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Abstinence-Only Education Is Keeping Kids from Learning How to Spot Sexual Abuse

A law passed in 31 states requires schools to teach children how to spot sexual abuse—but some schools in states like Tennessee aren’t implementing it, thanks to conservative legislation around sex ed.

In "Unscrewing Ourselves," our first annual Sex Month on Broadly, we explore the state of sex ed today by highlighting the individuals and ideas changing our sexual health for the better. Read more from this series here.

Starting around age 10, Darby McCarthy was forced to sleep in the master bedroom with her mother and stepfather. "That was our normal," McCarthy, now 21, told USA Today recently. "I didn't know it was unusual until much later."


When McCarthy was 14, her stepfather Charles Aragon began sexually abusing her under the guise of a fake religion and "marriage" between them. It wasn't until age 18 that she found the courage to tell her father and ultimately escape her stepfather. This past summer, Charles and McCarthy's mother Nancy were sentenced to four years of probation on felony charges of sexual battery.

McCarthy, who attended high school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, said she tried to tell her friends about what was going on at home. "I'd say, 'I have a secret and it's that I'm in an arranged marriage or I'm betrothed or I'm basically promised to someone and yes, I've met him. I know him and he's in his 40s, he's 30 years older than me,'" she recalled. "Their reactions were basically, 'Oh, wow, that's really weird, but I'll keep your secret,' which wasn't what I wanted."

"I was leaving class to go vomit for like 20 minutes at a time," she continued. "I kind of wanted someone to see it, to start a dialogue or just say something." But no one ever did.

McCarthy's horrific story highlights the importance of teaching children and adolescents what child sexual abuse looks like and how important it is to report it. In 2014, the Tennessee legislature passed Erin's Law—named after child sex abuse survivor Erin Merryn—which requires public schools to give kids K-12 age-appropriate instruction on personal body safety and how to report abuse.


The problem is, not all school districts in the state are currently providing this information.

Read more: Sexual Abuse Victim in Her 20s Allowed Suicide by Doctors in Netherlands

"Most schools and most counties are aware of Erin's Law and know that they need to be teaching some form of sexual abuse prevention education," said Kim Janecek, education curriculum manager at the Sexual Assault Center in Tennessee. What happens, she told Broadly, is that some schools and teachers avoid the subject in the classroom for fear that the conversation will turn to other topics they think will get them penalized, thanks to a law that requires all sex education be abstinence-based. The so-called "gateway law," which state lawmakers passed in 2012, bans teachers and outside groups from endorsing any "gateway sexual activity," such as genital touching.

"Because there's so much gray area around the 'gateway' legislation, it's hard for some schools and teachers to understand what it's trying to say," said Janecek. "They cut everything out because they don't want anyone to get into trouble. We need to try to educate… teachers, administration, and counselors so they understand exactly what the 'gateway law' is saying."

One of the gateway law's biggest proponents was David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. In a recent statement to local media, he said he was "confident instructors can draw the line between discussing unwanted sexual activity and encouraging it."


Chandler Hopper, the Tennessee Department of Education's deputy director of communications, told Broadly he hasn't "heard from any districts having difficulty implementing this training [around sexual abuse]." But according to The Tennessean, many public schools in Davidson and Williamson counties have not implemented any specific sexual abuse prevention policies or programs associated with Erin's Law.

The state Department of Education crafted guidelines for school districts to implement Erin's Law. But while districts and schools have access to resources to help them provide this prevention education to students—including school personnel like counselors and social workers and curricula from the Sexual Assault Center and other organizations—Hopper said the department does not monitor the implementation of these resources.

Among the schools that have implemented education on sexual abuse, it appears to have had its intended effect. Last year, nearly 200,000 students were taught one of the two curricula the Sexual Assault Center offers on sexual abuse prevention, said Janecek. "Out of those 200,000, I've heard about 60 disclosures that have come because these teachers and counselors have taught the program to these kids." She added that those disclosures might not have otherwise happened if those children hadn't been taught what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, including the difference between safe and unsafe touches.


"One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18," Janecek said. "A lot of people think sexual assault is just touching offenses. And in reality, it's touching and non-touching offenses. More often than not, a lot of our kids are being groomed with these non-touching offenses, and then moving on to touching and more harmful assault." (Examples of non-touching abuse include making children watch porn or pose naked for photos.)

Helping kids understand the qualities of "unsafe people and people who break their boundaries," she continued, can give them the tools they need to "recognize the signs and be able to speak up to a safe adult."

Erin Merryn, the author of Erin's Law, told Broadly her law is about keeping kids safe. She's aware that some districts in Tennessee aren't in compliance with the legislation, and that's something she's had to deal with in other places, including her home state of Illinois—one of the 31 states to pass Erin's Law.

"I was always on the case of the state Board of Education; I'm still on their case about certain districts," Merryn said. "That's what I tell some of the parents or teachers in other states, coming to me, saying, 'Erin, we haven't taught this in our schools yet.' I tell them, 'You go to your principals, you go to your state board of education, and you go [to] them with the language of the law and say, 'Why aren't my kids being taught this?'"

McCarthy, the woman whose mother and stepfather started grooming her for sexual abuse at age six, graduated high school in 2013—a year before Erin's Law passed in Tennessee. She told Broadly this prevention education could have a huge impact in places that don't currently offer it. "Students who are friends with other students who are going through this sort of thing might have the courage to open up a dialogue about it with their friends," she explained. "Or somebody who's in that situation might find the courage to recognize the symptoms and identify what they're going through for what it might be."

"A lot of times," she continued, "if you're undergoing sexual abuse, you don't want to call it that or you're being trained not to call it that. So hearing another perspective at least starts those questions in your mind that you really need to be asking because you're being trained not to. I think just having that counter-education would be so beneficial, and it could save many lives."