Sexual (re)education series

For the millionth time, people's orientations and identities aren't decisions. The Carillon

The value of queer sex ed

When I talk about queer sex ed, I want to start by defining some terms.

First, sex and gender are not one and the same term. Sex refers to one’s biological, physical sex characteristics; gender refers to the degree an individual relates to being masculine, feminine, a mix of both, or neither.

Second, romantic and sexual attraction are not always tied together. Most people would agree that you can be sexually attracted to someone you’re not romantically attracted to, but some people also experience romantic attraction towards people they’re not sexually attracted to, or have never been sexually attracted to anyone and just want a romantic partner. They can occur together but they do not occur together by default – they naturally occur in all sorts of combinations, and it’s up to the individuals involved to figure out what style(s) of attraction they have in common – and it’s no one else’s business.

Third, when I mention queer sexual education, I mean educating people using information beyond what’s heteronormative and reproduction-oriented, an approach severely lacking in our current Saskatchewan sexual education curriculum, which was last updated more than a decade ago.

I sat down with Cat Haines, who at the time of interview worked with UR Pride and has since taken a position at the YWCA. When I asked what Haines would like to see as our normal sexual education standard, she said “I would like to see comprehensive, pleasure-based sexual education taught. Without pleasure, sexuality is all about shame.”

Haines took care to mention that a pleasure-based approach would emphasize the concepts of comfort and safety in exploring desires, while the comprehensive side would involve including information on non-heteronormative relationship styles, and the same information being taught to all students regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

One major benefit in taking a comprehensive approach by including queer sexual education is that it doesn’t assume that students will ask every question they think of during the lessons. It’s quite the opposite actually; often students won’t ask their real questions during sexual education lessons because whatever they’re asking about they’re assumed, by other students and often the teachers, to identify with. Students who don’t feel safe enough to come out of the closet yet aren’t able to ask the questions needed to learn how to act on their attractions safely without risking immediate social backlash. So those kids wind up doing what most people do when it’s considered inappropriate to ask a question – they Google it. If young people aren’t given a safe space to ask their questions they will learn through either pornography, which is a very poor representation of what sex is actually like, or through experimentation which they’ll be engaging in with inadequate knowledge on boundaries and consent. That’s how things go really wrong fast.

A comprehensive approach is also important because you can’t always tell who the queer kids, the trans kids, the polysexual kids are – but they know who they are, or will. I went through 12 years of Christian education with no lessons on anything outside of cisgender puberty, heteronormative sex and families, and the reproductive functions of genitals. That knowledge is great to have and I’m grateful I got it, but as someone who’s confidently and comfortably bisexual, ethically non-monogamous, and who identifies as a varying mix of masculine and feminine, those lessons didn’t prepare me for where life has led me.

Educators really have no way of knowing what sort of sexual information a person will need throughout their life to engage in their orientations and attractions safely. By only preparing them for some of those situations, educators are signaling which of those situations they find acceptable and want to encourage. That is not the place of an educator when it comes to gender or sexual orientations. 

I also asked Haines about her response to those who claim that teaching kids queer sexual education will make them queer, which she said is quite impossible. Haines explained that that argument works off the assumption that kids are straight and cisgender by default and choose to identify as something other than those only once educated about the other options. So, for the millionth time, people’s orientations and identities aren’t decisions. It doesn’t work like deciding what your favourite restaurant is, it’s more like a kid describing their favourite colour. If you haven’t taught a child the words for colours, they can’t tell you what their favourite is. In the same way, a child can’t tell you that they don’t identify their gender with the sex on their birth certificate until they have an understanding of gender, because they don’t have a way to tell you what’s going on. In no way are children “turning gay” after being educated, they’re merely learning the words to describe what they were already feeling.

Haines stressed this in regards to the idea of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), the idea that gender dysphoria is contagious and will spread throughout a community if that community is educated on the aspects, orientations, and presentations of gender. Haines explained that the theory of ROGD was based on the testimonies of the parents of trans kids, not the testimonies of trans individuals themselves, and is absolutely pseudoscientific.

“If we just allow for exploration and get rid of the idea that there’s a ‘right’ gender and people might make a mistake,” commented Haines, “we allow people to explore without worrying they’ll get it wrong.” The good news is that since gender is completely subjective and up to the individual, it’s impossible to get it wrong, so explore away and keep whatever feels natural.

For a list of resources on comprehensive, pleasure-based sexual education, as well as a list of people’s misunderstandings on things about sex and bodies, check next week for the fourth piece in the Sexual (Re)education series!

To submit your own story of something you’d previously misunderstood involving sex, gender, puberty, or the ways bodies function, please follow this link to find the survey I made just for you!

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