Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Sex ed is failing LGBTQ students – but it doesn't have to

Guest Opinion

Lynn Barclay. Photo: Courtesy ASHA
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The state of sex education is dismal in many parts of the country, from misinformation about contraception to a lack of attention to consent and pleasure. There is an additional concern for LGBTQ students, whose sexual health needs are largely ignored by the majority of curricula, leaving their overall health at risk.

This is a real problem, but by broadening sex education to include relevant information for LGBTQ students, schools will give more students the tools they need to make better sexual health decisions. Given the link between general health and sexual health, instituting inclusive and comprehensive sex education would contribute to improved overall health and well-being. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, specifically produced a guide for gay and bisexual men's health, in which it notes that men who have sex with men often experience increased rates of health issues such as depression, tobacco and drug use, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Similarly, lesbian and bisexual women are at increased risk for obesity, smoking, and stress.

LGBTQ individuals are already incredibly disadvantaged when it comes to receiving proper health and wellness advice; medical professionals are more effective in advising people whose sexual orientation matches their own, which creates a disparity in health care among LGBTQ patients. Just as doctors should be trained to treat all of their patients to provide quality care that's tailored to individual needs, sex education needs to be comprehensive and inclusive in order to be relevant for all students.

There has been some improvement on this front, however. Here in California, the Legislature has passed AB 827 Safe Schools: Safe Place to Learn Act: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning pupil resources. AB 827 would help foster more supportive school environments for LGBTQ students, making schools a true resource for students.

Although the bill is not focused solely on sex education, it carves a path to make sex education effective for all students. Schools should be safe havens, especially for LGBTQ teenagers who may lack support in other parts of their lives. By developing a sex-positive curriculum that is inclusive of LGBTQ students, schools will not only provide a good education to LGBTQ students; they will also normalize a wide variety of sexually healthy behavior, give students a broad knowledge of sexual health, and promote tolerance and individuality.

This mindset is supported by a new Viewpoint in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by a former U.S. surgeon general and a current and a former board member of the American Sexual Health Association, who advocate for a comprehensive sex-positive framework. They say this will not only improve the sexual health of Americans but the overall health as well. They argue that a sex-positive health framework and an inclusive, non-judgmental approach can improve the delivery of overall health care, reduce stigma, and aid in efforts to prevent STIs, teen pregnancy, and sexual assaults.

By implementing a comprehensive sex-positive sex education program, the United States will be taking an important step in catching up with other developed countries that experience lower rates of teen pregnancy and STI transmission. Instead, our government continues to fund schools that provide narrow, abstinence-only education, which we know to be ineffective, even harmful. This does a great disservice to young people coming to understand and reckon with their sexuality, and it puts them in a vulnerable position of being sexually active without the appropriate information and resources to protect their health. The abstinence-only focus is a misguided attempt to deny the reality that most teens are sexually active or soon will be. The lack of attention to the needs of LGBTQ students is part of this denial: the same people who want to pretend teens will remain abstinent also want to believe that homosexuality is a choice, or that LGBTQ youth aren't worthy of our support or concern.

Schools need to be a place where all students – regardless of sexual orientation – can get the resources and information they need to make sexually healthy decisions. We must face reality. We need to face the reality that our current sex education system is failing LGBTQ youth and all of our young people.

Bills like AB 827 are a great start and signify the growing recognition that comprehensive, sex-positive sex education is important. I hope Governor Jerry Brown signs it swiftly so that a foundation can be built to ensure all students are given the information they need to make our nation – and all communities within it – healthier and happier.


Lynn Barclay is the president and CEO of the American Sexual Health Association, or ASHA.

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