Health class may have once meant talking of birds and of bees, or squinting at anatomically correct profiles of genitals. If Hollywood’s to be believed, it’s mostly strapping condoms onto bananas. But Washington state schools could be due for a progressive sex ed overhaul, even addressing the same issues of power and consent many adults currently grapple with in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Earlier this year, state superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal asked legislators to pass Senate Bill 5395, which would mandate all Washington public schools provide sex education (an estimated 60 percent at middle and high school levels currently do, according to Reykdal’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) that is comprehensive, scientifically sound, and emphasizes consent: Instead of the old “no means no” refrain, students would learn that only verbal agreement from a coherent, uncoerced partner means “yes.”
Those aspects alone would make the bill, which at press time had already passed the state Senate and is in the House, a sizable victory for Washington liberals. But the legislation goes even further. Reykdal says the bill would effectively oblige Washington public schools to teach acceptance of different gender identities and sexual orientations because it requires schools choose curricula approved by OSPI. Public schools would also teach kids how to examine healthy versus unhealthy relationships, and how to question gender norms, Reykdal says, starting with age-appropriate lessons as early as kindergarten.
For some Washington Republicans, it’s just too much to impose on youngsters, especially in the state’s culturally conservative districts, even though parents can opt their children out of the curricula under the proposed law.
“We’ve never done it this way before, which makes me a little bit suspicious of motives,” says Republican state senator Keith Wagoner of Sedro-Woolley. “There were some things in [this bill] that I think were perhaps inappropriate for some schools, some ages, and my district. I think those are things that are better decided at the local level…where the parents have some say.”
Meghan Eagen-Torkko, a University of Washington assistant nursing professor and sexual health clinician, thinks those worries are immaterial compared to what’s at stake. “We know that having more information and more inclusivity is better for LGBTQ teens,” Eagen-Torkko says, pointing to the higher risk of suicide among queer youth. “I understand that people may not be personally comfortable with it, but this is an issue of health and safety.”
Janette Bergen, a 30-year public education veteran who teaches health at Orting High School located southeast of Tacoma, is concerned the proposed changes wouldn’t be entirely age-appropriate. But she’s learned to withhold judgment. “When they said kindergarten, I just all of a sudden said, ‘Are you kidding me?’… But maybe they’re on the right path.”
The topics of consent and gender identity have indeed arrived in the mainstream lexicon. Students, Bergen says, are going to have questions, whether or not schools are ready to answer them.