A significant goal of modern feminism is to ensure high school students are provided with accurate and helpful information with regards to sexual health and safety. While this goal is far from being achieved, significant progress has been made in the last few years. 22 states now require public schools teach sex ed of some kind, and 19 of those states require that it be medically and factually accurate (National Conference of State Legislatures). A lot of the pro-sex ed talk is about how it will help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Which is very valid and accurate and important. However, as with many things in life, this ignores an already marginalized population. Namely, anyone who identifies as anything other than straight and cisgendered.
Let’s first talk about the good news. In February of this year, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced a bill that would provide grants for comprehensive sex education. A surprisingly progressive proposal, it even called for ending federal funds for programs that “promote gender stereotypes”. And now the bad news. The bill never made it past the introduction phase. It was never voted on. It was read twice and then referred to a committee. So, the Senate maybe isn’t quite ready for this kind of legislation. But here are some reasons why we can’t just let this slide and revisit it at a later date.
The only time there was a lecture in my high school about gender was when I gave one for a class presentation. And I can guarantee that the majority of the students had never heard of a distinction between gender and sex. Talking about gender identity, representation and performance is an experience everyone should have before graduating high school. Not only does it provide much needed information to people regarding their own gender identity, but it also opens the door for more acceptance and general niceness in the world. And yes, gender is an integral part of sex ed. Gender and sexuality are different identities, but they overlap and coexist and that’s something that people need to understand.
For those individuals who identify as trans* or outside the gender binary, this is of the utmost importance. It’s often difficult for cis individuals to even fathom how few and far between the resources are for the gender minority. I’ll preempt the “just learn it on your own” argument here. Yes, the Internet is a fabulous resource. But we do not tell people to do this with any other aspect of life. “Just go learn organic chemistry on your own. You’ll figure it out.” In summation, lets talk about gender in high school classes, okay?
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
At least in my experience, “homosexual relations” were sort of skipped over as a topic. I attribute most of this to the fact that pregnancy isn’t really an issue when both sperm and egg are not involved simultaneously. Pregnancy, along with prevention of STIs, seems to be one of the largest concerns surrounding teen sex when those problems are clearly a very small piece of the puzzle. If the point of all sex was procreation, it would be a much different world. Which means the sexual education that we are giving students should prepare them for what sex is like ‘In Real Life’.
While same-sex couples are not able to make babies, they are most definitely able to get herpes. Within the gay community, and more extensively, the lesbian community, there is a very common misconception that it is very unlikely an STI would affect one. This is false. While it is less likely for female-female sex to cause an HIV infection, infections like bacterial vaginosis are more common among women who have sex with women (Office on Women’s Health). This type of information is very rarely, if ever, explicitly provided by sex ed courses in high schools. The “explicit” piece is important. Even if educators say everyone is at risk for STIs, because the rest of the lesson has been geared towards heterosexuals, it’s quite easy to believe this bit of information is as well. In fact, the Office on Women’s Health also reports that one of the significant health challenges facing women who have sex with women is that not everyone knows of the specific health risks facing non-straight women, including some doctors. This is entirely absurd. We need comprehensive sex education immediately. People shouldn’t have health risks due to lack of education.
For men who have sex with other men, there is a slightly different problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected with HIV. While constituting just 2% of the US population, 56% of persons living with HIV in 2010 were men who have sex with men. The CDC isolates “sexual risk behaviors” as the leading reason for these surprising statistics. That means that a great preventative measure we could take would be better education about the risks of sexual activity no matter the sex of the partners involved. STIs are a serious problem that everyone needs to be educated about.
Because pregnancy is the main focus of sex ed in high school, the emotional side of sex is often skipped over. Even though many (I say many because there are queer couples that can get pregnant) queer couples can’t get pregnant, sex is still real and emotional. Pregnancy can’t be the sole concern for sex educators because there is more to it than just procreation.
Okay, so sex ed needs a makeover. But why should it be the job of feminism? Besides the fact that feminists are just general crusaders for good in this world, better sex ed is a key part of feminism. However, it can’t just be about helping heterosexual women get access to plan B. We need to incorporate the needs of everyone who is having sex into our sex ed curricula. That’s how we prevent bad things and encourage good things. So, as feminists, lets start standing up for our queer peers and demand comprehensive sex ed in high schools.