Sex Ed Without Condoms? Welcome to Mississippi
Last fall I sat at friend’s dining table in Jackson, Mississippi, talking with people about sex, politics and religion. These subjects are rarely mentioned individually in polite Southern company — the idea of discussing them all at the same time took on an air of scandal.
As it happens, these topics are my specialty as an investigative reporter, and Mississippi lured me by topping two national lists: the state is the most religious in the union and has the highest teen birth rate. So I was intrigued when House Bill 999 (HB999) — which for the first time ever requires that sex education be taught in public schools — passed the Mississippi legislature. Sex itself is a politically and religiously charged subject anywhere and in Mississippi you can take that to the power of 10.
Around my friend’s table was an informal gathering of six experts who, combined, had close to 200 years experience working in child services, teen pregnancy reduction, reproductive health, and state funded programs like Medicaid. (I was the youngest person in the room by 20 years.) Some were reproductive rights advocates. Others were former state employees or members of the religious community, including one ordained minister. They had seen it all when it comes to sex education, public policy, and how the deeply held religiosity of Mississippi impacts both.
One of the experts, Betti Watters, was a 30-plus-year advocate for young women and head of Teen Pregnancy Mississippi Campaign. A tiny powerhouse of a lady in her 60s with perfect white platinum hair and pearls, Watters started her career in social work specifically in the area of adoption. Over the years, she turned her energy toward pregnancy prevention. Along with many others, she’d been pushing for sex ed in public schools for decades.
The passage of HB 999 should have been a fulfillment, at least in part, of Watters’ life’s work. But when the subject was mentioned, she laughed and rolled her eyes. Although she concedes that getting any sex education bill passed in Mississippi is a minor coup, Betti says the bill has changed beyond recognition since it first entered the political process. “I laugh even though it’s not funny,” she explained, “because if I didn’t laugh, I wouldn’t be able to keep fighting this fight.” The group around the table shared a series of knowing looks that I’d come to recognize during my month reporting in Mississippi. The looks meant, For better or worse, this bill, as hobbled as it is, is progress.
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