GOP outrage at sex education could derail child sex abuse prevention efforts

By: - September 19, 2019 2:47 pm

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This story deals with sexual abuse and assault of minors. If you or someone you know has been a victim of this crime, call 800-656-HOPE for 24/7 help and support.

The mounting furor in conservative circles over comprehensive sex education could place Republican leaders at the Capitol cross-wise with recommendations made by Gov. Doug Ducey’s task force to protect children from sex abuse.

At a Sept. 14 forum, Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives Rusty Bowers said that medically accurate, age-appropriate education on issues of sex, gender and consent is designed for “radicalizing children and their sexuality” and will ultimately make them more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.

That portends a conflict with the Justice for Victims of Child Sex Abuse Task Force, which Ducey created to provide legislative insights on ways to better protect children from sexual abuse. One of the first priorities identified by the task force in its first meeting was to create age-appropriate child sex abuse prevention education.

Acting Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who co-chair the task force, both stated their desire to see laws creating mandatory education for children on how to spot predatory behavior. 

Currently, 26 states, plus Guam, have enacted some form of legislation that requires the state to either study or develop age-appropriate child sexual abuse prevention and identification classes beginning in pre-kindergarten in order to educate both students and teachers about the signs of child sexual abuse. 

Arizona is not one of those states. 

“Yes we can teach them sex abuse prevention, but not about consent,” Family Watch International President Sharon Slater said to an audience of about 50 people at the Sept. 14 forum. Senate Education Chairwoman Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, also spoke at the event.

Bowers reiterated Slater’s point in his speech, saying that schools have had an influx of sexual crimes. Teaching children about consent and sex could lead to them being preyed on easier, he claimed. 

In her speech at the forum, Allen said she will introduce legislation blocking any kind of sex education from being taught until the fifth grade.

Allen didn’t return calls for comment about her planned legislation and whether it would conflict with the child sex abuse task force’s goals.

During the task force’s first meeting last month, Mitchell, who for years ran the sex crimes division in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said that giving children certain knowledge at a young age is key to successful prosecutions. For instance, children need to know the names of different parts of their body.

Bowers told Arizona Mirror after the forum that he had not met with anyone on the task force to discuss the education component of preventing child sex abuse.

“There isn’t a middle ground on sexualizing my children,” Bowers said. “If you want to put that in your paper, you can.” 

The speaker reiterated he was “all for” helping kids understand what they need to know when speaking with police, but said that is the job of law enforcement and that anatomy classes have existed “for a long time” in schools.

“If you go and talk to a kid, they can figure out how sex works real quick,” Bowers said. 

Speaking to reporters Sept. 19 after an Arizona Commerce Authority board meeting, Ducey said he hadn’t “heard some of the comments that have been made,” so he could not render an opinion on the matter. When asked how Bowers and Allen’s proposed legislation could impact the task force’s work, Ducey replied, “We’ve got plenty of time” until the task force finishes its work in January 2020. 

Bowers, however, doubled down on the statements he made at the education forum. 

“I don’t want the state teaching my kids how to masturbate,” Bowers told the media after the Commerce Authority meeting. He also reiterated his belief that children can “figure out” how sex works without intervention from educators. 

Victims’ advocates say Bowers is wrong and Allen’s proposed legislation would be counterproductive.

Empowering children against sexual abuse has nothing to do with sex,” said Joelle Casteix, a survivor of sexual abuse and leader of Survivors Taking on Predators, also known as STOP said. Casteix is also a founding member of the Zero Abuse Project, a group that aims to eliminate child sexual abuse. 

“Teaching kids the names of their body parts is not teaching them about sex,” she said. 

Age-appropriate measures like the ones that the task force is looking into would likely not delve into the details of sexual intercourse, Casteix said, but are intended to help children understand their own anatomy. 

Outlawing discussions of issues like that until the fifth grade could be harmful, Casteix said, as some children may not have parents or caregivers to help them learn what would be taught. For example, a child who is being sexually abused by their parents could benefit from having certain preventative lessons taught to them at a young age at a safe environment such as school, she said. 

And children living in foster care are ten times more likely to be sexually abused than children who are not, according to the United States Department of Health Services. Those in lower socioeconomic situations were also found to be three times more likely to become victims of sexual abuse. 

Casteix said that the task force is in a unique position to take the first steps in creating a program spanning K-12 that could aid in preventing child sex abuse, helping children learn how to report their suspicions that a classmate is being abused and even helping children with non-sex abuse related sex questions.

“What 13-year old wants to talk to his mom about why he stinks and why his genitals are changing?” Casteix said, adding that children are less willing to ask difficult questions about their bodies to their parents. She also suggested that the task force look at calling it “body awareness” instead of “sex ed.” 

The child sex abuse task force is scheduled to meet again Sept. 24.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.