Falling Short: Sexual Health and LGBTQ+ Youth

This guest post comes from the Planned Parenthood Arizona Education Team’s Casey Scott-Mitchell, who serves as the community education & training coordinator at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

We know most young people in Arizona are not getting sex education in their schools — or if they are, it is often abstinence-only, not fact-based, and not inclusive of all students’ identities. Comprehensive sex education programs do a better job of approaching sexuality from a more holistic perspective covering a range of topics such as STDs, relationships, birth control methods, reproductive anatomy, and abstinence, at an age-appropriate level and utilizing fact-based information. Additionally, comprehensive programs are often more inclusive of students’ identities — specifically various gender identities and sexual orientations.

Schools should be responsible for educating all students about keeping themselves healthy.

However, even with comprehensive sex ed, we often fall short of inclusivity when addressing topics of pregnancy prevention and choices, healthy relationships, and sexual health.

As educators and providers of sexuality information to young people, when we talk about pregnancy we often slip into language that assumes (heterosexual and cisgender) identities, which leaves many folks out of the conversation. We all have a gender identity, a sexual orientation, and sexual behaviors that we engage in — sometimes those pieces line up in a way that is “predictable,” but oftentimes, they don’t.

For example, in working with a student who is a cisgender girl, how often are we going to automatically assume she is attracted to boys, and that she will then be having vaginal/penile sex and therefore be at risk for unintended pregnancy? The answer is often.

Cisgender and straight kids are the target of pregnancy prevention information because we assume they are the only ones having vaginal/penile sex. This assumption is inaccurate. We need to create space in our language to acknowledge that people other than “women” can get pregnant and people other than “men” can create pregnancies. People with uteruses, including many transgender men, may be able to get pregnant, and people who produce sperm, including many transgender women, may be capable of getting a sexual partner pregnant.

Moreover, LGBTQ+ youth face similar or greater risks than their cisgender, hetero peers for adverse sexual health outcomes, such as STDs, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and unintended pregnancies. Ensuring that all young people have access to sexuality education, including information on pregnancy prevention and choices, is necessary so every person has the information they need to make the best decisions for their sexual and reproductive health. The key is delivering this information in a way that speaks to all people’s experiences and identities.

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has many online resources and tools that can help people shift their language to be more inclusive, as does the newly released Gender-Inclusive Puberty and Health Education Guide, released by Gender Spectrum.

Here are a few quick tips to start practicing inclusivity NOW:

  • Use the terms “dating partner” or “sexual partner” instead of boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Use the terms “people with penises” or “people with uteruses” instead of men/women
  • Use they/them/their pronouns to describe people who have not shared their gender pronouns with you
  • Pay close attention to how people describe themselves and use similar language for their identity or sexual orientation
  • Model saying your gender pronouns (or displaying them on a name tag, desk, email signature, etc.) so people know you acknowledge gender pronouns are not just something we can assume about folks

With inclusivity in mind, we also want to highlight a shift that has happened at the national level among reproductive health and rights groups around Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, which is observed during the month of May. Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month is being relaunched as Sex Ed for All Month. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) best explains this shift in a press release:

Sex Ed For All is our effort to help young people in marginalized communities, including communities of color, LGBTQ young people, immigrants, those with lower incomes, those living in rural areas and those in foster care, have access to the information and care they need to ensure their lifelong sexual and reproductive health.

It is time we prioritize sex ed for all — and that we critically examine the work we are doing, in whatever capacity, to ensure our message is inclusive of all identities and experiences so that we can move further toward health equity for all people.

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