Upon graduating in the spring, I hope to pursue a career that focuses on community building and support for LGBTQ+ youth, by ensuring that they have access to comprehensive sexual health education. There are many misconceptions about the age-appropriate content that youth should be exposed to, and I hope to close that gap to fully prepare them for any situation they may encounter. I know myself and many of my peers did not receive adequate knowledge and had to seek it out on our own. My goal is to educate more youth at varying ages on the many different ways to navigate relationship and sexual dynamics while still staying emotionally and physically safe. Mainstream sex education is still informed a lot by purity culture and sex is not viewed as an activity engaged in between two people for pleasure, but a mechanical, lifeless, loveless performance. Sex can be fun and an enjoyable event between people who choose to participate.
What is Comprehensive Sex Education?
Sex education in the United States of America is greatly lacking in all aspects. Many states still push abstinence as their main teachings, which leaves teens vulnerable to their own devices on how to have safe sex. I am proposing that the nation needs to incorporate more extensive sex education that is evenly distributed equally to all demographics. When many people hear sex education, the first thing they think about is contraception and pregnancy prevention, because that has been the dominant message stressed in previous discussions. While these things are important, I want to expand that further in an effort to open the conversation to include relationship dynamics, emotional health while having sex, consent, and different types of sex that can be had. This also includes giving youth the tools to seek out their own information on sex education and giving them safe spaces to have conversations pertaining to any questions they have.
How Can We Teach Sex Education to Youth of Varying Ages?
Across different ages, sex education can take a multitude of forms. Starting from birth, I believe that consent is something that everyone can easily learn. Stressing the importance of respecting someone’s choices, having personal boundaries established, and understanding that changing your mind at any moment are all ways to teach consent. This will also hopefully lead to less confusion going forward as to what is considered sexual assault or sexual harassment. One of my interviewees brought up the very important point that “There are so many nuances and it’s a lot more complicated than just rape being wrong. Bringing up things stealthing, coercion, and any lack of consent, in general, would help possible victims know that what was done to them was not acceptable.” Every situation cannot be boiled down to black and white experiences, and nothing will be the same from person to person; Equipping youth with the proper language is a powerful tool.
In middle school and high school, the focus of sex education is on menstruation and protective practices to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancy. As children get older and naturally start to ask questions, it is important for parents and adults in their lives to be honest about sex; both the good and bad. Sex is not just something that is done to procreate or is between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. Because what some consider sex may not be sex for someone else. Naming that sex does not have to be strictly penetrative is still a foreign concept to many. We do not know who they may grow up to be and preparing them on all fronts is our job as caregivers and those who have the knowledge to share. If schools can’t be a site of knowledge on this topic, groups and individual people willing to do the work have to be.
Why is it Important to Include This Material?
When looking at the treatment of the LGBT community, the largest example I can see in the clear division between two groups was the reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept the world. Historically, we have seen that in the case of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the government could not care any less about the deaths of those living with HIV/AIDS in the LGBT community. Many people believed that the mass death that came from the HIV/AIDS epidemic was justified because the main population being affected was gay men (McGarry, 2013). This one narrative has led to an environment that ostracized the gay community. There were so many other ways to respond to the crisis at hand, but instead, they let those that are affected die. If there was a more comprehensive understanding of the different ways that sexually transmitted infections and diseases were spread, many deaths could have been avoided.
Community and chosen family dynamics are a large part of the queer scene, and that is why it is especially important to provide a space where many youths get their sex information from. Everything that people around me know about sex has been from either trial and error or asking friends. Learning from those around you can be especially important because having someone you trust makes retaining the information powerful on another level. It is also important to recognize and acknowledge the generation that was lost to AIDS-related illnesses that were not around to guide younger generations. They were not given the respect, guidance, or care that could have led them to live longer lives. The long-term goal of the settler-colonial state is to push groups deemed undesirable by the state further and further out until they reach a point of breaking (Razack, 2015). By not providing inclusive sex education, students are left without proper care or resources and continue cycles of unsafe practices. Maybe that is their intention all along, to kill those that are not worthy of taking up space in their eyes.
At the start of my project, I knew I wanted to take a more community approach in an attempt to make this project more of a inclusive collaboration. I asked a series of questions to 8 of my peers of varying ages, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations in an attempt to bring as many approaches to the matter at hand as possible.
Do you feel like the middle/ high school you attended gave comprehensive sex education? If yes/ no can you expand?
The number one addition to the sex education curriculum those that I interviewed mentioned adding was incorporating sexualities other than heterosexuality into the narrative. Many felt as though they were on their own in the world and were ill-prepared to be having sex when they were interested, and felt ready.
“[Homeosexual sex] was always discussed and viewed through a predominantly heterosexual/heteronormative viewpoint. There was never any discussion on solely homosexual topics”.
“You could tell whoever wrote the material was instructed to say that abstaining from sex is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDs, and nothing else. Also, surprise, surprise, when referring to sex, they only referred to sex between a cisgender man and woman.”
“I went to catholic school from K-12 so I actually didn’t really get any sex education. It was mostly ‘Wait until marriage because the Bible says so and if you don’t want to wait talk to your parents about it.’”
Where did you find out the most about the type of sex you wanted to have?
The response to this question was actually one that I was not very shocked by. A number of people reported that they turned to online google searches and media such as porn, which is common for people who do not have safe spaces to confide in or direct them to safe practices.
“Media and doing my own research has its ups and downs, but I would say talking to people I trust about it was the best way for me personally.”
“Community is incredibly important but for the most part, we were all kids. There were never any queer adults we could turn to for advice or example.”
“Hookup culture and porn promote sex as a quick fix, sometimes transactional, often rough and “hot” in a very limited way”
If you could add anything to a sex education curriculum now what would you?
Oftentimes, the only time LGBT sex practices are mentioned is in reference to using condoms when having anal sex to prevent contracting HIV/AIDS. There then becomes a stigma that only those having anal sex can contract HIV/AIDS which further leads to misinformation. This is why I stress that sex education needs to be taught by actual sexual health professionals. Many shared that when they were taught about sex in school it was by gym teachers or others who did not hold the proper credentials to educate them properly.
“Having a unit on teen parenting, we had classes with like the baby dolls or whatever but I think including that into our conversations about safe sex & the economic ramifications of being forced to have a child without the freedom of choice.”
“I would change the way we are taught to think about sex as a noun. Sex is not something that is done onto another person, it is something that is mutually done together through collaboration and communication.”
“If I had to add anything to a sex education curriculum I would add more emphasis on the effects of the internet on our relationships. This affects everyone and is especially important for young gays who are more likely to find a partner online than at school.”
“Second information must be given in an all-encompassing way. Not just from the “sex is to make babies” perspective. I think gone is the day of hiding the fact that sex is not the same for everyone or every relationship.”
What We Need Moving Forward
One solution to the continued exclusion of LGBT safe sex education would be to create a well-researched, trustworthy curriculum about sex education available for all ages, ethnic groups, and identities. Building a curriculum does not have to look like reinventing the wheel; it can start with acknowledging that sex should not be a shameful topic to talk about, and when it does happen, it should be in an intentional and respectful manner. Some of the most important aspects of sex are that it is consensual and safe. Consent is a topic that can be taught to all age groups, and I believe starting younger is better. If people continue to deflect questions about sex education by claiming the youth is too young to learn about it, the harmful practices and beliefs held will only continue. Only when LGBT students are finally included in the larger narrative and able to get a complete education that addresses all of their questions, will we be able to move away from institutional practices that aim to divide communities.
There needs to be a destigmatization of talking about sex in society in general. People are going to have sex! Comprehensive sex education can look like many things for different age groups and demographics that require adjustments in language. Starting with using non-gendered terms for genitals and other bodily functions, as well as referring to different relationships with ‘partner’ rather than girlfriend or boyfriend. Ensuring that when referring to different relationship dynamics heterosexuality is not referred to as the default (McGarry, 2013). Creating safe spaces for adolescents encourages them to want to share more, and therefore also receive more help. Allowing students to ask questions in a way that does not potentially expose them in an embarrassing way is also an important way to gain trust. Explaining that sexually transmitted infections can happen through multiple types of sexual contact, and not just certain groups of people helps to break stereotypes (Jarpe-Ratner, 2019). All things considered, if schools are not confident in doing this themselves, there are many programs or groups that offer lessons on safe sexual education.