Sex education for queer students: What school health class left out : Life Kit School health classes in the U.S. rarely include instruction about sex for LGBTQ students. Here's what that could look like.

Sex education often leaves out queer people. Here's what to know

Sex education often leaves out queer people. Here's what to know

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Kaz Fantone for NPR
Illustration of a figure side-lying bathed in twilight with light radiating out of them — being embraced by the undulations. Palm fronds and stars surround the figure.
Kaz Fantone for NPR

Sex can be a nerve-racking experience no matter what. That's especially true if you have no clue what to do. And since LGBTQ topics are often left out of the conversation in school sex ed classes, many queer people know this feeling well.

There is no national mandate for sex education in the U.S., and even in the states that do provide courses, LGBTQ issues are often disregarded or vilified. According to the organization SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, six states require instruction that discriminates against LGBTQ individuals, while ten states have policies that include affirming instruction on LGBTQ sexual health or identity. There are only five states that specifically mandate comprehensive sex education, which "affirms and is inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression," says Christine Soyong Harley, president and CEO of SIECUS.

But more states are cutting back on sex education that includes LGBTQ issues. In April 2022, NPR reported that legislators in more than a dozen states proposed bills that "seek to prohibit schools from using a curriculum or discussing topics of gender identity or sexual orientation."

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Aside from leaving some queer people in a panic searching for "how to have sex" online, there are consequences when students don't receive proper sex education. For example, lesbian and bisexual youth or those with both male and female partners experience a higher rate of unintended pregnancies when compared to their heterosexual peers.

Some sexuality educators are pushing for comprehensive sex education that leaves behind abstinence-only and shame-based messages, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.

Life Kit spoke with sexuality educators to understand what sex education could look like for queer students.

Get to know your body and discover what pleasure feels like to you.

Ericka Hart, a sexuality educator with a focus in racial, social and gender justice, reminds us that messages about sex in education and in the media are typically for a white, cisgender and straight audience. To get a better understanding of what you like, "I think it's a matter of just taking in messages that you're receiving from the world and seeing if they are fit or not," they say. If those messages don't fit or affirm you, Hart suggests masturbation as a way to unlearn that in order to discover what does please you.

Another way to figure out what you do or don't like can be through watching porn. If this is your preference, consider watching porn created by queer performers — and make sure it's made ethically, by paying performers and using safe practices.

It's also possible to discover you might not have any of those needs or wants.

There isn't a singular or "right" way to have sex.

Historically, sex education in the U.S. has revolved around the idea that sex involves a penis and vagina. However, it can involve different kinds of genitalia, body parts or none of the above. Sex is whatever brings you pleasure.

"Just because you are queer doesn't mean that there's such a thing called queer sex," Ericka Hart says. "We all have sex differently. It's really just [however] you are defining it."

Sexuality educator Melina Gioconda Davis, who also goes by their stage name "Melina Gaze," is co-founder and director at Vulgar, a sex education project in Mexico. "When we're looking to explore our sexuality, or our pleasure, it's a really great tool to think of our explorations as pleasure-oriented instead of goal-oriented," Gaze says. In other words, the end goal doesn't need to be an orgasm.

Communication should be ongoing with sexual partners to make sure everyone is comfortable and satisfied.

Of course, consent is always necessary. Hart says how you communicate what you want is also important. "I" statements are good to communicate what you find pleasurable. Be forthright about what you want and discuss with your sex partner(s) where you all agree. If someone draws a boundary, respect it and move on. This communication will evolve over time. Ensuring that a person is comfortable with terms or sexual acts that continue to affirm their identity is crucial.

Hart recommends Scarleteen's "Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist" to discover what your physical and non-physical boundaries are. It reviews questions like whether you are comfortable with your top off with a partner, whether you want to be the one to put on the condom, whether you want to share your sexual history with your partner and more. (Life Kit has a whole episode on navigating consent, too.)

This is a condensed description of what sex education for queer folks should cover. If you would like to learn more, here are some additional resources you can check out:

Don't let shame or stigma prevent you from caring for your sexual health.

Melina Gaze believes a big priority for sexuality educators should be to reduce the stigma and shame surrounding STIs. Gaze says testing is important and a great way to check your status. They recommend speaking with a trusted physician to decipher what your individual risk assessment looks like. "Risk is not a moral judgment," they say, "it's kind of like a statistical equation." If you don't have access to healthcare services, you can also visit a community clinic like Planned Parenthood for testing and treatment.

Gaze also believes that sexual health includes mental, emotional and physical health. "I think sexual health has to do with general bodily well-being," Gaze says. "Are the social conditions present for me to be able to feel good as a sexual being?"

And, it's important to remember that sexual health is intersectional. "We're not just individuals, right? We're inserted in structures that go beyond just individual social structures, like racism, like classism, like ableism. And those things impact how we have sex. They impact whether we feel entitled to our bodies or not."

The podcast version of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Engineering support from Alex Drewenskus and Tre Watson.

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