Referendum 90: The Mandate on Sex Ed

Rebekah Rahman, Copy Editor

After a hectic and divisive election season, it is hard to remember the many things we voted for back in November, especially the things that affect us at a state and local level. In Washington, one thing that might have been overlooked by you and other educators, parents, and students of voting age is Referendum 90 (Ref 90). Spoiler alert, the bill was passed with a 57.82 percent majority. However, many people have no idea what this bill is, or more importantly, how it impacts our education–specifically our sex education. A quick Google search gives a pretty vague description of Ref 90 from Ballotpedia: “A vote to approve Referendum 90 supported allowing Senate Bill 5395 to take effect, thereby requiring public schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education for all students and requiring students to be excused if requested by their parents.”

The first time I heard of Ref 90 was from a local TV ad from the bill’s official website, Approve 90 WA. Their description particularly peaked my interest as it boasted a more progressisve and inclusive sex education, saying that “LGBTQ youth deserve to see themselves reflected positively in sexual health education and experience acceptance by their teachers and peers.” Clearly, the promoters of Ref 90 are pushing for changes in sex ed that include more diverse representation.

The thing is, what is driving the need for this bill? What has sex education looked like up until this point? At a national level, some argue there is a lot left to be desired. According to the nursing department at the University of Southern California, there are “only 13 states in the nation [that] require sex education to be medically accurate, [leaving a lot left up to] interpretation in teenage health literacy.” For the most part, sexual responsibility is left at the hands of the students, many of whom are not given enough information to make responsible, informed choices. Some states will push for abstinence-only sex ed. While teaching sexual abstinence, or the choice not to have sex, is important, these particular states will often frame abstinence as the only choice for teens. Senior Giovanni Jennings notes that “things should always be taught in a variety of ways, and I think restricting sex education to one way is close-minded; there are people who are going to need access to various resources.” This leads to a lack of knowledge about birth control and other resources that can contribute to a healthy sex life. Greater still, it can send mixed messages and cause a severe disconnect between what students are learning at school, at home, and on the internet. 

Junior Christiana Mateas describes sex ed as “one of the most important things you can teach a teenager… .Every state should have comprehensive sex education.” After the approval of Ref 90, Courtney Normand, Washington state director of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, said, “It tells us that the majority of Washingtonians are showing really resounding support for comprehensive sex education and that is really, really good news for Washington’s young people.” However, not all Washingtonians view this bill as a good thing. Opponents argue that this actually takes power away from parents and their control over what their children are being taught in this area. These opponents are the reason Ref 90 was put on the ballot in the first place. Originally, Senate bill 5395 was signed to be put into effect back in March 2020; however, those who did not agree pushed for the option of having it rejected by vote. Informed Parents of Washington, a group that defines itself as “a coalition of parents dedicated to fighting Comprehensive SeXXX Education in our schools and legislation that imposes upon parental rights,” was opposed to Ref 90. In reaction to its passing, Informed Parents said, “We may have lost this battle, but there is still a war raging and our children and parental rights are at stake.”

Sophomore Gabe Dy says, “I think there are various solutions to one problem, rather than trying to avoid the problem entirely.” The approval of Ref 90 allows for comprehensive sex ed, where students are informed of safe, science-based options. For students, this requires that our instruction includes topics like “affirmative consent,” “the influences of family, peers, community and the media throughout life on healthy sexual relationships,” and “abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” All of these concepts remind us that sex ed is not just about the act of sex itself and preventing teen pregnancy; it encompasses ways to better understand our bodies and build relationships. In fact, some students, like freshman Quinn Bush, prefer to ask their counselor at school sexual health questions, rather than parents, “since there’s less familial pressure to say certain things.” Even with the passing of Ref 90, parents who are opposed to its teachings still have the ability to opt their child out. Either way, it looks like this bill will allow for more options for students themselves and, with it being the first sexual health mandate on a statewide ballot, many people will have their eyes on the effects of Ref 90 in the future.