By Jerusha Gray
For the first time since the late 1990s, the 2017 budget will contain no funding for abstinence-only education, which holds that abstaining from sex is the only way to avoid STDs or pregnancy. Many states have already been refusing federal funds for these programs, due to the overwhelming number of studies showing that abstinence-only education does not improve HIV rates, STD incidence, or teen pregnancy, and in many cases increases all of these risks. Moving to comprehensive sex education, which addresses subjects like proper use of condoms and choosing a birth control option, is demonstrably better both for students’ emotional well-being and for their health outcomes.
I’m glad that Obama is defunding abstinence-based programs, and suggesting that those funds go toward programs that advocate a more comprehensive approach to sexual education. But it’s not enough. Even “comprehensive” sex education fails to specifically address the needs of some of our nation’s most vulnerable students: LGBTQ youth aged 13–17. We owe it to them — and all youth — to devise a truly comprehensive sex education that is as far beyond our current approach as our current approach is beyond abstinence programs.
High-school-age LGBTQ youth experience higher rates of attempted and completed suicide, violence victimization, and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers. LGBTQ youth of color are at an even greater risk to experience harassment and violence. School should be a safe place for everyone, and effective sex ed in particular should create an environment where it is safe to ask questions and approach difference without awkwardness or shame. By excluding LGBTQ issues from the sexual education curriculum, educators within the system are reinforcing stereotypes and divisive behavior among the student body. When we as a culture refuse to engage in discourse surrounding our gender and sexuality differences, we foster an environment that encourages fear and abuse of power. This allows bigotry to grow unchecked, and puts vulnerable students at greater risk.
I was a queer kid. My partner Nix was a trans kid, though he didn’t know it yet. We grew up in a rural community surrounded by white married straight couples and fields of corn and cows. The Internet existed, but even Myspace was a thing of the future. My formal sexual education consisted of my PE teacher diagramming a penis on the overhead projector while I made Beavis and Butthead jokes about the vas deferens. We did get a bit of AIDS instruction and two hours worth of abortion discussion that went into excruciating detail about how having sex before marriage meant that I would get pregnant with a shame baby and have to take state assistance because of my poor choices — or, alternatively, that I’d need to have an abortion that I would regret the rest of my life. Or, you know, that I’d just die of AIDS.
Gender and sexually identities were not discussed. Practical information about STI prevention other than condoms was avoided. Conversations regarding consent, body autonomy, and power dynamics were startlingly absent. All of this was to my detriment.
I participated in a limited discussion of puberty and teen pregnancy in sixth-grade health class. We were segregated by gender and learned about menstruation, nocturnal emissions, and basic reproduction. Many of my classmates were pulled from class by their parents under religious exemption. Our community touted the belief that same sex-relationships were deviant, and what we learned in school reinforced that. I fell in love with my partner Nix at the ripe old age of 11. Shame culture and a lack of exposure to healthy non-binary couples meant that we kept our relationship under wraps. We spent much of our teen years “praying the gay away” — ironic, since Nix isn’t gay, he’s a straight trans man. It wasn’t until we were in our thirties that we finally came to a place where we had the knowledge and the resources to be together in a healthy relationship.
If I had been part of a sexual education class that talked about gender and sexuality diversity, would my life as a queer person have taken a different direction? I think it probably would, and Nix thinks most definitely yes. It would have certainly spared us a great deal of heartache, mental anguish, and a lot of wasted time apart.
Nix spent his childhood and into adulthood without trans role models, and his gender dysphoria was a significant roadblock to building and sustaining relationships with others. He didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss and explore what was going on in his brain. A sexual education that included gender and sexuality diversity would have equipped him with a sense of belonging and points of reference as he navigated transition. It would have allowed him to reach out and connect with others who have had similar experiences and find community rather than isolation and confusion.
I was scared to be queer. I thought that if I worked hard enough I could force myself into heterosexuality — after all, my education had taught me that my sexuality was a choice. I felt like a gender and sexual failure. Like Nix, I had no context or shared community history to connect to. I was in love with my best friend and convinced I would burn in hell for it.
The little baby queers coming behind me at least have access to the Internet, but in many ways they are similarly unprepared. They are vulnerable to infections and diseases because they don’t know better. They are ill-equipped to deal when there is an unequal power distribution in emotional and sexual relationships. They are left open for predators to prey upon their lack of experience and connection to community and resources. This, combined with the reality that LGBT youth are at far higher risk of homelessness and prostitution, makes for a deadly combination.
Some facts to ponder:
- Sex education focuses primarily on contraception and STI prevention for contact between a penis and a vagina — failing to recognize that people with vaginas may have sex where a penis is not involved. Two men having sex can also be penis free. Two women having sex may both have penises. Two people who both identify as agender can have sex with any combination thereof. Our gender is not bound to our biology, and our sexuality is not bound to our gender — but sexuality education often is.
- Young women who have sex with women (WSW) are often regarded as “safe” from negative sexual outcomes. Yet studies have found that over their lifetimes, WSW experience STIs at similar rates to all women, and young lesbians experience pregnancy at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts and are less likely to use protection during heterosexual intercourse than other women.
- One study found that, compared to young men who had unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) with only one male partner, those who had UAI with multiple male partners were more likely to have engaged in UAI with a casual male partner* (77% versus 16%). Thirty-one percent of young MSM in the study reported drug use during sex.
- Studies have found that because of the existence of medications which can prolong an HIV positive individual’s life and prevent the virus from developing into AIDS, some young men who have sex with men may be taking more sexual risks, including unprotected sex with untested or known HIV positive individuals.
- Ninety percent of transgender students have heard negative remarks about their gender expression in school. Thirty-nine percent reported hearing school staff make similar comments in the past year. Very infrequently will students report these incidences, and school staff rarely intervenes. Only a third of students felt that school staff would address the situation properly if they did report the incident.
Our teen years are already a special cocktail of hell without adding in bullying and harassment (LGBTQ teens are twice as likely to report harassment, physical assault, and exclusion), let alone the confusion and shame that can come from lack of sex education. Body hair, B.O, and awkward social interactions are bad enough — I liken my own puberty to coming to grips with the fact that I will stumble through experiences like a baby giraffe for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I had a fantastic support system. I didn’t have to rely solely on my school’s sex ed curriculum to teach me how to navigate school and into adulthood. But queer and LGBT students are not usually so lucky. They are also far less likely to seek out independent resources and education, or to ask for help.
We have an opportunity to address these needs. We are wasting it.
LGBTQ youth are reaping the consequences of a sexual education system that fails them at a fundamental level. The current programs lack nuanced complexity surrounding issues that are critical for this community, such as: gender identity and behavior, consent and power dynamics, understanding and valuing bodily autonomy for themselves and others, elements of healthy relationships, the sexuality spectrum, sexual harassment and assault, and connections to resources within the community. Inclusive sexual education can start the discussion in a cogent and welcoming way based on science. Silence on these issues only lends credibility to incorrect assumptions and fear among the student body. Inclusive curriculum gives teachers and students alike context and an opportunity to learn in a safe space. It empowers at-risk youth with the tools needed to find health resources and community connections as they leave school and enter adulthood.
LGBTQ students aren’t the only ones who would benefit from a more inclusive curriculum. It’s important for students who identify as heterosexual to understand that this is not the default or only sexuality. As a species, humans fear what we don’t understand, which can give way to violence in a misguided attempt to self-protect. We need to see things as they are and not as the vision we have constructed for ourselves. A greater understanding of our shared experience allows us to see that despite our differences, we are worthy of respect and dignity. Different doesn’t mean danger. The benefits of an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum benefits everyone along the gender and sexuality spectrums.
Change is hard. I hate change. I also hate kids dying because they didn’t know better. Talking about sex openly can be uncomfortable for many, but discomfort doesn’t change our duty to give teens every chance to take control of their bodies and their futures. LGBT youth deserve a place in the sex education classroom They are in desperate need of access to information and resources to keep them safe. They need people in power to make a safe place to talk about life outside the antiquated notion of a binary heterosexual climate. And straight kids need that, too.
A well-rounded, LGBTQ-inclusive, and comprehensive sexual education program benefits everyone, LGBT and straight teens alike. It’s time to talk about sex in the way that it needs to be talked about.