Queer people have been excluded from sex education in America since the conception of its teaching in schools. The public school curriculum has always focused on heterosexual accounts of sexuality, with heteronormative ideals -even teaching students that queerness is immoral and illegal.
In Alabama, teachers are required to tell students that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” In South Carolina, teachers are prohibited from discussing “alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships.”1 Countless other states have similar policies that shame, condemn, and alienate queer adolescents.
These teachings are not only harmfully heteronormative but homophobic; they’re dangerous to the sexual health of young LGBTQ+ people. Students are left with bitter images of themselves and their sexuality.
Read on to learn about six myths (and their respective truths) that heteronormative, anti-LGBTQ+ sex education perpetuates in the United States.
1. Sexual education exists in a vacuum
Just the manner in which sex-ed is taught implies that it’s a “one-and-done” ordeal. Many of us have the experience of separating from our classmates based on assumed gender identities to learn about respective puberty experiences, never minding what the others are learning about in the next room over.
This kind of teaching assumes two things: one, that students only really have to learn about their own gender’s side of sexuality, and two, that one lesson or one semester of curriculum does the job.
The truth is that sex-ed is intersectional and lifelong. Learning about others’ experiences can only allow for better informed sexual decisions. Every student needs to be taught medically accurate information about reproductive health, regardless of gender identity. Sexual education is not a weeklong course in seventh grade; it’s a lifetime of comprehension.
2. Gender identities and sexual orientations are binary and inflexible
This is probably the unifying misbelief of the parties who design the heteronormative sex-ed curriculum in America today. Gender anatomies other than male and female are rarely covered in sex-ed classes. Do you remember learning about intersex people? If the answer is no, you’re not alone.
Most students are never taught what intersex is, or which other biological genders exist outside of male and female. The truth is that male and female are not the only genders out there. Everything exists on a spectrum, including both gender and sexual orientation.
3. STIs are shameful, uncommon, and life-ruining
We all saw those horrifyingly graphic images of late-stage STIs in our health class in high school. Not only are those images a misrepresentation of what most people’s experiences with STIs are, but they’re often employed as a tactic to teach students that abstinence from sex is the only way to avoid contracting a “disease.”
The fact is that most STIs are extremely common and very treatable. They forgot to teach us the part where we pay attention to our body, notice abnormalities, catch infections early, take an antibiotic, and go on our merry way.
4. Monogamy is the gold standard for relationships
Since 1982, the federal government has spent over $2 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage “sex education” programs, even tripling funding for such programs between 2015 and 2017.2
These programs teach students that “a mutually faithful, monogamous marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”3
Newsflash: having multiple sex partners does not prevent the ability to have emotionally fulfilling relationships. Plenty of people in open relationships are stable, healthy, and happy. Healthy sex can and does exist amongst queer people, but heteronormative sex-ed leaves that out.
The CDC reports that more than 20% of men and more than 10% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 have had at least 15 opposite-sex sexual partners in their lifetime.4 Having plenty of sexual experiences can be very safe and fulfilling. Teaching students that nonmonogamy will undermine their health or happiness is wrong.
5. The whole concept of virginity
Ah, yes, virginity: the social construct that places invisible value on never having engaged in sexual interactions. It’s particularly burdensome for women, who are told that their worth is measured by their ability to abstain in a world where men want to get in their pants.
Women and girls in America are overwhelmingly sent messages in sex-ed, and beyond that, men will prey on them if they don’t take chastity seriously. One California school teacher was quoted as saying, “One of our movies literally that I showed in seventh grade last year implied that boys were only looking for sex and girls needed to protect their virginity.”5
Some schools even encourage students to take virginity pledges – written or oral promises to abstain from sex until marriage. A Columbia University study found that 88% of those who took a virginity pledge would go on to have vaginal sex before marriage anyways.6
Why are students taught to value a lack of sexual experiences? Why are women told to protect their virginity more than men? Aside from the uselessness of teaching about virginity, the concept sustains binary gender roles and surfaces many questions about students who don’t fit into the heteronormative narrative.
6. Queerness is uncommon and uncertain
Studies have shown that fewer than 5% of students in the U.S. take health classes that include positive representations of LGBTQ-related topics, and only 12% of students report having had sex-ed classes that cover same-sex relationships at all.7
By focusing only on heterosexual relationships between cisgender people, sex-ed tells queer people that their identities are abnormal, unimportant, unacceptable, and uncommon. The reality is that queer people exist in large numbers across America and the world, and education inclusive of their identities isn’t just beneficial to them–it’s valuable for everyone.
- Esquire: This Is What Sex Ed Looks Like Across the Country
- Planned Parenthood: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs
- Planned Parenthood: History of Sex Education in the U.S.
- Centers for Disease Control: Number of sexual partners in lifetime
- Vice: Furious Parents Protest Sex Ed Curriculum for Actually Discussing Sex
- Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse
- Planned Parenthood: LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education