Where the Sidewalk Ends
When I graduated high school eleven years ago, I vowed to never step into a high school again. Especially not one with the same mascot as mine—TROJANS. And definitely not to talk about how I was raped in high school. But I did just that at the East Lansing High School board meeting tonight.
The larger problem of abstinence-based sex education in Michigan was highlighted (i.e live-tweeted) when Alice Dreger attended her son’s sex ed class two week ago. Ms. Dreger is a bioethicist of human sexuality and author of the new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, but it was her poignant and witty observations of East Lansing High School’s sex ed (or “reproductive education” as they call it—as if reproduction is the only concern of sexual and emotional health) class that got recent national attention.
So ELHS Students for Gender Equality decided to speak out about this at the next board meeting. This is a student-run club full of amazing people who are raising awareness (and funds!) for the social injustices that men and women endure as a result of gender bias. Zoe and I decided to support these students by meeting with them to discuss consent workshops and facilitation training for their group–and by going to this board meeting.
But I knew that if I was going to this board meeting, I had to speak. I had to muster so much strength just to walk in that building so I figured I might as well go big or go home. I decided on my third-grade-teacher look (my attaché was a canvas tote with a cartoon fox on it) over the Hillary Clinton powersuit approach that I’ve favored at other recent meetings, and I was glad for the comfort. Walking up to the doors of East Lansing High School, my eyes were darting around everywhere making mental notes of how this was different from my alma mater, Charleston High School. “It’s not the same place, these aren’t the same kids,” I kept telling myself. And when I walked inside, I was transported into Hogwarts. Literally. Well not literally, but literally in my brain. I actually went into a dissociative state, which usually isn’t a good thing, but in this instance I was grateful for the protection from my own memories.
But after three hours of sitting in the cafeteria waiting for the public comments section of the board meeting, all of the signs that said Trojans TROJANS tRoJaNs got to me, and I realized that, yes, I am sitting in a high school cafeteria and these adorable innocent teenagers are the same age I was when I was raped. The go home option of Go-Big-Or-Go-Home was sounding pretty good. But then, like a bird suddenly shitting on my head, public comment time came! I thought I was speaking first, but the first public comment was from a representative of the SMART Program who has been doing abstinence education at ELHS for 18 years. It should also be noted that this group is affiliated with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, an anti-abortion organization, who passes out these things at schools:
When this woman started talking about how abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and STIs and that committing to remain abstinent until you get married is the best way to go, I hoped (I may have even prayed?) that I would be called to speak right after her. I was, and here is what I said:
Hello, my name is Apryl Pooley and I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the MSU Neuroscience Program where I research the effects of trauma on the brain.
I am here as a representative of Community Leaders in Transformation and to support the ELHS Students for Gender Equality Club in removing the SMART program from teaching the abstinence portion of the reproductive health curriculum.
I can give you all kinds of data on how abstinence-focused education does not promote abstinence or sexual health or healthy relationships and data from the World Health Organization that shows comprehensive sex-education programs do not encourage sexual activity at younger ages and can reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and relationship violence. But I will give you just one piece of data: 1-in-5 women are raped in their lifetime, and 40% of those occur before the age of 18. That comes out to be about 45 girls at this high school who will have been raped before they graduate. And I’m going to tell you how my abstinence education affected me and my classmates.
My senior year of high school, 2003, I was in the National Honors Society, the French National Honor Society, I was on the Powderpuff football team, I was a classically trained pianist, and I had just been accepted into the University of Illinois Physics Program for college. And then I was raped by my best friend’s boyfriend. But I didn’t know it was rape. I was confused. When I told my friends what happened, that I had sex for the first time but I didn’t want to because I didn’t like this guy and because I was covered in vomit and blood, nobody ever said it could have been rape. Instead it was “just what happens,” and I was ostracized from my peers. I didn’t take my AP exams and I didn’t go to the University of Illinois. I remembered those abstinence pledges we all took, and I thought that it didn’t matter whether I wanted that or not, I was no longer a virgin and I was no longer worthy of anyone’s love or respect. And for the next nine years, I struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and PTSD until I finally found a counselor at Michigan State University who told me that it wasn’t my fault. I was 25 years old before I realized that what happened to me in high school wasn’t my fault. And I was very lucky to have survived that long.
If we would have had some education on what sex really looks like instead of just what virginity and abstinence looks like, maybe somebody would have been able to help me. And better yet, if we would have had some education on how to respect each other’s’ boundaries, how to give and receive consent for sex, how to give and accept a no to sex, how to have a healthy view of relationships, maybe this wouldn’t have happened at all.
I know many of the curriculum regulations are state-mandated, but if we care about the health and safety of our kids, we must teach them about consent and physical/emotional boundaries, about gender identity and sexual orientation—and about what sex is and what it isn’t. We have to.
I noticed the podium was getting farther and farther away from me, not because I was stepping back, but because I was leaning on it so heavily. I heard my voice shaking and swallowed a lump in my throat that I haven’t felt in a long time. I speak about these things all the time, but doing so in a high school cafeteria in front of high school students was overwhelming. Because this is where it started for me. And this is where it has to end.