Once Again Sex Gets a Bad Name – This Time in Wisconsin

Posted on May 24th, 2010 by Katherine Franke

In March, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made headlines when out of nowhere he sent a letter to the Commenwealth’s public colleges and universities indicating that they had no legal authority to enact policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and that those that had done so must rescind their policies.  The AG himself stood on shaky ground in issuing such a ruling, and it was promptly countermanded by the Governor, who issued a state directive prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination by any state employee and threatened to fire anyone who violated the new rule.  But Cuccinelli’s larger aim was surely accomplished as he garnered the feverish, albeit bigoted, support of the red meat right wing in Virginia and enhanced his chances of gaining higher office – maybe the governorship – in the next election cycle.

But there’s another public prosecutor, this time in the midwest, who’s also busy using his office to advance an evangelical agenda when it comes to sex. Scott Southworth, the Juneau County District Attorney in Maustin, Wisconsin (located just off I-94 smack dab in between Milwaukee and Eau Claire), made news when he sent a letter to every school in the county warning them that they could face criminal charges for child sexual assault if they complied with a new state law encouraging school sex education programs to teach about contraception.

Southworth first gained public attention in 1996 when he was a law student at the University of Wisconsin.  He sued the state challenging mandatory student fees that funded student organizations to which he objected, such as the undergraduate lesbian and gay student group which he called “a militant homosexual organization.”  The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the University’s favor: “the University may sustain the extracurricular dimensions of its programs by using mandatory student fees with viewpoint neutrality as the operational principle.”  Board of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000).

Southworth then joined the National Guard and served in Iraq.  While there he met a 10 year old Iraqi boy at an orphanage run by Catholic Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa.  The boy had been taught to speak English and recite christian prayers (his name was Allah, but the nuns maintained he came from a christian family).  Southworth adopted the boy and got involved in Americans adopting Iraqi orphans.

Immediately after his discharge from the National Guard in the summer of 2004 Southworth ran successfully for Juneau County District Attorney.  He has made national headlines recently for his interpretation of the new state sex education law, updated by the state legislature and signed into law in February by Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle.  Under the new law schools are not required to teach about human sexuality, but if they do the curriculum must include:

1. The importance of communication about sexuality and decision making about sexual behavior between the pupil and the pupil’s parents, guardians, or other family members.
2. Reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology, including biological, psychosocial, and emotional changes that accompany maturation.
3. Puberty, pregnancy, parenting, body image, and gender stereotypes.
4. The skills needed to make responsible decisions about sexuality and sexual behavior throughout the pupil’s life, including how to refrain from making inappropriate verbal, physical, and sexual advances and how to recognize, rebuff, and report any unwanted or inappropriate verbal, physical, and sexual behaviors.
5. The benefits of and reasons for abstaining from sexual activity. Instruction under this subdivision shallstress the value of abstinence as the most reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
6. The health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraceptives and barrier methods approved by the federal food and drug administration to prevent pregnancy and barrier methods approved by the federal food and drug administration to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
7. Methods for developing healthy life skills, including setting goals, making responsible decisions, communicating, and managing stress.
8. How alcohol and drug use affect responsible decision making.
9. The impact of media and one’s peers on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to sexuality.

In addition, all courses must “use instructional methods and materials that do not promote bias against pupils of any race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities. Promote self−esteem and positive interpersonal skills, with an emphasis on healthy relationships, including friendships, marriage, and romantic and familial relationships. Identify counseling, medical, and legal resources for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, including resources for escaping violent relationships.”

This is a really great law – body image, gender stereotypes, self-esteem, sexual assault, responsible sexual decision-making – what’s not to like here?  It’s kinda hard to see where the sexual violation of children comes in.  Besides criticizing the new law for being a form of sexual violation of children (any discussion of sex in their presence seems to be a form of assault for Southworth) he condemned the law for “teaching sex for pleasure.”  Oh no, not that.

Unfortunately, some have come to the defense of the new law by emphatically denying Southworth’s charge that the Wisconsin law, or any sex ed law for that matter, is about teaching children how to enjoy their bodies sexually.  Lon Newman, a health educator in Wisconsin, posted comments on RH Reality Check declaring that “Sex Education is not ‘Teaching Sex for Pleasure.'” Well, isn’t one of the main reasons straight people have contracepted sex is to avoid the reproductive consequences of intercourse preferring, at times, to have it “just” for pleasure instead?  Newman’s post corrected my mistake: sex education is about learning all the horrible things that can happen to you if you have sex, or have it the wrong way, including cancer, STDs, sexual assault – the list of dreadful and dangerous things that result from sex goes on.   You’d wonder why anyone ever has it!

I’m not saying these terrible things shouldn’t be included in sex ed, but reducing sex education to harm avoidance while denying that people, even adolescents, have sex for pleasure is both bad for adolescents and bad for sex.

The good news: a campaign was formally launched this week to recall Southworth as Juneau County District Attorney.


  1. Thank you for posting this –

    I am active with the recall effort against Southworth and for numerous reasons, including what I believe to be an abuse of power that has existed in his office for as long as I can remember – this letter was just a last straw.

    I am all for personal opinion…freedom of speech, but don’t do it on tax payer’s dimes when that is not in your job description.

    Not only did I find his letter offensive to this free thinking parent, but I also found it to be a blatant attack on the homosexual community – Now arguing that in this small rural county has been a hard job since as I am told most will not even notice the remarks and think anything of it – but personally that is exactly the mindset that has allowed Scott to go on for so long doing as he pleases…so

    Please follow our efforts…support us when you can…this is not an easy road we are on…but it is a needed one

  2. Eva – thanks for letting us know more about what’s going on there. Keep us posted of developments.


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