Tennessee’s abstinence-only education policies are harmful to communities across the state, and that is especially clear in Shelby County, where STI rates are much higher than the national average and rising. One of Tennessee’s laws, known as the “Gateway Sexual Activity” law, forbids individuals or organizations from discussing “non-abstinence as an appropriate or acceptable behavior” and enables parents to sue institutions for damages if they feel the school has done so. Fearful of the law’s implications, the Shelby County School Board responded to this policy by making their sex education “opt in.” As a result, very few students in Shelby County receive any sex education at all.

One of the challenges to overturning this law is the myth that parents in Tennessee support it. To combat this belief, NIRH partnered with SisterReach in 2014 to conduct focus groups with youth, parents, and teachers of color in Shelby County and get their feedback on the need for sexuality education.

The resulting report, “Our Voices & Experiences Matter: The Need for Comprehensive Sex Education among Young People of Color in the South,” published in 2015, is the first-ever report on the attitudes of people of color in Tennessee on this important issue. Conducting this research was a central part of SisterReach’s strategy of lifting the voices of those most marginalized to ensure their human rights. The report’s findings show that they believe that Tennessee must change its current policies to ensure the health and well-being of young people.

SisterReach is using the findings in the report to inform the advocacy of their Young Ambassadors, who are now working on the local level to urge Shelby County to change their opt-in sexuality education policy and on the state level to educate lawmakers about the need for a policy that gives them the tools they need to make healthy and informed choices.