburban Women Engaged, Empowered, and Pissed!”—says she’d like to use the ads, and EducateUS’s research, to combat the growing threat of book bans at schools and libraries. “I mean, what the heck is going on with all of this?” she asks, rhetorically. Her 1,500 members are ready to fight back.

“This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Friedman tells me, “but it’s also the most satisfying—when we see school districts that were resisting sex ed start to implement a great curriculum after local organizers called us for backup, when we help powerhouse first-time candidates get elected to their school boards, when we hear from volunteers in red and purple states that our tested messages are helping them communicate more effectively with their local schools, parents, and communities—it’s incredible when you think of what the ripple effects will be.”

What I came away most impressed by was the ads’ decision to spotlight the joy and power of being young, not the angst adults so like to project onto teenagers. They’re not aliens, they’re us. When I told Friedman that was my primary takeaway from the work, she had a one-word answer. “Yes.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

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