by Ivy Turinsky
It’s Friday afternoon. Sunlight pours in through tall windows into the dusty class- room. Inside, a handful of secondary school students sit perched on desks or slouched on the floor. At the front, my friend Lucy is drawing a giant vagina on the white board with a bright green pen. “This,” she says triumphantly, turning to the onlookers and pointing to a spot on the diagram, “Is the clitoris!”
Now, you may be wondering, why is Lucy teaching this motley crew, and not a “Real Teacher”? And why has said motley crew decided to dedicate their Friday afternoon to learning about sex? The answer is simple: this is the only place they can.
Lack of sex education is evident in schools around the globe, and, even when offered, often it is not scientifically accurate, and fails to touch on the experience of LGBT+ individuals. Currently, only twenty-five states in the US require sex ed to be taught at all, and only thirteen states in total require it to be medically and factually accurate — what’s more, state definitions of what is factual can vary widely, and are often biased. For example, thirty-seven states mandate abstinence-based curriculums, which has been shown to lead to increased risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, in addition to promoting a culture of shame around sex.
This attitude may be shifting, but it is shifting slowly, driven only by the determination of the younger generations to receive a proper education on their bodies. Without the support of their schools, young people are turning to online sources, porn, and friends in order to learn about sex. While it’s great we’re looking for answers, these sources can also be biased and unreliable. Our parents can’t be relied on for information either; they pass the responsibility to our teachers, assuming that they will teach us all we need to know, thus abdicating any responsibility or awkwardness they might feel talking about these things.
When I tried to talk to my mum last summer about why she’d never had the awkward “birds and bees” talk with me, or mentioned anything remotely related to LGBT+ issues until after I came out, she was very taken aback that it had ever been an issue. “I thought you knew we were accepting!” She said. “I thought you would learn all you needed to in school, you had a class for that!” Now, I’m not asking for every parent to suddenly give an anatomy lecture to their kid or become an expert in queer studies, but it would be helpful for them to acknowledge that a chalk diagram in aes- thetic colours of a penis and a vagina, or - if you’re lucky - a condom rolled onto a banana, hardly teaches us all we need to know. Not only is this form of teaching both cis- and heteronormative, hardly touching on or completely erasing queer identities and relationships, it is dangerous for the mental and physical health of all students. Expecting everyone else to do the “awkward part” of teaching your kid about sex puts them at a higher risk of STIs and of feeling alienated and shameful regarding their sexuality and gender identity, straight or queer.
Us students aren’t having less sex just because we’re not taught about it, but we’ll fare a lot better if we have access to a proper education. (Of course, if you don’t want to have sex for any reason, that’s entirely your choice and right.) We need a factual curriculum that encompasses not only straight and queer relationships — without bias against the latter, but also teaches the importance of consent in every aspect, and pleasure. Gone should be the days of “Women can’t orgasm” and hosts of other charming and wildly inaccurate clichés; we need to erase the shame associated with talking about sex in all aspects - not simply in regard to your classic, white-picket-fence hetero couple making babies.
One of the best ways to increase acceptance of the LGBT+ community is to teach about us too, to stop assuming that every child in the classroom is straight and/or cis. As one of our predecessors here at The Gay Saint, Steve, put it in March 2000 regarding the proposed repeal of Section 28 (which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools), “Education breeds acceptance, not promotion.”
Section 28 has since been repealed, but its effects continue to live on insidiously in false and biased sex ed. Queer students already face higher rates of bullying and isolation in schools — along with the accompanying mental health impact — and the lack of information and resources on queer sex and gender identities only adds to the problem. Omitting LGBT+ information from sex ed, on top of the myriad of other issues surrounding its teaching, isn’t some casual oversight or slip-up; this omission is purposeful. Omission implies immorality, a term far too many people are still keen to associate with the LGBT+ community in 2020.
Currently, the UK government plans to introduce a new sexual education curriculum — Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) — which will become compulsory for all state-funded schools in England in September 2020. Although this new curriculum appears to contain further, factual information on everything from menstruation to consent, and promises a full integration of LGBT+ content into the general curriculum, it leaves it up to the school to decide how exactly this integration will be carried out. Furthermore, parents have the option to withdraw their child from the sex education part of this new program, up until the age of sixteen, at which point the child is allowed to make the choice for themselves - but will children feel comfortable opting in behind their parents backs, with the risk of being caught?
This curriculum update, twenty years in the making, has already faced backlash regarding the inclusion of gay families in the relationship part of the course for primary schools (RSE began to be introduced in fall 2019). Families are stating that their children are “too young” to learn about queer relationships, and that said content goes against religious teachings, held across a variety of religious beliefs. Multiple schools have since suspended the lessons, receiving severe backlash and weekly protests from the families. But, surprise! Us queers exist at all ages and in all religions, and it’s especially important for LGBT+ youth to hear about queer relationships and identities in school, so as not to feel as though they are alone or there something is wrong with them. A lack of information and resources only leads to more hurt and challenges down the line.
Other parents in opposition to the new program claim that they are supportive of the gays, but they want to be able to teach their kids about us themselves, citing an increase of the “LGBT agenda” in lessons as students get older. To me, that sounds an awful lot like a new spin on the age-old mantra of, “Oh, I support people being gay, but I don’t see why you all have to be so in-our-face about it! Why can’t you just be who you are and keep it to yourself?” (Or, to put it another way, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”) Parents, you can teach your kids what you want in your own time, but you need to remember that your kids aren’t the only ones in that class, and LGBT+ kids deserve representation and access to information too.
This not to justify the racism and prejudice aimed at religious and cultural minori- ties who traditionally abstain from sex before marriage — that is your choice. But students, especially women and LGBT+ individuals who are statistically more impacted by a lack of sex education, deserve to know the facts and information about their bodies so they can make said choices. Furthermore, everyone benefits from an awareness of the different forms that sexuality, gender, and relationships can take for people.
We deserve information on the basic functions and risks regarding our own bodies, so that we can make informed choices that suit us best. So, where do we go from here? What, exactly, is our relationship with sex coming from this convoluted background? Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do. Because let’s face it - learning about sex is often awkward. So how can we, like Lucy, make it less so?