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Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

What LGBTQ-Positive Sex Ed Should Look Like

Cassandra Corrado

Sex education should give students the tools to take ownership of their lives and bodies so that they can feel empowered. And that includes LGBTQ students.

This Pride Month, Rewire.News recognizes that celebrating during the pandemic will look very different for many of us, which is why we’re putting together tools of resistance and hope to help us all survive (and even thrive) Pride 2020.

I’m a sex educator, but my own experience with sex education wasn’t great.

I went to high school in Florida, which is one of many states that doesn’t require sex education—the decision is left up to individual school districts. For schools that opt to teach sex ed, the curriculum isn’t required to be comprehensive or medically accurate; abstinence-only is the norm; consent doesn’t need to be mentioned; and instructors emphasize the benefits of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Imagine the turmoil this messaging could cause young LGBTQ students.

It was clear to me early on that talking about sexual health wasn’t a priority for the people who made decisions about our education, even though almost everyone I knew was having some type of sex.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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That all changed my first year of college, when I went to a sex ed workshop hosted by the Center for Sexual Pleasure & Health. In three hours, I learned more than I did in all of my middle and high school sex education classes combined. I can point to that workshop as a true point of transformation in my life—it helped me take ownership of my sexuality and boundaries, and changed my career path. (I later interned and then worked at the center in an education role.)

It was also the first time I had ever seen queerness centered, normalized, and celebrated in an educational setting. It was the first time I ever felt like sex ed really applied to me. That workshop changed my life for the better, and that’s what sex education should do: give students the tools to take ownership of their lives and bodies so they can feel empowered. And that includes LGBTQ students.

But here’s the thing: You shouldn’t be 18 the first time you feel included in the conversation, or learn about consent, or have your sexuality affirmed. All of those things should happen much earlier.

So, I had a conversation with two other LGBTQ sex educators to figure out what we really want for our students when it comes to LGBTQ-positive sex education. Here’s what we wish all students learned in school.

Fluidity is the norm

When I say that queer-centric sex education benefits everyone, I mean it. Everyone can benefit from an education that celebrates different identities, represents the many ways that people can love, and talks about health inclusively.

According to Cindy Lee Alves, a queer, nonbinary femme sexologist, the main difference between curricula that simply references LGBTQ folks and curricula that centers LGBTQ folks is shame. “Many curricula think about sex ed solely as disease prevention, and that doesn’t do much for us,” they said. “What would it look like if we taught folks from a young age that things in all parts of your life can be expansive and that you don’t have to pick a lane right away? How much shame would that remove? When you couple inaccurate information with shame, it makes people small.”

Any education that says “this is how things always are and always will be” teaches shame, Alves said. Sexuality and gender identity are fluid, so rather than be prescriptive in what we teach young people, we should teach that it’s okay and expected to explore who you are a little bit. It’s also normal for those things to shift, which doesn’t invalidate any part of your past, present, or future identity.

Sex is all-encompassing

When many people think of sex, they’re thinking of one thing in particular: penis-in-vagina intercourse. But sex is much more than that. Sex includes oral, anal, and vaginal sex, as you might have expected. But it also includes acts typically categorized as “foreplay,” like handjobs, fingering, using toys together, and more.

Everyone’s definition is different, but the way that you define sex matters, because that definition will likely influence your sexual boundaries, the contraceptives you use, and who you choose to do it with.

LGBTQ-positive sex ed doesn’t just teach heteronormative sex; it recognizes that sexual behavior is expansive and affirms that no type of sex is less important or relevant than others.

Sex and gender are not binary

Sex and gender are different things, and both are more expansive than we’re currently taught. You may have grown up thinking the terms were were interchangeable (I know I did), but they’re not, and learning this distinction can make a huge difference in how you approach sex education at home and in the classroom.

Sex is a label you’re given based on your genitals, chromosomes, or hormones—or a combination of these factors. What’s on your birth certificate is the sex you were assigned at birth, which is usually based on what your genitalia looked like. But chromosomal pairings and genitalia don’t always match up, and there is an entire spectrum of biological sex.

Some people are intersex, meaning they have sex characteristics (genitals, hormone levels, and chromosomes) that don’t fit the typical definitions of male or female. So the argument that “there are only two sexes” is wrong. Intersex people are proof of biological variation and that nature hates binaries.

Truly LGBTQ-positive sex ed would celebrate gender diversity, accept all bodies, and positively represent all genders.

On the other hand, gender isn’t determined by anything bodily—it’s the way that you situate yourself in society. While your body parts might affirm that placement, they don’t define it. If someone’s gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, they’re cisgender. If someone’s gender identity doesn’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth, they’re gender nonconforming or transgender.

Many people who are teaching sex ed aren’t trans and may not even be familiar with what it means to be gender nonconforming. Because “folks who actually identify [these ways] aren’t creating the content, there are going to be blind spots,” said Jimanekia Eborn, a queer sexuality educator and trauma specialist. Those blind spots aren’t small, either, and they can be really harmful.

While some curricula might try to take on gender, they often fall short because they talk about gender as a binary when it simply isn’t—nonbinary, genderqueer, two-spirit, and agender people exist, along with so many more identities. You might not have the words for them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

Truly LGBTQ-positive sex ed would celebrate gender diversity, accept all bodies, and positively represent all genders.

You can’t separate the issues

When you try to teach sex ed as if sex happens in a vacuum that isn’t affected by other parts of one’s life, you’re doing a disservice to your students. Queer and inclusive sex ed “centers folks who are system-impacted,” Alves said. “I think about intersectionality. If we’re bringing up queerness, we have to bring it up with other identities, too.”

Race, class, and neurodivergence are three areas that must be woven into sex education curricula. There are many ways to do this, but it starts with talking honestly about the history of sexuality in the United States, from the forced sterilization of people with disabilities to reproductive control over women of color.

“All of the roots are connected, and some people want to just focus on their one tree. But it’s our responsibility to show up for our young people and get their needs met,” Alves said.

From the photos and anatomy tools you use to the cultural examples and historical figures you turn to, representation in sex ed matters. Students need to be able to see themselves in what we teach.

Queer people deserve healthy relationships

Violence prevention and healthy relationships workshops can too often leave students thinking that victims of violence are always cisgender women and that perpetrators are cisgender men.

That just isn’t true. Interpersonal violence, including sexual assault and dating violence, can be committed and experienced by people of any gender or sexual orientation. In fact, queer and trans women experience higher rates of violence than cisgender, heterosexual women.

“Often, evidence-based curricula will use nongendered names or not give a lot of context clues about people’s identities,” Alves said. “That doesn’t do much for queer youth. Outright including and centering someone’s identity in a lesson plan offers the opportunity to discuss how their identity might affect their other experiences.”

When the lessons we learn about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships only show one type of relationship dynamic, we’re passively telling our LGBTQ students that this information isn’t relevant to them.

And while we’re here, remember that there’s no one right way for a relationship to be structured. Monogamy isn’t right for everyone, so when you’re talking about healthy relationships, make sure to include ethical non-monogamy, too.

“Often, evidence-based curricula will use nongendered names or not give a lot of context clues about people’s identities. That doesn’t do much for queer youth.”
– Cindy Lee Alves

Asexuality isn’t a problem to be solved

Some sexualities are completely ignored in sex ed, like asexuality—an umbrella term that encapsulates many different identities that are defined more by a lack of sexual attraction or desire than who the person is attracted to.

At its core, asexuality means the absence of sexual attraction, but it’s a bit more layered than that. Demisexuality, for example, means only experiencing sexual attraction after forming a deep emotional bond (not necessarily romantic) with someone. Gray asexuality means experiencing sexual attraction rarely or occasionally.

While some asexual people might also be aromantic (not experiencing romantic attraction), plenty of sexual people have romantic relationships. Sex isn’t a requirement for being in a relationship. Asexuality can also be combined with other sexual orientations, so someone might identify as both bisexual and asexual. I’m queer and demisexual (and happily married).

Just like any other sexuality, asexuality isn’t a problem to be solved, so sex educators should never treat it that way. Asexual people still need education about consent, healthy relationships, and sexual wellness, even if they never have partnered sex.

Condoms aren’t the only option

When it comes to barrier method contraceptives for STI and pregnancy prevention, people often think of external condoms (the type that goes over a penis or sex toy), but there are so many more options. As a sex educator, you should educate students equally about all types of barrier methods, because queer students might not have a need for external condoms.

When you teach about condoms, also educate students about internal condoms, dental dams, finger cots, and gloves. They can all be used as safer sex tools, and you can save your exploratory students a lot of confusion if you just go ahead and teach about them now.

We deserve to be empowered, not ashamed

Those of us who teach pleasure-positive sex education know how deeply shame and fear root themselves. Shame does weird stuff to you. It only takes one comment to make someone feel bad about who they are, and that one comment can have ripple effects throughout your lifetime.

Things have changed for young queer people in recent years. But for all the empowering messages, there are still parents, teachers, peers, and media that will pass on that shame. When I was in high school, my internalized homophobia ran so deep that I refused to acknowledge that I might not be straight. I was afraid to not be straight, and that fear led me to have sex with people I shouldn’t have and not set any boundaries for myself.

Queer people deserve to grow up feeling empowered to set boundaries, make their own decisions, advocate for themselves, and explore their sexuality in a way that makes them feel good. Straight people deserve that, too. We all do. We all want “love, pleasure, and to be seen, heard, and respected,” as Eborn said.

Sex education can change and even save lives, but empowerment must be at the heart of our work. Otherwise, we’re missing the point.

“The people who have the access and the power have to make these changes to center our young people and their experiences—we can’t rely on our old expertise; we have to make these shifts,” Alves said.

We all deserve better sex ed.

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