By: Kathleen Morrison
In the United States there are a few standard paths that public school sexual health education tends to follow: strict abstinence-only education, sex education that pushes for abstinence but mentions condoms, contraception, and STI prevention, and progressive sex education that attempts to teach about all manner of sexuality-related topics in a comprehensive and medically accurate way. While I am a personal proponent of this last type of sex ed (and it is what the California Healthy Youth Act requires), all of these “versions” of sexual health education tend to be taught in ways that isolate sex from other sociocultural and socioeconomic aspects of life. Very rarely does a curriculum approach sex education in an intersectional manner (in other words, in a manner that addresses the complex, cumulative ways that different identities and forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect). Race, class and disability are often left out of conversations about sex, but they have real impacts on students’ sexual health.
Forward-thinking sex ed curricula may include discussions of LGBTQ relationships and HIV risk among gay men, and gender reliably comes up (in various ways) in lessons about anatomy and pregnancy…, but how many courses include discussions of how race or class may affect students’ sexual health outcomes? Research shows that very real health disparities exist across marginalized communities and are often impacted by cultural and economic factors. For instance, in 2013, African-Americans made up approximately six percent of the population of California, but represented about 19 percent of chlamydia cases and 28 percent of gonorrhea cases. A 2016 study from the American Journal of Sexuality Education examined how the health beliefs of Hispanic men influenced their willingness to vaccinate against HPV. The 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that out of 15,713 questionnaires, 18 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students had experienced physical dating violence compared to 8 percent of their heterosexual classmates.
While these are only a few examples of how health disparities manifest, they illustrate that sexual health is not limited to the individual responsibility of the student. Factors like systemic racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and/or transphobia work against those who live on the margins. While a sex ed course may touch on one or two of these topics at a time, teaching in an intersectional and integrated manner can bring awareness and understanding of how sexual health is tied to society at large.
Sex and disability can be even more challenging for people to talk about. The public often views people with intellectual or physical disabilities as “asexual:” either uninterested in sex or unable to have it. This just isn’t true. Recently, more and more disability activists have spoken out for a need to talk about sexual health with those with disabilities. Not only are they already having sex, but they are also a group that is vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault. This risk (that already exists disproportionately for all marginalized groups) is exacerbated by reliance on caregivers and/ or an expectation that a person with a disability will not understand they are being assaulted or will not be believed by others. Talking openly about sex and disability includes youth with disabilities in conversations around sexual health and empowers them with the same confidence and knowledge other students are getting from sex education.
It is undeniably difficult to tackle such big issues within sex education curricula. Beginning with facts like the ones above are a good place to start thinking with students about how discrimination may impact health. Identifying concrete obstacles to healthcare is another way to ground sex and sexuality in a world where certain people may have an easier time than others getting to a doctor or accessing essential services like contraception or STI testing. Finally, creating an atmosphere of sensitivity and respect towards differences in cultural beliefs in the classroom can help students recognize how others may need to navigate sexual health in a variety of ways. Tying sexual health to societal and cultural factors ultimately works towards creating more comprehensive ways of teaching sex education.
More resources on sex, disability, and sex education can be found at sexualityanddisability.org, The Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at the University of Illinois, and at the Center for Parent Information Resources.