Holding hands in a Tennessee public school could get you in to trouble, according to critics of a new sex education bill that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam recently signed into law.
Under SB 3310, public schools will be required to teach an abstinence-based sex education curriculum. The new law also specifically bans teachers from promoting "gateway sexual activities," a vague description derided by the bill's opponents, who dubbed the new law the "no-hand-holding" bill.
The bill does not actually appear to have any issues with hand-holding or other more innocent displays of affection. Instead, it focuses on what Tennessee state law already defines as "gateway sexual activities," such as groping and fondling. It also states that sex education curriculum cannot "display or conduct demonstrations with devices specifically manufactured for sexual stimulation."
Supporters of the bill say that it will lower the state's pregnancy rates by encouraging teenagers not to go too far.
"I teach my child the power of abstinence," said Rodrick Glover, whose complaint advanced the drafting of the legislation. "When you start bringing sex toys in, at a point you're stimulating the kids to have sex."
The state of Tennessee currently has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country, according to New York based Guttmacher Institute, a liberal reproductive health research organization. But the state has seen a steady drop in pregnancy rates since it introduced its first abstinence-based sex education program in the 1990s. The latest research available shows that in 2009, the state had 26.9 pregnancies per 1,000 girls age 15-17. This is down from a rate of 48.2 in 1998.
The bill also includes a provision that hands greater control to parents, who can sue a teacher for using explicit language or inappropriate devices in their classroom. An offending teacher could face a minimum $500 fine under the new law.
Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates opposed the new law, claiming abstinence programs do not work to decrease the number of sexual partners or increase contraceptive use, goals of more comprehensive sex education programs.
"This bill ties the hands of educators in Tennessee and will prevent them from providing the comprehensive education that students want and need and their parents expect," said Barry Chase, president of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region.
Rep. Jim Gotto, the Republican who sponsored the legislation, disputed claims the new program will only focus on abstinence.
"It's not abstinence-only education," he said. "I'm so sick of people trying to spin it as that ... because they don't like it. The law does specify that the curriculum has to be abstinence-focused, but they can talk about contraception."
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, applauded the bill for its emphasis on preventing explicit discussions in the classroom
"I think that it is unique in that rather than this legislation just saying there needs to be an emphasis on abstinence education, it also prohibits too explicit sex education from being either put in schools under the guise of abstinence education, or in opposition to an abstinence education program," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.