By: Isabel Ranney
In Arizona, sex education is optional. Schools are not required to offer sex and/or HIV education and, if the school does have a program, parents have the right to opt out on behalf of their child .
If a school does offer sex education classes, it is statutorily restricted on the content that can be provided The classes must be separated by biological sex and lessons cannot be graded. Arizona Revised Statutes §§ 15-711, 15-716, and 15-102 mandate that the instruction be “age-appropriate, include instructions on the laws related to sexual conduct with a minor (grades 7-12), and stress abstinence” .
At the most basic level, abstinence-only education does not work. It does not deter teen pregnancies and it does not prepare young people to avoid, identify, or treat sexually transmitted diseases. In 2019, Arizona’s teen birth rate (which does not include data about aborted or miscarried fetuses) was 18.5% . Relative to other states’ teen birth rates, Arizona falls in between the highest rate (Arkansas, with 30%) and lowest rate (New Hampshire, with 6.6%). Nationally, Arizona is ranked 12th in births to unmarried mothers, at 45.1% .
With regards to sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence-only education is not required to include a discussion of birth control methods. Instead, the education focuses on the severe consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, which may shame students and make them less likely to seek out care when and if symptoms arise . While later health courses in high school may cover sexually transmitted diseases, they are not required to discuss contraception. And, when they do cover forms of birth control, the courses often minimize the effectiveness of these methods .
Additionally, Arizona’s sex education stresses the idea that if a person simply says “no” to unwanted sexual advances, they will be protected. Specifically, Arizona required children be taught “[i]nstruction on how to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances and to resist negative peer pressure” . By placing the burden on the child to prevent “unwanted sexual advances” and not providing the education necessary to identify such behaviors, Arizona’s education fails to prepare individuals. Further, telling children to simply say “No” teaches them that (1) saying “no” is an effective means of defending oneself against sexual advances, and (2) if they do not say “no,” they have consented. This contradicts the very nature of abstinence-only education and stigmatizes “young people who are sexually active, LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse” .
A person who is the victim of unwanted advances must first be aware of what would be considered a sexual advance. Abstinence-only education merely stresses that sexual intercourse should be saved until marriage, it does not describe other forms of sexual conduct, including sexual harassment, sexual coercion, grooming behaviors, oral or anal sex.
Arizona’s “abstinence-only” requirement for sex education does not prepare students for the complexities associated with sexual relationships and instead propagates the belief that marriage is the only means that legitimizes sexual conduct. By teaching that sexual activity should be saved for marriage—which is often defined solely in heteronormative terms—abstinence-only education ignores the reality that sexual relationships often occur long before marriage is a prospect.
One proposed alternative, comprehensive sex education, “include[s] medically accurate, evidence-based information about both contraception and abstinence, as well as condoms to prevent STI transmission” . This type of sexual education program covers many facets of life that are affected when persons decide to engage in sexual activity, such as personal communication skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture . By discussing multiple approaches to sexual activity, these programs alleviate the pressures of “morality” that are often pushed in abstinence-only programs and provide students with a more comprehensive education.
Current protocol requires school boards to hold and publicize two public hearings for input on the sex education lessons they develop . In 2019, the Arizona Board of Education revisited their sexual education curriculum. What resulted was a “vitriolic” debate where members of the public aired their concerns about teaching sex in the classroom and the Board ultimately opted to keep the rules as they were . With school boards focused on COVID-19 protocol and whether to teach Critical Race Theory, etc) it is unlikely that Arizona will reconsider changing its sexual education program approach anytime soon.
 A.R.S. § 15-711 (2020).
Isabel graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University with a B.A. in Political Science, a minor in Criminology and Criminal Justice, and a certificate in Homeland Security. She plans on becoming a family law attorney and is particularly interested in the intersection of family and criminal law.