Debate on Defining ‘Gateway Sexual Activity’

Legislators have sent the governor a bill, drafted by a conservative Christian organization, that makes classroom instructors who promote or condone “gateway sexual activity” subject to a $500 fine.
The phrase in SB3310, which was given final approval Friday when the Senate signed off on a minor House amendment, was the subject of much legislative debate. On the House floor it ranged from joking to impassioned oratory and a reference to the phrase being lampooned by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and subject to criticism in The New York Times.
“Gateway sexual activity is so vaguely defined it could be holding hands, hugging, anything that teenagers do like that,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
Stewart suggested that a teacher chaperone at a high school prom who sees a girl sit in a boy’s lap or a couple kissing and takes no action would be deemed to have condoned “gateway sexual activity” and subject to discipline and a fine.

Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, sponsor of the bill, said the new law would not cover such innocuous activity as holding hands.
The bill itself says “Gateway sexual activity means sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior.”
But Gotto said that incorporates the definition of “sexual contact” that is already part of Tennessee’s criminal code. He challenged Stewart to read that definition on the floor. Stewart declined.
The code section Gotto cited defines sexual contact as the “intentional touching” of another person’s “intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”
Gotto also cited, without reading aloud, the current statutory definition of “intimate parts,” which is “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner jokingly told Gotto that he wanted to “ask for a cigarette” after reading the definition. Gotto said he would ask colleagues “not to make political comments or jokes” about a sensitive topic. Turner apologized.
Stewart said the reference to the legal definition of “sexual contact” still leaves teachers open to punishment for failing to block minor teenager indiscretions. He said “touching of clothing over somebody’s inner thighs” would include sitting in another person’s lap, for example.
The most impassioned speech came from Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who said he knew of one school where 70 teenage girls were unwed and pregnant and colleagues were being “arrogant and aloof” to suggest legislators should not act to change things.
“Everyone in this room knows what gateway sexual activity is,” he said, contending that leaving teens — many without good parents — to follow their natural inclinations without classroom guidance has left the state to care for thousands of abused or neglected children.
The provision allowing parents to bring charges against an instructor for condoning “gateway sexual activity” is part of a comprehensive rewrite of the state’s sex education law, known as the “family life curriculum.” The current family life curriculum already calls for emphasis on abstinence. The new law calls for “emphatic and exclusive” focus on abstinence.
Critics also said the current law already has enough emphasis on abstinence and change is unnecessary. On the other hand, Stewart said studies have shown that abstinence-based sex education does not work in lowering teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted disease.
The bill passed the House 68-23. Eight Democrats voted for it. Only one Republican, Rep. Julia Hurley of Lenoir City, voted against it, according to the legislative website. The bill passed the Senate, with considerably less debate, 28-1 on April 5.
The bill was largely drafted by former Sen. David Fowler, who now heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee. The FACT website says the bill was inspired partly by an episode at a Nashville high school wherein a contract instructor used graphic illustrations of sexual organs in a class. A key feature of the bill, the website said, is making Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide sex education information in schools, subject to the $500 civil fine.

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