I grew up in Ohio, one of the states that focused on an abstinence-only sex education. I don’t think the words gay or lesbian, let alone any acknowledgement of bisexual or transgender people, were ever even mentioned in health class — though they were possibly whispered.
I know I wasn’t the only kid in my school who was curious about life outside the very heteronormative bubble we were placed in. When we studied sex education in health class, the only things that stand out in my memory were the dozens of slides we had to look at of genitals with sexually transmitted infections and the fact that we were allowed to ask questions, but only some were appropriate enough to receive an answer. The entire thing was very reminiscent of Mean Girls.
Though I’m sure I had some suspicion I might be a lesbian in high school, especially given how hard I worked to make people think I wasn’t a lesbian, my sex education left me scrambling when I did discover my sexuality. I knew some myths I’d heard about lesbians, such as cis lesbians couldn’t spread STIs to their partners, didn’t make any sense. But I didn’t really know much else either, which I found to be extremely common for lesbian and bisexual women.
Anna, a bisexual woman in her mid-20s, said she never knew that being bisexual was a sexual orientation until she went to college. “I honestly thought that ‘bi girls’ meant the girls at parties who made out for guys’ attention. I didn’t know it was even possible to like boys and girls. When I found out about being bi, my life made so much more sense to me.”
“Don’t even get me started on when I tried to sleep with a girl the first time,” M., 26, said when I talked to them. They identify as a genderqueer lesbian and were just as lost as both Anna and I felt when we came out. “There’s so much out there with cis men sleeping with cis women, but almost nothing about queer people… I didn’t learn anything in school about queer people and how they have sex. I wish I had.”
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that only about 19 percent of American high schools teach sex education that is inclusive of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, with only 5 percent presenting LGBTQ people in a positive light. Eight states outright forbid schools to teach anything LGBTQ-related in health class, and three states that do discuss sexual orientation and gender representation require that LGBTQ people be portrayed negatively.
Three out of four cis women will get the human papillomavirus in their lifetimes, but if a lesbian or bisexual woman doesn’t realize STIs can be transferred by a same-sex partner, they are putting not only themselves but also current or future partners at risk for it too. Untreated, HPV has the potential to cause genital warts or even cancer. Other STIs can leave a lasting impact on a person’s life as well. For example, getting chlamydia or gonorrhea increases your chance of getting pelvic inflammatory disease and can cause infertility.
It’s obvious the United States is still failing its lesbian and bisexual girls. When sex education is presented in a traditional, heteronormative way, it is putting vulnerable populations at even more risk. The current political climate doesn’t promote much hope for a more inclusive sex education nationwide, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing anything.
Organizations like GLSEN have been working to change classrooms across the United States. One of their main goals is to prompt educators to “develop and implement LGBTQ-inclusive sex education curricula,” and they encourage students, parents and community members to get involved too. The IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University is another organization making strides in bringing sex education to LGBTQ students through research and community outreach to LGBTQ people living in Chicago.
People are also utilizing other means to bring education to lesbian and bisexual girls. Allison Moon released a book in 2015 titled Girl Sex 101 that covers everything from consent and communication to STIs to sex toys. It’s also the most inclusive sex ed book I’ve ever seen and goes beyond just cis women who like women to include trans and intersex women and many different ways women can have sex with each other.
Sex education for lesbian and bisexual women is far from where it needs to be in this country. Thankfully, it isn’t a forgotten issue, and many people are working hard to provide students and even adults with the resources they need.
M. said that if educators continue to fail LGBTQ students, then “it’s up to us to teach [them].” They’re absolutely right.
A version of this story was published December 2017.
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