The door is opening in Kansas for the wholesale elimination of art, literature, and discussion containing any hint of sexual material. These things will not be banned, they will be discarded through coercion and threats.
Under a Republican bill approved by the Kansas Senate in 2015, and now under consideration by a Kansas House committee, teachers would be stripped of protections currently in place, facing fines or up to six months in prison for using materials that implicitly or explicitly mention sex acts.
A Democratic congressman asked the bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook,
whether a teacher could be prosecuted for showing an image of Michelangelo’s sculpture David, which depicts male genitalia. He quoted sexual puns in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and asked whether teaching the play could be a criminal offense.
Pilcher-Cook said that would have to be decided by individual prosecutors and juries, an ignorant statement expressing how vague and poorly-defined such a law would inevitably be (“What counts as a criminal offense? You’ll find out after you’re arrested”). It reminds one of what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of “hardcore pornography” in 1964:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
Proponents of the measure insist children must be protected from “harmful material,” defined as that with “any description, exhibition, presentation or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse.”
The bill, which can be read here, sets the stage for explosive controversy over the definition of terms, a nightmare of subjectivity inherent with a law devoid of clear boundaries. The text says materials (“any book, magazine, newspaper, pamphlet, poster, print, picture, figure, image, description”) or performances (“any motion picture, file, video tape, played record, phonograph, tape recording, preview, trailer, play, show, skit, dance or other exhibition”) fit such a description if the “average adult,” a “reasonable person,” determines it should, applying “contemporary community standards.”
No chance of subjectivity there.
The bill was fueled by conservative hysteria over a poster at Hocker Grove Middle School in the Shawnee Mission School District, outside Kansas City. The poster was in a sex education classroom, but nevertheless drew a conservative backlash for its straightforward, “explicit” wording:
How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?
Cuddling on the couch
Touching each other’s genitals
Saying “I like you”
Heaven forbid a sex education classroom contain a poster listing sexual habits. According to Pilcher-Cook, a poster like this causes great harm to children because it “affects their brains.”
Yes, knowledge often does.
Astonishingly, “The bill would remove…protection for teachers at public, private and parochial schools.” One might wonder if a bill requiring an in-depth, detailed sex education at Kansas private and religious schools would be tolerated for one moment by the religious right.
At Kansas public schools, parents have the right to withdraw their child from sex education courses (there is a Republican push to require parental consent).
In a free and decent society, it is right that parents worried over their child’s exposure to sexual knowledge have such an option; that does not encroach on the freedom of others.
But prosecuting teachers for using classic or modern literature and art that happen to have sexual themes confines and limits the education of others, children with parents more secular or simply less hysterical about biological, reproductive functions. One must see the difference.
Such a law has potential to do immense harm to different groups of people.
Teachers would have less freedom to use materials they like and think students will take interest in; they will stand on the edge of a knife while considering each poem, painting, quote, book. Is X harmful? Within the boundaries of the law? A single mistake could not only mean fines and time in prison, but also legal fees to battle in court.
“It makes me feel like I need to self-censor,” [Marcus] Baltzell, who is a certified teacher, said. “Now I have to consider anything that would have any kind of text or imagery or anything that would be remotely questionable by say one individual I can be brought up on charges for that.”
Pilcher-Cook thinks the list of sex acts being “posted without fear is a problem”; an activist said after he read that statement, “I took out my Sharpie and I wrote it down real big because it struck me: fear. This bill is to strike fear into the hearts of teachers.”
Students could find themselves without their teacher for up to two-thirds of the school year, an absurd and unnecessary disruption (which can hurt academic performance). Schools will have to scramble to find long-term substitute teachers, or perhaps hire new teachers. Kansas children from kindergarten to high school will experience an education devoid of many of the most beautiful works created by human hands throughout world history.
Worst, Kansas politicians would plant in student minds the idea that sex and nakedness are so dangerous that the very mention of it in school will see their teacher locked up with criminals.
The reason behind a teacher’s absence will be no secret. Do we really assume students won’t wonder where he or she is? That they cannot connect the dots between Monday’s introduction to adultery-themed The Scarlet Letter and their teacher’s disappearance on Tuesday? That more secular, rational, or honest parents won’t tell their children precisely why their biology, art history, or English teacher is gone?
Underlying all this is, of course, is the conservative myth that avoiding or delaying detailed discussions of sex with youths is an effective method of preventing sexual experimentation (and, seemingly less important than preventing the high crime of sex itself, preventing STDs, teen pregnancies, and abortions).
Yet decades of research confirms abstinence-only education simply does not work: students in such programs begin exploring their sexuality just as early (often earlier) and with as much enthusiasm as control groups.
But, unsurprisingly, they are one-third less likely to use contraceptives. Thus, one recent study showed teens who received safe-sex education were 50% less likely to become pregnant than teens who received abstinence-only education.
Studies show sex education can essentially accomplish what conservatives most desire: a longer delay in becoming sexually active, fewer partners, less unprotected sex, lower pregnancy and STD rates, fewer abortions.
Teaching sex not only broadens students’ scientific knowledge, giving them a firmer grasp of how life recreates itself, it helps them understand what’s happening to them if they ever fall into an unimaginable nightmare: attempted rape or molestation. Students learning about and accepting homosexuality and transgender identity can prevent the bullying (and thus depression and suicide) of countless kids.
When sex is not discussed openly and in a natural manner, it is discussed in secret. Due to the actions of parents, sex is seen as a dark secret, a taboo, and what could be more fascinating to young boys and girls? Do we want the main disseminators of sexual information (often misinformation) to be our children’s peers? Or rather mature, knowledge adults? This writer has heard kindergartners talk of their gay dads and second graders form a “sex club,” in which they touched themselves during movie time in class.
No matter what conservatives blame for this–a “moral decay,” the decline of Christianity, R-rated movies and neglectful parenting, loud and gossipy older siblings–teachers are dealing with the effects, and must be allowed to openly discuss sexual matters in a mature, positive manner.
Anything less is a disservice to teachers and learners alike.
For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.