To round off #PrideMonth, and this weekends celebrations, a lovely LGBT colleague of mine, Lota from @Kliteraturapod wrote a guest blog!
I have a confession to make. I’m 25 years old, a sex educator, and I have never put a condom on a banana. Shocking, I know. I wanted to get that out of the way first, because whenever I talk to anyone also raised in the UK they always say: ‘oh yeah, not much sex ed apart from the condom on a banana’. My own schooling, however, was banana free. The closest I got to a condom was a picture on the smartboard.
Unfortunately, during my schooling, it was considered acceptable practice in the field of RSE to show young people grotesque images of STIs. We know now that this is, in fact, a Terrible Idea for a number of reasons. I mention this because I want to paint a picture of the (gross yet ultimately lacking) sex education that I received. The most I received was in science where we ‘learned the right names for things’, and it was ultimately very much about PiV (Penis in Vagina) sex, and babies.
Condoms were for stopping babies and those gross diseases (STIs aren’t ‘gross’, of course, and are actually normal and most of the time, easily treatable). Gay men had a higher risk of HIV/AIDs, but we didn’t actually know what it was or how you caught it. In fact, they were so vague about how men could possibly have sex with each other that my two best friends asked me when we were in year 11, in whispers, at the queue to buy popcorn at our local cinema. I wish I’d been able to answer maturely, rather than reductively and crudely, but hey, I wasn’t a trained sex educator yet and as a summer baby was the youngest of the trio. We didn’t touch on the concept of healthy/unhealthy relationships other than physical domestic violence.
So, to recap mine: Sex is putting a penis inside a vagina. Use contraception to not get pregnant. STIs are nasty, use a condom. Don’t hit your girlfriend.
It didn’t help that I attended secondary school from 2006- 2011, otherwise known as the height of the ‘That’s so gay’ era. Your phone? Gay. The teacher setting homework? Gay. Your friend having to go straight home after school? Sooo gay. Did someone steal your pen? They’re being gay! The two boys grabbing each others bums? It’s all good if you say ‘no homo’. This was all before you got into the explicit homophobia going round. Once a boy in my form derailed a PSHE lesson to protest against our form tutor, proclaiming that he ‘just thinks (being gay) it’s disgusting and unnatural’, amongst other choice quotations. I could rattle off some more incidents, but I think you get the point.
So where did curious, in denial, 13-year-old me turn to? The Internet, of course. I tried googling to see if I could find any information on lesbian or bi women: what did their relationships look like? Could they have families? How did they have sex and was it ‘real’ sex? The search was cut short when I made the mistake of simply typing ‘lesbian’ into the search bar. I’m sure you’re already way ahead of me: it was pages upon pages of porn. I quickly closed all tabs and deleted the search history, absolutely mortified. Curious, but mostly mortified.
The first LGBTQ+ Sex Education, the first decent sex education of any kind I received, was at an LGBT youth group in Islington when I was 16 (RIP Pace, a victim of Austerity Measures). It was predominantly male-oriented, but I still felt SEEN for the first time. Shyly, I asked ‘Can a woman get an STI from sleeping with another woman?’. I tried to hide my genuine shock that the answer to that was yes, she could.
I wish someone had told closeted me about the different ways that I could have satisfying and fulfilling relationships. I wish someone had spelt out for me that LGBT people could have families, and indeed did have families. I’m lucky, because my own family are very accepting, and because a family friend I regard as a sister has an Aunt who is a lesbian, and she had a civil partnership and a child to boot – so I got to see a positive example of an LGBT person just living their life in the flesh.
I had plenty of LGBTQ+ friends by then, and I can easily say that none of the group was exploring sexuality and relationships in a healthy way. Friends were meeting up with much older men on Grindr, often for ChemSex. Everyone was playing fast and loose with condoms/ other contraception. None of the lesbian and bi girls my age were going to the sexual health clinic for screenings. Trans friends weren’t given concrete information on important health issues, such as ‘can I get pregnant when I start taking testosterone?’ I recently discovered that the mental health nurse I was seeing at CAMHS didn’t truly believe I was bisexual, putting in her notes that I was confused for various reasons.
At the time, those were just our lived experiences. You don’t think about how young you actually are, how much you are owed a duty of care. You’re 16 and you’ve reached the age of consent, and therefore it’s normal and fine for your friends to be sleeping with people over half their age. Now I remember the hundreds of children (Yes, 16-year-olds are still children) that I have worked with, think about how much safeguarding they need, and my heart hurts for us. It’s not just sex education we missed out on, it was relationships education, education about consent, pleasure, intimacy. Education about power dynamics, grooming, emotional abuse. Education about love.
I’m an educator and a trainee teacher and I understand the challenges teachers are up against when it comes to teaching RSE, doubly so when it’s LGBT inclusive. I do. No one is trained in it. Parents are up in arms. You signed up and trained to teach teenagers about mathematics, and suddenly you’re being asked to talk to them about sex. Your own sex education wasn’t that great. There are some long-standing myths that were so widely accepted in your generation that you never learnt they weren’t true (a common one is ‘you always bleed when your hymen ‘breaks’). Reading things online, even today, people are frothing from the mouth that you’d dare talk to teens about some people finding anal sex pleasurable.
The bottom line is, though, that young people come first. Comprehensive sex education may make you uncomfortable at times, but you’re the adult. You owe it to the kids in your schools, not just the LGBTQ+ ones, to make sure they get unbiased, facts-based sex education. Lobby your schools, your PSHE leads for better training. If you’re noticing your own homophobia, you owe it to the young people to unpack it. Whatever you’re using to hide it behind, it’s not good enough. I’d also argue that safeguarding around LGBTQ+ issues needs to be more robust and explored: outing a child to their parents for simply telling you they are gay is taking away their autonomy and not effective safeguarding (of course, unless there is more to a story, such as abuse signs such as older partner etc).
Teaching our young people ‘how babies are made’ is not enough. ( I touch on why in this post I wrote for Brook’s blog about Talking to Teenagers about consent and pleasure here: https://brookblog.health.blog/2019/12/12/talking-to-teenagers-about-consent-and-pleasure/). All our young people deserve better than the current RSE they get, and LGBTQ+ young people in particular are owed more. In order to make this happen, educators need to start acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ youth throughout the curriculum, and not just taking us on. We need to be included at all levels of the RSE curriculum.
With the introduction of the Mandatory RSE guidelines in schools, I’m hopeful that things will be better for all youth, and LGBTQ+ youth in particular.
By Lota Bantic