Tennessee Passes Abstinence-Based “Gateway Sexual Activity” Bill

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Hugging? You better not be doing that in Tennessee.

The state has passed a long-mocked bill allowing parents to sue teachers and other outside parties for “promoting or condoning ‘gateway sexual activity’ by students.” The controversial measure is intended to curb teen pregnancy and is an offshoot of the state’s growing abstinence-based sex education program.

At the heart of the matter, most of the controversy stems from the “gateway sexual activity” line, which remains vague and was not clearly defined before the bill went to vote. Some detractors argue that it could unreasonably punish teachers for allowing students to cuddle, hold hands or even hug, whether in the halls between classes or at a school dance.

(MORE: Teen Sex Ed: Instead of Promoting Promiscuity, It Delays First Sex)

While critics say that abstinence-based sexual education doesn’t do as good a job preventing teen pregnancy as comprehensive sex ed programs, at least one study has shown that abstinence-based programs can delay sex among teens. And supporters of the bill say that Tennessee schools have to do something; as local media outlet WMC-TV reported:

According to a 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Study, 61 percent of Memphis City high school students and 27 percent of middle school students have had sex. That’s higher than the national average.

The bill, which was sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Gotto of Nashville, passed with a vote of 68-23. According to the Associated Press, 60 Republicans and eight Democrats voted yes while 22 Democrats and one Republican voted against the bill.

(MORE: How to Bring An End to the War Over Sex Ed)

Unsurprisingly, Planned Parenthood has remained unsupportive of the bill. As the group’s Director of Education Elokin CaPese noted, “If the state of Tennessee gets to create the [sex] curriculum, it has to create something that umbrella reflects everyone.”


Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.