If you went to a Catholic School like me, it is most likely that you’ve never heard of Queer Sex Education or about how to have safe queer sex. Hell, you might not even have heard of sex at all, since it probably was abstinence-only education.
One of my dearest friends (who identifies as a girl and received that same education) recently expressed to me that she was nervous to engage in sexual activity with another girl because, “what if she has any STDs?”
And this is a legitimate concern.
If we are barely taught in school about safe cisgender heterosexual (cis-het) sexual acts and consent, what is there left for queer sex? If cis-het people engaging in sexual activity before marriage is still considered a taboo, what about young people having queer sex? What about gender non-conforming people having enjoyable sex? How does my friend, as a queer woman, have safe, consensual and enjoyable sex?
And what is this division between heterosexual and queer sex anyway? Sex is not only about penetration. Sex is not all about the penis and the vagina or exclusively between men and women. Sex is sex. Period.
By now you are probably imagining the infinite possibilities and ways in which sex can happen or simply realising that heterosexual folks are not the only people with the right to know about how to have safe sex. Everyone, regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation, has the right to know about how to have safe, consensual and enjoyable sex. But before we get to the part where we imagine what that would look like, let’s focus first on the reasons why you have never ever heard of queer sex education in school.
4 Reasons Why You Didn’t Hear About Queer Sex Education in School
1. An Exclusive Cis-Het Approach to Sex Ed
I know I mentioned in the paragraph above about people being cis-het, but most of you might be asking, “what does that even mean?”. Am I right?
Cis-het is the abbreviation used to describe a person that identifies as cisgender and heterosexual. Being cisgender means that a person’s gender identity matches with the sex they were assigned at birth (i.e. the doctor claimed you were a female based on your genitalia and you grow up feeling, acting and expressing yourself like a woman). Being heterosexual means that a person is attracted to the opposite gender (i.e. men attracted to women and women attracted to men).
As being cisgender and heterosexual in our society is considered ‘natural’ and ‘normal’, the privilege granted to cis-het identified people by institutions remains unchallenged. Cisnormativity (the normalised assumption that what you have between your legs determines your gender) and Heteronormativity (the normalisation of heterosexuality as the standard and natural sexual orientation) are constantly reproduced and maintained by institutions such as the educational system.
If the school does teach sex-ed, it probably focuses on heterosexual sex acts like vaginal intercourse, (mostly male) masturbation, how to correctly use a condom (oh, that good ol’ banana demonstration) and other mainstream contraceptive methods like the pill. If you’re lucky, you might hear about the morning after pill.
There is unchecked cissexism and heterosexism in our educational institutions since these norms dictate which identities and practices are accepted in our society and which are not. Queer sexualities (like gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, queers) and gender-non conforming identities (like genderqueer, transgender, a gender, genderfluid) are usually marginalised, excluded, silenced and oppressed from institutionalised cisnormativity and heteronormativity. In short, queer sexualities and gender non-conforming identities are erased and deemed nonexistent.
So, if the mainstream is all about reproducing and privileging cis-het identities and furthering the invisibility of non-conforming individuals, why bother teaching queer sex education?
2. Abstinence-Only Education
The goal of abstinence-only education is to normalise abstinence from sexual activity until marriage in our society. This is because (most) of this education is founded upon religious values such as chastity, marriage and the traditional family structure.
Abstinence-only education is inherently cisnormative and heteronormative as it exclusively requires men and women to abstain from sexual activity until they are married. Since marriage (and apparently procreation), in its religious definition, is something that “can only happen” between and man a woman, trans* and queer folk are completely out of the picture.
As Jessica Valenti explains in The Purity Myth, abstinence-only education is not really about sex, it’s about social norms. If virginity, family values and marriage between a man and a woman is something to be strived for and celebrated, something other than that is considered disruptive of the status quo (as if queer and trans* folk cannot form healthy family values around love, respect and commitment). With its heteronormative values, queer sexualities and trans* identities are not considered or mentioned at all within an abstinence-only education framework. Queer sexual activity is simply seen as impossible and immoral.
Heteronormative and cisnormative expectations are damaging for young people, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The social need to be straight and cisgender, to wait to have sexual activity, to want to marry and procreate rob young people of knowing and loving their own authentic selves.
These expectations are detrimental to everyone because they reinforce traditional sexist (and outdated!) gender roles. Girls are taught that their worth is defined by their virginity while boys are taught that they have no self-control (since girls need to be the sexual gatekeepers). These constructs contribute to sexism, misogyny and the reproduction of toxic masculinity.
But what’s the deal when a lesbian-identified female has sex with another girl? Is she a virgin forever because she was not penetrated? Are heterosexual boys forever virgins or are they just exempt from the virgin status?
Abstinence-only education contributes to queer and trans* erasure and invisibility in our society, while reproducing social norms that are harmful for every young person out there.
3. No Pleasure, Just Babies
Both regular sex-ed and abstinence only education are concerned about baby-making, not sexual pleasure.
Sex for pleasure? Sex for fun? Sex because is enjoyable? What is that?!
The assumption is that men and women have sex to reproduce. Period. There is no other purpose to engage in such an activity.
It is funny to think that in this day and age, where everything is about sex and sexualisation, people still want to make believe that sex is not for pleasure. Even solo acts – masturbation – are seen as a taboo and young people that engage in it feel dirty, alone and full of shame.
Only now are schools allowing the sex-ed curriculum to be more comprehensive by including a pleasure-based approach to sex-ed, and some cover queer sexualities; but these curricula are still pretty heteronormative. This is because they might not use gender neutral language, they might follow a monogamous framework or the wrong assumption that queer couples follow a heterosexual mould (one is the guy and one is the girl).
When will we teach about other enjoyable and pleasurable relationships like polyamorous ones? What about queer couples able to reproduce? How can queer woman have safe, enjoyable sex? How to best pleasure your trans* partner whether or not they transitioned? How can we talk about these things without stigma, positioning pleasure as our goal?
This knowledge is vital to engage in healthy and pleasurable relationships, no matter the gender identity, sexual orientation or type of relationship.
4. The Walk of Shame
Our approach to sex-ed uses fear and shame to teach young people to fit in with mainstream social norms. Kids are scared to be queer or trans* because they know they are not “normal” and feel shame. The same happens if you lose your virginity too young or too old, if you are seen as a “slut” for having sex for fun, if you get any STD or HIV. They teach us that we should feel ashamed of our choices.
This is especially true when it comes to STDs and HIV. These are taught in school as the worst thing that can ever happen to us. They teach about safe sex under the guise of fear, just so people don’t engage in it, because they might catch an STD. And so you think not engaging in sexual activity at all is the best way to go. It’s kind of a masked abstinence-only education, right?
Schools portray people living with these conditions as if their life is over. Schools educate young people to think that if your sexual orientation is other than heterosexual, you are most likely to get one of these infections/viruses. So, people learn to fear those who are queer since they might have a contagious disease. Those that are queer feel ashamed of who they are. Nobody wins.
This is part of a campaign by The Stigma Project that aims to start a conversation with young people about how to eradicate the stigma, dehumanisation and fear around people living with HIV +. For more images, click here.
The majority of our schools are places that teach how to maintain the status quo rather than how to challenge it.
It is important that we ask our schools to implement a comprehensive curriculum that seeks to revolutionise our society for the benefit of us all, not only those that are religious, cis-het individuals.
Imagine what a happier place the world would be if sex-ed focused on how to best pleasure ourselves and our partners? 😉
PS: this post will have a shorter Part II later this week discussing what queer sex-ed should look like (it won’t be a real curriculum, just a compilation of ideas!)