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Sexuality education is also letting down students who are not LGBT+

We’re arguing about all the wrong things when it comes to LGBTIQA+ inclusive sexuality educatioN

Content Warning: This article mentions several incidents of sexual assault.

Three young people with fair skin looking at a computer together.

Take yourself back to your high school days. You’re young, you have your insecurities, you want to be liked by your peers. It’s sex ed day. You’re nervous. It’s awkward enough talking about these topics without what’s about to happen next. Your stomach sinks as your teacher quiets the class down and begins.

“Today, we are going to be learning about straight people”.

“Did you know that one in every 10 people will turn out to be straight?”. You don’t even know if that statistic is true, and you realise that your teacher is really trying to normalise heterosexuality with this comment. But her good intentions aren’t enough to stop your classmates from beginning to count around the room - 1, 2, 3…

You haven’t told anyone you’re straight. You’re afraid of what they might say or do if they find out. But somehow still, every time they count, no matter which direction around the room they start numbering off, number ten always lands on you.

“Haha, Straighty!”

“Who else is a hetero?”

“There are 20 of us, so there has to be another one here!”

Now if you’re straight, all of this might sound completely ridiculous to you. But for many of us who don’t identify as heterosexual, this is what high school sex ed classes felt like.

Surely LGBT+ identities should be a part of sexuality education?

The example above is a picture of the way in which many classrooms have been teaching LGBTIQA+ inclusion for decades. As a student, I remember a poster on the wall of my health class saying that one in every ten people is gay. As a teacher, I have been asked to help teach the one special lesson in the year 9 curriculum that “explains” LGBTIQA+ identities.

And the thing is, when people think of LGBT+ inclusive sexuality education, this is often what they picture - teachers explaining the different identities under the LGBTIQA+ umbrellas, telling students that it’s ok for people to not be straight, and encouraging acceptance of these identities.

And while the intentions are good, the effect can actually be quite damaging. Teaching LGBTIQA+ identities as an “add on” to the main course of sexuality education - centered around heterosexual, cisgender (cis) notions of sex, sends the message that LGBTIQA+ people are “other”.  That while we should accept them, they’re not really the “default”, not quite “normal”. They’re not bad people, but they are a separate group from the general population. They’re different.

And it’s true that schools are making an effort to teach sexuality education in a way that is more LGBT+ inclusive, by including this content. But it’s often done in a way that is tokenistic and othering. It is often presented in a way that doesn’t actually go beyond teaching awareness of LGBTIQA+ identities to actually teaching young people about consent and sexual health for people of diverse sexualities and gender identities.

And when we don’t do this, we let everyone down.

Think about it. Students may learn how to put a condom on a banana, but what about safer sex practices that relate to body parts other than the penis?

LGBTIQA+ students are the only ones who need to learn this. By teaching sexuality education in a way that treats straight, cisgender sex as the norm, and tacking LGBTIQA+ content into one section of a lesson, we leave out all the LGBTIQA+ people in the room. However, the benefits of a truly inclusive sexuality education are way more far-reaching than this.Teaching safer sex practices that relate to all body parts benefits everyone. 

We need to look critically at the way in which sexuality education can inadvertently reinforce damaging patriarchal structures, men and men’s desires and pleasure are valued over and above all others. 

When we teach about contraception, reproduction and sexually transmitted infections, often students are unknowingly absorbing the message that ‘real sex’ or ‘normal sex’ involves a penis penetrating a vagina, and that (unless you’re queer) everything else is just foreplay. 

We also need to consider how this diminishment of a wide range of other sexual experiences can have dangerous implications when it comes to consent.  

A close up of two people holding hands. Both wear colourful clothing and have their nails painted.

A more LGBT inclusive sexuality education will improve consent education for all students

Students may learn that when it comes to penis-in-vagina sex, you must gain consent. But what about other types of sex?

What most people don’t realise, is that teaching sex ed in a way that is truly LGBTIQA+ inclusive will also benefit students who are not LGBT+.

If you’re not sure how, let’s take a look at how sex is conceived amongst many straight, cisgender (cis) young people. 

Remember high school? When your classmates and friends were starting to have different sexual experiences with each other? If you’re sexual, maybe you were also starting to explore your sexuality in different ways.

Think of those Monday mornings, where you’d go to school wondering who kissed whom at the party on Saturday night. Curious about “how far” Alex went with Sonja. Wanting to know whether Shereen “went all the way” with George.

You’d find out that Alex and Sonja “only went to second base”. That Shereen won’t “go all the way” with George yet, but they did “do anything but”.

Have you ever looked back on those days and thought about what types of messages we were internalising here? About how the concepts of “all the way” and “anything but” actually reduce acts that are sex (and we’re talking legally as well here), to something lesser, or not as important. 

And if young people are left thinking that sexual acts to be ranked in a hierarchical order that leads to the ultimate goal of “scoring a home run”? What does it mean to reduce all other types of sex to “anything but”? 

What happens when we place this one specific type of sex, penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex, on a pedestal, treating it like a destination to reach or a goal to be scored?

Are other sexual acts given consideration and care? Or are they treated like a side dish, something that doesn’t quite matter? How can we be sure that Shereen really wanted to do “anything but” with George? Is there a chance that because she didn’t want to “go all the way”, she felt that she had to at least give him something?

In 2021, young people across Australia shared their experiences of sexual assault during their youth as part of the #TeachUsConsent movement. If you take a look at these testimonies, you’ll notice just how many of them don’t actually involve PIV sex at all.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that many of the young people who committed these offences may not have thought that what they were doing was serious. If you think of ‘sex’ as PIV, then potentially you think it’s not so bad when you only put your fingers inside her, or you just put it in her mouth. Maybe you don’t even realise this is rape. 

In 2022, the state of Victoria reformed its laws, adopting an affirmative consent model. Under this model, the laws make it clear that consent must be explicitly communicated for every act. So it is abundantly clear that PIV sex does not need to have occurred in order for sexual assault to have taken place.

If we want sex to be conceived differently, and for all acts to be treated with the utmost care and respect, we need to change the way we talk about sex and make sure we’re not assuming one particular, heteronormative type of sex is seen as the default. Being more inclusive of LGBTIQA+ students is an added benefit of this, but it’s not the main argument for it. 

Most recent high school graduates came out of school knowing that “no means no” and having at least had a try at putting a condom on a bananda. Many were also told what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual - and that we should accept everybody for who they are.

But what if instead our entire sexuality education held no assumptions about gender, sex and sexuality? What if we replaced “if you have (PIV) sex, you have to use a condom”, with “it’s important to know how to keep yourself sexually healthy. Here are some ways to do that” and then discussed a range of options for different types of sex - not just condoms, but dental dams, gloves, finger cots and internal condoms?

What if, instead of splitting up the “boys and girls” and talking to the female students about how to prevent pregnancy, we spoke to all students about how to take a shared responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies?

By making sexuality education truly LGBTIQA+ inclusive, we are also teaching heterosexual and cisgender students a much broader range of sexual health practices.

Removing gendered language will help all students learn about safer sex and make lessons more LGBT+ inclusive.

It’s 2024. Chances are you have at least one trans or non-binary student in your classes, even if you’re not aware of it. The reality is that when we use gendered language, we immediately exclude these young people.

If a sex ed class talks about how “it’s important for men to wear a condom when having sex with a woman”, the young trans woman in the corner, the trans man in the next class, and their non-binary friend all wonder “where does that leave me?”.

The young gay man wonders if he has to wear a condom for anal sex. The young lesbian woman walks away thinking that she never needs to take any kinds of precautions against STIs. 

But removing gendered language does even more than include the LGBTIQA+ young people in your classes. It helps all young people - even those who are straight and cisgender - to practise safer sex.

If instead we were to say that “it’s important to correctly place a condom on a penis when engaging in PIV, anal sex or oral sex in order to reduce the chance of STIs”, the LGBTIQA+ students in class know that if they or their partner has a penis, this applies to them. And the students in the room who don’t identify as LGBTIQA+ will learn that condoms play a role in a range of sexual activities. Sexual activities many of them are likely to already be engaging in.

Four young people of Asian appearance in vibrant clothing walking down the street.

Avoiding heteornormative assumptions not only includes LBGT+ students, it encourages all students to practise affirmative consent

And what about when it comes to consent? If we think back to that damaging pedestal that we so often place PIV sex on, the hierarchical “bases” that lead to a goal of “going all the way”. The solution to breaking these notions down also lies in using inclusive language - that is, language that is anatomical and accurate.

In this example, a teacher says “if you want to have sex with someone, it’s important that you get their consent”. This teacher may never have explicitly defined or explained what they mean by sex, but due to the assumptions our society as a whole makes, most students in the room will hear this as “you have to get consent for PIV sex”. So once again, the trans and non-binary students feel omitted, the gay and lesbian students are confused, and the straight and cisgender young people believe that the only type of sex that they need to get consent for is PIV.

What if, instead, our teacher tells the class that “for any type of sexual activity - for example kissing, sending a sexual text message, touching genitals, oral sex, or any kind of penetration - it’s important that you check for consent”.

This time everyone in the class - regardless of their sexuality, gender identity or genital configuration - has the opportunity to learn about consent. This time, the LGBTIQA+ students are armed with information that applies to them, and the straight and cis students know that they need to be taking more care and consideration when engaging in acts they’ve up until now thought of as “anything but”.


How can sexuality education be LGBTIQA+ inclusive without a lesson on LGBT+ identities?

While it’s important that students learn about LGBTIQA+ identities, to simply acknowledge they exist and then move on with the ‘regular’ content catering to straight, cisgender, sexual young people is tokenistic.  

So how can you go beyond this?

Here are some strategies for making the whole OF Relationships and Sexuality EDUCATION more inclusive:

  1. It goes without saying, but being able to talk to each other openly and comfortable is going to help all students when it comes to safe, consensual relationships and interactions. 

  1. Teach younger children the correct names for body parts. How many times do you still hear the vulva referred to as the vagina? Using accurate, anatomical language helps break down shame and stigma, which is hugely beneficial for all students, especially LGBTIQA+ or gender diverse students. It’s also good to acknowledge that people have varying degrees of comfort with different words, whether that’s due to their upbringing, religion, or gender identity, but that in the classroom you will be using accurate, scientific words for body parts, and will be encouraging students to do the same. 

  1. Too often, we ignore or forget that asexuality exists. When relevant, include phrases like “those who experience sexual attraction”, which acknowledges that this isn’t the case for all people. Your asexual students will likely feel more included, as will anyone else in the room who, regardless of identity, may not have felt any sexual attraction.

  2. Intersex people make up just under 2% of the population, and have variations in chromosomes, hormones and/or anatomy. What this means is that not everyone is biologically male or female. It's important we promote respect and self-determination for people with variations in sex characteristics. For too long intersex people have suffered invasive non-consensual, unnecessary medical intervention, but thankfully laws are now in place to prevent this.

Be careful not to imply or suggest that variations in sex characteristics are a problem to be fixed. 
  1. Seek out training and get professional support to make your existing RSE curriculum more LGBTIQA+ inclusive. When choosing training, focus on providers who are driven by lived experience and an intersectional approach. 

Why sexuality education done this way will benefit EVERYONE (not just LGBT+ people)

The benefits of a sexuality education that is clear, specific, and uses accurate, anatomical language while removing assumptions are far reaching. Here are some of the key reasons.

  1. Talking openly about bodies and sex while using accurate, anatomical language helps to break down the stigma and reduce shame around bodies and sexuality for all young people. If we talk about sex as if it is taboo, something to “keep quiet” or “sweep under the rug”, young people will not feel confident asking for support talking about difficult emotions that may arise in their sexual relationships. How can we expect young people to openly communicate during sex and seek consent, if we are not normalising talking clearly and specifically about body parts and sexual acts?

  2. Teaching communications skills and openly acknowledging and discusses a broad range of gender identities and sexualities, as well as the fact that biological sex isn’t binary, will help young people become more respectful and emotionally mature adults. By modelling and teaching respect and communication, we have the power to help young people improve all their interpersonal relationships, not just sexual and romantic ones.

  3. Equipping young people with the understanding and language that they need to navigate consensual sex, regardless of gender, sexuality or biological sex, will help prevent instances of sexual violence and non-consensual sex. This will in turn lead to better sexual health and mental health outcomes for all young people.

  4. Removing all assumptions about gender, sex and sexuality from sexuality education creates a far more inclusive and accepting school environment. The messages that young people will internalise will be that everyone is different, and all types of different are normal and can be healthy as long as communication and behaviours are respectful. Instead of wondering “how lesbians have sex”, young people will grow up knowing that sex is not just PIV, and that all sexual acts should be treated with respect and care.

Schools can be more LGBT+ inclusive without worrying about resistance.

At the end of the day, true inclusion isn’t that contentious at all. It simply involves educating all young people in a way that removes assumptions, teaches communication skills and focuses on accurate anatomical language. 

Is there anyone who wouldn't benefit from that?

Mel Brush [he/they] and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs [she/they] are experts in fostering a culture of consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion. For every booking for their training and keynote speeches they create free educational resources to help prevent gender based violence.

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