in Analysis and Commentary

Two weeks ago, the North Carolina House passed a bill that could radically change how sexual health education is delivered in public schools. Critics of the bill, details of which will be hashed out soon in a House and Senate conference committee, say it will open the door to religiously-motivated abstinence-only education. I wrote about one such curriculum developed by anti-LGBT hate group Focus on the Family, a program one Republican lawmaker has already said he’d like to see taught to public school children.

The news on the legislation got me thinking about all the times I sat through sex ed when I was in school and about all the things I learned — and didn’t learn.

I’m writing today primarily about my experience as a man who has sex with men. It just so happens that yesterday was National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, so the timing is just right. (I want to hear about your diverse experiences and takeaways as lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Use the comment section to chime in!)

As a gay man about to turn 30, I now have years of real-life sexual experiences. Those encounters have taught me more about what it means to have sex and to be a sexual being than anything sex ed could have ever given me. Information that would have assisted me in better navigating this important part of life simply wasn’t at my disposal when I was younger. That’s primarily because all of my sex ed experiences rarely mentioned LGBT people, our lives, our loves and our unique sexual health needs. I can count on one hand the times I remember hearing about gay people in sex ed courses, each of them only mentioned when in the context of disease, primarily HIV and AIDS.

Several years ago, North Carolina lawmakers broadened statewide sexual health curriculums, introducing opportunities for more comprehensive courses and teachings. Sex ed curricula has hopefully improved (even if only so slightly) from the time I was a teen, but two lessons have remained constant for the majority of youth in public school sex ed courses — heterosexual marriage continues to be held up as the standard norm for “healthy” sexuality and same-gender, particularly male-to-male sexual contact, continues to be taught in association with disease.

This isn’t healthy or helpful for the wellbeing of our gay youth, whose lived experiences will greatly differ from their heterosexual peers. Access to accurate, affirming information about sex and sexuality informs not only physical health, but mental and emotional health, as well. Currently, LGBT youth are ignored and, in the case of men who have sex with men, either directly or indirectly maligned.

Because of this, many LGBT youth will find their lessons in sex and sexuality from others — from their peers, their sexual partners, pornography, the internet or elsewhere. Sometimes that information will be accurate. Many times it won’t be. In many other circumstances those lessons could be harmful.

A recent study on the experiences of young MSM (men who have sex with men) from Great Britain — I’d dare say likely comparable to experiences of young MSM in the U.S. — found that pornography is “the most common source” where young MSM “looked for information about enjoyable sex.” The report said a “notable proportion of respondents rated pornography as helpful or very helpful,” while three-quarters reported receiving no “information, advice or support about same-sex relationships and attraction” in their sexual health courses.

I, too, learned a lot about gay sex from porn. It was valuable in many instances — showing me, for example, that it was indeed possible for men to have enjoyable, affirming sexual relationships with other men. Porn also helped explore my personal interests and tastes, a safe window into experimentation and curiosity. But porn can also be harmful in other instances. For some people, it can set up unrealistic standards of beauty or sexual activities and it can create or intensify personal issues of self-esteem, self-image and other body concerns.

Porn, while useful, is not the ideal place we would like our youth to turn for medically-sound, accurate and affirming information on such an integral and important part of our lives as human beings.

Looking back on my experiences as a child and teen, there are five important areas about being gay, having sex with other guys and other sexual health lessons that I should have been taught in sex ed classes.

1. HIV isn’t a death sentence

Lessons on HIV and AIDS could have included powerful messages against stigma, including images like this. They never did. Photo by Tony Webster, via Flickr (Licensed CC BY 2.0).

Lessons on HIV and AIDS could have included powerful messages against stigma, including images like this. They never did. Photo by Tony Webster, via Flickr (Licensed CC BY 2.0).

Every time I learned about other gay people, I learned it in connection with disease, specifically HIV and AIDS. And when either were mentioned, it was nearly immediately connected to death. The height of the AIDS Crisis wasn’t so much of a distant memory when I first began taking more in-depth sex ed classes in middle school and then in high school. It was uncomfortable to only ever see myself reflected in scenes — painted either by words or in the videos and documentaries we watched — associated with hospital rooms, coffins and the AIDS Quilt. I don’t remember any lessons on HIV medications, testing or treatment. Instilling a fear of death and despair were the objects of these lessons.

My straight peers were getting the same information. Little effort was expended to correct any stereotypes about gay men and those lessons did nothing to stop hurtful taunts and slurs —”Get AIDS and die, faggot,” and the like — that linked me to AIDS when I finally did come out as gay to my peers.

Young MSM were internalizing those messages, too. When I was young, I thought it was inevitable that I would someday be diagnosed as HIV positive. I have friends who have felt the same way and some who still do, making lessons about condom use and other safer sex messages less effective. Why bother, youth might ask themselves, if I’m bound to get HIV at some point anyway?

There shouldn’t be this much fear and anxiety around sex for young MSM — fear that informs our own self-image and fear that negatively affects our relationships with other men, especially partners or potential partners who are open about their HIV status. This stigma eventually comes to infect other parts of our lives, where HIV-positive men are shunned not only in our bedrooms, but also in public and community spaces.

Instead of fear-based messages, we should have been offered affirming lessons about our risks while also being taught accurate, comprehensive ways to engage in safer sex. We should have been taught about HIV tests, where to get them and what they mean. I never got any of that kind of information. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college — after having unprotected sex with several partners — that I received my first HIV and STD test. Even then, navigating where and when to find testing sites was difficult.

If we want to prepare our young MSM for a healthy, positive and affirming sexuality and sex life, we have to give them the tools to make that possible and we have to start at the beginning, by putting an end to lessons the connect our lives and our loves with death and disease.

2. Sex can be safe and enjoyable

lovegayNearly three-quarters of youth in that British study said they wanted more information about relationships in their sexual health courses. More than two-thirds said they wanted more information about “ways to have sex that you enjoy with another guy.”

I asked several friends about their sex ed experiences before writing this post. One friend’s immediate response hit on these very notes.

This friend said they should have been taught about healthy communication on sex roles and, in particular, how to communicate with partners and work with pain.

“The first few times guys bottom, I think they go through unnecessary pain,” he said. “If you learn to communicate and how to relax, it’s much safer and enjoyable.”

“Tearing and bleeding,” he added, a thumbs down emoji accompanying the Facebook message, as examples of the repercussions of these failed lessons.

Sex shouldn’t be painful. And, if given the tools and information, young MSM’s sexual experiences shouldn’t result in increased risks for HIV and other STIs.

Youth should be taught that sex is a normal, pleasurable and healthy part of life. And if that’s taught well in age-appropriate ways and if attention is given to the unique needs of young MSM, we’ll give youth more valuable lessons that can help them make better choices with their sexual partners and create healthier, happier experiences that reduce, instead of increase, STI risk. With reduced risk, more comfort and more enjoyment, youth will find their relationships are more healthy, too, with better, open communication with their significant others and partners.

Researchers conducting the British study agree, according to Gay Times.

“It’s important to talk about sexual health but to ignore the pleasure and the joy that can come from sex can be extremely alienating. Especially for young people first discovering their sexuality,” says Deborah Gold, chief executive at Britain’s National AIDS Trust.

3. Using lube, for both safety and pleasure

Building off #2, young MSM should be taught about lubrication. I should have had healthy, safer sex-oriented messages about the benefits and risks of using or not using lube. Yes, it makes sex more enjoyable, but it’s also critical for safer sex practices.

Proper lubrication reduces that tearing my friend provided as an example of risk. In turn, that reduces risks of HIV and other STIs. Using the right lube is key, too. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that some lubes — oil-based — destroy condoms. That would have been helpful knowledge when I was a teen.

If youth are having sex as teens and not learning this kind of information until they reach college, then we’re failing to adequately protect them when they’re most vulnerable.

4. Sex, love, dating and relationships

Photo by Homo Erectus, via Flickr (Licensed CC BY 2.0).

Photo by Homo Erectus, via Flickr (Licensed CC BY 2.0).

Sex ed often revolves around STI prevention and the mechanics of the reproductive system. They’re both good lessons for young people. But youth should also be taught about love and relationships, and it should be taught in inclusive and affirming ways. In short, sex ed classes should be less biology class and have more of a focus on the whole person’s sexual health and wellbeing.

What does it mean to be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? What are the differences? What does it mean if someone is curious about their sexual orientation or gender identity? Young people should be taught about the wonderful diversity of human experiences, helping to decrease stigma on non-heterosexual sexual orientations and non-cisgender gender identities and expressions.

Other lessons should be taught, too, including sexual roles and identity — like what it means to be a top and a bottom, the existence of fetishes and kinks, what healthy relationships look like, domestic violence awareness (which is often taught but through a heterosexual lens) and more. Such lessons can increase young people’s ability to have healthy, open communication with their significant others and sexual partners.

While we’re at it, we should entirely drop the focus on heterosexual monogamy. Sex ed curricula that holds opposite-gender marriage up as the ideal is a hostile exclusion of students who are LGBT and students for whom monogamy might not be their ideal. Accurate and comprehensive education that reduces “slut-shaming” will decrease the stigma that women and gay men, in particular, often face simply for engaging in independent, healthy sex lives.

I didn’t learn any of these kinds of lessons when I was in middle school or high school sex ed classes. The majority of my knowledge on the big wonderful world of gay sex came from Showtime’s “Queer As Folk,” which first hit the airwaves when I was 14 years old. I learned a lot, no doubt about it — but it certainly wasn’t always age-appropriate, medically-sound, comprehensive or accurate.

5. Sex acts, risks and health

Of course, it’s not a teacher’s job to outline all the intricate details or mechanics of specific sex acts. But it is important for youth to know what kinds of sexual intercourse exist.

Heterosexual youth get the benefit of lessons on the mechanics of reproduction, but there are few opportunities for young MSM or other LGBT youth to understand the mechanics of the kinds of sex they will have.

Youth should be taught about vaginal intercourse, but also about anal sex, oral sex and other sex acts. They should be able to understand the necessary precautions for each kinds of sex (e.g., using lube during anal intercourse) and understand the risks of each. These lessons should focus on developing youths’ healthy, confident view of their own bodies. When it comes time to communicate with their partners, or perhaps in discussions with their physicians or other health professionals, such lessons will decrease stigma and empower youth to make healthy, informed decisions.

When youth feel confident and empowered about their self-esteem, self-image, their bodies and the choices and control they have over their own sexual health, we’ll create far wider possibilities for prevention and create new generations of young people who can have healthier relationships.

That should be the goal of sexual health education, not the fear-based scare-tactics used today.

What are your diverse experiences and takeaways? As a lesbian, bisexual person or transgender person, what do you wish had been taught when you were a teen? Comment below and join in the conversation!

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  1. Very well written, you have touched on every issue that I and many friends had not been introduced to until at least our 20’s. My sister was taught sexual education during the Bush administration abstinence only campaign and ended up being sexually assaulted when she was 16 because she didn’t understand what kind of limits people should have during such an encounter.

    The focus on communication with a sexual partners is probably the greatest lesson anyone could be taught. I know adults that still struggle with that even after being with many sexual partners or in a long relationship.