I've had many conversations over the years with many gay friends about the laughable sex education that we received in school (The boys had an extra hour breaktime, while the girls had a conversation about periods and menstruation). Although what happened in that hour remained a mystery to us boys, there were very fanciful theories that were shared through the year group. My primary experience when talking about the lack of sex education is with other gay men, but bisexual and lesbian friends have also shared similar stories. Most of us were left to fend for ourselves and left to discover what to do through trial and error or from others.
Sex education in secondary schools today is far more comprehensive, encompassing a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills necessary for navigating one's sexual health. However, traditional sex education programs often fall short by predominantly focusing on conception and heterosexual relationships, leaving the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals largely unaddressed. This oversight can inadvertently put members of the LGBTQ+ community at risk. When sex education neglects the realities of same-sex relationships and diverse gender identities, it fails to provide crucial information for LGBTQ+ individuals but can also contribute to increased rates of discrimination, mental health challenges, and risky behaviours. It is imperative to recognise the unique needs and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community within sex education to ensure that all individuals receive the support and knowledge necessary for their sexual well-being. It is important to note that sex education cannot completely negate risks of risky sexual behaviours and that many cultural and personal factors can impact on teenage behaviour . However, there is growing evidence that high quality and inclusive sex education is effective in protecting many young people from harm and to avoid risky sexual behaviour .
In this blog post, we will explore eight ways to foster inclusivity and address the specific needs of same-sex relationships within secondary school sex education.
1. Acknowledge Diversity from the Start:
When planning sex education, consider the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities from the start. Think about inclusive language that recognises different ways people may identify, ensuring that students feel seen and represented. When teaching aspects such as contraception, ensure that the importance of contraception during anal sex is also discussed. This is not to 'promote' anal sex, as some critics would suggest, but to ensure that those having or will go on to have anal sex, understand how to keep safe when doing so. Far too many gay and bisexual men have no idea how to have safe anal sex when they leave school, and this leaves them at risk of contracting STIs or injury. This does not require 'the gay lesson', but embedding inclusivity throughout. By establishing an inclusive foundation, you create an environment where everyone's experiences are valued and the diversity of relationships does not become a 'bolt on'.
2. Use Inclusive Terminology:
Choose language carefully to avoid heteronormative assumptions. Instead of assuming relationships are heterosexual, use terms like "partners" or "relationships" without specifying gender. This creates a more inclusive and open-minded atmosphere that encourages students to express themselves authentically. The words 'man' and 'woman', are absolutely still valid and can be used. However, consider expanding definitions to be more inclusive, such as using phrases like 'man or person with a penis', or 'man or transgender man'. It may be necessary to explore this terminology with learners before the session and in order to ensure a pluralistic education, you may need to acknowledge that some of these terms are contested, but that you are demonstrating that the world is a diverse place with different opinions and views.
3. Incorporate Diverse Examples:
When providing examples or case studies, include scenarios that involve same-sex couples. This helps normalise diverse relationships and demonstrates that love and intimacy are not limited to one particular sex or gender pairing. Diversifying examples ensures that all students can relate to the content and that myths and stigma surrounding same sex relationships are challenged. Also consider carefully when you are using same-sex couples. If same sex relationships (particularly gay men) are only discussed when learning about HIV or STIs, then this can lead to promoting stigma and stereotypes.
4. Highlight LGBTQ+ Contributors and Role Models:
Feature LGBTQ+ individuals who have made significant contributions to sexual health education, research, or advocacy. This not only introduces positive role models but also emphasises the importance of diversity within the field, fostering a sense of inclusion and representation.
5. Address Stigma and Stereotypes:
Sex education should actively challenge stereotypes and stigmas related to same-sex relationships. Encourage open discussions about common misconceptions and prejudices, fostering an environment where students can ask questions and gain a more nuanced understanding of different sexual orientations. Ensure that no one group is demonised. For instance, when discussing consent and control, men are often viewed as the perpetrators, which can lead to boys feeling victimised. All sexes and genders are capable of controlling behaviour and of being coerced, and this needs to be clear in lessons and activities. Ensure that images, videos and scenarios don't add to stereotypes and stigma.
6. Include LGBTQ+ History and Milestones:
Integrate LGBTQ+ history into the curriculum to provide context and a deeper understanding of the struggles and milestones within the community. This historical perspective helps students appreciate the progress made in LGBTQ+ rights and promotes empathy and understanding. Learning about the AIDS crisis can be important, but embedding fear is proven not to reduce risk taking in sex. Instead, focus on the journey, what we have learnt and practical examples of how to keep safe and the current situation rather than historical narratives (which are often couched in biased views).
7. Offer Support Resources:
Ensure that students are aware of available support resources specific to LGBTQ+ issues. There are some amazing charities and services in every part of the country and so it's important that we provide information on local LGBTQ+ organisations, counselling services, and helplines that can offer guidance and support. There are also services which also offer confidential postal services for STI testing for learners who are 16+. This can allow young people to get tested without visiting a clinic or GP, and can reduce the stigma of being tested. Creating a supportive network and having access to these services is crucial for students exploring their identities and navigating their sexual health.
8. Create Safe Spaces for Questions:
Establish an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions without fear of judgment. Encourage open dialogue and discussions about various sexual orientations, creating an inclusive space where everyone's experiences are valid and respected. It is often beneficial to use tools such as Mentimeter or post-its where learners can ask anonymous questions. Don't necessarily shy away from questions that demonstrate prejudice or stigma, but ensure that your focus is educating about the truth, rather than chastising for for having those views in the first place. Someone voicing stigma can be a learning opportunity and we need to embed the view that our views can change and that we can learn and grow.
Inclusive sex education is an essential aspect of fostering a diverse and accepting society. By implementing these methods, educators can create an environment that respects and acknowledges the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities. Through open dialogue, representation, and challenging stereotypes, we can empower individuals to embrace their authentic selves and promote a more inclusive and understanding community. I wish I had the education that many young people have today, but there are still too many young people where their sex education is largely irrelevant to their lives and future.