Sex Education Needs to Be Less Straight
When Alex Clavel was in eighth grade, in 2015, his health teacher started the class’s “sex unit” with a familiar activity. Posting signs around the room with the names of reproductive organs — uterus, cervix, testes — she called them out, one by one. The students were supposed to run toward the sides of the room labeled “male” or “female.”
When the teacher yelled “uterus,” every student flocked to the female side, except Clavel. Stationed in the middle, he remembers asking: “What about transgender men?” The teacher didn’t contradict him, but said that for the purpose of this lesson, the uterus is something only women have.
This was the only school-based sex ed that Clavel, now 19, received as a teenager in Ithaca, New York. His experience is not unique: Across the country, many American students receive sex education that’s limited in scope, or doesn’t teach safe sex behaviors at all. LGBTQ teens can feel the limitations acutely, and many say they are overlooked, erased, or willfully ignored in the classroom, particularly when it comes to sex ed. Studies show that sex education that stigmatizes LGBTQ students — by gendering reproductive language or only including examples of heterosexual couples in a lesson plan — contributes to disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancy, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted infections, particularly for LGBTQ youth of color.
Fortunately, Clavel found a way to get answers outside of the classroom. That same year, he joined a youth group for LGBTQ teens run by Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. The group of around 14 teens — many of them the only out kids at their high schools — gathered weekly to discuss sexual health, host game nights, and do community service. The organization’s vice president for programming and communications, Maureen Kelly, describes the program as a “sanctuary” and a place where young people are allowed to ask questions like, what about transgender men?
Clavel credits the group with helping him build the confidence to come out as a lesbian, and one year later, as a transgender man. In a youth group, no one misgendered him. Once, one of his peers actually reminded Clavel when he used his old name. “It was never questioned,” he says. “It was really nice being able to experiment in a completely understanding and nonjudgmental environment.”
Sexual health experts say queer teens are increasingly seeking affirming sex education outside of school — through groups like the one Clavel attended, or online. “The conversation around sex ed is happening in this explosive way, because society can’t veil some of those truths anymore,” says sex educator Nefertari Sloan, who leads LGBTQ-centered trainings for staff and faculty. “It’s not working for everyone, and people are more comfortable being vocal about it.”
Inside the classroom however, change is slow, thanks to lax enforcement of sex education standards and a pervasive focus on pregnancy prevention. The federal government does not require that sex ed is taught in schools, and abstinence-based sex education is the most prevalent sex ed policy in the United States. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 10 states require that schools teach an inclusive sex ed curriculum; seven actually mandate that if LGBTQ issues are mentioned, it must be in a negative light. For example, some states require that if a teacher mentions homosexuality, they have to emphasize that it’s “not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public;” in other states, homosexuality can only be mentioned in the context of STIs. Data from LGBTQ youth advocacy group GLSEN’s annual school climate survey shows that less than 7% of students report receiving LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed in school; around 23% said they got no sex ed at all.
“Many adults are afraid to talk to young people about sex, and if and when they do, one way they feel less afraid is to deliver a lecture — thus, why the idea of ‘the talk’ pervades.”
“We know that when LGBTQ folks feel like they belong, they’re connected, they have safety nets, they are a part of a community, we see amazing things happen around better mental health outcomes, fewer potentially risky behaviors, and fewer risks when it comes to substance abuse,” says Kelly.
Recent studies confirm that even small shows of support, such as using someone’s chosen name and pronouns that match their identity, make a big difference in terms of mental health — as does including queer students in the curriculum. GLSEN’s survey suggests that inclusive sex ed (along with other school-wide resources, such as Gay-Straight Alliances and anti-harassment policies) is linked to reduced bullying and better outcomes for students. Compared to queer kids at schools without inclusive sex ed, LGBTQ students who saw themselves reflected in the curriculum were 22% less likely to report hearing homophobic slurs at school and 16% less likely to report hearing transphobic slurs. They were also 22% less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation than students in schools without inclusive sex ed. In contrast, they reported feeling “greater belonging to their school community” and greater acceptance among their peers. When sex ed is inclusive, the whole school benefits.
But so far, schools that provide that kind of curriculum are in the minority. In elementary schools, separating students by sex assigned at birth is still the norm — a practice that neglects intersex kids and transgender youth, many of whom begin to understand their gender identity by age three. Sexuality educator Ericka Hart, a lecturer at the Columbia School of Social Work who also hosts independent workshops on gender, says this is because teachers and administrators often have a very narrow understanding of sex. “If they are viewing sex or sex education inside of this hetero, cisgender, able-bodied lens, that is what will be delivered,” they say. “And that’s also oftentimes what is expected.”
Teachers who do want to teach more inclusive sex ed classes often lack the resources or training. “We do still have many school districts where I hear, ‘I’m a PE teacher, and on Friday my principal plopped this textbook on my desk,’” says sexuality education expert Elizabeth Schroeder, who also trains staff to teach sex ed.
Only 19 states require teachers to include information about condoms and contraception. And even in those states, many classes will not provide information that’s useful to people who are having sex without a risk for pregnancy. Many queer teens do need contraception, but don’t get information that’s relevant to their identities. This is why experts urge teachers to talk about sex in terms of behaviors and body parts — teaching about contraception methods for people who have a penis or vulva, for instance, or framing role play activities as “partner A” and “partner B.”
Deonn Strathman, Planned Parenthood Illinois’ director of community engagement, says they begin most of the sex education classes they lead by defining terms like gay, straight, transmasculine and transfeminine, and asexual. They’re also careful to avoid gendered language in anatomy lessons. (It’s an external condom, not a male condom; person with a uterus, not a woman.) Even when introducing small modifications like these, Strathman says, teachers in certain districts have pushed back on their lessons — and occasionally, students have too. “A lot of young boys have been socialized to be uncomfortable with these topics,” says Strathman.
Oftentimes LGBTQ teens turn to the internet for sexual health information, and data shows they do so in much greater numbers than their straight peers. Unfortunately, often the primary resource on sex online is porn, says Ari Tabaac, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. In one 2017 study published in Sex Education, gay and bisexual men describe accessing porn as one way to compensate for the lack of sex ed. Researchers who replicated a search for “lesbian sexual health” turned up accurate information on STIs and HIV, but much less about safer sex practices. Tabaac calls this an “informational deficit.”
Thankfully, queer people are creating inclusive and informative spaces online. YouTuber Stevie Boebi’s queer sex ed channel — which includes a “Lesbian Sex 101” series and make-your-own dental dam tutorial — has 736,000 followers. Videos where LGBTQ YouTubers like Alayna Joy share personal experiences with sex ed have garnered thousands of views. There are also podcasts that can teach you how to have safe sex, consent workshops at queer sex shops, and online resources like Sex, Etc., published by the LGBTQ nonprofit Answer.
Michael Pincus, a 16-year-old living in South Florida, said he started writing about sex in Sex, Etc. because his own experience with sex was so alienating. “There was nothing in my life telling me what I was feeling and experiencing and thinking were okay and normal,” he says. “I think I would have come out earlier if I had that — a sex ed curriculum that certified that being a member of the LGBTQ community is valid and acceptable.”
Scarleteen, an online publication whose motto is “sex ed for the real world,” has eight million users a year. Founder Heather Corinna says about 1% of those people use the publication’s direct serves, including message boards and a live chat, often asking questions about surviving sexual assault or coming out in a conservative community.”Corinna, a former Montessori teacher, started the site in 1998 after hearing many questions from young people about sex. In the years since, Corinna has seen everything from “am I gay?” to how to give a good blowjob. In addition to answering these questions (Corinna believes “you’re the only person that can be the expert of your own stuff”), they decided to give users the tools and support they need to make their own decisions. For instance, the site gives tips on how to talk to a partner about pleasure and setting boundaries; another guide suggests teens navigate their sexuality as a “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
“That is inclusive sex ed to me — when marginalized people are centered, and not centered in a way that pathologizes our existence, but creates the conditions so we can actually be free in our bodies.”
“So many adults are afraid to talk to young people about sex and sexuality, and if and when they do, one way they feel less afraid is to deliver a lecture — thus, why the idea of ‘the talk’ pervades,” Corinna says. “A lecture is a lot less intimidating than an open-ended conversation.”
Hart, the sex educator, argues that truly inclusive sex education will happen when heteronormativity is dismantled in the classroom and beyond, and that there’s also still a need for sex ed curricula or YouTube videos that feature positive examples of black love, queer people with disabilities, and fat people who are in relationships, not just talking about body image. “That is inclusive sex ed to me — when marginalized people are centered, and not centered in a way that pathologizes our existence, but creates the conditions so we can actually be free in our bodies,” says Hart.
On a recent Saturday in central New York, LGBTQ kids from Ithaca and the neighboring town of Corning gathered at Planned Parenthood’s youth center for an early Thanksgiving meal, some meeting for the very first time. Over potluck dishes, the teens discussed what chosen family looks like. For many, even those with supportive parents, it looks like a youth group. “It’s a space where youth don’t have to explain themselves,” Devon Ritz, the group’s co-facilitator, says. “They don’t have to explain what pronouns are, they don’t have to explain their identity. They come here and everyone gets it.”
New York state does not have laws on the books requiring inclusive or comprehensive sex education, so Planned Parenthood has worked hard to fill in the gaps. In addition to a youth group, it provides hormone therapy for transgender and nonbinary teens and runs a legal clinic, where students applying to college can get loans and other documents in their chosen name.
Kelly, the founding director of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes’ LGBTQ health program, says she felt unsafe coming out in high school and that her ultimate goal is decreasing social isolation, which can lead to depression and suicide. “This is life-saving work,” she says, adding, “I cannot fathom what 13-year-old me would have done with a group like this.”
After learning about consent and birth control in a youth group, Alex Clavel joined a Planned Parenthood peer education program, and now teaches sex ed to middle and high school students in the area. He says that sometimes, students ask, “what is sex?” Clavel suspects it might be a joke, but always answers anyway. In the queer community, it’s a valid question — with no right answer: Sex looks different to everybody, especially sex that has been erased in heteronormative society.
“Anything that makes people safer and happier is always good,” says Clavel.