Inclusive sex education
by River L Starliper | published on October 22, 2022
Design by JamieLynn Gallagher
War. Genocide. Drugs. Violence. All things that students are exposed to in multiple subjects, but sex is where many draw the line.
In the United States, a very small percentage of middle schools and high schools — 18 and 43 percent respectively — teach material that covers key topics in sex education as defined by the CDC.
Additionally, only 18 of the 50 US states require that the information taught in sex education be medically accurate. Other states teach abstinence-only education, in which students are taught exclusively to avoid sex altogether.
Students are not taught about sex, and this educational deficit goes beyond the mechanics of sexual intercourse. Contraception, reproductive health, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and domestic violence are all subjects neglected by schools lacking sex education.
For students who identify as LGBTQ+, the mental and physical risk may be even greater.
The demand for diversity
Chelsea Proulx, a public health researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, studies the impact of inclusive sex education on student mental health and well-being.
In 2019, Proulx conducted a study looking at schools offering LGBT-inclusive sex education programs and determining whether or not their students had better mental health outcomes.
Proulx’s model found that schools that had LGBT-inclusive sex-ed programs experienced lower rates of depression and suicidality among heterosexual LGBTQ+ and cisgender students, as well as lower rates of bullying and harassment .
This research included statistics describing the prevalence of same-sex couples in an area as a control value to mitigate the effects of experiencing more diverse or inclusive environments outside of school.
Across the study, more than twice as many LGBTQ+ students reported “prolonged feelings of hopelessness or sadness” as their heterosexual peers, and LGBTQ+ youth were five times more likely to attempt suicide.
Additionally, LGBTQ+ students were more likely to report bullying, harassment, and feelings of insecurity in their school environment.
Although schools may have gay-straight alliances or gender-sexuality alliances (GSAs), only a limited number of students actually attend these meetings. Students who may engage in homophobic or transphobic behavior are generally not part of these organizations.
By including LGBTQ+ topics in mainstream curricula, all students are exposed to these issues and can gain greater awareness and understanding of the different types of gender relations and expression around the world.
“[Inclusive sexual education] uses very open and tolerant language, and more inclusive definitions. »
If there is so much data to support these positive claims and results, why aren’t more schools adopting an inclusive curriculum?
think about children
Many are familiar with laws such as Florida’s HB 1557, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The law prohibits any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, or “in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate.”
Proponents of these bills argue that they protect students from grooming and predatory behavior by instructors, and question why kids this young need to discuss sex in the first place.
Discussions of LGBT topics go far beyond sex, and general sex education covers much more than sex itself. So what might LGBT-inclusive sex education look like?
“It uses very open and tolerant language, and more inclusive definitions,” Proulx said.
This could mean using anatomical terms instead of gendered ones, or having neutral conversations about pregnancy. Many elementary schools already provide early sex education by teaching students about menstruation and their changing bodies, and most sex education programs are built around topics appropriate to the development of an age group.
“Kids this age are also old enough to understand what relationships look like,” Proulx said.
At this point, inclusive sex education can be as simple as teaching boys about rules as well as girls, teaching all students about different body types, and including same-sex couples in relationship discussions.
As children progress through their schooling, so does the material considered “developmentally appropriate”.
Sex education in a secondary school could include teaching about how pregnancy and childbirth work, birth control methods, and STI prevention. It can also cover vital information on how students can self-screen for breast cancer and testicular cancer.
“When we get to high school, I think about talking about what safe sex looks like for young gay people… [benefits] young heterosexuals too,” Proulx explained.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a drug that can be taken by people at risk of contracting HIV to avoid contracting the disease, sexually or otherwise. Similarly, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can be taken as an emergency measure after an individual has potentially had intimate contact with someone living with HIV.
However, PrEP and PEP are usually not mentioned during a sex education program aimed at heterosexual youth, as they are more commonly used by members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is just one example of how including medically accurate and appropriate LGBTQ+ topics in sex education can also provide beneficial resources for heterosexual cisgender youth.
However, the policy barrier remains, and with some states actively opposing the establishment of such programs in schools, the task of ensuring equal education for all becomes more complicated.
An educated future
There is a gap in American education and inclusive, expansive, and medically accurate sex education provides students with resources to make informed decisions about their sexual health and activity.
Most school curricula are set at the state level, placing decisions about youth sex education in the hands of state legislators and education officials instead of doctors or sexual health experts .
“Talking about what safer sex looks like for young gay men… [benefits] young heterosexuals too.
Nor does inclusion stop at sex education. LGBTQ+ history and culture is a part of the United States that is often overlooked in material taught in schools.
“Sex education can be a difficult subject to defend…if we can integrate [LGBTQ+ topics] in any program, we are making progress,” Proulx said.
And what can we do when high school sex education leaves lingering questions?
“Sex education doesn’t stop at high school…Colleges should also think about making their communities inclusive with sex education resources,” Proulx said.
All RIT students have access to services offered by the Student Health Center, including safer sex kits, birth control, STI screenings, and gender transition resources.
So get informed, get tested, and bridge that gap as we work towards a country of inclusive sex education, for all.