I remember how one of my favorite parts of young adult novels was the one when a parent had to go through the agonizingly awkward, for both parties, process of having The Talk with their teenage kid or kids. I remember how all the taboos I had developed around sex led me into finding the idea of my parents discussing it with me horrifying. Maybe it shouldn’t have been this way. Maybe I needed something more than my dad letting me know while driving a fact that I had already picked up from TV series: that many 13 year-olds get pregnant. I needed something more than my mom freaking out at the idea of me having sex at 15 – and leaving it there. It wasn’t their fault; I needed something more when it came to LGBT inclusive sex education. Which is what schools are for.
When it comes to sex ed in school, I remember being shown in 2008 an 80s cult Greek sex ed VHS with a TV comedian calling condoms “baladeurs”. It was s funny – and old – it couldn’t have felt as anything but cult, vintage, and hilarious.
I have also heard stories from a friend who used to go to my school, only a couple of years older than me, who described a sex ed seminar my year never got to attend for some reason. That friend of mine identifies as a non-binary person among students who had to be divided by sex and sit in a classroom in order to be told how pregnancy can occur, and how the boy needs to be a gentleman and escort the girl to the pharmacy, to take the day after pill if there is any pregnancy risk. In this class there was no space to ask questions about anal – questions that could possibly be read as “homosexual” in a macho environment full with bullying and stigmatization. In this class questions that some students genuinely wished to ask would have been considered invalid, even offensive.
The last story I heard took place in Dublin. My Irish friend told me of an actual sex ed class they were taught at school – an all girls school. The clitoris wouldn’t have been mentioned weren’t it for a student asking with genuine concern whether there was something wrong with that bump, and whether she should have it checked out. The teacher practically ignored her and went on with the class, and another student let her know that this thing is called clitoris, and that it is normal to have it.
Most of us, unless we live in a really progressive country, have a certain idea of the (in)adequacy of sexual health and relationships education that we receive in school. There is an extensive debate around how sex ed classes should be, often failing to mention the existence of LGBT people. But what about LGBT students and their place (whether that place is negatively painted or demonstrated with absence) in the curriculum?
In retrospect, even though I hadn’t come to terms with my identity as pansexual and genderfluid back in school, I would have greatly appreciated a sex ed class, adequate in informing me about all aspects of sexuality, bodies and genders, and including LGBT people as normal, existing, with valid needs, concerns, and questions they need to ask. Had I been taught at school that homosexuality and bisexuality are not something to be ashamed about as I had been taught at home, or that there were more than one gender, maybe it would have been easier for me to come to terms with my identity, and possibly even had enjoyed sex more, by disposing of many taboos around it. I also wish that our biology teacher would have been more educated in teaching about Intersex issues and variations, instead of using harmful, pathologizing language and teaching methods.
All these stigmatizing techniques, perpetuated myths, taboos and stereotypes, can work extremely traumatizingly for a gay, bi, trans, non-binary, asexual, or intersex student. The complete absence to any reference to our identities, can cause equally harmful results.
But what are the elements missing from most sex ed classes in the Western world today – of course with a few bright exceptions – fail to address issues such as pleasure, rape culture, consent (especially how it must be informed and enthusiastic), violence and abuse, gender identities including those out of the gender binary, intersex variations using humane, inclusive terminology and language, bodily autonomy, protection methods for homosexual couples, dating and sex in the age of dating apps and simultaneity, sex and pleasure for trans people, the asexuality spectrum, and other very important points for all cis, straight, and LGBTQIA+ students to be able to take informed decisions and lead fulfilling, healthy, autonomous sexual (or a-sexual) lives.
Instead, in many schools and colleges there are no sex ed classes, and when there are, they often used outdated content or, in the case of some American states and some European countries, focusing on abstinence from sex that can aim only at reproduction. Additionally, much of the traditionally used material you will find, may even use slut shaming techniques, directed especially towards the girls, to influence their decision in favor of abstaining from sex.
Now when it comes to LGBT inclusion or exclusion, there are several different approaches followed in many Western countries. To get in a bit of more detail with the paradigm of the US, we first have to acknowledge that the situation varies greatly between different states. In some states it is not allowed to talk about the process of intercourse or demonstrate wearing a condom on a cucumber or banana in class, in others there is a much more adequate sexual education curriculum, including LGBT students and other identities, although the GLSEN 2013 National School Climate Survey showed that the percentage of these classes, including positive representations of LGBT issues, was only 5%. In 2015, the percentage of sex ed classes including same-sex relationships was just 12%. As for the stats coming from Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, it was demonstrated that LGBTQ youth had either never been taught a sex ed class at school, or had only participated in heterosexual and cis-centered sex ed classes, that excluded their experiences and questions.
More specifically, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) has pointed out four wrong ways in which LGBT content is included in (or excluded from) sex education in America, and one right way. There is the ignoring approach that completely excludes LGBT talk from the class, focusing on abstinence only education, there are the approaches that demonize and stigmatize LGBT people by presenting them as immoral, perverted, or dangerous for society (eg. bearers of sexually transmitted diseases) and the trans-excluding approach, that focuses on a binary system of gender, always aligned with the sex assigned at birth.
There is also the truly LGBT-Inclusive Approach, which does not assume heterosexuality, cis people and the gender binary as the norms a society should be based upon, and effectively addresses the issues LGBT youth may face during the formation of sexual and romantic relationships.
In the UK according to a research conducted by HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, on 900 young people concerning sex and relationship ed (SRE) in schools, the approach of SRE is usually of biological and heterosexual focus. 75% of the respondents said they hadn’t been taught about consent, 95% hadn’t been taught about LGBT issues (with 97% not having participated in discussions about gender identity), and 89% hadn’t been taught about sex and pleasure. A striking 59% also reported not having received (or not remembering to have) education on HIV in school.
In the words of Ian Green, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust:
“In this report, we’ve seen the stark reality of SRE in this country and heard saddening stories of how one generation of young people have been exposed to low self-esteem, homophobia, bullying, unhealthy relationships and poor sexual health, as a result of the lack of quality SRE in our schools.
“Without trusted information from schools on anything other than the biological basics of heterosexual sex, young people will turn to less reliable sources such as the internet or their peers as they navigate life outside the classroom. We must end this silence and make SRE mandatory in all schools if we are to tackle this safeguarding crisis.”
“Young people are getting information about sex and relationships in a world before social media existed, before smartphones, before equal marriage or Civil Partnerships. It is wholly unfit to prepare them for the realities of sex and relationships in 2016.”
Recently, Tories have voted against a suggested reform for the addition of LGBT-inclusive SRE classes in school. The objections voiced against this reform by conservatives mostly focused on “reprecussions” that would occur in faith-centered schools opposed to homosexuality, and how this is a tricky subject. The response of HIV organization Terrence Higgins Trust was: “Another missed opportunity by the government to make SRE statutory in schools as Stella Creasy’s amendment is defeated. This is shameful.” A reform was promised, but it seems like society is going backwards.
But why is it so important to include LGBT issues in sex and relationships ed?
Students are in an age during which they often struggle with questions around their sexuality, bodies and identities. It’s crucial for them to have access to reliable, inclusive information. Especially LGBT students who often fall victims of bullying and stigmatization, especially in societies with an alive and prominent rape culture, sorely need the inclusion, representation, and education on issues that directly concern them. We need to break taboos, myths and stereotypes, in order to make the educational experience of LGBT students more positive, and SRE classes can prove to be of major help to that.
In addition, as mentioned above, without an accurate, systematic and open (while age-appropriate) system to educate youth in the issues that concern them, and answer to their diverse, valid questions, LGBT youth use the Internet and their peers as a source of information, often risking coming across unreliable sources. Of course, it’s not like all SRE classes taught in school are more reliable, but we need to work towards that direction, especially when most LGBT students like they have no adults they can trust and talk to in the school and family environment!
We need SRE classes that teach about enthusiastic consent and encourage all different individual choices of young people without slut shaming or demonizing identities and bodies. We need non-biologically-essentialist classes that don’t assume cis, binary genders as the norm, classes that teach people about all different kinds of sex you can have, the risks you run if you go unprotected, and the different means of protection everyone can use. We need more talk on pleasure, more talk on protection between people who have non-penetrative sex, we need a normalizing discussion of asexuality and supportive discussions for the ways trans students can come to terms with their identities and feel more comfortable in their bodies and relationships. We need to talk openly about periods and expand our terminology so it doesn’t involve only women. We need to address health and prevention issues for all genders, for cis and trans people, and ways in which they should all look after their bodies and sexual health. We need to work against STD stigmatization, and make the journey of LGBT students coming to terms with their identities a lot less bumpier. Long story short we need an LGBT Inclusive Sex Education.
You can check out this excellent video from John Oliver, speaking about better SRE classes in general, the amazing educational resource page of Impact Program and this awesome inclusive resource for girls having sex with girls, including issues like consent, health, pleasure etc.