Katie Steen: Updating sexual education

By Katie Steen, Columnist
Published February 20, 2014

When I was in fourth grade, I had my first sex education class. I remember learning, first, how birds and fish and other animals reproduced, and feeling utterly confused. Eventually, we learned how humans reproduced, and I was still utterly confused (eventually, I pressed my parents into answering my desperate nine-year-old self as I harassed them with questions of, “But what is sex?!”). I remember pads and tampons were mentioned at some point, too. That pretty much concluded my elementary school sex ed.

Katie Steen

Middle school was a miserable blur, but I remember learning more about pads and tampons. I remember watching an outdated, over-the-top video on sexual harassment that everyone made fun of.

In high school, I remember studying for a sex ed quiz, scrutinizing diagrams of a penis and a vagina in the hour before health class, tucking them halfway underneath a page in my notebook and hoping that no one would notice me staring down a dick in pre-calc. I remember watching a video about a high school student in Grosse Pointe who couldn’t go to prom because he had sex with an underage girl. I remember feeling bad for him.

That was essentially the extent of my sex ed — endless instructions on how to discretely deal with my bleeding vagina, some unhelpful diagrams and a misleading, blip-of-a-lesson on sexual consent. We never learned about sexual orientation. We never learned about gender and identity. We learned that “no means no,” but we didn’t learn what to do if someone says “no” after saying “yes,” or if someone is too drunk to say “no,” or if silence is necessarily a “yes.”

I can only speak for my own experience, but I’m guessing that sex ed is just as useless nationwide, especially considering that only 20 states require sex and HIV education in public schools. The majority of American teenagers will graduate high school with minimal knowledge on sex and sexuality, and for a lot of parents, that’s the way they’d prefer it to remain.

Recently in Kansas, a poster that was meant to be used as part of a discussion on sexual activity incensed a number of parents, resulting in a proposed bill that would require Kansas sex ed to run on an opt-in policy as opposed to an opt-out policy. What that means is, rather than parents excusing their children from sex ed, parents would have to indicate their approval for their children to receive sex ed at all — something a lot of teenagers may not be comfortable asking their parents to do. What that means is, a shift to where sexual ignorance — not education — is the norm.

This has lasting, damaging effects on the health of our country (and these effects are disproportionate based on race and socioeconomic status). Among industrialized countries, the United States has the highest teen birth rate, and Americans aged 15 to 24 acquire half of all new Sexually Transmitted Infections.

But spotty or nonexistent sex ed leads to more than just teen pregnancy and STIs. It leads to thousands of teens left confused about issues of gender, sex and identity. It leads to teenage girls unsure of how to acquire birth control, or who to talk to when they think they might be pregnant, or how to talk to their boyfriends about using a condom — or maybe not having sex at all. It leads to LGBTQ students feeling isolated and unsafe with expressing their sexuality in the presence of their peers. It leads to depression, suicide and homelessness. There’s a reason things like Ellen Page and Michael Sam coming out still makes headlines. And there’s a reason it took Facebook a decade to finally add options for gender beyond “male” and “female.” Our country progresses slowly, but the effects of these progressive changes resonate with individuals through young adulthood and beyond.

This culture of ignorance and shame can brew into a particularly toxic environment for institutes of higher education. Queerphobia, misogyny and rape culture permeate colleges — in classrooms, at parties, on dimly lit streets and on sun-drenched campus lawns — in many ways, to the extent that it almost goes unnoticed. But ultimately, college is not equally safe for all people. The fact that lists of the most “LGBT friendly” colleges even exist says something about how (un)supportive the average college is of the LGBTQ community. And don’t forget that currently, one out of five women will be sexually assaulted in college, and the vast majority of the perpetrators will get away with it. There are countless incidents I could address of intolerance and injustice on college campuses, but I don’t feel like turning this into a list.

Wednesday, a banner reading “THIS ADMINISTRATION DEFENDS RAPISTS” was hung from Mason Hall. While actions like this call attention to the culture that has infected our campus and many other campuses across the country, we should be looking to fight the problem before it manifests itself at the college level. Ideally, we would have mandated sex education that teaches young people about more than just the biology of the birds and the bees, but about a wide array of topics, including consent, gender and sexual orientation.

But if, like me, you were raised in an environment where sex education was limited to outdated VHS tapes and covert Google searches, please take care to do what the U.S. public education system all too often fails to do, and educate yourself.

Katie Steen can be reached at katheliz@umich.edu.