Some call it the "Comprehensive Sexual Education Bill." But others have dubbed it the "No Hand Holding Bill."
Whatever you call it, Tennessee House Bill 3621 and Senate Bill 3310 could change sexual education across the state by taking local governments and school boards out of the equation.
Sponsored by Representative Jim Gotto of Hermitage and Senator Jack Johnson of Franklin, the pair of companion bills sets a uniform statewide curriculum for sex education. Gotto did not return calls for comment on this story.
"This bill would take away the power of local city and county school systems to create their own family life curriculums that reflect the communities they serve," said Elokin Capece, director of education at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis.
One aspect of the bill that has borne the bulk of criticism is a clause that forbids teachers to "promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity."
Capece believes this could affect the state's cultural diversity.
"There are communities in Tennessee that don't think [gateway sexual activity] is silly and that it really reflects their cultural values," Capece said. "That's not the case for Memphis. The curriculum really needs to be tailored to the age, race, and cultural values of the community you're teaching in. Giving it to the state denies that we have any cultural diversity in Tennessee."
The language of this clause is vague enough to include open-mouth kissing as a potential "gateway sexual activity," and according to critics of the bill, even holding hands could be taboo.
An amendment to the Senate version of the bill is no more helpful in defining the term, stating that "'gateway sexual activity' means sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior."
"The fact that politicians feel they need to be defining medical terms is a huge mistake," Capece said. "Gateway sexual activity is not a real health education term, and it frames sex for teenagers as something we need to look at like drugs. As in, there is never a time in which [sexual activity] will be good."
In other instances, though, the bill is very clear about certain verboten teaching methods. For instance, using devices manufactured for sexual stimulation to conduct demonstrations is banned.
"This goes along with the idea that the models we use to demonstrate condom use are sex toys," Capece said. "They're health education models, and they are always going to have to look like external reproductive organs. If they think anatomy is radical, then nothing that I do is okay."
Critics of the bill worry that a sex-ed lesson could become a minefield of potential noncompliance violations, and the bill creates legal repercussions for teachers who step out of bounds. If a teacher promotes "gateway sexual activity," a parent may lodge a complaint and sue for damages from the instructor or institution.
"The curriculum now, even though it isn't what it should be, still allows teachers to answer questions and bring in speakers without any fear that they'll be sued," Capece said. "Many teachers are already afraid of teaching the curriculum now, even though it's school-sanctioned. This legislation outlines that they should be."