Schools in Michigan are not required to formally teach sex education — and the ones that do must follow an abstinence-based curriculum.
Michigan's curriculum, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, is not required to teach about sexual orientation, gender identity or consent. Education surrounding HIV and AIDS must be “medically accurate,” however, Michigan does not have any “medically accurate sex education” on that subject.
Due to this narrow view of sex education in Michigan and other states, many adolescents are turning to social media to become better informed about the sex education that they may not be getting in school.
Erica Phillipich, associate director for MSU’s Health Promotion in the Student Health and Wellness department,works with students regarding alcohol and drug issues, fitness and wellness, nutrition, recovery and sexual health. She said when people come to college, their base of sex education can vary depending on the county where they grew up.
“Knowing that every school district is different, in terms of what they allow, tells us that most students coming to campus have had varying experiences of education,” Phillipich said.
Kay Keller has been a youth member at the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, or MOASH, for about a year. They distinctly remember their sex education curriculum not being inclusive and having barely any discussion of sex at all.
Keller realized adolescents who come to MOASH, and Generation Z in general, get much of their sex education through social media.
“They learned it through social media because of algorithms and because they didn't get it anywhere else,” Keller said.
This phenomenon isn't necessarily a bad thing, research says. In one paper published in Feminism and Psychology, for example, it is argued that social media creates an “interactive and fast-paced nature” which leads to a “wider collaboration, especially for topics” that are not always talked about in school.
Human biology senior Sakshi Venkat Rao is a sex educator at the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, or GSCC, which helped her find her passion in advocating for LGBTQ issues.
Since joining the GSCC, she has learned about how the sex education system works and realized social media, especially in recent years, has helped form better connections.
“Social media, such as TikTok or podcasts, have helped a lot of (adolescents) understand our bodies,” Venkat Rao said. “Sharing your experiences or just telling real-life stories break down the barriers of uncomfortableness, which is something I’m really proud of this generation.”
Keller said they believe this new medium could be an opportunity for doctors and other experts: They suggest professionals make videos about these sex education topics.
“The thing with social media is that I do believe that professors are those with good credentials who can absolutely go on social media to teach,” Keller said. “They can probably have really good information to share with people.”
Venkat Rao said the education system has fallen short of giving students a complete curriculum.
“The education system has failed us over and over again,” Venkat Rao said. “The comprehensive education for students or for queer individuals has been mainly through social media.”
Keller said people have to fully look into the account’s verification and credentials. Without this, random people can post misinformation about sex education that can be harmful to adolescents. They believe because social media can be so unreliable, Generation Z needs to stop getting its information from online sources.
But if not social media, then what’s the solution?
In 2023, Sen. Stephanie Chang sponsored a bill in the state Senate which will require the state Department of Education to develop “age-appropriate informational material related to sexual assault, sexual harassment and make this material available to school districts.”
MSU’s Student and Wellness department offers students information regarding sexual health and makes sure students feel more comfortable on campus. Phillipich said she can help resolve any issues the student may have.
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“The best we can do is focus on supportive measures and giving accurate information and sexual health resources,” Phillipich said. “The main thing that we try to provide is normative information about what’s actually happening on campus.”
Keller believes change is possible and necessary to help Generation Z with its sex education needs. They want to see a “lot less promotion of abstinence-only and a lot more promotion of consent and safe sex.”
“I hope that in sex ed curriculums there can be more inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks, especially trans people, and inclusion that inclusive gender language rather than playing it so binary,” Keller said. “I think it needs to be not only the responsibility in Michigan but also the responsibility of individual towns to have more inclusive sex ed because it’s not enough to just tell kids not to do it.”
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