Memphis, Tennessee, leads the nation in rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infection. But as another academic year draws to a close, the schools in Tennessee’s most populous city aren’t doing anything to teach sexually active students how to be safe. Three years ago, state legislators passed a sex-education policy that doubles down on the requirement that teachers stress abstinence until marriage and allows lawsuits to be brought against teachers who distribute contraception or do anything that could be perceived as encouraging experimentation. At the time, there was a national outcry, with critics demanding to know what was meant by the “gateway sexual activity” legislators had decided couldn’t be mentioned in the classroom.
A new report from the Memphis-based reproductive justice organization SisterReach argues that Tennessee’s sex-ed policy is particularly damaging to black youth. In Memphis, 71 percent of children are black, and girls of all races between the ages of 15 and 19 experience the highest rates of chlamydia in the county. Black residents make up more than 90 percent of Shelby County’s reported cases of chlamydia and 95 percent of gonorrhea cases. But if a student in recently consolidated Shelby County schools is depending on adults at school to teach them how to stay healthy, they’re out of luck. According to small focus groups of black teens, parents, and teachers convened by SisterReach—the first effort in Tennessee to gather and the views of people of color on comprehensive sex education—more than 90 percent of the youth interviewed said they weren’t given adequate information to fully understand their bodies or how to make the right decisions about sex.
Despite the common argument from proponents of abstinence-based sex ed that additional learning should take place at home, parents interviewed said they’re not able to make up for the incomplete and misleading content their young people get in the classroom. Just 30 percent of parents said they felt comfortable talking about sex with their children, and more than 70 percent of them said they didn’t feel well informed about their own sexual health. Given that Tennessee is one of 37 states that don’t require that sex-ed curriculum be deemed accurate by medical or sexual health organizations, students there face obstacle after obstacle when it comes to learning how to negotiate contraception, prevent infection, or avoid abusive relationships.
Cherisse Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, said the report tells a necessary story not only about Tennessee but also about the region as a whole. “This is the Deep South where we talk about ‘fornication,’ but we won’t talk about healthy relationships,” Scott said. “Folks don’t want to talk about sex because this is the Bible Belt.”
Even beyond the religiosity of the region, other factors put low-income black youth’s health at risk. Scott points out that at pharmacies in communities of color in Memphis, getting access to contraception is especially tough. Condoms are locked up, requiring that a young person ask for assistance if they want to make a purchase, and options are limited. “There are no female condoms,” Scott said. “You have to go into different areas that have a higher income.”
She said her organization is using the report to start a conversation with the Shelby County school board. Scott’s hope is that the board will join SisterReach and other concerned Tennesseans in lobbying the state legislature to change the law during the next legislative session.
“On the local level, they’ve got to say, ‘This isn’t working,’” she said.