A sweeping new report takes on a topic that many want to avoid: sex education — specifically, what its authors call an "urgent need" for such programs to be LGBTQ-inclusive.
"The truth of the matter is that when it comes to sex ed, the U.S. does a terrible job of educating young people," Preston Mitchum, policy director at URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity) and one of many who worked on the report, tells Yahoo Life. "The U.S. especially does a really harmful and damaging job to young people who are LGBTQ-plus, who are living with disabilities, who are Black, who are Latinx, who are poor people — and especially those who are at the intersection of those identities."
LGBTQ youths, just like all others, "need and deserve to learn in settings that are inclusive of their experiences and that give them the necessary education to stay safe and healthy," states the report, “A Call to Action: LGBTQ+ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education," a joint effort of 10 policy and health organizations including URGE, GLSEN (an LGBTQ-student network), Black and Pink (supporting incarcerated LGBTQ people) and the advocacy groups National LGBTQ Task Force and Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
"Far too many LGBTQ+ youth," the report says, "are attending schools that lack inclusive policies and sitting in classrooms where their teachers and textbooks significantly fail to address their identities, community and experiences. Nowhere is this absence more clear, and potentially more damaging, than in sex education."
Currently, only seven states — California, Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — and the District of Columbia require that sex education be LGBTQ-inclusive. Seven other states, meanwhile — Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas — explicitly prohibit LGBTQ-related content in schools. And bookended in between, notes the report, is a hodgepodge of strictly heteronormative, often abstinence-only-based lessons that can cultivate stigma and hostile school environments for queer students.
The report analyzed hundreds of sex-education studies, with one after the other delivering slightly different evidence of what’s lacking: that LGBTQ youth are not receiving sex-ed information that is helpful to their lives.
Only 20 percent of Black LGBTQ youth and 13 percent of Latinx LGBTQ youth surveyed by HRC, for example, reported that they received safer sex information in school that they found personally relevant — as did only 13 percent of bisexual youth and 10 percent of trans and gender-nonconforming youth.
Another survey, from GLSEN, found that LGBTQ students are 50 percent more likely than other students to report that school sex ed was not useful, leading them to search the internet for information, which is often neither age-appropriate nor medically accurate. Further, it found that fewer than 8.2 percent of LGBTQ students had ever received sex education in school that was LGBTQ-inclusive.
"Unsurprisingly, they're not getting sex ed that's inclusive of their current and potential experiences…but instead one which reaffirms gender binaries, doesn’t discuss race and racism, doesn’t discuss consent or healthy dating," says Mitchum. "Many sex ed curricula look like the clip from Mean Girls… And I say that in jest, but many young people attest that what they learn, for the most part, has been how to prevent STIs and how not to become pregnant."
"It's very negative-health-outcome focused," agrees Taissa Morimoto, senior policy counsel at the LGBTQ Task Force and coauthor of the report, who has run a series sex-ed leadership development projects for young people.
Though it seems HIV/AIDS education is often left out of the risk-based lessons: According to the new report and its analysis of various studies, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of gay and lesbian youth were not taught about HIV/AIDS in school, with 28 percent of trans youth not receiving those lessons.
"I think about what my sex education was in schools, and we did not really have it," says Mitchum. "We had health, which was inclusive, but as a Black gay boy growing up in Ohio, I wanted to learn about something more and it was still rooted in things that I was not interested in learning about. Where does that leave me to understand pleasure, and to connect with a world beyond those that are heterosexual and cisgender?"
Adds Morimoto, "The visibility part of it is a huge part… when nothing resonates with you in a class, when it just doesn't land, it doesn't mean much to you, and being able to see yourself reflected in what you're learning is much more effective," whether that’s in sex ed or history or English class. "I think sex ed is a vehicle for so many things — addressing patriarchy, sexism and white supremacy. I honestly think that's a part of the reason why so many decision-makers are not wanting to touch it… It makes us examine how we relate to each other."
To be more expansive and less stigma-reinforcing, Mitchum notes, sex ed should ideally "avoid making assumptions about sexuality and gender, include depictions of same-gender-loving relationships, use gender-expansive terms ['couples,' 'people,' 'they'], allow us to learn about healthy dating and relationships and consent, and allow us to go beyond stigmatizing language."
Instead, much of what's out there — particularly when it's abstinence-only lessons — promotes fear of same-sex attraction, reinforces gender stereotypes and straight relationships, mandates heterosexual marriage and disparages single-parent families, notes the report.
"When you don't have inclusive sex ed, we see it can cause significant damage to young queer folks, particularly those who are BIPOC… as minority-based stress increases the risk of physical and mental health problems, including substance use, PTSD and eating disorders," Mitchum says, "while the benefits of comprehensive sex ed… allows us to create a holistic picture of how they see the world."
To understand why sex ed falls so short in so many states, explains Morimoto, it's important to know a bit of history. "Since 1996, there’s been more than $2 billion [of taxpayer money] going towards programs that promote abstinence-only until marriage, and zero funding for comprehensive sex education. That sets the landscape, in a federal sense, as there’s no support for states to implement such programs." Abstinence-only education — something that Black students are more likely to receive than white students nationwide, notes the report — is a holdover from the Reagan administration; it was boosted under the Bush administration and then the pendulum swung during the Obama years. The Trump administration, she says, essentially rebranded abstinence-only to Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA).
"So the name makes it seem like something that’s better," notes Mitchum, "but it’s actually just abstinence-only education."
The push for programs beyond that, Morimoto, admits, is very difficult. "Sex ed and sex in general, as a topic, is very taboo, and when people think about it, they're like, 'Oh no, we're teaching this and that to our kids?' But the way we understand it to be is that it should be age appropriate, medically accurate and evidence-based. We are really starting from a place of, what is consent? How do you interact with people in the world in a way that's respectful, in a way that celebrates diversity, and in a way that is equitable?"
Inclusive sex ed should also talk about pleasure, Mitchum says — something that many adults simply don't want to go near, largely out of fear that if you talk to kids about sex, they'll want to have it. But, he says, "studies show it’s the exact opposite," with abstinence-only education actually leading to more teen sex.
"When you don't talk about sex education, young people actually have sex earlier, because they’re curious," explains Mitchum. "The more you keep information away from young people, the more they understand there’s a reason you are hiding it. We have a duty to provide information to young people."
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