October 23, 2019
My Own Experience
Thirty girls aged 12-14 stare at the projection screen, wide-mouthed and concerned. Graphic photographs of sexually transmitted diseases leer back at them, taunting the threat of contraction. “Do you want to find this on your lady parts?” the speaker asks, pointing aggressively with a ruler to the pictures. The class mumbles vague negatives in response. “Good,” she confirms, content with the reaction. “Let’s move on to some role- playing activities.”
I attended a fairly wealthy public school system in the suburbs of Grand Rapids. Our sexual education program began in fifth grade with an explanation of puberty led by our gym teacher. Then, in eighth grade, letters went home to all of our parents, informing them that a representative would be coming into our science class to teach our main sexual education class. We needed our parents’ permission to take part. The program, called “Willing to Wait,” was separated by gender and based around abstinence. The side I experienced involved scare tactics, horror stories about teenage pregnancy and “creative ways to say ‘no’.” One activity that still stands out to me is when the instructor had us all rip pieces of tape off their rolls and repeatedly stick them to different surfaces around the classroom. Afterwards, she used the tape as a metaphor for women, suggesting that the more sexual partners females interact with, the less “sticky” they would be, and therefore less likely to form lasting relationships.
At that point in my life, at the age of 13, the only exposure I had to the topic of sex was through books, TV or the internet. My parents did not have “the talk” with me, possibly because they assumed that was the school’s job. Most of my friends were in the same boat, having undergone puberty and beginning to explore relationships, but lacking a fundamental understanding of what sex was, let alone how to partake in safe practices. My own relationship at the time was affected by an overwhelming hesitation partially from not being ready to move forward, but mostly a result of my own ignorance and fear of the unknown. I was in desperate need of a program that was going to teach me not only the biological facts about sex but also how to choose a method of contraception and the importance of consent. I did not receive that. The frustration and stress experienced among my friends and me surrounding sex was unhealthy and could easily have been avoided with a more comprehensive sex ed curriculum.
As it turns out, shaming tween girls is not only inappropriate, but it also can have potentially detrimental effects on women later in life. I spoke with 16 people between the ages of 20 and 24 about their experiences with the sexual education programs taught at the schools they attended. 14 out of the 16 agreed that they did not receive the education they expected or required. When I asked them to elaborate, it was unsettling at best.
When I posted on my Facebook wall that I was looking for input on this topic, I was not expecting nearly the amount of passionate responses I received. Some were hesitant but willing to share their experiences for the sake of moving forward. Others were quite outspoken and had no problem telling me exactly how they felt. After going through all of the messages, the underlying theme within the majority was that these young adults did not feel fulfilled by their curricula and/or they did not feel like the material suited them. Arguably the most glaring omission that students noted was that many didn’t even learn what sex is. What should have been covered in basic biology class, prior to any further education, was missing in several cases. Another concern addressed repeatedly was an inadequate discussion of contraception. Many told me that the word “condom” wasn’t even mentioned within their programs except to reassure students that they didn’t work. The pill was never presented as an option, nor were the complicated side effects that can come along with it discussed.
Also noted as a topic of worry was the lack of inclusion. One commented that their program never touched on anything other than cisgender, heterosexual sex, which was upsetting and confusing for those who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Another individual stated that queer sex and relationships were avoided completely, continuing that she encountered problems later in life after coming out and having no concept of what safe practices looked like with a member of the same sex. Additionally, even the basic concept of consent seemed to be lacking in the curricula people encountered. While many learned how to say “no” in support of abstinence, in no program was it adequately communicated that both parties must verbally agree in order for safe sex to occur, and the avoidance of this critical topic left out an important lesson on sexual assault. One individual described their experience: “The most important thing however, I cannot recall once the topic of consent being discussed. As a victim of sexual assault, I cannot stress the importance of everyone learning the warning signs of a sexual assault about to take place and how to step in.” Another person shared with me that one of her close friends was part of a severely abusive relationship, but did not feel like she had the correct tools to help support her due to a lack of knowledge.
Furthermore, almost all of the programs separated the classes by girls and boys. Not only does doing so present a potential complication for those identifying as non-binary, but it also advocates a narrative that female students need to learn different material than male students, or vice versa. One person commented that after talking with her male friends after, she discovered that the boys’ sexual education course covered more content and was overall much clearer than the one for the girls. In creating a program like this, boys are given more power and control over sexual experiences while girls get left behind to be convinced of bad sexual habits for later in life. Another male commented that “the system seems to be designed in a way that puts women in the dark and shames them for being open and sexually free. It’s designed to serve a male dominated culture.” By teaching students this rhetoric, schools are perpetuating a system of shaming women instead of protecting them.
According to a report published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, abstinence-only education often is not effective in preventing youth from having sex. The report acknowledges abstinence as an important strategy for preventing the spread of disease and avoiding pregnancy but states that it tends to be controversial when presented as the only option for students, especially when other choices are misrepresented. The article argues that abstinence-only curricula tend to be morally problematic and leave out a lot of other critical material.
The effects of students not receiving a comprehensive education became clear for many of those I interviewed later in their lives as they began taking part in serious relationships. While some simply realized that their backgrounds were different than their partners’, others referred to their sexual growth as being “stunted” as a result. Several females described feeling guilty and ashamed when taking part in sexual acts with their partners in high school and beyond. Some avoided intercourse altogether due to the fear of the potential consequences. One woman opened up about the difficulties she still faces in her present relationship, which she believes to be fault of her failed development of knowledge on the subject. “Even now I’m still struggling with this—knowing that I am worth infinitely more than what I was told—but also feeling like every time I make progress on thinking better, I take several steps backward. My insecurities are absolutely stressful and severely impact intimacy with my partner.”
Also mentioned was the idea that youth are going to experiment with sex regardless of how much or little they know of the subject. Repeatedly, people stressed that hiding important facts from children only serves to disadvantage them. Keeping students in the dark about such a critical topic poses a huge risk for teenage pregnancy, dangerous sexual practices and overall unawareness of how to maintain one’s sexual health. One commenter went as far as to wrap up her opinion on the topic by saying, “To purposefully deprive young individuals about the information they need to have a physically and emotionally healthy relationship with sex and sexuality is to endanger them.”
National and State Laws
At the federal level, U.S. Congress has continued to substantially fund abstinence-only education, and in 2016, funding was increased to $85 million per year. This budget was approved despite President Obama’s attempts to end the program after 10 years of opposition and concern from medical and public health professionals, sexuality educators and the human rights community. They stated that abstinence-only education withholds information about condoms and contraception, promotes religious ideologies and gender stereotypes, and stigmatizes adolescents with nonheteronormative sexual identities (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
As it turns out, the law in Michigan for teaching sexual practices is fairly undefined. The State of Michigan requires that districts teach students about dangerous communicable diseases “including, but not limited to, HIV/AIDS,” but can choose whether or not to teach general sexual education (michigan.gov). It is also within the law that parents must be notified of the content being taught to their children and reserve the right to opt the students out of participation. These laws leave a profound amount of authority within individual school districts. Due to this lack of set laws, students across the state receive vastly differentiating education. Also under Michigan Public Education guidelines: “All public school sex educations programs must stress that abstinence from sex is a responsible and effective method of preventing unplanned or out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and that it is the only protection that is 100% effective against unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and sexually transmitted HIV infection and AIDS.” Michigan is one of 26 states that require abstinence to be stressed as a part of sex education; 11 others require that it be covered” (michigandaily.com). State law also allows for schools to bring in outside parties to teach content, but the curricula must go through a formal approval process before being presented to students.
When I later looked into the program my school utilized, I discovered that it was taught by a Christian planning group that actively posed as an abortion clinic but then convinced vulnerable pregnant women to keep their pregnancies. Since my class graduated, the school district recently chose (with pressure by student guardians) to cease that curriculum and switched to certifying the district’s own teachers to instruct sexual education.
It’s unclear what exact steps need to be taken in order to create a more inclusive and effective sexual education curriculum, but judging from the lack of Michigan laws, it may need to begin at the state level. One potential part of a solution that I heard from several individuals was the suggestion of sexual education programs that begin before students reach puberty (fourth or fifth grade) and continue throughout high school. Many school districts provide one brief middle school course vaguely followed up on in high school health class, but not to the extent that students needed. One person I spoke with, a nursing student, stressed how often young women come into the hospital with “stomach pains” because they are too afraid to talk to a trusted adult about the fact that they had unsafe sex. Her suggestion was to have the high school education segment focus more on the emotional and hormonal side of sexuality while also reinforcing safe sexual practices including different types of contraception and where to find them. She also noted that the programs could potentially be taught by medical professionals or social workers to ensure that the content is accurate and to avoid the risk of discomfort between school teachers and their students.
Safe Sex Campaigns in Michigan
One program that several districts in the Kent and Muskegon counties have recently chosen to partner with is the Safer Choices Project, which is supported by the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative of the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH). Safer Choices claims to provide young people with the information and support they recommend to develop healthy relationships, prevent unprotected intercourse and sexually transmitted infections, and increase communication with their parents or guardians (plannedparenthood.org). This program markets itself to youth aged 12-19 and classes are available through online application.
Another group, the Michigan Radical Sex Ed Initiative, focuses on creating a curriculum specifically to support members of the LGBTQ+ community. In their Guide on Implementing Queer and Trans Inclusive Sex in Michigan, it is argued that describing cisgender and heterosexual identities and relationships as the “norm” in classrooms has a real impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning young people. The article also states that “only seven states require that sex education and HIV/ AIDS instruction in schools be culturally appropriate, or inclusive of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, disabilities, socioeconomic status, gender identity/ expression, or sexual orientation (the- taskforce.org).” This group is part of the National LGBTQ Task Force, which is working around the country to ensure that all students are represented in their sexual education teachings.
Anna Carnes is a senior studying Professional Writing with a concentration in editing and publishing and minoring in Spanish. Following college, she hopes to pursue a career that integrates both fields of study, potentially writing grants for a nonprofit. Outside of class she enjoys practicing underwater hockey, shopping, and eating pints of Ben and Jerry’s. You can find her on Instagram @annacarnes_.