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Sex education next target in the ongoing culture war

By Grace Lovins

It's been referred to as the birds and the bees: human sexuality; reproductive health; age of consent; reproductive rights – but whatever it is called, sexual education remains the instruction of issues related to human sexuality, and any and all subjects involved with it, from puberty to public health, sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The topics can and do fit under that very wide health umbrella. For public schools, sex education can be both a mandatory health requirement, and the opening of a Pandora's box of cultural taboos and issues.

Sex education has had many different forms since its first implementation back in 1912, per the Annex Teen Clinic. From vague pamphlets on simple hygiene education in the early 1900’s, to a more comprehensive approach following the sexual revolution in the 1960’s, most generations of teens have experienced some variety of approaches to sex ed in school and introduction to puberty at some earlier level in school.

One thing that has also remained constant throughout these periods, though, is a resistance from a segment of the population as well as various misconceptions surrounding sex education. Sex education has been, and still often is, a target for political and religious opposition, especially as these programs attempt to evolve to be inclusive for students of all cultures and identities.

At the end of January 2023, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan, named Great Schools Initiative (GSI), made headlines after they launched a five-page, opt-out form attempting to manipulate the Michigan statute that allows parents to opt their children out of sex education classes.

This new version demands students be exempt from “rogue sex ed,” as the group has dubbed it, which they consider to be other sexual education not approved by a district's school board. GSI’s form targets the discussion of anything relating to the LGBTQ+ community, under the pretense that all LGBTQ+ topics are inherently sexual, fitting into their definition of “rogue sex ed.”

This Michigan-based effort mirrors what is taking place across the country in terms of the culture war against the LGBTQ+ community, and was initiated by three persons, including two Oakland County residents – Nathan Pawl of Walled Lake and Monica Yatooma of Commerce, a failed Republican primary candidate for the Oakland County Commission considered by some to be an ultra conservative culture warrior in the 2022 primary race.

The Michigan Department of Education addressed GSI’s perceived overstep with a statement that explained opt-out forms are specific to a sex education class, not just any topic that some in a community don’t want children learning about. This isn’t the first time – and likely won’t be the last – that sex education is being straw manned over a political agenda.

Sexual education has long been subjected to political and cultural pushback. Even though the majority of parents in the United States – roughly 98 percent, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. – want their kids to receive sex education from school, a vocal minority continues to target sex education as it becomes more inclusive to students of different cultures, sexualities and gender identities.

Stigma around sex and sex education is nothing new, and part of our culture still considers the topic as taboo or uncomfortable. While those feelings still exist for some, that doesn’t change the fact that teens and young adults are engaging in sexual activity, some as early as their freshman year of high school.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of 2021, about 57 percent of high school seniors, 47 percent of juniors and 34 percent of sophomores in the U.S. reported having already had sexual intercourse. Teens are engaging in sexual activity regardless of whether they receive education on how to protect themselves or make healthy choices. The one way society can make sure that young people are aware of how to take care of themselves in this respect is through the education they receive at school, the Guttmacher Institute noted.

“If we have this vacuum of knowledge, students will fill it from the internet,” said Heidi Lyons, professor of sociology at Oakland University. “So, if we have comprehensive sex ed, we can have evidence-based research and provide them correct, medically accurate information. If they’re getting it from other resources, or, even worse, from porn, then we’re in a really bad spot.”

In the U.S., there is no federal requirement to teach sexual education, and because of this not all states do. Only 38 states and the District of Columbia require that sex education and/or HIV education be taught in schools, reports the Guttmacher Institute, but of those states only 25 mandate both HIV and sex education.

Currently, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are only two federally funded programs for evidence-based and medically accurate sex education – comprehensive sex education is both evidence-based and medically accurate, but federal funding is not set aside specifically for these programs. The first funding stream, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, supports the implementation of programs for reducing adolescent pregnancy. The second, Personal Responsibility Education Program, supports programs that aim to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) and adolescent pregnancies by emphasizing abstinence and contraception.

There are three main types of sex education, according to Advocates for Youth: abstinence-only-until-marriage, abstinence-plus, and comprehensive sex education.

“Abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs, sometimes referred to as Sexual Risk Avoidance, are centered around teaching abstinence only. This approach emphasizes that individuals should be abstinent until marriage, and that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way of preventing unintended health consequences, such as unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections, said Advocates for Youth.

Abstinence-only education, as it is known today, has been the standard approach in many public schools since the 1990s, reports the National Coalition Against Censorship, but research proves that it is ineffective. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates that abstinence-only education does not delay sexual initiation or reduce sexual risk behaviors. On top of that, these programs, according to the study, naturally provide incomplete information and often neglect a broad range of students.

“Abstinence-only, oftentimes, the way that it’s implemented is abstinence only until heterosexual, cisgender marriage, which for a lot of people isn’t realistic,” said Taryn Gal, executive director of the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, a nonprofit organization that provides support and sex education resources for teens, parents, educators and providers.

“We know that leaves out a lot of people, and what about young people who have been sexually assaulted who didn’t have the choice on whether they were abstinent or not. Abstinence-only just brings in this whole other level of shame and stigma, and young people, if they don’t feel like it applies to them, are checking out and not hearing any of the information,” she continued.

Research also shows the opposite is true for comprehensive sex education – an evidence-based, inclusive approach. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that comprehensive sex education has been proven to reduce sexual risk behaviors, sexual activity, adolescent pregnancies and rates of STI’s.

Similar to the abstinence-only approach, “abstinence-only plus” programs emphasize that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method of preventing unintended health consequences, but this approach also includes information on forms of contraception and condoms, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Comprehensive sex education can encompass a variety of topics outside of what is taught in abstinence-only programs. The approach can be abstinence-based, so students still learn the benefits and importance of remaining abstinent, but comprehensive programs aim to provide students with a holistic education, providing developmentally appropriate knowledge and skills necessary to make healthy decisions throughout their life. Some topics incorporated into comprehensive programs include building healthy relationships, consent, preventing sexual abuse and partner violence, and developing media literacy and social emotional learning, said the Journal of Adolescent Health.

A comprehensive approach to sex education can begin as early as elementary school, with age-appropriate conversations about things such as consent, personal health and wellness and social and emotional health.

“I think that people get confused when we say we want to do some of these topics in a developmentally appropriate way in younger grades which can be very important, like talking about consent,” Gal said.

“Consent doesn’t just need to be sexual consent – it could be ‘someone asked if they could borrow my pencil, I said no, they need to respect that,’ or, ‘they asked to give me a hug, I said no, they should respect that.’ That can be taught at kindergarten, even before,” explained Gal. “Topics around sexuality – there’s all different kinds of families, so talking about a family with two moms. There are things that can be introduced where folks can see themselves in a very developmentally appropriate way at all ages, and I think that’s important in building health relationships, bodily autonomy, and having the ability and comfort to ask questions as they are ready to ask them and understand.”

Despite over half of high school seniors reporting they’ve already had sex, only 38 percent of high schools and 14 percent of middle schools teach all of the critical topics of sex education laid out by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), reports SIECUS.

“When you look at 26 million STI cases in the U.S. every year, half of them are 15 to 24 years olds but they only represent 26 percent of the sexually active population,” said Lhauren Singleton, executive director of ASPIRE Relationship Education, a nonprofit that aims to educate and empower students to foster healthy relationships and make positive choices. “That is a staggering statistic when you think about the risk for teens, but also when you consider some of the other things that go along with that – dating violence, lack of consent, not using contraception.”

In Michigan, school districts are required to teach about communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, at least once a year for every building level, i.e. once a year in elementary, middle and high school. Sexual education, on the other hand, is not required by the state, but if school districts do choose to incorporate sex education into the curriculum, there are specific rules they have to follow.

Per the Michigan Department of Education, HIV/AIDS and sex education must stress abstinence as a responsible method of preventing unplanned pregnancies, and that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective method against unplanned pregnancies, STI’s, and HIV/AIDS. Sex education material must “not be medically inaccurate” and must be age appropriate. Districts have to inform parents of the content in advance, and parents have the ability to opt their child out of sex education classes.

The state also requires that every district offering sex education establishes a sex education advisory board (SEAB), made up of students in the district, parents of students in the district, educators, community health professionals and local clergy. At least half of the board’s members must be parents of students in the district, but a majority of those parents cannot be employed by the school district.

These boards are responsible for establishing sex education programs and objectives, reviewing and recommending methods to school boards, and reporting the achievement of program goals and objectives every two years, per state statute.

Bloomfield Hills Schools’ offers sex education as part of their comprehensive health education curriculum, said Karen Huyghe, communications director of Bloomfield Hills School District. Topics in the curriculum are guided by national standards and Michigan grade-level content expectations, she said. As required by law, Bloomfield Hills Schools has a SEAB.

April Imperio, superintendent for Student Learning and Inclusion in the Birmingham Public School District, shared via email that the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires school districts to provide one health and physical education credit in high school – they must provide 50 hours of health education for each grade pre-K through 12.

The Birmingham district includes the Michigan Model for Health module on Reproductive Health in high school health courses. The health content is organized by strands, including nutrition and physical activity, alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, safety, social and emotional health, personal health and wellness, HIV prevention and sexuality education, Imperio said.

The Michigan Model for Health (MMH), per the its website, is a comprehensive health education curriculum developed by the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services which targets pre-K through 12th grade students utilizing a skills based approach. The lessons are age-appropriate, focusing on the most serious health challenges students face, giving students the knowledge and skills needed to maintain healthy behaviors and lifestyles, said the website. Districts still get to decide on the implementation of the curricula.

“The MMH is something that … has consistently received investments from the state in terms of updating curriculum and adding components that maybe were not originally included – things like maybe how to prevent abuse or topics like consent – and a focus on age-appropriateness, always,” said Amber Bellazaire, policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP), a nonpartisan policy institute based in Lansing.

MMH was first established in 1984 for grades K-12 and added pre-K to the curriculum in 2017. In 2020, according to Bellazaire, Michigan invested $3.8 million in general funds to various family health programs, including the MMH. Despite large investments and national recognition, the MMH curriculum is not used by all districts in the state.

“It feels valuable to utilize that investment if it’s something the state has over time continued to invest in and expand and improve upon. It’s a model that I think should be considered by districts because there’s been a lot of uptake and a lot of solid investment from the state. There’s consensus that it’s really valuable and it can be tailored to a specific district,” Bellazaire continued.

Although the MMH receives funding from the state, federal funds as well as funds from Michigan are not available specifically for comprehensive sex education programs. Ambraa Redrick, CEO and co-founder of Teen Hype, a youth development and leadership organization that provides various programs to teach leadership skills, readiness abilities, how to access sexual health services and engage in healthy risk-taking, noted that a lot of the funding is centered around addressing problems as opposed to simply providing education.

“People who fund sexual health work fund it because they are problem-focused, so they want to solve teen pregnancy, they want to prevent poverty, HIV, risk behaviors,” Redrick said. “They are thinking about and trying to solve a problem, however if we really think about it, there isn’t a problem to be solved. Instead, young people just need a holistic approach and sexual health is one of 50,000 things that young people need.”

Funding from the state of Michigan is not specific to comprehensive sex education programs, but money from the state’s general fund is allocated to public school districts to support staffing and other needs for implementing sex education, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy. The lack of funding for comprehensive programs, however, is not the only factor hindering its availability.

The comprehensive approach to sex education establishes an inclusive, non-shaming learning environment for all students, regardless of a student’s identity – something that just isn’t found in abstinence-only education. Because of this, there are objection to these programs being implemented in public schools, which has increasingly been vocalized, and is paving the way for what has been dubbed the “next cultural battleground” in Michigan.

The opposition can be boiled down to two conflicting sides that either feel comprehensive sex education either decreases risk behaviors, or that comprehensive sex education increases risk behaviors. Research decisively disproves the latter.

There are some who believe that a comprehensive approach to sex education encourages teens to engage in sex, or even go as far to say that these programs teach students how to have sex – but there is no evidence to support this. In reality, comprehensive programs do not increase the probability of students engaging in sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behavior or STI/HIV infection rates, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Culture Organization (UNESCO). Comprehensive programs provide the appropriate information and skills to help youth delay sexual initiation and protect themselves when they do become sexually active, according to Advocates for Youth.

“We know that with comprehensive sex ed, [students] are more likely to know what's going on with their bodies. They’re more likely to say what they want or don’t want. It does not increase the likelihood that they’ll have sex earlier than they would have otherwise,” said Oakland University's Gal.

Opposition doesn’t just come from misconceptions or misunderstandings about comprehensive sex education programs. Much of the vocalized objection as a result of sex education becoming a politicized topic, and Great Schools Initiative is just another recent example of this. What often gets overlooked or disregarded when sex education is inserted into the political realm is how that affects students.

“Sex ed as a parent, talking to your kids, is a hard conversation to have. Everybody wants to know how you have the talk,” said Singleton, of ASPIRE Relationship Education,. “I think it’s safe to say that this is just a hard subject, and unfortunately, it’s been politicized since the very beginning of its history. With that and all of our different approaches to further our political agendas, there are people who are impacted by the tug-of-war that we’ve been in for a very long time.”

Michigan’s patch-work system for sex education, in which education is inconsistent and changes district-to-district, opens the door for the implementation of policies or curriculums that stigmatize or excludes marginalized students, says Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. Sexual and gender minority youth, which includes LGBTQ+ youth, often do not receive sex education that discusses their needs and questions which can be detrimental, said Andrea Kelley, distinguished teacher-scholar doctoral fellow in the Consortium for Sexual and Gender Minority (SGM) Youth at Michigan State University.

“Sex education that is not inclusive to SGM (sexual and gender minority) students has a variety of harmful outcomes," said Kelley. “By not discussing SGM people, these students become invisible and may potentially turn to other sources of information that may not be helpful, realistic or medically accurate. Often when SGM topics are discussed, they’re often kept separate, categorizing SGM youth as an 'other,' which is not inclusivity,” they said.

“A true inclusivity incorporates SGM people, bodies, relationships and sex throughout the curriculum. It helps cisgender, heterosexual students understand their SGM peers, but it also helps to change the narrative around gender and sexuality to be more inclusive and expansive at its root,” Kelley continued.

The CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that there are substantial health disparities among sexual minority students, which puts them at risk for negative health outcomes, like contracting HIV or STI’s. As reported by Reuters, young individuals who identify as lesbians and bisexual women are roughly twice as likely as those who identify as heterosexual to experience teen pregnancy. Sexual health educators have noted that a lack of representation or inclusivity in sexual health education plays a big role in this.

“Particularly for many marginalized communities, not being represented in the curriculum, the schools or even the staffing could really lead to alienation, being disconnected and, unfortunately, for some it could lead to harming themselves, suicide or being bullied,” said Roland Sintos Coloma, professor of teacher education at Wayne State University.

“This understanding is not just for those who are in the margins, but also those who, generally, we might consider part of the dominant. When we don’t think that some are not worth it, that they can be erased, then that means they’re disposable, that these are folks not worthy to be seen as fully human, fully citizens or peers,” he continued.

Not only do SGM students miss out on learning about their bodies and health, but those who identify as heterosexual also miss out on learning about their SGM peers. On top of this, some students may not identify as heterosexual across their lifespan, explained Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center in Ferndale. Regardless of identity, the lack of consistent, evidence-based, medically accurate information is a detriment to all, and this doesn’t just impact adolescents while they're in school – it carries into adulthood.

“This is not just a queer problem,” Garcia said. “We’ve been dealing with trying to provide scientifically accurate, culturally competent sex education for all people, queer and straight, for a very long time. It just continues to be fought mostly from the religious right and when that happens, we see increased rates of STI’s, unintended pregnancy, domestic violence and many other detrimental issues simply because we’re ignoring.

“We’re not telling young people the truth and we’re not being transparent with them, and I think young people understand far more than sometimes they’re given credit for,” he further expounded. “We have a responsibility to teach young people, from all ages that is age-appropriate, the things that they need to understand to have a healthy, safe sex life or simply understanding their bodies.”

Given it's status as a political topic, a crucial element in improving the state of sex education in schools falls in the hands of legislators. As mentioned, only half of the country requires that students receive both HIV/AIDS and sex education. Oakland University's Lyons noted that there's been a slide back since sex education was first introduced. Students today are learning less in these classes than they did back in the 1960’s and 70’s, per Planned Parenthood, but with access to a broad range of information at their fingertips, it’s imperative for all students to have a space where they know they’re going to receive accurate information they can carry throughout their lives.

“I think it is incredibly important at the state level to have bills that support the introduction and the teaching of comprehensive sex education. It is through those bills that could support the Michigan Department of Education in curriculum and curriculum standards that could then be implemented in the school district and at the school level,” Coloma of Wayne State said.

“It’s incredibly important that we have that support at the state level so that it could trickle down at the school district level, because right now what’s happening is a lot of informal work in classrooms and schools, and those are not fully protected. Any kind of complaint or backlash from a student, fellow teacher, or parents or guardians, could really muzzle and mute these kinds of efforts that are happening.”­­­


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