Education

Abstinence class made rape victim feel like ‘damaged goods.’ Senators weren’t swayed.

Teen rape survivor tells lawmakers abstinence class shamed her

High school rape survivor Sophie Letson-Ettin testifies against a bill that would require abstinence education as part of sex education in Kentucky's public schools.
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High school rape survivor Sophie Letson-Ettin testifies against a bill that would require abstinence education as part of sex education in Kentucky's public schools.

All sex education classes in Kentucky’s public schools would have to include abstinence education under a proposal approved by a Senate panel Thursday, despite the dramatic testimony of a high school rape survivor who said such efforts shame people.

Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, would require sex education curriculum to include content that says abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is “the expected standard for all school-age children” and “the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems.”

The Kentucky Department of Education already provides state standards on health education, which include abstinence along with other methods to prevent pregnancy and disease. Local school councils choose the curriculum they teach based on those standards. Meredith’s bill would not stop schools from teaching children about other methods to prevent pregnancy, but it mandates only abstinence education.

That means some schools will choose to teach only abstinence, said Sophie Letson-Ettin, a high school senior from Louisville. She said her high school sex education class used “shame-based” abstinence as its only content.

Letson-Ettin said the presenting teacher used Scotch tape to show how girls who have premarital sex have a harder time sticking to their husbands and are “less valuable.”

“For starters, what the presenter didn’t know is that a month prior to her sex ed program, I was raped,” she said. “I’ll let you imagine how offensive and hurtful it is to compare a rape victim to a worthless piece of tape. She made me feel as if I was damaged goods because I had sex before, despite it not being my choice.”

Meredith and several defenders of the bill on the panel said it was based on facts, not shame. In his presenting testimony, Meredith said he was a child of the 1960s and witnessed the sexual revolution.

“We still struggle with the quality and quantity of information we present to our children,” he said. “The intent of this bill is not to limit sex education to abstinence-only education.”

Several other speakers said any laws that regulate sex education should include requirements for a swath of information, including harassment, unwanted touching and informed consent.

“To me, it is very simple,” said Dominique Olbert, a Lexington mother. “Kids need to know how to protect themselves. Sex ed is not just a matter of lifestyle choices.”

The hearing also embodied the tensions of a national cultural moment regarding attitudes toward the harassment and abuse of women, a point that seemed lost on the mostly male panel of lawmakers, one speaker said.

“We are four women here telling you our experiences are different from yours and we are being dismissed,” Lauren Jones Mayfield, the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, said to applause.

After the hearing, Mayfield said she was surprised. “It appears that most of the gentlemen came in not ready to listen to the voices or experiences of four women,” she said.

The point was not lost on the committee’s only female lawmaker, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, who voted against the bill.

“I did notice,” Adams said. “I took what they were saying to heart. There are no simple answers here.”

Adams said Louisville educators have assured her that abstinence is already part of state learning standards for health and sex education.

The bill passed 7-2, with one pass from Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who said he needed more information.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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