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Tennessee Legislature Approves Bill Banning “Gateway Sexual Activity”

On May 10, 2012, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation that updates the state’s mandate for abstinence-only-until-marriage family life education to now include a prohibition on sex education that promotes “gateway sexual activity.”[1] The Tennessee House passed SB 3310 on April 27th, in a vote of 63–28. The State Senate passed the bill earlier in the month with a vote of 28–1. Instructors found to be providing information that is deemed as promoting “gateway sexual activity” would face a civil fine, and may be obligated to pay damages to a parent/guardian. SB 3310 also requires instruction to “exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience.”[2]

Under prior Tennessee law, family life education must “include presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years.”[3] The Tennessee Health Education Standards 6-8 include the expectation that students will learn to “identify abstinence from sexual activity as the responsible and preferred choice for adolescents.”[4] In addition, all instruction and materials related to HIV/AIDS prevention must place “primary emphasis on abstinence from premarital intimacy and on the avoidance of drug abuse in controlling the spread of AIDS.”[5]

Along with other provisions, SB 3310 would not allow instruction to:[6]

  • “Promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity;
  • Provide or distribute materials on school grounds that condone, encourage or promote student sexual activity among unmarried students;
  • Display or conduct demonstrations with devices manufactured specifically for sexual stimulation; or
  • Distribute contraception on school property; provided, however, medically-accurate information about contraception and condoms may be provided so long as it is presented in a manner consistent with the provisions described above and clearly informs students that while such methods may reduce the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases or becoming pregnant, only abstinence removes all risk.”

The bill does not define nor provide examples of what constitutes “gateway sexual activity,” which is especially problematic for educators who would be vulnerable to legal sanctions should the bill become law.

Critics of the legislation highlight the vagueness of the term, “gateway sexual activity,” and maintain that under this language it is possible that discussion of hand-holding, kissing, or dancing may be considered promotion of gateway sexual activity and have dubbed SB 3310 the “no hand-holding bill.”[7] The legislation has also become fodder for comedians. On his late-night cable show, the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert, said, “Kissing and hugging are the last stop before reaching Groin Central Station, so it’s important to ban all the things that lead to the things that lead to sex.” He suggested banning “before play”—things like girls using green apple shampoo or any form of eye contact between boys and girls. Every child, he lampooned, should be fitted with a pair of horse blinders and kids should sign a pledge not to go through puberty until they are married.

The bill would also prohibit individuals or organizations from teaching family life education that discuss any alternative to abstinence-only-until-marriage as “an appropriate or acceptable behavior.”[8] These instructions compel educators to withhold critical sexual health information for those teens that have had sexual intercourse and/or are currently sexually active.

Sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Williamson), SB 3310 first passed out of the Senate Education Committee in a unanimous vote on March 28, 2012.[9] On April 5, 2012 the bill passed the full Senate in a 28–1 vote, with the sole dissenting vote from Senator Beverly Marrero (D–Memphis). According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Study administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 percent of Memphis City high school students and 27 percent of middle school students have had sex, which is higher than the national average.[10] “Sometimes, I feel like I'm living in an alternate universe,” stated Sen. Marrero, referring to her colleagues’ denial of adolescent sexuality.[11]

In spite of these trends, under SB 3310, students would solely receive instruction that teaches abstinence-only-until-marriage and excludes information that serves to better equip youth with the skills and knowledge to protect against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The legislation also flies in the face of recent research released by Auburn University at Montgomery’s Center for Demographic Research. According to the report, Sexual Health of Young People in the U.S. South: Challenges and Opportunities, 89 percent of Southerners support teaching more comprehensive sex education in schools. Elokin CaPese, director of education for Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, expressed deep concerns over the heightened restrictions proposed by SB3310: “Not only does it take power out of the hands of our local school systems, it expects all of us to adhere to sexual health values that are not truly the values of everyone in the state of Tennessee and aren’t even close.”[12]


[1]  Tennessee General Assembly, SB 3310, accessed 24 April 2012, <http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/billinfo/BillSummaryArchive.aspx?BillNumber=SB3310&ga=107>.
[2]  Ibid.
[3]  Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1005(a), <http://www.michie.com/tennessee/lpext.dll/tncode/1b6fd/1c4a7/1c608/1c63a?f=templates&fn=document-frame.htm&2.0#JD_49-6-1005>.
[4] Tennessee Health Education Standards 3–5 (Tennessee: Tennessee State Board of Education), accessed 3 May2012, <http://www.state.tn.us/education/ci/health_pe/doc/health_3_5.pdf#page=9>, 9.
[5] Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1008(a), <http://www.michie.com/tennessee/lpext.dll/tncode/1b6fd/1c4a7/1c608/1c649?f=templates&fn=document-frame.htm&2.0>.
[6] Tennessee General Assembly, SB 3310.
[7] Scott Keyes, “Tennessee Senate Approves Bill to Warn Students Handholding Is a ‘Gateway Sexual Activity,’” Think Progress, 13 April 2012, accessed 19 April 2012, <http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/04/13/463317/tennessee-anti-hand-holding/?mobile=nc>.
[8] Tennessee General Assembly, SB 3310.
[9] Tennessee General Assembly, SB 3310 Bill Votes, accessed 24 April 2012, <http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/BillVotesArchive.aspx?ChamberVoting=S&BillNumber=SB3310&ga=107>
[10] Investment Watch Blog, “Tennessee Sex Education Bill—3310: Holding hands and kissing could be considered “gateways to sex,’’’ 13 April 2012, accessed 19 April 2012, <http://www.wmctv.com/story/17353757/bill-would-define-holding-hands-kissing-as-gateway-sexual-activity>.
[11] Wendi C. Thomas, “State bill ignores reality of teen sex,” The Commercial Appeal, 15 April 2012, accessed 26 April 2012, <http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2012/apr/15/state-bill-ignores-reality-of-teen-02/?print=1>.
[12] Ibid. 

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