What the stamen said to the pistil

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

I read in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Iowa Senate Education Committee chair Ken Rozenboom told his colleagues, “We want everyone to be clear about the role that parents have in their child’s education.”

Rozenboom was floor managing Senate File 496, the wide-ranging education bill that originally came from the governor's office. The Senate approved the bill March 22 on a party-line vote of 34 to sixteen. It's now pending in the House Education Committee.

Among many provisions, the bill bans books that include a sex act (emphasis added). Erin Murphy reported for the Gazette,

Any books that describe or depict sex acts would be required to be removed from Iowa’s K-12 schools. The bill does this by changing the state’s legal definition of age-appropriate materials to exclude any content that includes a description or depiction of sex acts.

At first glance I thought the Gazette’s headline ("Bill would ban books with sex acts in schools") meant books in school could no longer engage in “sex acts.” If so, I wondered, where would baby books come from? From book worms? Too funny for words. But I’m straying. 

I’m sure Rozenboom doesn’t believe human babies are delivered by a stork. But he, Governor Kim Reynolds, and fellow Republicans seem to want any prose or poetry taught or available in a school’s library to be free of any contrary notions or depictions. 

Apparently, the Republican senators must have missed the Emmy-winning HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” where John Oliver explained it all.

Oliver would have "woke" the blue-nosed senator to the actual state of sex education in America. Hint: Not good.

Parents do not teach kids much about sex. Under pressure from the right, accurate sex education is vanishing from public schools. And ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. There’s trouble right here in River City. Don’t believe me? Watch the John Oliver episode. 

The legislation is pretty explicit about sex acts being verboten. I’m wondering if that applies to texts about animal and plant husbandry in Future Farmers of America classes. Would the “how to” manuals have to be banned?

When I was in 9th grade, many vocational agriculture books came with pretty graphic illustrations of sexual reproduction … with drawings of both animal and plant sex organs. No parent complained. No books were banned. Parents thought our teacher Mr. Hill knew what was best for kids to learn. Ag was my favorite class.

We once took a field trip to a convent where nuns managed a huge herd of Holsteins, whose ancestral heritage they kept with the precision of a monk charting the annals of human history. Hence, as the teacher explained, the cows were all pure breed. 

On the trip we also saw a very large bull whose sex hardware was on full display. So was his nose ring. The guide said the bull’s annual conjugal visits with his female coworkers was the key to the whole operation. He meant it as a joke. We needed more information.

He showed us a “breeding rack.” The cage-like apparatus that enabled a one-ton male to inseminate a young heifer without injury to either. There would be little romance to it, he said. (Another joke.) We “fleshed out” our vocabulary—but still wondered aloud on our way home amazed at the extent of Mr. Bull’s physical prowess. Mr. Hill told us to shut up. “It’s covered in the text,” he said.

The guide did not say how the nuns knew when to put a cow in the rack. If the bulls and lady bovines ran together freely in the pasture, sex took care of itself, like (as John Oliver put it) kids in the back seat of dad’s Chevy. Not the case at the convent, of course. We didn’t ask more. We hoped it would be covered in class.

Back in school we learned that so much depended on a cow’s readiness, which the teacher called “in heat,” a term we discussed in class as freely as if no sex were involved. (Back then, girls weren't included in future farmers instruction.)

But it left no mystery as to where calves came from and how they got started. (Mr. Stamen meet Ms. Pistil). It took no big leap to think this related to other mammals, probably like us human beings. Of course, Rozenboom was not in the class. Did I say vocational agriculture was my favorite class? Much more so than biology. 

Back to the legislature, especially to Rozenboom, the governor, and her Republican majority — and why they need to really look at the reality of young people’s crazy, social media-fed, post-pandemic lives. It’s a reality unaddressed by banning a memoir like the New York Times Best Seller “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” The governor sensationalized a couple paragraphs by reading them on TV, making it her go-to example of a book so explicit as to endanger a kid’s psyche. 

In the book, the author George M. Johnson, a Queer Black man, tells his personal story of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, going to flea markets with his loving grandmother, and experiencing his first sexual encounter. The New York Times review said of the book, “… an exuberant, unapologetic memoir infused with a deep but cleareyed love for its subjects.”  

As mentioned above, Senate File 496 bans sex acts in literature, at least in books on school library shelves. The senator would have been more helpful to Iowa parents and their children had he said, “We want everyone to be clear about the role that parents have in their child’s conception.”

And, I would add, the role of parents in understanding a child’s sexual orientation and/or her gender or his identity issues, about which this legislature is unconscionably in denial and retrenchment. The Washington Post reported in February,

Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they seriously considered suicide — up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago — according to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 14 percent of teen girls said they were forced to have sex, an increase of 18 percent over two years and the first increase since the CDC began tracking it. 

The CDC later clarified the more precise figures were 11.4 percent in 2019 and 13.5 percent in 2021. That represents an 18.4 percent increase in teen girls who said they were forced to have sex. But the suicide rate is also alarming, underscoring how reprehensible the Iowa legislature has been in raining abuse on LGBTQ youth this year.

From a peer-reviewed 2018 study in the medical journal Pediatrics:

Fifty-one percent of transgender male adolescents reported at least one suicide attempt — the highest rate in the study. The second highest was among young people who are nonbinary — those who do not identify exclusively as male or female — at 42 percent, while 30 percent of transgender female adolescents reported attempting suicide.

Once again. Watch the John Oliver episode. It’s fun and factual. Every legislator should.

Top illustration by Valentina Moraru available via Shutterstock.

  • Iowa's Essence Captured!

    Great piece! I recall, when covering agriculture for the Des Moines Register, the difficult moments I had when a story I had written about the Big Boar at the State Fair was being edited. I derived some editorial joy in the fact that the winning boar had been a natural, as opposed to artificial, breeder, and decided that the story would be enhanced by some greater detail about the act. My editors went into a fainting fit (at least the male editors did; the females weren't bothered) and the story had go to through an unusually painful editing process before it was deemed worthy of a family newspaper. Every July, I took pains to inform readers that, contrary to the cliches of generation of truck stop waitresses, the hot weather isn't good for corn. In fact, it leads to sexual dysfunction at pollination time. With some extra effort, we got that crucial fact into the public record, without any notable decline in the moral values of Iowans.

    • Your work was appreciated...

      ...and in fact more corn sex education might have helped Tom Vilsack back when he was governor. I remember when he proposed Iowa as a place where numerous different kinds of bio-engineered pharmacorn could potentially be grown in small plots all over the landscape. But he didn't seem to know much back then about the issue of wind-borne pollen.

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