The stories are everywhere. They’re on the major news channels, the radio, your Facebook feed and your Twitter. While the content varies somewhat, the plot is always the same. It’s like an infuriating Mad Lib that you can’t make go away. Just insert the name of a white, male congressman/senator/ governor/mayor/etc., pick a barrier to some form of health service or civil right, and then choose a marginalized group to take the majority of the impact. You can create these fun Mad Libs by state, by level of government, by any category really—take your pick! It’s even easier than it sounds. Here, take this example from our lovely home-state of Michigan: Governor Rick Snyder signs a bill restricting access to abortion services, effectively making it more difficult for Michigan women to access this service. See? I told you it was easy.
All jokes aside, it really does seem like every time you turn on the news, you hear about politicians creating barriers to services, many of them related to sexual and reproductive health. Whether they’re just sharing their “personal beliefs,” or taking action more concrete like signing a new bill into law, the uninformed and often prejudiced attitudes held by many of our elected officials can have very real and very damaging consequences. Regardless of how they’d like to frame it, be it morality or, my personal favorite—“for the protection of those its about,” restricting access to knowledge, services, and resources has taken a demonstrable toll on the sexual health of Michigan’s residents.
In 2010, the most recent year for which we have data, Michigan ranked as one of the most heavily burdened states when it came to diagnosed cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2013). You might be wondering why Michigan is so particularly riddled with STIs. Is it because we’re all having more sex than people in other states? Or is it because we’re all naturally more prone to infection? When you take a closer look at this picture, it becomes clear that while yes—Michigan certainly is one sexy state, no—we’re not all gettin’ down more often than the rest of our fellow Americans (sigh). And while Michigan winters may inspire a few million colds each year, our immune systems are not to blame either.
So why are Michigan’s chlamydia and gonorrhea rates through the roof as compared to other parts of the country? Well, the answer is complicated and not easily provided in a single, word-limited blog post. So many factors affect risk for infection, including social condition, economic climate, and access to affordable healthcare. The roles that politicians play in either fighting or facilitating these factors are also multifaceted, but sometimes there are simpler solutions to the obvious bad moves that they make. Or, for that matter, to the moves that they don’t make.
A perfect example of this can be found in Michigan’s stance on sexual health education in public schools. And by “stance”, I mean “lack of a stance”. As a Michigan resident, if you wanted to believe that you live in a state where students are being taught how to correctly put a condom on to protect themselves and their partners from STIs, I’m sorry to say that you will be sadly disappointed.
Currently, Michigan does not require that sexual health education be taught in any public schools, and if a school should choose to voluntarily provide sex ed., they must place a special emphasis on the virtues of abstinence—an approach we know from mountains of research is completely ineffective, and at times even harmful (Centers for Disease Control, 2013). For both middle schools and high schools, Michigan ranks among the lowest percentage of states that require courses teaching prevention of HIV, STIs, and unintended pregnancies (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2013). So basically what we’re saying here is: teens in Michigan are not getting the sexual health education that they deserve, and politicians are not mandating that they should be.
According to the CDC, research shows that well-designed and well-implemented sex ed. programs are effective in both decreasing sexual risk behaviors and increasing safer sex practices among teens (Centers for Disease Control, 2013). Furthermore, studies have also shown that the most effective programs are those that are delivered by trained instructors, are age-appropriate, and include components on skill-building, support of healthy behaviors, and contributions or participation of community members (Centers for Disease Control, 2013). In other words, when a school delivers comprehensive sexual health education that is structured in a positive, accessible, and purposeful way, its capacity for influencing adolescent sexual health and behavior is enormous.
Knowing what we know about Michigan’s troubling high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, Michigan’s ambivalence towards sexual health education, and the potential for sex ed. programs to positively influence adolescent health, it seems obvious what our next step should be, doesn’t it? To you, reading this post, and to me, typing it, the writing on the wall may be lit up in neon purple and green. The same cannot be said, however, for Michigan politicians. In a state that’s experiencing some of the highest STI rates in the country, their silence around this topic has been deafening.
Again, there’s no denying that many factors contribute to Michigan’s higher rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea. There’s also no denying that there are many different paths to take, some of them simultaneously, leading us down a road towards a healthier state. Sexual health education in public schools is just one of the ways that we can try to address this problem. With that being said, however, it is a good one. We know that it’s effective and we know that it’s doable. We also know that the earlier we reach young people and assist in their development of knowledge and skills, the earlier on in their lives they’ll have the appropriate, accurate information for making healthy choices. Sexual health education shouldn’t be something received based on the luck of the draw—where you went to school and how your individual district felt about sex ed. Just like math and science and history classes, sexual health education should be free, accessible, and up to par in public schools. And unlike math and science and history classes, I bet you everyone would stay awake for the condom demonstrations.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Sexual Risk Behavior: HIV, STD, & Teen Pregnancy Prevention. Retrieved from cdc.gov.
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2013). Michigan State Profile. Retrieved from statehealthfacts.org.