Voices of Youth: Addressing barriers to sex education in Michigan

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student writer Sana Schaden investigates barriers to sex education in Michigan.

Under Michigan law, sex education is not required in schools. If sex education is taught, the law provides no encouragement for a comprehensive approach, and instead stipulates that abstinence must be heavily stressed. The language in these laws alone act as a massive barrier to youth from accessing the care and support they need. 

Incorporating any amount of comprehensive sex education requires both effort and resources on the part of individual school districts. Looking at Washtenaw County, for example, there is a great deal of inequity in the funding and resources available to different school districts and communities. Schools that fall in on the lower end aren't able to prioritize sex education. After directing the Washtenaw County Peer Education Program for Planned Parenthood for several years, Tory Sparks has gained a deep understanding of certain barriers to sex education. 
"There are so many things that they need to worry about and so many things for them to be triaging," Sparks says. "When a school wants to change something or make something better, they kind of can't without this huge, long process [that] they don't have time and resources for. People need their basic needs met. If they don't have their basic needs met, then sex [education] can't happen."

There is one basic barrier that often prevents people, especially youth in underserved communities, from accessing care and support: transportation. 

Corner Health Center, a medical clinic located in Ypsilanti, is battling this barrier. The clinic offers bus tokens, free Uber rides, or support in navigating the Medicaid call system. In addition to helping eliminate barriers to care, Corner Health's youth-led theater troupe is constantly on the move. By integrating across communities to have conversations about healthy relationships, the theater troupe is able to reach teens across the county. 

"We're providing service outside of just health care, and making sure that Corner Health is a staple in the community that people know they can depend on for things outside of just their physical health," says Riley Annear, health educator for Corner Health Center. "I think that's really unique. And I think that establishes it as a safe place in the community, which I think ties into [people] being able to have conversations about relationships and sex as well."

Corner Health Center health educator Riley Annear.
It is also important to consider that teens need to feel represented. This is one main goal of Planned Parenthood's Peer Education Program — which consists of teens trained on sexual health and LGBTQ+ topics. Peer Educators are present in classrooms across the county, teaching the material. This means that students gain the opportunity to learn from a peer who can relate to them on these sensitive topics. However, there are still gaps to be filled.

The majority of Washtenaw County Planned Parenthood Peer Educators are based in Ann Arbor Public Schools and come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. Charlotte Stone, Washtenaw Country peer educator and junior at Washtenaw International High School, hopes to see the program expand further into the community in the future. Stone believes that access to a qualified teen resource is essential for high school students—especially when they are asked to participate in activities like condom demonstrations for the first time. 

"I think it definitely helps to have someone our own age who knows when things are going to be funny or playing," Stone says. "I had this girl come up to me and say, 'I'm so glad that you taught this class. It would be awkward if anyone else did, but you made it really good and informative."  

The goal of placing teen educators in classrooms is to give teens someone to both relate to and learn from. However, Washtenaw County consists of teens from different backgrounds, identities, and communities. True representation must take all the factors into consideration. 

There is not one simple fix. 

For many people of color, there is another layer of trauma involved in seeking medical care that stems from a systemic bias towards white individuals. Kennedy Flowers, a senior at Pioneer High School, has experienced first hand the challenges presented by this biased system. 

Kennedy Flowers.
"My mother specifically seeks out Black doctors, and often travels very far just to get to those doctors," Flowers says. "So in raising us she instilled that same belief. Growing up, I always had to commute very far to get to a doctor, even though I live near [the University of Michigan (U-M)] and U-M has a great hospital system. For the doctors that we need, we'd have to commute to Troy or Livonia or Detroit."

The need for representation goes beyond just doctors themselves. In order for students to access any type of care, it is essential that they understand their bodies – especially as teens. It is essential that students of color feel represented in the material they are learning, lest the curriculum fail to serve the most marginalized members of the community.  

"Because Black kids disproportionately grow up in lower-income areas and go to lower-income schools, they might not even be able to have access to a doctor," Flowers says. "Being kids, they don't know what sort of questions to ask. They might go to the doctor and not even know they're being treated differently based on their race or their skin color." 

A big part of the solution is understanding the problem. This means comprehensive education with a focus on representation. Flowers has been able to find support and community through her involvement in several school clubs. For example, in the Medical Sciences Club, a variety of doctors and medical professionals come to speak and provide insight into their professions. 

"Some of the doctors that speak to us have experience with racism and that sort of thing," Flowers says. "Some of the doctors who have spoken to us have worked in Zimbabwe or in Thailand or other countries, and have seen how this discrimination impacts people, or have experienced it firsthand themselves, and they talk to us about it, which is helpful." 

Achieving true representation in sexual health education and care involves a deep understanding of intersectionality and how it affects access to resources. Moving forward requires health curriculums to incorporate the uncomfortable conversations. And progress is possible—thanks to so many of the aforementioned efforts across Washtenaw County.

Sana Schaden is a senior at Community High School in Ann Arbor.  

Concentrate staffer Sarah Rigg served as Sana's mentor on this story.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
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