My old high school doesn’t really get in the news much. Without the helping hand of Michigan State University, the tiny town of East Lansing usually stays out of the spotlight. But that all changed on April 15, when Northwestern professor and sex-positive advocate Alice Dreger decided to live-tweet her son’s abstinence-only sex education class at East Lansing High School, my alma mater.
The story went viral quickly, featured on Internet journalism giants Buzzfeed, Think Progress, and Huffington Post, in addition other major news sources.
In a matter of hours, my Facebook friends from high school were sharing various versions of the story, offering their own opinion about Dreger’s tweets. Many were amused, while some expressed distaste with Dreger’s methods. Many past students who had taken the health course in which the abstinence-only sex education is offered agreed with Dreger’s comments, saying she was fairly accurate in her portrayal of how sex education is taught to the youth of mid-Michigan.
Dreger described what many of us have heard before: questionable statistics about contraceptives, slut-shaming methods encouraging young women to “remain pure,” and scare tactics used to keep high schoolers in the dark about sex and reproductive health. All of this was combined into a shame-based, heteronormative curriculum, where students learned very little.
While this story allowed me to work over some old anti-high school teen angst, it is important to remember the larger picture of sex education in America, one that also affects middle and high school students outside of a sleepy little college town in mid-Michigan.
The sex education program offered at East Lansing High School is taught by outside professionals hired by the school, and the program is the “most liberal” of the three state-sponsored sex education programs offered to schools.
Alice Dreger’s tweets put some things in perspective: if one of the purported “liberal” sex education programs is as bad as she says, what’s a more “conservative” sex education program like? What are students in other school districts learning about sex?
If there was any evidence that abstinence-based sex ed curriculums worked, this would be an entirely different story. But that’s not the case. Many studies have proven that comprehensive sex-positive sexual health education is the best way to lower teen pregnancies and risky sexual behaviors. Unfortunately, these kinds of programs aren’t being offered across the United States.
A conservative, religious majority decides what goes in to students’ sexual health education programs, and the material usually consists of what Dreger describes. Because of this, teenagers grow up being surrounded by popular culture that puts sex on a pedestal, but then shames them for wanting to experiment and explore their developing sexualities. In addition, teenagers also have very little information about how their bodies actually work when it comes to reproductive and sexual health.
Hopefully, Dreger’s story about abstinence-only programs at ELHS will not only prompt a local effort to review sexual health education curriculums, but a national one as well.