On October 12, 2012, my life took a turn I would have never seen coming. At seventeen years old, I sat across from a stranger while he asked me personal questions about my previous sexual partners and encounters with no explanation as to why. Once I became reluctant to answer out of confusion, he proceeded to tell me that I was HIV-positive. My heart dropped to my stomach and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. My body became motionless and the air around me seemed empty. I would have never imagined that I would be sitting in a health department office with a look and feeling of such defeat. That day changed me forever, but it also helped mold me into the person I am today.
Thinking back, I can't help but wonder how I ended up in that predicament, but it all came down to one conclusion. As far back as I can remember, I don't recall a time where I was allowed access to information about HIV/AIDS or any other STIs, whether from my parents, public officials, or even school. Being a product of Shelby County School systems in Tennessee, I have great concern about the laws that were and are being put in place to strip Tennessee youth of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their sexual health, especially given that in Shelby County the rates of HIV are highly prevalent and dominant in Tennessee youth. How can we expect to lower HIV rates among young people, when they aren’t being taught medically accurate information?
As we approach December 1 and recognize World AIDS Day, I have time to reflect on the sex education I received in schools in Tennessee. When I was in school, the only information that was allowed to us were outdated textbook definitions and pictures. The lessons were not engaging or applicable to real life, and in some years, the subject wasn’t covered at all. According to Tennessee, the current law on sex education only mentions AIDS and abstinence; it doesn’t mention HIV at all. This is highly inaccurate as HIV and AIDS are different and abstinence is not a completely effective strategy, as shown by the increase in HIV/AIDS diagnoses and other STIs among young people from ages 13-24.
Not only is the law inaccurate and outdated, its language is stigmatizing and offensive to youth who are living with HIV. The law automatically assumes that it’s best to continue the push of abstinence-based education “regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience,” instead of helping young people living with HIV get the treatment and other resources they need. This implies sex is the only means that HIV is transmitted and allows stigma to grow.
Within Tennessee’s Gateway Sexual Behavior law, abstinence is defined as abstaining from participating in any activity that puts an individual at risk for pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. Though this definition is merely textbook, its limitations do not take into consideration situations where one is pushed into an act without their consent.
Though there are many problems with laws governing sex education in Tennessee, there are ways to improve. Tennessee lawmakers must introduce legislation to modernize information about HIV. Dr. Jasmine Clark, a Georgia lawmaker, introduced similar legislation in February. House Bill 133, the Quality Basic Education Act, would modernize Georgia law and require sex education in the state to be medically accurate and inclusive.
Although the bill was not passed in Georgia, Tennessee lawmakers must adopt similar legislation in order to help continue the fight to raise awareness about and increase prevention of HIV/AIDS with accurate and correct information. The upcoming Tennessee legislative session convenes on January 14, 2020. Legislators must introduce legislation that modernizes information about HIV in sex education.
Lisa R. Watkins, 24, is an Engaging Community around HIV Organizing (ECHO) activist with Advocates for Youth, an organization that works alongside thousands of young people in the U.S. and around the globe as they fight for sexual health, rights and justice.