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Experts say more expansive sex education is needed to destigmatize STIs

April 5, 2023
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Michigan schools are not required to teach sex education outside of HIV and AIDS, and if a school chooses to teach sex education, abstinence must be promoted as a healthy lifestyle.

However, many sexual education policy experts are advocating for a more expansive minimum to be taught, one that includes not only discussion of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, but also the concept of "sexual citizenship."

Sarah Prior, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, defines sexual citizenship as destigmatizing the ways sexuality is looked at, particularly for marginalized communities, and having the right to engage in sex that feels comfortable to an individual.

According to Prior, education about one’s sexual citizenship is crucial to maintaining boundaries around autonomy.

Prior said sexual citizenship can be disrespected when boundaries of consent are crossed, such as coercing someone to have unprotected sex. In Michigan’s current sex education policy, schools are not required to teach about consent, but are required to teach refusal skills.

“If you are impeding someone from exercising their own bodily autonomy, that is violence … you are taking someone’s ability to be a fully free sexual citizen away from them,” Prior said.

The same goes for nonconsensually removing a sexual barrier, such as a condom, before or during intercourse. This is known as "stealthing," and is a form of reproductive coercion. 

Reproductive coercion is defined as threats or acts of violence against a partner’s reproductive health or decision-making, according to Kara Zeiter, the educational program coordinator at MSU’s Health Promotion Department.

Besides helping to curb reproductive coercion, one of Zeiter's main goals is to destigmatize 'STI diagnosis'. She said those diagnosed with an STI, even after treatment, tend to be shamed, feel shamed or both.

“The individual who has the STI is the one who feels the stigma the most, but it’s a treatable, manageable thing,” Zeiter said. “You can have a normal sex life following an STI diagnosis,” Zeiter said.

Some communities, like queer communities, are often inequitably shamed for their expression of their sexual citizenship, Prior said.

Evidence shows the stigmatization of STIs in queer communities is often associated with HIV and AIDS, especially regarding gay men. But today’s data shows that rates of HIV and AIDS are much more common amongst heterosexual men, Prior said.

“We still have stigma about the queer community, but that’s not actually who is contracting it and spreading it at higher rates now,” Prior said.

Prior advocates for comprehensive and inclusive sex education, including discussions outside the typical heteronormative ideas about penile and vaginal sex. She said this narrow education on sex furthers the stigma.

Michelle Slaybaugh, director of social impact and strategic communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, said a comprehensive sex education curriculum goes beyond pregnancy and STI prevention.

“It looks at the child or young person holistically and gives them foundational tools to be able to protect themselves throughout the rest of their lives, so they don’t grow up thinking there’s a stigma attached to an STI, as well as provides them with the information they need to reduce the risk of (contracting) an STI,” Slaybaugh said.

Prior said universities can be a helpful place for sexually active students to go when they’re curious and looking to know more about their sexual citizenship and sexual health.

“The more education you give a person, the better equipped they are to make decisions about their body,” Prior said.

MSU’s Health Promotion Department reported that 98.1% of students said they have never contracted an STI and 60.7% of students said they used a condom last time they had vaginal intercourse.

MSU’s Health Services physician Dr. Tim Spedoske said that the risks posed by contracting an STI can range from being asymptomatic, especially when detected and treated rapidly, all the way to fertility issues.

“For people who have a uterus it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can be extremely dangerous,” Spedoske said.

Spedoske said for these reasons, pressuring someone into sex without protection is troubling and the desire to practice safe sex using a condom needs to be affirmed and honored by each sexual partner.

“It definitely should be destigmatized, and people should feel comfortable coming and seeing either our providers or a provider somewhere else that they’re comfortable with,” Spedoske said.


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