Is UK sex and relationship education LGBTQIA+ appropriate?

Sex education, which teaches secondary aged children about sexual health and relationships, has arguably remained unchanged for the last fifteen years, despite the changing needs of children and young people (Arnett & Hughes, 2012). This in part is due to Section 28 which forbade the promotion of homosexuality within schools.  Sexual minority youth may feel that sex and relationship education pathologies homosexuality by centering heterosexuality, assuming that all relationships are between one man and one woman (Buston & Hart, 2001; Gowen & Winges-Yanez, 2014). Heteronormativity within SRE reinforces the continued marginalisation of sexual minorities within and without schools. Same-sex sexual activity, for example, was only legalised in England and Wales in 1967 despite heterosexual partnering having never been made illegal (Edwards, 2004). Unfortunately, such inequities are reflected in a school system which appears reluctant to discuss LGBTQIA+ issues, possibly due to issues around parental criticism (Snapp et al., 2015). Some parents may fear that their children will become exposed to ‘homosexual indoctrination’ and that the education system may not be protecting their child’s best interests (Bialystok, 2018). These fears may influence parents to withdraw their children from SRE. These parents may also make a formal complaint to Ofsted, with serious repercussions on a school’s Ofsted grade and reputation. These perceptions and associated behaviours can create barriers for diverse sex education, denying all young people the right to an education that equips them for adult life (Arnett & Hughes, 2012).

Barriers to more inclusive sex and relationship education  are also created by societal attitudes. Although social attitudes towards same-sex relationships are becoming more tolerant, there still appears to be a focus on the ‘risk factors’ of being LGBTQIA+, creating a tragic outline of queerness (Ross & Sacker, 2010; Charlton et al., 2013). These risk factors are strengthened by the exclusion of sexual minority youth within SRE curricula; often stopping them from making safe, informed decisions (Saewyc et al., 2008; Butcher, 2017). A lack of safe spaces to acknowledge and champion gender, sexual and relational diversity, adds to these very risk factors. Sexual minority young women, for example, are engaging in sexual intercourse at younger ages than their heterosexual peers, they are also less likely to use hormonal contraception and therefore are more likely to become pregnant at younger ages (Ybarra et al., 2016). The ability for these students to make informed decisions about consent, as well as physical elements of keeping themselves protected, is affected by their disenfranchisement from SRE. Despite inclusion issues within SRE, schemes of learning have become more diverse, with learning modules covering information on domestic abuse, discrimination and the moral implications of pornography (Robinson, 2013).

Debates over sex education curricula strengthen these barriers to inclusive sex education, disadvantaging young people of all genders and sexualities (Diamond & Butterworth, 2008; Edwards, 2004). Learning about gender and sexual diversity should be a part of the National Curriculum, as disregarding diverse issues can make LGBTQIA+ experiences a taboo (Baker, 2012). Healthy and informative classroom discussions on gender and sexuality issues can however be impeded by a lack appropriate teacher training (Mayo, 2013). Teachers are often left to frame their practice within their own experiences, leaving the potential to misinform and discriminate youth (Nadal, 2013). This misinformation can be subtle and unintentional such as a teacher’s complicity to anti-LGBTQIA+ jokes and associating certain anatomical features with certain genders (Buston & Hart, 2001). This behaviour harms the wellbeing of diverse youth by informing young people that sexual minorities deserve to be mistreated (Baker, 2012).

The Department for Education (2010) suggests that schools need to establish a culture of respect and safety for all children, however, there are no clear guidelines on how schools are expected to support LGBTQIA+ young people (Bialystok, 2018). Teachers are often expected to plan and present SRE classes with no oversight, training or support, and are usually doing this alongside other responsibilities (Buston & Hart, 2001; Jones, 2015). Teachers plan their lessons around their own understanding of gender and sexuality which may be centred on hetero- and cis-normative experiences (Schilt & westbrook, 2009). This is harmful to gender divergent young people who often need specific support especially when experiencing the onset of assigned sex puberty, which is often very distressing (Riggs & Bartholmaeus, 2017). Therefore, lessons on sexual maturation require thoughtful use of gender-neutral language and very specific training to support young people through difficult transitions. If schools do not educate on gender diversity, young people may begin to seek information online which could be harmful to their health and well-being. Silence and misinformation about gender issues has resulted in sex education that is incompatible with the needs of a growing gender minority youth (Fisher, 2009; Mason et al., 2017).

Some of these issues could be mitigated through earlier sessions of relationships, introducing sex and relationship education at primary and junior school level would protect students who engage in sexual behaviour at a younger age (Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2004). An earlier introduction would also allow children to engage in long term meaningful conversations about sex and relationships, including consent (Millan, 2011; Bodnar & Tornello, 2019). However, there are issues embedded within cultural beliefs, ethics and morality on how to implement age and stage appropriate sex education. Young people would benefit from an accessible and diverse content which focuses on the multi-faceted nature of sexual health. Topics could include diverse relationships and genders, which would allow young people to explore their own gender and sexual identity within a safe environment (Leuche, 2018; Bradford et al., 2019).

Fortunately, from September 2020 all secondary schools in the UK will be required to include sexual orientation and gender identity within their SRE curricula. These requirements ensure that children can see themselves reflected in what they learn, dispelling the stigma around LGBTQIA+ identities and challenging anti-queer bullying (Twocock, 2019). This continued fixation on queerphobic bullying appears to equate LGBTQIA+ issues with risk issues. Hopefully, the curriculum takes a more holistic approach to queer experiences and identities when schools are updated with guidance on how to support and encourage relevant and inclusive teaching  in 2022 (Government Equalities Office, 2018). The current SRE curriculum does not suit the needs of a growing gender, sexual and relational divergent youth due to the barriers created by schools, policy, families and wider society. Hetero and cis-normative ideals still underpin sex and relationship education, which erases and invalidates the healthy development of LGBTQIA+ students. The focus on cishet perspectives is in part due to a lack of training for teachers but may also be reflective of individual teachers’ bigotry. Thankfully, there are new Government initiatives which could create more diverse sex education curricula, which has the potential to allow LGBTQIA+ students the opportunity to learn about themselves in a positive way. The curriculum must appreciate that LGBTQIA+ experiences and identities are beautiful and diverse as well as being a marginalised identity. Encouraging queer knowledge whilst suggesting that being LGBTQIA+ is inherently ‘risky’ is not necessarily a step in the right direction.

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