Across Michigan, educators lack clear sex ed policy
After being sexually assaulted before college, an LSA freshman who prefers to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of her experience, was not aware of the resources available to her. The sex education class she took in high school hadn’t prepared her.
“The experience itself — it’s unlike anything you can really describe. It’s demoralizing. It’s dehumanizing. You feel disgusting,” she said
Growing up in a conservative and rural area of Michigan, she said her only high school sex education was an hourlong presentation, which dodged the topic of sex entirely and excluded her queer identity from the narrative.
“We got an hourlong class period about abstinence and STDs, and that was it,” she said. “In a period of time when I really would’ve needed it, I didn’t have the education about resources or even that my experience was valid, and that’s definitely a big thing that could change.”
When she arrived at the University of Michigan this fall, she, along with all first-year students, underwent the required Relationship Remix workshop. This was her first formal exposure to the concepts of sexual consent, communication and sexual assault education.
Relationship Remix gave her the validation she needed to stop blaming herself for her experience, and it did so in an inclusive manner.
“Relationship Remix honestly was the sexual education class I wish I would’ve gotten when I was a freshman in high school … it didn’t really discriminate even though a lot of sex education classes in high schools do, and it’s because they’re very heteronormative,” she said. “And then in terms of sexual assault, Relationship Remix, it almost seemed like the understood and they cared.”
In an email to The Daily, Laura McAndrew, a University sexual health educator, emphasized the importance of personal empowerment in sex education.
“In Relationship Remix, we focus on promoting healthy relationship behaviors like knowing your values, defining what you do and don’t want in a relationship, communication, consent, and sexual health promotion,” McAndrew wrote. “There’s not just one approach that will promote sexual health; we’re complex creatures, and different individuals and communities will each have unique needs and interests.”
With regard to sexual education, the state of Michigan mandates only the instruction of HIV and AIDS safety, delegating significant authority to local districts. For districts that do opt to offer more comprehensive sex education, the state-mandated curriculum is loosely defined and hardly exhaustive. It’s intended to provide control to local school boards. Under this decentralized model, parents have a right to review sex education and HIV/AIDS curriculum materials and can excuse their children without penalty.
The result is an inconsistent patchwork across the state. Students in different school districts are taught about sex in dramatically different ways, with a particularly contentious divide surrounding the issue of abstinence.
Under Michigan Department of 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 be stressed as a part of sex education; 11 others require that it be covered.
Absent from the guidelines are any discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity or clinical abortion. Nine states require the discussion of sexual orientation be inclusive of LGBT individuals, and three states require only negative, or discriminatory, information on sexual orientation.
Abstinence-only sex education has attracted much scrutiny, with a report published in the Journal of Adolescent Health finding abstinence education often fails to prevent adolescents from having sex.
The report concluded that when adolescents who receive abstinence-only education have sex, they are less likely to use contraceptives than those who received instruction on contraception.
The federally funded Michigan Abstinence Program provides abstinence education to schools that apply for its grant. Currently there are nine grantees. Carrie Tarry, acting director for the state Division of Child and Adolescent Health, attributed decreases in teenage pregnancies to a combination of abstinence-based and contraceptive sexual education programs.
“There are a variety of factors that influence the teen pregnancy rate and I think are responsible for some of the dramatic decreases we’ve seen over the past 20 years,” Tarry said. “Certainly, access to contraceptives is one of them, (as well as) our evidence-based or evidence-informed education."
School districts are allowed under state law to bring outside groups to teach sex education.
Until 2015, an outside group — Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens — taught part of the sex education curriculum in the East Lansing School District, before attracting significant controversy for their focus on abstinence — an issue some community members attributed to the group’s religious affiliations.
That year, Alice Dreger, a former professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, took advantage of a policy that allows parents to attend sex education classes. She attended her son’s ninth-grade class and live-tweeted it.
“‘Sex is part of a terrible lifestyle,’” Dreger said instructors told students. “‘Drugs, unemployment, failure to finish school — sex is part of the disaster’”
In a separate portion of the workshop, instructors assigned numbers to students, then rolled dice to simulate the chance of condom failure and unintended pregnancy, Dreger said.
“‘We are going to roll this dice eight times,’” Dreger attributed to the instructors. “‘Every time your number comes up, in pretend your condom failed and you get a paper baby.’”
"We are going to roll this dice 8 times. Every time your number comes up, in pretend your condom failed and you get a paper baby." JESUS!!!
— Alice Dreger (@AliceDreger) April 15, 2015
Daniel Kaplowitz, a current student at East Lansing High School, recalled the event in an email to The Daily. He said the negative publicity Dreger’s tweets garnered ultimately pressured the district to remove SMART from participating in the sex education curriculum.
“Until 2015, an outside, religiously-funded group was a regular guest speaker in sex ed classes at ELHS, and they used pseudo- and un-scientific information to create an atmosphere of fear and confusion around sex in hopes of pressuring students into choosing abstinence,” Kaplowitz wrote.
Another such group is Crossroads Care Center, which, through the Sexual Health and Relationship Education program, teaches in 51 school districts in Oakland County.
SHARE Director Evelyn Van Sloten said her organization offers middle school, high school and in some cases an elementary school program.
“The program is a sexual risk avoidance program so that is the emphasis, which is for optimal sexual health, is the way to have the proper mindset in order to encourage young people to make the healthiest choices,” Van Sloten said.
The program facilitators discuss things like HIV/STD transmission, contraceptives and sexual assault.
Typically, the programs supplement in-class instruction. According to Van Sloten, SHARE must first meet with health teachers, then the districts’ health advisory committee and then the school board, which has the final say over whether it is able to participate in classroom instruction.
While the program’s website shows that after students go through it they are more likely to say it is more important to them to wait until marriage to have sex, Van Sloten said the SHARE program differs from other programs in that the instructors are certified by a sexual risk-avoidance program, which takes a more holistic approach to sex education.
“The typical abstinence program would be one that would basically highlight what the issues are and basically it’s a just a ‘say no’ program, which is actually the healthiest choice, but an SRA program, it comes out of a national organization called Ascend, and that is a program where our instructors are certified,” Van Sloten said. “It’s an understanding of all of the components that make a person up, whether it’s their physical, their social or environmental or relationship aspects.”
In September 2017, Forest Hills School District in Grand Rapids decided to end its abstinence-only curriculum and to begin allowing certified Forest Hills teachers to teach sex education. Local parents told the local Fox affiliate they felt the abstinence-only program was unrealistic and lacking.
For 15 years, the Pregnancy Resource Center taught and developed the curriculum for sex education classes in Grand Rapids. Despite many blaming the Pregnancy Resource Center, the president of the group, Jim Sprague, told Fox 17 West Michigan it was only following district rules.
“It was Forest Hills solely who asked us not to teach from the abstinence-based plan,” Sprague said. “We couldn't even utter the word ‘condom’ in the classrooms. That is what we were instructed to do for the last 15 years.”
In the wake of many recent celebrity sexual assault allegations, and the rise of the online #MeToo solidarity movement, many believe it is time to begin addressing these problems early on with students.
One such Michigan resident, Wendy Sellers, a registered nurse who helped author a recent report on the state of health education in Michigan, told Michigan Radio in October that she views sex education as crucial to preventing sexual assault.
“We need to start young because these types of behaviors begin at a young age and continue into adulthood,” Sellers said. “And so, one of the answers to these issues is educating young people about what healthy relationships look like and how to develop the skills to have healthy relationships, as well as what to do to intervene if a person is the object of sexual harassment or sexual assault.”
At the policy level, legislators have sought to amend parts of the sex education curriculum, specifically redefining how sexual assault is covered and the requirement of medically accurate information. Last month, state Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr., D-East Lansing, proposed what he called “yes means yes” legislation. The law would shift the sex education curriculum to include conversations about defining affirmative consent. State Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, proposed a bill that would require schools that teach sex education to teach medically accurate information.
“Research continues to show that comprehensive sex education, which teaches both abstinence and contraception, is most effective for young people,” Hopgood wrote in a press release. “Youth who receive this kind of education are more likely to initiate sexual activity later in life and use protection correctly and consistently when they do become sexually active.”
The new legislation will cast equal responsibility on men in preventing sexual assault, Hertel said.
“For example, my daughter will be taught her entire life, how not to dress, to walk in lit places, not to put down her drink and leave it unattended; she’ll be taught to carry Mace or pepper spray, but the boys in her class will never be taught not to be perpetrators.”
Kaplowitz, also a member of the Sex Education Advisory Board in his school district, wrote that abstinence isn’t effective in creating sexually healthy students.
“Districts and states where abstinence is centered end up with students having sex at no lower a rate, but due to a lack of information about contraception and safer sex, rates of pregnancy and STI are significantly higher,” Kaplowitz wrote. “Of course abstinence is the only 100% effective method, but the real result of mandating this be the core of our sex ed curriculum is not abstinent students, but uninformed, and therefore less safe students.”
Yet currently, the state continues to put the majority of sex ed decision-making power on local authorities, which contributes to often confusing and retrograde lessons in the classroom.
“We have a responsibility to teach people to have basic respect for each other and their bodies,” Hertel said. “I think this is a cultural shift that needs to happen and I think this bill helps us get there."