How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence
By Miri Mogilevsky, blogs at Brute Reason

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

3. Once you’ve had premarital sex, you’re dirty and ruined forever.

Abstinence-only programs promote this idea by using disgusting metaphors like a lollipop that’s been sucked on and discarded, or by having children spit into a glass of water that gets passed around, or by having them rip a paper heart up to symbolize each time they have sex before marriage. Tragically, rapists and abusers use this message against their victims, convincing them that nobody will ever want them now that they’ve been “ruined.” Sometimes this prevents victims from doing anything to try to escape the situation, as Elizabeth Smart attests.

4. Premarital sex is immoral and bad; married and monogamous sex is virtuous and good.

This false dichotomy serves to erase the fact that abuse, sexual assault, and plain ol’ bad sex can happen even within a committed marriage. It may also teach teens to expect that their premarital sexual experiences will all be “Bad” and there’s no avoiding it. This means that teens who are being assaulted or abused may not realize that there’s anything “wrong” with what’s going on; after all, they were warned that premarital sex is bad, weren’t they? Here’s a great take on this from another blogger:

Sex-negative messages don’t keep people from having sex.  They keep people from having good sex.  They keep people from having pride in their sexuality, from sexual self-awareness.  They keep people from asking questions about sex, and communicating with their partners.  They discourage experimentation.  They blur the lines between consensual sex and rape by framing all sex as an undifferentiated mass of “bad.”  They combine victim-blaming with generalized guilt about sex, so that perpetrator and survivor are equally culpable.  Basically, they take logic and reason out of the equation.

5. If you have premarital sex, you are a bad person.
Similarly to the last message, the idea that having premarital sex makes you a bad or sinful person erases the distinction between ethical and unethical sex. If everyone who has sex before marriage is a bad person, why bother distinguishing between a bad person who gets consent for sex and a bad person who rapes? Why distinguish between a bad person who rapes and a bad person who “lets” themselves be raped?

There are many more terrible messages that abstinence-only sex education promotes, but I’ll stop there. To be clear, abstinence-only sex ed does not cause these messages to appear in our culture; they were already there. (Religion was probably a major cause, but it certainly wasn’t the whole story.) Children will learn these messages even if they are not religious and do not get this type of sex education.

But abstinence-only sex ed does promote these messages and cause them to become even more entrenched, and failing to challenge them is just about as bad as promoting them, in my view. Educators have a remarkable opportunity to challenge kids’ and teens’ ideas about the world in ways that parents may not be able to. Why not take advantage of that?

A truly evidence-based sex education program must do away not only with lies and exaggerations about STIs, pregnancy, and condom effectiveness, but also with the dominant, rarely-challenged scripts about sexuality that abstinence-only sex ed promotes. Here are some ways to do that. They’re just a start, but they would make a difference.

1. Sex education should center consent in the conversation. Consent, rather than arbitrary notions of morality, should be the standard by which we measure sexual activities to determine whether or not they are ethical. Consensual sex, of course, is not necessarily problem-free, but it’s a far better place for teens to start. Conversely, of course, nonconsensual sex (that is, sexual assault) is never okay.

2. It should emphasize that sex and sexuality are not shameful. While comprehensive sex education, unlike abstinence-only, does not explicitly shame anyone for having sex, it still treats reduction of sexual behavior in general (not just of risky sexual behavior) as a positive goal to aim for. That sends the message that less sex is better than more sex, and therefore that there’s something wrong with having sex.

3. It should challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Regressive, inaccurate ideas about gender don’t just keep women out of leadership roles and STEM jobs; they actually cause bad sex in the best case and sexual assault in the worst. The idea that men pursue and women are pursued; that men always want sex and women always want Tru Luv; that women should take it as a “compliment” when they are objectified and harassed—all of these things encourage and excuse sexual assault. Not to mention the fact that they’re extremely heteronormative.

4. It should remind teens that not wanting to have sex is okay. When sex ed programs discuss the option of not being sexually active, it’s usually framed either as a moral choice (in abstinence-only sex education) or as a smart move to prevent negative health outcomes (in comprehensive sex ed). Either way, not having sex is portrayed as a difficult but ultimately superior choice that teens must make by resisting peer pressure and hormones. But in fact, some people are asexual and have no sexual desire or attraction to resist. It’s important to validate this as part of the spectrum of sexual diversity, not only so that asexual teens feel accepted, but so that their peers learn not to pressure them.

5. It should deemphasize (although not completely negate) the importance of relationships and marriage. This is surely a controversial stance and I think nuance is important here. But my reasoning is this: the extreme importance that committed relationships (and especially marriage) are allocated in our society plays a part in keeping people trapped in abusive relationships. Teens who don’t feel that they can experience sex, affection, or love outside of the context of a monogamous relationship may feel pressured to stay in one that they know isn’t healthy, but that is providing them with some combination of those things. 

It would probably take a book and dozens of paper citations to fully explain how and why sex education should combat sexual violence. But as these examples show, healthy sexuality is about more than just using contraception and getting tested for STIs. Unfortunately, our culture sends us many negative and harmful messages about sex, but good sex ed can help inoculate kids and teens against them.

About the Author
Miri Mogilevsky is a progressive feminist atheist and a recently transplanted New Yorker. She has a B.A. in psychology and is currently working on a Masters in social work. After that, she hopes to pursue a career that combines activism with counseling. When not doing school things, Miri spends her time reading and writing about social justice, mental health, sexuality, and politics. Occasionally she also interacts with people and sleeps. A few of her other interests include Russian literature, photography, and Cheez-its. In addition, she enjoys asking people about their feelings.

A Catholic Girl’s Calling to Sex Ed

A Catholic Girl's "Calling" to Sex Ed
By Jennifer Hart, MPH
Having been raised in a suburban, lower-middle class Irish Catholic family in New England has certainly impacted my worldview, particularly as it relates to issues of religion and sexual and reproductive health issues.  In fact, my experiences related to religion are what ultimately “called” me to study and work in sexual health specifically, and not reproductive health.  I was raised in a family that never questioned the Faith, nor talked about it in relation to other faith beliefs.  There were certain expectations that went along with being Catholic, having to do with sex, gender, and relationships. Although I knew these silent yet steadfast expectations, I questioned my acceptance of these tenets even as a teenager.

I’m the first to admit my privilege, and to be completely transparent: I’m a white, upper middle class, cisgender, heterosexual female with undergraduate and Ivy League graduate school degrees. I am also cynical, jaded, hardened, pragmatic, and sarcastic.  I’m a divorced, 35 year old recovering Catholic from the Northeast, now living in a large urban city, and identify as a Secular Humanist.  I am in a loving relationship with an amazing man, 19 years my senior. Other than being a woman (which is a challenge unto itself), I’ve got a lot of privilege. My struggles are my own, but I know others have endured far more than I.

When I was about 13, my mom gave me a stack of readers and pamphlets about my body and puberty, told me to look through them, and to come back to her if I had any questions. I only had one question, which came after watching a cartoon video on puberty. It was about how girls masturbate. I was too embarrassed to ask her in person, so I wrote a note. I never got a reply.  Really, the only other question I asked was a personal one, to my mom. I said, “Can I ask you a personal question? Did you and Dad have sex before you were married?” Her answer: “That is a personal question.”

Everything else I learned about sex came from school and from friends. The internet wasn’t really something you surfed for answers in those days. I remember as a middle-schooler, seeing one 8th grade couple making out in the hall way – all the time. When they broke up, it was the talk of the century. I had major, heart-wrenchingly intense, unrequited crushes on boys.  I remember having only one sex-ed class in high school – 9th grade, I think, and it was about reproduction and abstinence. I was in a class with all girls, and the boys were getting educated in the room next door.  I was a good girl. I called myself “Halo Head.” I was a good Catholic girl and my plan was to wait until I got married to have sex. (Ok, so I didn’t wait until I was married, but I did wait until I was engaged).

My parlay into sexual discourse and awareness grew from the socially acceptable expectation that all girls will eventually experience pregnancy, and the socially vilified reality of sexual assault.  I remember feeling “those feelings down there” when I’d read books or watch shows involving childbirth or rape.  Childbirth. Rape.  Even writing this, I think, how creepy is that?!? But, these passages and scenes were not stigmatized as “dirty” or porn, only natural and horrible, respectively. The common thread between child birth and rape is sex.  Later, as an adult, in thinking about how my interest in sexuality began, I felt angry and ashamed that it was linked prominently to pain and violence, and not pleasure.  My interest was steeped in stigma and shame. My access to positive messages of sex and relationships was censored and oppressed by my religious upbringing. Don’t even get me started on my love affair with the Thorn Birds.

I moved away from my family and childhood home in suburban Connecticut when I was 18 to rural North Carolina, where I lived for 13 years. I chose to attend Lenoir-Rhyne College, a small, private, Lutheran school, because of their unique and renowned program for Deaf Education. Those choices led me through the formative years of my life; I was out on my own, making decisions, and determining and defining my values.  Immediately, I noticed that religion was undeniably prevalent. Signs and billboards touted Jesus and Bible verses, abiding worshipers stood on highway medians preaching into the open windows of passing cars, and business meetings began with prayer.  I was approached on numerous occasions by people asking me where I attended church – then either shunned or considered a potential convert when I told them I was Catholic. “So you’re not Christian,” they’d say. I could be “born again”, a concept foreign to me.

Such confrontations about religion and vocation forced me to reckon with my own faith, in particular those tenets that had social and political implications.  The Catholic faith clearly defines its views on issues related to sexuality, including premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, masturbation, and gender roles in relationships, just as clearly as it defines the guilt associated with the abandonment of these definitions. My foundation was firm until I began to see the gender inequities and discrepancies between my faith and my career path.

I broke away from the confines of Catholicism, and organized religion in general, and have dealt with the repercussions ever since. I was challenged by religion’s pervasiveness within professional and social outlets within the “Bible Belt.” My reactions to religion became defensive and negative. My work in teen pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy made my time in the rural southeast an eye-opening and challenging experience.

In the area of sexuality education, often local and regional legislation determines what you can and cannot say in the classroom. Teaching “abstinence-only-until-marriage” sex education classes and condom failure rates is a denial of the facts and reality of teen sexual initiation. This type of education works against itself when youth choose not to use condoms upon their sexual debut because they believe what they’ve been taught, ultimately increasing infection rates and unintended pregnancies.  In addition, an entire population of students is made invisible and silenced by the abstinence only until marriage message.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth have very few (although ever-increasing) options for considering the notion of marriage in their lives, and are hardly ever included in educational conversations and settings about sexuality. The idea that students need only be taught about abstinence and nothing else further perpetuates the stigma of sex and sexuality, of sex as solely procreative, silences LGBTQQ students, and erases women’s sexual pleasure from the conversation.

In 2002, the World Health organization organized a meeting in Geneva to discuss and further define Sexual Health. The attendees came up with the following guide (emphasis is my own):

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

Despite this positive and open-minded approach to sexual health, the United States’ proclivity to limit and oppress access to sexuality information and education, through the promulgation of religious and cultural expectations has significant emotional, mental, and physical consequences. Sexuality and health are the foundation of our being and yet in the South and in many other areas of our country, parents, teachers, clergy, doctors, clinicians, and even pharmacists refuse to accept that sex is natural and normal, putting their morality onto the lives of their children, students, congregants, patients, and clients. The effect of inhibiting discussions of sex, identity, and health is detrimental to the overall health, well-being, and stability of a person and society as a whole. My liberal values for social, sexual and reproductive justice and gender equality were tested daily in this conservative Christian part of the country.  There, and even now in my urban city, I continue to see the increasing influence of religion on politics and funding streams regarding the sexual and reproductive issues I support.


Now, I work in the abortion field, implementing training and education opportunities for abortion care providers.  Part of my job is to provide values clarification and pregnancy options counseling training to those working with women who seek abortion care or support. Inevitably, the recurring challenge that counselors face is working with religious patients. The skill of the counselor is to meet the patient where they are in their belief system. Helping the patient create a space in their faith where their god provides them with comfort and acceptance rather than shame and guilt can be transformative for the patient. Although abortion is couched within the reproductive health and justice movements, I see abortion as the bridge from reproductive health to sexual health. Abortion enables women to maintain their autonomy as sexual beings, undoing the expectation that they will, or should, parent.  Coming from my upbringing, I never really thought that I would be working in abortion.  But here I am, and I believe in its morality.

Despite my personal struggles with religion and faith, I very firmly recognize the intrigue that religion holds for me, especially with regard to issues of sexual and reproductive health, and its influence on the choices people make.  I am also painfully aware of my knee-jerk emotional reactions to religion and its pervasiveness in the social constructs of our society. Still, we need to fight as a society to answer these questions:  What does an individual need to be a healthy, well-rounded, confident sexual being?  How can society overcome religious stigma and understand the complexities of sexuality with compassion and acceptance?  How can we educate and empower women and men to love themselves without the detrimental comparison to unrealistic ideals set forth by society, the media, and religion?  How do we do all of this while still maintaining the integrity of a culture and community of people and their unique and diverse beliefs?

My work in teen sex-ed and pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and abortion has focused my passion on the sexual being of humans, by way of stigma. My experiences showed me that I was advocating for a person who happened to have an STI, who happened to be pregnant, who happened to have HIV, or who happened to be gay.  My passion was in supporting this person, who, because they are a sexual human being, was now being treated with hatred, discrimination, and condemnation.  I studied sexuality and health because a person is first a sexual being (from birth!), before they are a reproductive person (if at all!).  Sexuality encompasses the continuums of one’s sex, gender, orientation, sexual behavior, sexual health, and sexual rights. The binaries of sex, gender, and orientation that our society so loves and finds so comforting reduces us to the moral panics that devolve into ideological rhetoric at religious and political bully pulpits.

Comprehensive sexuality education, sexual positivity, sexual rights, and reproductive justice are foundations of morality, rooted in compassion and humanism. I have made choices, strongly influenced by my Catholic upbringing, and I’ve made choices as an autonomous, sexual woman. It has been these choices, the ones I’ve made based on my gut desire and intuition that have been the most satisfying and fulfilling. My hope is for people across all walks of life and ages to have control over and take pleasure in their sexual health.

About the Author
Jennifer A. Hart, MPH, is the Director of Training & Education at the National Abortion Federation. In 2011, Jennifer earned her Master of Public Health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, where she studied Sexuality and Health and religion’s influence on policy and access to care. Jennifer’s career and education have focused on the stigmatized issues of abortion, HIV/AIDS, sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual identity and rights. She has worked with Global Doctors for Choice, a global initiative of Physicians for Reproductive Health; the Access Team at International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR); and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Jennifer studied and worked abroad in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Nigeria with organizations such as Profamilia, Instituto de Sexualidad Humana, and Rotary International. Prior to graduate school, Jennifer was the executive director of ALFA, the only HIV/AIDS service organization in rural northwestern NC, where she worked for eight years. Jennifer earned a BA in Spanish and Human and Community Service from Lenoir-Rhyne College (now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University) and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University. She volunteers as co-administrator of Repro Health Happy Hour DC, and is a blog contributor for Planned Parenthood of Central and Greater Northern New Jersey’s Center for Family Life Education. Most weekends, Jennifer can be found with a mug of French press coffee, ranting and raving about politics, religion, and social justice issues with her partner and their kitty kids.  Jennifer can be reached at [email protected].

Sex Education Month

What we’re doing for Sex Education Month this October

One of Secular Woman’s core values is the right of everyone to comprehensive sex education that is age appropriate and non-shaming. That is far from a reality today in the U.S. to the detriment of our youth and the adults those youth become. Accurate, unbiased knowledge of sex, our bodies, and our sexuality helps us to construct a healthy, affirming sense of our own sexuality and desire. So, for this week and the next in October, Sex Education Month, we are highlighting the importance of Sex Education through articles on our website and two twitter chats on Sex Ed, one from 2-3 PM EST on the 26th and another on the 30th from 8-9 PM EST. Join us using hashtag #SexEd and talk about Sex Education, where it needs to go, why its important, share your resources, where you go for advice as an adult…bring your questions and your opinions!

Meanwhile check out the articles we’ve already published this week on Sex Education:

Like Voldemort to Wizards
I grew up in an almost alternate universe, where courtship methods of the Victorian era were popular and no one spoke of sex except in hushed or negative tones. Sex to Christian homeschoolers was like Voldemort to wizards — That Which Shall Not Be Named. I attended “purity” seminars at which homeschool celebrities like Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, urged audiences of horny teenagers to focus on God and flee that nebulous human demon called Lust.

Catholic Values and Sexuality vs. Actual Sex Education
Of course, all sex before marriage is out and wasn’t even discussed. Contraception was briefly mentioned, but only to be told that it was bad and wrong and no one should use it. Natural Family Planning (NFP), otherwise known as the rhythm method, was introduced but wasn’t explained. STDs weren’t even talked about because when both you and your spouse are virgins then you have no fear of catching any diseases. The wedding night was discussed in detail and the whole idea that your body no longer belongs to you, but to your husband or wife was talked about glowingly. I could never get on board with the idea that my body, what I have to lug around all day, was suddenly someone else’s.

Reclaiming my Voice
My father was the true idea of a traditional and insecure man who could only see things black and white. A real woman was submissive and meek and enslaved. If you were not this, than you were less of a woman and not appealing to a man, which I was told many times. I was told “no man will ever want you if don’t change”. Our dinner times were accompanied by my father lecturing and criticizing my mother, if I interrupted or responded to this he would speedily come over to my side of the table and slap me across my arms and body. We were given a list of interests we were allowed to be interested in and sex was not on the list. Everything was handled with aggression, verbal abuse, and hitting. My voice was taken away, and with it my right to be curious about things and feel new things.

Letter of Support for the Women’s Leadership Project

Dr. Mr. Robin Toma,

Secular Woman is a supporting partner of the Women's Leadership Project (WLP). Secular Woman is the first and only international or national organization focused on promoting non-religious women.

WLP is a vital and vibrant program focused on training and developing secular humanist feminist women of color, many of whom have not been exposed to a secular humanist social/gender justice curriculum. This program provides a unique experience for young women to experience learning in a different environment that is more conducive to their history, experiences, and learning.

WLP provides curriculum focused on empowering young women of color to take ownership of their lives and communities through understanding their history and opening up how they envision their future and their place in society.

Through this program they learn self-confidence; they learn to question what they see and hear; they see themselves as agents of change and leadership; they learn how to collaborate with individuals and groups, and more.

Because of their experiences in this program, participants have gone on to be professionals, scientists, and attorneys.  Before this program, they might not have met a black woman scientist or learned how to question stereotyping and low expectations in STEM education.  WLP allows them to hear, first hand, that others struggle with racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious discrimination.  It also shows clearly that success is possible for them within our society.  Additionally, participants start to see the larger societal forces of institutional oppression and become knowledgeable and experienced at understanding those forces and how they limit and dehumanize.

WLP is one of the shining programs for young humanists of color.  It is vital that young women have access to the role models, leadership training and curricula that this program provides.  This program produces results that are changing lives, changing our communities, and changing the future.

Secular Woman is 100% supportive of this program as a vital part of our community.  We see this as a project that should be replicated and modeled across the country so that other young women can benefit from its successes.


Kim Rippere
Secular Woman

Secular Woman to Match Up to $500 in Donations to Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library


For more information, please contact:

Secular Woman to Match Up to $500 in Donations to Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library

KellyAnne and Jennifer are two homeschooling parents who recognized a need for affordable educational materials not containing a religious agenda.  Because of the large market for religious homeschooling materials, it has become increasingly more expensive and difficult for free thinking homeschooling families to find alternatives.  The Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library hopes to fulfil this need by pooling resources and providing secular homeschooling curricula and supplies to families in need.

Secular Woman believes that the educational needs of free thinking children are of utmost importance.  We will be aiding secular homeschooling parents in accessing quality educational materials by matching donations of our members and supporters of this project up to the amount of $500.  Upon finding the Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library, we feel that the idea of providing these resources on loan is an effective way to not only help in education, but also with families for whom the cost of new books may be out of the budget.

The Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library needs your help in building this valuable resource.  Funds raised will go to purchase of books, building a database, maintaining a website, postage, and other maintenance items. We ask for our members’ and supporters’ help to ensure that children in the secular movement are provided with the materials best suited to obtain a quality education.

If you would like to help please donate to the Humanist Homeschoolers Lending Library IndieGoGo Campaign.  Once your donation is completed please forward proof of your donation to Nicole at [email protected]. On the final day of the campaign, we will tally donations made by our members and supporters who have provided proof of donation to us and match these donations up to the amount of $500.


Secular Woman is an educational non-profit organization whose mission is to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women. For more information about Secular Woman visit:

Secular Community Steps Up for South L.A. Scholars

Originally posted at

“Perhaps adults believe if they just don’t talk about gender or racism, then they won’t exist in our lives. The truth is that we see the effects of racism and gender bias everyday on television, on the Internet, in the beliefs of teachers, friends, and ourselves.”

–Ariana Mercado, 12th grade scholar, Gardena High School

“As an African American teacher it is important for me to constantly address and affirm all of my students as scholars, activists, intellectuals and visionaries.  Black and Latino children are never viewed this way in mainstream American classrooms — to many teachers, and the world, they are potential drop-outs, they are f–ups, they are discipline problems.” 

–Markham Middle School teacher, Watts

Over the past week, members of the secular community have stepped up mightily and helped Black Skeptics Los Angeles exceed its fundraising goal for the First in the Family Humanist scholarship fund. Because of the generous sponsorship of individuals and organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief, the American Humanist Association, Black Non-Believers of Chicago, Debbie Goddard of African Americans for Humanism and Ian Cromwell of the Crommunist Manifesto, BSLA will be able to offer four $1000 scholarships to college-bound South Los Angeles students. We at BSLA also appreciate the tremendous boost given to the effort by blogs from Skepchick, PZ Myers, Crommunist and others.  For our recruitment outreach we are proud to partner with exemplary teacher-resource providers like Dr. Melanie Andrews, Angela Rodriguez and Shirley Van der Plas of Washington Prep High School; Debbie Wallace and Diane Schweitzer of Gardena High School; Tabitha Thigpen of King-Drew Medical Magnet and Marlene Carter of Dorsey High School.  It is largely because of the efforts of these unsung teachers, mentors, health providers, and scores like them, that homeless, foster care, undocumented and LGBTQ seniors make it to college.

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) issued annual “report cards” for all schools. Washington Prep has a 44% graduation rate and Gardena has a 52% graduation rate; far lower than that of the district average. With the exception of King Drew Medical Magnet, and a few other outstanding high schools, the four year college-going rate at most South Los Angeles schools is abysmal. These scholarships will reinforce the work of first-in-the-family student activists like Jamion Allen, Destiny Davis, Ariana Mercado and Leticia Patton (pictured above). As youth leaders in the Women’s Leadership Project and Gay/Straight Alliance, these young women are engaged in critical humanist work that addresses homophobia and sexism on their school campuses—despite the fact that gender and sexual orientation issues are deemed “less important” than those that involve racial conflict.

The support of secular allies is an important step toward making secular, atheist and humanist social justice organizing visible in communities of color where there is little to no history of an activist non-believer presence. We are immensely grateful to everyone who stepped up to move this groundbreaking effort forward and will be compiling a list of individual donors for public appreciation.

Scholarship awards will be awarded and celebrated in June in Los Angeles.


Black Skeptics Los Angeles,
Sikivu Hutchinson

Elizabeth Ross

D. Frederick Sparks

Nicome Taylor

Susan Epperson

Ninth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month series.

by Jamie Bougher

In 1928, the state of Arkansas passed a law. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad law. Or, well, at least it was a pretty discriminatory, anti-science law. Same thing. The law made it

…unlawful for any teacher or other instructor in any university, college, normal, public school or other institution of the state which is supported in whole or in part from public funds derived by state or local taxation to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, and also that it be unlawful for any teacher, textbook commission, or other authority exercising the power to select textbooks for above-mentioned institutions to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches the doctrine or theory that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animal. (Alvin W. Johnson, Frank H. Yost. Separation of Church and State in the United States. Univ Of Minnesota Press; Minnesota Archive Editions edition. ISBN 978-0-8166-5965-4

Pretty blatant, huh? Tragically, the law stayed firmly in place for almost forty years. In 1965, Little Rock Central High School adopted a new textbook that contained a chapter about Darwin and evolution, and then required that the chapter be taught. The Little Rock biology teachers found themselves in a difficult situation. Follow state law, refuse to teach the chapter, get fired for violating the district’s curriculum. Follow the curriculum, teach the chapter, get fired for violating state law. Not a pretty picture. Lucky for all of us, the Arkansas Education Association (or AEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association) was totally on the case.

One of the biology teachers who was going to be required to teach the EVILUTION chapter was a classy young lady by the name of Susan Epperson. The AEA asked her to be the plaintiff in the case they were going to bring against the state law. In a December 2010 ACLU interview with Epperson, she explains:

The AEA needed a biology teacher to be their plaintiff. […] At the time, in 1965, there were civil rights struggles going on in the South. One of the complaints was outside agitators. The AEA didn't want the plaintiff to be a teacher from out of state and I was from a small town about 90 miles from Little Rock. I think they were also looking for a Christian believer. Because some people equate believing in evolution with being an atheist, the AEA wanted to demonstrate that one can believe in God and also believe all the scientific evidence for evolution.

Ah ha, strategery! And, actually fairly effective. The case was first brought to the Chancery Court in Pulaski County. And they won rather handily. The court held that the law was unconstitutional. Their argument said the law “violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which protects citizens from state interference with freedom of speech and thought as contained in the constitution's First Amendment” (quote from wiki page). I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not entirely clear on why they couldn’t call it a violation of the First Amendment directly. But hey, a win’s a win! Or…well, it’s a win until the state appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court and has the Chancey Court’s ruling struck down (they argued that “the statute was a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools”). Bummer. Predictably, the AEA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided that the Arkansas Supreme Court was quite wrong, and that the Arkansas law was clearly designed to protect a particular religion. My favorite quote:

[T]he state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.

So the side of good wins and all is well. Epperson was actually not directly involved in the appeal process. She attended the U.S. Supreme Court hearing as an anonymous audience member. Since that time, Epperson has become a fierce advocate for evolution, reason, and science. She harnesses her faith (she is still a Presbyterian) and her credentials (Epperson is an instructor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, with multiple degrees in biology) to help fight against the too-common belief on the part of the religious that evolution must be rejected outright. The secular movement is lucky to have inspiring women like Susan Epperson on its side.

Schools Fail to Meet the Needs of Pregnant and Parenting Students, New NWLC Report Shows

Contact: Maria Patrick, [email protected], (202) 588-5180, or
Andrea Maruniak, [email protected], (202) 588-5180


On 40th Anniversary of Title IX, More Work Remains to Reach the Law’s Full Promise

(Washington, D.C.) The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) today released a comprehensive report that shows the impact of pervasive discrimination against pregnant and parenting students across the country ( On the 40th anniversary of Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education—schools still bar pregnant and parenting students from activities, kick them out of school, push them into alternative programs and penalize them for pregnancy-related absences, all of which violate Title IX and increase the risk that they will drop out of school. The Center also found that the vast majority of state education laws and policies fail to provide adequate support for these students.

A Pregnancy Test for Schools: The Impact of Education Laws on Pregnant and Parenting Students examines the education laws and regulations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and ranks them based on the extent to which their laws and policies help this vulnerable student population succeed. The Center’s study found that while a handful of states have made important advances, no state has the full range of major policies and programs that would help these students graduate from high school ready for college or careers, and some states have policies that exacerbate the problem. The majority of states have few or no laws, policies, or programs specifically designed to improve outcomes for these students. The Center’s state-by-state ranking shows that the top five states are California, Florida, Oregon, North Carolina and Wisconsin; the bottom five are Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, and Nebraska.

“Too many schools treat pregnant and parenting teens like lost causes,” said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. “These students often are discouraged from continuing their education and experience illegal sex discrimination, harassment, and punitive absence policies. It’s no wonder that so many students fall between the cracks of an educational system that fails to address their very real needs. It’s past time for leaders to make serious efforts to help, rather than hinder, these vulnerable students.”

Four decades after Title IX was enacted in 1972, the Center’s report underscores the wide gap between the law’s nondiscrimination mandate and its enforcement. The Center’s analysis also highlights how federal policymakers, states, and school districts can go beyond Title IX’s mandate of nondiscrimination to provide key support to improve the chances that pregnant and parenting students will graduate.

The Center also is marking the Title IX anniversary by launching “Faces of Title IX,” an online portal ( featuring nine diverse stories that put a human face on this groundbreaking law and reflect its broad range. Title IX mandates equal opportunities on the playing field, protects pregnant and parenting students from being pushed out of school, being bullied or sexually harassed, and requires that women and girls get equal opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

These vivid accounts reveal both how Title IX, when properly utilized, has had a positive impact on equity in education but also how much work remains to reach its full promise. The stories range from a mother’s discovery that her 13-year-old daughter is being bullied while teachers passively watch to the first female African-American pediatric neurosurgeon who navigated a male-dominated profession to a middle-school basketball coach who takes on the challenge of her life. This initiative also will inspire girls and women to share their own stories that reflect different aspects of this law.

Lisette Orellana, one of the women featured in “Faces of Title IX,” knows first-hand how tough it is to stay in high school when you’re pregnant—even when you’re an A student. “When I couldn’t hide my belly any longer, I told my teachers one by one. Some had been my biggest cheerleaders. Now, several suggested I drop classes right away,” said Orellana, 25, a mother of two from Gaithersburg, MD, who works full-time advocating for pregnant teens. “A couple of teachers questioned whether I’d even finish 10th grade. When I had to leave my honors English class early for a doctor’s appointment, my teacher muttered as I passed through the door: ‘I don’t know why she even bothers to come to class. She’s going nowhere.’ I used to love school. Then I started to dread it. Several times a day I debated dropping out.”

The dropout statistics for pregnant and parenting students are stark: only 51 percent of teen mothers get a high school diploma by age 22, compared with 89 percent who do not have a child during their teen years. One-third of teen mothers never get a G.E.D. or a diploma. But research data demonstrate that when pregnant teens are given support to stay in school, their high school graduation rates rise.

The Center’s report is part of its larger campaign to end discrimination against pregnant and parenting students and schools’ diminished expectations of them. Title IX enforcement efforts often ignore this aspect of the law, and the challenges these students face routinely fail to get adequate attention, even in school reform and dropout prevention debates. A Pregnancy Test for Schools offers concrete solutions for policymakers at the federal, state, and school district levels to address the needs of pregnant and parenting students and reap the benefit of these students’ talents and skills. The report also features a toolkit with materials for schools, students and advocates to initiate improvements in their communities.

The Center calls on the U.S. Department of Education to engage in a serious public education effort to remind schools of their legal obligations to protect pregnant and parenting students from discrimination and to enhance its Title IX enforcement efforts. The Center calls on Congress and state lawmakers to fund programs that support and encourage these students and calls on states and school districts to develop laws and policies clearly excusing absences related to pregnancy and requiring schools to institute pregnant and parenting student programs that include measures like individualized education plans and flexible scheduling.

“The proven correlation between providing support and higher graduation rates should spur states to strengthen policies and programs for pregnant and parenting students,” said Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC Vice President of Education and Employment. “There’s a valuable payoff: more students will graduate and gain the educational tools to position themselves in our competitive economy.”

For more resources on Title IX and how the law protects pregnant and parenting students, visit


The National Women’s Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women’s equality and opportunity. The Center focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families including economic security, education, employment and health, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women. For more information on the Center, visit: