If marijuana is the gateway drug, are kissing and handholding the gateway to sexual activity?
That's currently up for debate, now that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law the controversial bill that would ban teachers from discussing any so-called gateway sexual activity like genital touching in sex education courses, as reported on Friday by the Nashville Tennessean.
Sex education in Tennessee schools already takes a stance emphasizing abstinence, but the newly signed HB 3621/SB 3310 will now require sex ed to "exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student's current of prior sexual experience."
What's more, educators are prohibited from discussing non-coital sexual activity such as genital touching as an alternative to sex, which legislators have designated as the offending "gateway" sexual behavior. Outside instructors or organizations who do discuss gateway sexual behavior in a sex ed class can be fined $500, according to the law.
The bill was passed by the House last month with 68 votes for it and 23 against it, after easily clearing the Senate at 29 votes to one.
Supporters of the bill, such as the pro-marriage organization Family Action Council of Tennessee, say it offers a much-needed clarification of the moral and societal consequences of sex outside of marriage, and that previous sex ed programs allowed the promotion of certain kinds of sexual behavior such as oral sex as alternatives to sexual intercourse.
"Everybody in this room knows what gateway sexual activity is," said state Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, in his testimony to the Tennessee House of Representatives. "Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there's no stopping, especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody."
But detractors say that the definition of gateway sexual behavior are vague enough that teachers' hands are tied even when it comes to discussing more innocent behavior like kissing or hand-holding.
The Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region said in a statement that "Tennessee students need more information about puberty, their own bodies and proven methods that prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease. Denying them this prevention information in order to exclusively promote abstinence until marriage does our students a serious disservice."
Haslam's office did not immediately return calls requesting comment.
Family Action Council President David Fowler, who drafted helped draft the bill, told the website PolitiFact.com that the definition of "gateway sexual activity" is akin to the definition of "sexual contact" according to the state's criminal law, which refers to the "intentional touching" of "the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being."
Kissing and handholding are notably absent from the criminal definition of sexual contact.
Tennessee's debate over gateway sexual behavior spurred a firestorm of debate and sometimes ridicule.
Steven Colbert poked fun at the legislation on his show "The Colbert Report," saying that "kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station. We desperately need to intervene earlier keep kids from engaging in ... all the things that lead to the things that lead to sex."