When parents and sex educators talk about the need for more inclusive, sex-positive sex education in America, they’re not asking for much: They want lesson plans that tackle gender fluidity, an overview of sexual anatomy that doesn’t leave out intersex youth and some destigmatizing real talk on periods not just for girls, but for boys, too.
As it is, some school districts might earn a C grade on these topics, but far too many deserve nothing better than an F. In a recent national survey by the nonprofit GLSEN, less than 1 in 10 LGBTQ+ students said they received sex ed that was inclusive of their identities.
What’s more, several states prohibit any inclusive lessons that might “promote” homosexuality through what are known as “No Promo Homo” laws. (Groups in a number of states are taking up the legal fight to change things.)
The reality is LGBTQ+-inclusive education helps all students, not just those who identify as part of the community, and it can be a vital part of improving overall health outcomes for the general population. Here, sex educators and activists share six things that you would learn in sex ed in America if the curriculum were more inclusive.
1. Kids’ gender identity development starts early in life (so we should talk about transgender and identity issues earlier in life, too.)
Why wait to broach discussions of sex and gender identity until kids reach the wild wild west of their teen years? Children’s gender identity development starts as young as about 3 years old, according to Boston sex educator Aida Manduley; ignoring an issue as complex as gender will leave them in the dark and potentially very confused.
“Even early on, holistic LGBTQ inclusive education should include information about gender identity and expression, as well as discussions of what transitioning can look like, both socially and medically,” they said. “For instance, hormones are often named in sexual health curricula, but it’s rarely discussed how they can be managed if you’re a kid and identify as transgender.”
This early primer on gender fluidity will make it easier for kids to be true to themselves as they grow, and even has the potential to save some lives, Manduley said.
“Given the higher rates of suicide for teens who are transgender, especially those who are bullied, this kind of information could really bolster proven suicide prevention strategies,” they said.
2. Periods are natural and affect all our lives, not just those who identify as girls.
Remember that day in sixth grade when the teachers would separate the class by sex, and the girls learned about the menstrual cycle and the boys got ushered out to do… something else? It’s high time we stop that practice and give all kids a lesson on period health, said Galia Godel, a Philadelphia-based sexuality educator.
“It’s about inclusivity,” she said. “Trans and nonbinary kids won’t be forced to choose between outing themselves, sitting in a room full of people of a different gender or simply not getting a lesson about their own bodies.”
And by teaching all students about the menstrual cycle at the same time, it destigmatizes a natural part of having a uterus.
“We can remove the culture of shame around menstruation and not force trans kids to misgender themselves at the same time!” Godel said. “No more jokes about men refusing to buy tampons for their girlfriends. No more legislators who literally don’t know that you can’t control your period.”
3. LGBTQ+ teens might be more at risk for STIs and pregnancy than their straight peers.
Not-so-fun fact: The U.S. has the highest STI rates in the industrialized world. Part of the problem lies with our sex ed curriculum that doesn’t debunk myths about how we catch sexually transmitted infections. We need to be particularly aware of how vulnerable the LGBTQ community is: LGBTQ+ youth face a number of elevated risks with their sexual health, including higher rates of STIs and increased risk of pregnancy.
Meaningful discussions about STIs would stress contraceptives, note that anyone can contract HIV/AIDS and, contrary to popular misconception, lesbians can get STIs like anyone else.
“Truly inclusive sex ed should center discussion of STIs as absolutely normal and commonplace, including conversations about bacterial vaginosis, human papillomavirus (HPV) and yeast infections that impact more than people with vulvas, and preventative meds like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP),” said Wazina Zondon, a sex educator in London.
“We can’t leave LGBTQ and gender-expansive people out of the prevention equation,” she added.
4. There’s so much more to sex than basic penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex.
Sex is like a Cheesecake Factory menu: There are endless options, some you might be interested in trying, some you’re not into and some you might try later. Framing sex as a single activity ― penis-in-vagina intercourse between two consenting heterosexual adults ― isn’t going to cut it anymore, Godel said.
It’s vital that we teach kids that there are countless ways of having sex and that none of them is exclusive to a particular sexuality.
“Oral sex, anal sex, digital stimulation (the fancy term for fingering and hand jobs) — these are all valid ways to feel pleasure and intimacy with a partner. Even mutual masturbation can count as sex, if you want it to,” Godel said.
Discussing all the options ― the full sexual menu, if you will ― is a great reminder to teens that there’s no need to rush into regular ol’ intercourse if they’re not ready for it.
“When we teach the diverse ways bodies can interact pleasurably, it allows each person to decide what they feel comfortable with, instead of feeling limited or obligated to have intercourse,” Godel said.
5. Your sexuality is fluid throughout your lifetime. Don’t get too hung up on labels.
A well-rounded sex ed class would take the Kinsey scale and blast it into the 21st century. Yes, your sexual orientation exists on a spectrum, but it’s also a fluid thing throughout our lifetimes.
We live in the age of identity politics, so it’s easy to get fixated on what we label ourselves ― cis/straight, gender queer and nonbinary, androsexual, etc. ― but many of us continue to explore, and possibly change, aspects of our sexuality throughout our lives, said Francisco Ramirez, a sex educator and co-founder of Okay So, a mobile app connecting young people to a community of sex experts.
“We’re humans. We shift. We evolve. It is in our nature, and we should never feel pressured to label ourselves if it doesn’t feel right,” he said. “We should teach teens to take whatever time you need or want to feel whatever you’re feeling right now, or to safely explore what you want to.”
We should also remind kids that they don’t need hard “proof” of their sexual or gender identity.
“If you know you’re asexual, or genderqueer, for example, you don’t have to have done anything with someone else to know it for sure,” Ramirez said.
6. Open and honest discussions about body parts and what’s considered “normal” are vital.
Let’s face it: We’re all painfully oblivious to what’s going on down there, or we wouldn’t see endless articles about the clitoris and how to find it.
In fact, according to Manduley, one of the most frequent questions sex educators get is tied to sexual anatomy: “Am I normal?” people ask. Clearly, we could all benefit from some lessons on differences in sexual and anatomical development (including intersex considerations).
“Relatedly, we would learn about pleasure anatomy and a more complete picture of the body’s erogenous capacity, which includes the nipples and anus,” Manduley said. “The way anatomy is taught currently tends to be focused on reproduction, and sometimes on health.“
Even if we were not including pleasure in the conversation at all, something like anal health, for instance, is a “critical part of sexual health and is left out of most curricula and discussions,” Manduley said.
The Cliff Notes version of this article? Knowledge is power for teens, especially when it comes to sexual health and pleasure.
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.