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Opinion | There’s nothing “radical” about quality sex education

Alabama has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. More fact-based sex ed is exactly what we need.

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By mid-morning on Monday, Christina Okarmus knew she had a problem on her hands. A really, really stupid, made-up problem to be certain, but a problem nonetheless. 

Okarmus is the executive director of a tiny nonprofit organization known as the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health. If you’ve never heard of the Campaign, that’s mostly by the design of our very conservative state leadership. 

It began several years ago as the Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, but its goals and ambitions morphed with the times to include helping those who interact daily with school-age kids and teens better deal with a variety of sexual health issues facing today’s young people. And so the name changed too. 

The Campaign doesn’t interact with kids. It doesn’t sponsor school programs or work directly with any schools. It essentially exists to pass along resources that can be utilized by teachers, counselors, coaches, parents and mentors – a sort-of resource hub, if you will. 

The Campaign’s board is made up of some of the brightest minds in the state, including numerous doctors and the leaders of notable nonprofits. And by virtue of their position, Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris are considered ex-officio members. 

And that last part there – the inclusion of Mackey and Harris – that’s what created Okarmus’ problem. 

Because nothing gets the clicks over at the right-wing propaganda websites like stories proclaiming public school administrators are discussing sex in some form with young children. And second on the outrage list are any stories that can attack people (i.e. doctors with functioning brains) who were in favor of COVID mitigation measures. 

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Unfortunately, while we are short on many things in Alabama, the one thing we have in abundance is right-wing propaganda websites. 

One of them took the time to follow the links – and there are dozens on the Campaign’s website – from the Campaign’s resource page to one of its partners’ website, a group called Amaze. There, you can find hundreds of videos, almost all of which are animated shorts that cover various topics that every 12-year-old doesn’t want to discuss with their parents. 

Of course, the video selected, which talked of the dangers of young people using porn as any sort of guide as they sought out more information on sex, used depictions of naked cartoon characters. 

“That seems like a pretty good message, right? That kids shouldn’t be taking porn as reality, that it’s all acting and not real life,” Okarmus said. “That’s a message that I think parents would agree with. And that’s what these videos are designed for – for parents to watch these videos with the children and discuss what’s being said. It’s a resource to help with complicated, sensitive issues that many, many people struggle with.” 

Indeed. 

But on the other hand, take that video and embed it in a story, slap the words “radical” and “sexual” in a headline, and, well, Okarmus had a problem. 

Before Monday was over, two of the Campaign’s board members, including Mackey, had resigned. And she was worried late Tuesday that more could follow suit, or that the Campaign’s work would be undercut because one group with an agenda misrepresented pretty much everything about her organization and the work it does.

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“Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if the person who wrote the story, or anyone at this website, had bothered to call me or any of our board members,” Okarmus said. 

And ruin a perfectly good hit piece with facts? Pfft. 

For their parts, both Mackey and Harris were somewhat surprised to learn that their names and pictures were on the Campaign’s website. Neither had any real involvement with the group and genuinely weren’t aware that their positions put them on the Campaign’s board. 

Mackey resigned because running is what everyone in public education in Alabama does now, it seems. It’s agonizing to watch the most powerful voting bloc in Alabama consistently and reliably run from fights because for whatever reasons they won’t come together and fight for the profession that could save this state. At some point, someone is going to have to take a stand, because these greedy people on the right are not going to stop coming for the big pile of money controlled by public education. 

But that’s a different column for a different day. 

Scott Harris, as he’s been known to do, took the shots and never looked up. He hasn’t resigned. He told APR that he couldn’t comment for a story because the propaganda website responsible for the story is controlled by a group that’s suing Harris over COVID issues. (You should think about that for a moment.)

But a source close to the Alabama Department of Public Health said that while Harris didn’t realize he was on the Campaign’s board by virtue of his position, he had reviewed the organization’s materials and found no issues. 

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Because Harris is a rational human being. Who lives in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in America. A state with one of the highest rates of teens with sexually transmitted diseases. 

The one thing that we can’t possibly have too much of at this point is fact-based, quality sex education. But the sad fact is we have almost zero in our schools. Primarily because our conservative legislature, with its old-man-knows-better mindset, insists on an abstinence-first mandate for any sex education. 

That’s worked so well that we have the fifth-worst teen pregnancy rate, the fifth-most sexually active teens, the fourth-worst rate of sexually transmitted diseases among teens and we have the second-highest percentage of teens and young people watching porn regularly. 

Now that’s what you call radical.  

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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