Fact Sheet

Is Tennessee trying to ban hand-holding?

Legislators want to expand their abstinence-only curriculum to discourage students from "gateway sexual activity" — maybe even kissing and holding hands

Tennessee lawmakers don't want to stop at teaching teenagers to abstain from sex. A bill working its way through the legislature — and already approved by the Senate — would require public schools to urge students to swear off any kind of romantic contact that could lead to hotter and heavier stuff before marriage. Does that mean something as innocent as holding hands will soon be taboo in the Volunteer State? Here's what you need to know:

What exactly would the bill forbid?That's unclear: The bill bars sexual education instructors, including outside groups invited to address students, from promoting "gateway sexual activity" — the way, say, some believe marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs. But the bill doesn't specifically define what that is. Proponents say the move is necessary to prevent a recurrence of recent controversies in Nashville and Knox County schools, which faced a backlash after teachers mentioned to high school students that there were alternatives they might try short of sexual intercourse. "'Abstinence' means from all of these activities," says state Sen. Jack Johnson, the bill's sponsor. "And we want to promote that."

Is that really so controversial?Discouraging heavy petting and more intense shenanigans is one thing. But critics of the bill say it's so vague that activities as innocent as "holding hands and kissing could be considered gateways to sex," says Jerica Phillips at WMC-TV. The bill also says parents can file a complaint, triggering an official investigation, if they believe a teacher has mentioned or demonstrated a "gateway sexual activity." So watch out, teachers, says Jeanne Sager at The Stir. Hand-holding isn't just verboten for teenagers ... for you, it's "a fire-able offense."

How popular is this idea? Judging by the 28-1 vote in the Tennessee state Senate, it has plenty of support, at least in conservative circles. Even the body's lone dissenter — state Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat — tells The Tennessean that "all of us realize that abstinence is the absolutely only way to prevent any kind of sexually transmitted disease." But teens contending with raging hormones need honest information, not unrealistic nonsense about how hand-holding leads to getting knocked up, says Sager. And really, "with a sex ed program like this, it's a shock that Tennessee ranks in the top 10 for number of pregnant teenagers, isn't it?"

Sources: Tennessean, The Stir, WMC-TV

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