queer sex ed

Queering Health Class: It’s Time for Better Sex Ed

We really need a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education in the American school system.
July 11, 2019
10 mins read

I think it’s safe to say that no one enjoyed health class as a teenager. The teacher was usually a guy from the PE department who was completely out of his wheelhouse, delivering a lecture that felt the perfect shade of both awkward and uncomfortable. There were usually a lot of diagrams on the board and there was always that one kid who cried. And, at some point, they inevitably passed around a basket of condoms.

Even for the target audience of the lecture (that is, cisgender, heterosexual students), sex ed has been (and still is!) lacking, but for the queer community, the disparity is even worse. Ultimately, queer students are not receiving a sufficient level of education about proper sexual and bodily health. Perhaps that kid wasn’t so wrong to cry, after all.

In the U.S., most laws regarding education are left to the discretion of each state. Thus, sex education is a mixed bag across the nation — and in some places, it’s not even a guarantee. Here are some stats from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States:

  • Sex education in school is mandated in only 29 states.
  • Of those 29 states, only 12 are required to address sexual orientation/gender identity.
  • Seven states are required to discriminatorily discuss sexual orientation/gender identity in the classroom.
  • 22 states are required to promote heterosexual, monogamous, married sex as part of their sex education programs.

This needs to change. The American school system must take a comprehensive approach to creating a sex education curriculum that accounts for all bodies, circumstances and relationships. Discriminatory practices should be prohibited.

Moreover, a lack of sufficient queer sex ed resources puts the community at a higher risk of poor sexual health. Exclusive education isn’t simply unhelpful; it’s harmful.

One of the primary purposes of sex education is to lower the rate of individuals diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections. The American Sexual Health Association claims that, of the sexually active population, one in two people will contract an STI by age 25. The U.S. has the highest STI rates in the world. It seems like the best way to combat this frightening number would be to teach about it in health class.

The fact that many states want to leave queer folk out of the discussion is counterproductive because, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the LGBT community is disproportionately affected by STIs. Take HIV, for example: gay and trans Americans are 92 and 76 times more likely to be diagnosed with the virus, respectively, than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts.

Although there are many socioeconomic and political factors that contribute to these statistics, poor education is to blame for at least part of it. Since most states are not required to discuss comprehensive sexual health, folks who are not engaging in traditional vaginal penetration miss out on invaluable information about safe sex.

Adding to that, there’s a whole medical aspect that queer people have to navigate without their school’s help. Most cis, straight men and women know what to talk to their doctor about at a checkup. But what if you engage in anal sex, or you don’t know if your trans partner can still get pregnant? What if you’re intersex and concerned about whether you can still transmit STIs? This is all vital information that schools are unlikely to ever cover without a queer sex ed curriculum.

And if that wasn’t enough, sitting in on the sex ed lecture can actually be damaging for all students. Remember the seven states required to discriminate against queer youth? According to Advocates for Youth, these curricula reinforce ideas such as heteronormativity, marriage and fear of same-sex attraction. Subsequently, sexualities that don’t conform to these tight requirements are vehemently shamed.

Alabama is a prime example; the Heart of Dixie is notorious for promoting a cis-heteronormative sexual lifestyle in schools. One of their laws requires that “Classes must emphasize … that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” (Keep in mind that same-sex relationships have been legal in the U.S. since 2003, under Lawrence v. Texas.)

The state does not require information in sex ed classes to be evidence-based or medically-accurate (which permits the aforementioned kind of misinformation). The narrative is similar in many other states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arizona.

This practice is damaging to all students involved, but for queer kids, it’s dangerous and isolating. In a culture that already stigmatizes non-normative identities, telling a child that their existence is unacceptable pushes them further toward the margins. Without queer sex ed, these kids are less likely to have resources to learn about their own health, and tend toward lower GPAs and higher levels of depression.

And, for non-queer kids, leaving information about queer sex ed out of the lecture encourages students to perpetuate harmful normativity and continue the vicious cycle of exclusion. It also limits the scope of their own sexualities. Understanding that there’s more than one way to have sex isn’t be a bad thing; it shows kids that they can feel pleasure in less risky ways.

Despite laws such as Alabama’s, most parents support comprehensive sex education — maybe because it gets them out of teaching it to their kids themselves. So why haven’t things changed?

Well, for one, since education laws are made at the state level, there is no federal regulation. Additionally, the public schools within each state interpret and teach the curriculum differently (and private schools are a whole different story, since they’re given very few regulations to follow). Most sex ed teachers primarily work in another department, like physical education, and most are not required to participate in any kind of training session.

Here’s what that all boils down to: The quality of your sex ed class is determined at the discretion of the teacher.

One possible solution is to implement a national standard for sex education. The U.S. Department of Education plays a small role in the American education system, but it has implemented several national education standards to which states must adhere. Nationalized education is an imperfect solution, but the idea of creating a streamlined, universal framework for curricula is something that could benefit sex education.

If states were required to make certain topics mandatory, such as trans, intersex and same-sex sexual health, more LGBT students would report having positive representations of LGBT topics in health class; this wouldn’t be difficult, as the number currently sits at only 5%.

Above all, having access to information about one’s body and sexual health is a human right. Intolerance and queerphobia aside, the U.S. should be working passionately to create a more inclusive environment in the classroom because it is safer and healthier. Ultimately, comprehensive, queer sex education has the power to reduce STI diagnoses, lessen prejudice and stigma toward the LGBT community and, possibly, save lives.

Making sex ed more inclusive doesn’t push an agenda and will not force anyone to conform to a certain lifestyle; its purpose is simply to educate all students about their bodies and how to keep them healthy.

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