It was April 2014, and Missouri representative Clem Smith was spitting mad. A bill he'd proposed to reform the state's abstinence-based sex education laws had been gutted during a committee hearing.
Along with other reforms, Smith had sought to amend the law that forces sex-ed teachers to mention the "emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity" to their students. Instead, conservative lawmakers "put a Ginsu knife to it and chopped up 90 percent of my bill," Smith told Riverfront Times at the time. All that was left after the gutting were provisions adding information about sexting and online predators to the state's sex education laws.
For Smith, his "new" bill was a watered-down sham, a defeat posing as compromise.
Yet more than a year later, the very same watered-down bill is being heralded as a major bipartisan victory. Signed into law yesterday by Governor Jay Nixon, the Democrat-sponsored bill will ensure that Missouri's schoolchildren will finally learn about the dangers of sexting and internet predators.
"I think it's huge," says state representative Genise Montecillo (D-St. Louis), the bill's sponsor. "There has been so much distrust on both sides of the political spectrum when it comes to sex education. There was support for this bill from the conservative right and liberal left, and this builds that trust."
Indeed, the accessibility of smartphones means that horny teens are increasingly likely to exchange horny texts with each other, which has led to the mounting problem of so-called "revenge porn" websites. Even when it's just two teens sending pictures of their junk to each other, the result can be criminal prosecution for child pornography.
A teacher for than two decades, Montecillo says her own students approached her with questions about sexually-charged online interactions. But her hands were tied by state law that limits what teachers can and can't say to students about sex.
"The kids want it, they want information," she says. "I think information in education is always a valuable thing, and when we hold back information from children it just exacerbates problems."
Montecillo wasn't the first lawmaker to attempt adding sexting and internet predators to the state's sex education law. She says the same language has appeared in various bills over the last four years, usually as part of larger reform bills, such as the one introduced by Clem Smith in 2014.
The broadness of these sweeping omnibus bills have proven to be their downfall, Montecillo argues. While she supports passing comprehensive sex education reform, the necessary political muscle doesn't exist in Missouri's conservative-dominated legislature.
"We're the minority party, we're not going to get everything we want," Montecillo concedes. "But I'm not going to turn down getting something done just to get political points. It's a case of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
In practical terms, that meant Montecillo had to walk a fine line to get her bill to the governor's desk. She had to introduce the measure as a "consent bill," meaning that it could not be amended by other lawmakers.
Limiting the scope of the bill allowed Montecillo to gain the trust of lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, but it was also implicitly conceded that substantial reforms to the state's sex education law remain out of reach. That explains why Montecillo's bill, a seemingly modest victory, is being touted as the "the first advance to Missouri sex education policy since 1999."
By law, Missouri does not require schools to teach sex education. Schools that choose to do so operate under a mandate that requires sex-ed materials to be "medically and factually accurate" while also presenting abstinence as the "preferred" method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. That's even though numerous studies (like this one) have found teen births and STI rates decrease with access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex education.
According to the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Missouri ranks 21st (out of 51) in teen birth rate for females aged 15 to 19. That works out to 34.5 births per 1,000 teen girls in that age range. The U.S. average is 31.3.
As for Montecillo, she hopes that introducing limited bills like this one, which cater to lawmakers' shared values, will lay the groundwork for more substantial reforms.
"As much as I would like to, we're not going to get the whole package that many of us would like to have," she says. "The fact we were able to get on the same page with this, I think was a very positive step. This is about keeping kids safe."
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