Queering Sex Ed
A Culture Study Takeover with Tyler Burgese
Welcome to Culture Study Takeover Week, Fall Edition! I love running this newsletter, but I also periodically need to take a small break from running this newsletter. Subscription dollars make it possible for me to pay an excellent rate for someone to curate the newsletter — and give a platform to people with different identities and perspectives than my own. This week, I’m so excited to have Tyler Burgese writing and thinking and interviewing others’ about the general project of queering sex ed.
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Hi everyone! My name is Tyler Burgese and I’m honored to be taking over Culture Study for the week. I am a Philadelphia-based sociologist who studies the many ways that sexuality and technology intersect, and have recently been thinking about what good, queer sex education looks like. Feel free to keep up with me on Twitter @tylerburgese and Instagram @tburgese.
For extra credit in my high school’s sex education class, students could volunteer to take care of an electronic baby for a week, essentially as a scare tactic about teen pregnancy. These dolls were like Baby Alive’s larger, more realistic siblings and were also far needier. They would cry intermittently, only stopping once a key was inserted and turned in their back. (If you lost the key, good luck with that extra credit you’re seeking.) I didn’t carry around a baby that week due to a shortage that conveniently coincided with my lack of interest in doing so, but several people in my class did. The babies didn’t care whether class was in session or not; their interruptions were constant, leaving my classmates embarrassed and wondering how badly they needed the extra points.
This assignment was intended to show us the “consequences” of unprotected (straight) sex, but instead seemed to inspire dread more than anything else. And even as I write this I find myself wondering, why is this the thing that I remember most from my sex ed? My only other memories include being mentally checked out and doodling in my notebook in the back of the class. I wasn’t typically that kind of student, but as a queer person in that classroom, the messaging was clear: this information does not apply to you. What also felt clear was that the things I do in the bedroom are far more dangerous than anything we’d be covering in class.
Sex education can be divided into two buckets: formal and informal. Formal sex education takes place in institutions like schools and churches; this is the information that you receive by default as you pass through the world you’re growing up in. For some people, it is open-minded and comprehensive; for many, it’s rooted in abstinence and fear.
Informal sex education, on the other hand, is everything else. The rumors that we hear on the playground, the norms we interpret from television and movies, the lessons our partners teach us along the way, and the porn that we watch. This is a much more self-guided process, and is often used to answer the questions that formal sex ed neglected. The fact that so many people complete their required, formal sex ed courses without a clue of how to actually have sex is a glaring clue that something is wrong.
Formal sex ed is often clumsily tacked on to health classes taught by gym teachers or coaches, in uncomfortably close proximity to other lessons about, say, the dangers of drug and alcohol use. This was certainly my experience of sex ed in public school in southern New Jersey (circa 2013), and I came away from it with these topics lumped together as bad and harmful things that only adults do. Why is “one glass of wine equals one can of beer equals one shot of liquor” stored in the same part of my brain as “sperm plus egg equals baby”? Formal sex ed is broken. But adding a queer lens can help restore its necessary expansiveness.
In my mind, the most pronounced issue with contemporary sex education is its inherent heteronormativity. For those who have formal sex ed, the typical curriculum’s assumption is that at some point, with any luck on the student’s part, a penis will be entering a vagina. This act, and its many possible resulting actions, are the points around which most sex ed seems to be organized. And so, a condom is unfurled around a banana, pictures of gruesome STIs are projected onto the board, and the life-altering prospect of teen pregnancy is outlined in detail.
As a result of this formal education, my informal sex education became a series of missteps and accidents — what you might call “on-the-job” learning. Masturbation was something I had to ask my first crush how to do, and he sent me questionable directions over text. I found ways to nonchalantly coax my more experienced friends into sharing their secrets and tips with me. I didn’t even realize that sex should be pleasurable until I’d been having it for a few years. After my first kiss, I waddled around a shopping mall for hours with what I later learned were called “blue balls” without a clue why I was in so much pain. I thought I’d somehow broken my testicles, even though neither of us had gone anywhere near them. Before I knew that pornography existed and where to find it, I typed “real sex” into the YouTube search bar on my iPod Touch, and was devastated to not find what I was looking for.
My most valuable lessons about sex, however, ended up taking the shape of an intricate web, woven with acts of kindness from others. My first college roommate dutifully drove me a few towns away to get tested for the first time at Planned Parenthood after years of stress and paranoia resulting from some clumsy condomless sex in high school. They even sat in the waiting room with me in quiet solidarity, which meant the world to my anxious mind. My best friend bought condoms for me before I had the confidence to do it myself. My doctor kindly wrote me a prescription for PrEP and walked me through everything I needed to know after her predecessor had not-so-kindly added “high-risk homosexual behavior” to my chart. These moments and countless others have informed the patchwork of my sexual knowledge more than any moment in a classroom has.
Every few years, my dad will ask me, seemingly out of nowhere, if I’m being “safe and smart” in my relationships. Each time, I respond with a timid and immediate yes, though it’s often not true, and was especially not true the first time he asked me in high school. There is so much hanging in those words, “safe and smart,” said and unsaid, and when left undefined, they don’t mean much at all. They’re just vague enough to make you feel like you’ve had a conversation without actually having it. This terminology certainly didn’t show up in my formal sex education, and even informally, they are hard to pin down because they mean different things to different people. Does being “safe” mean using a condom no matter what? Having a conversation about STI status prior to sex? Abstaining from sex completely? And good luck trying to define what is “smart” in the bedroom. One person’s “smart” can very easily be another person's “off-limits.”
This is not to say that my family is not supportive in other ways. Both of my parents individually and politely asked me if I was gay because they knew it would take too long for me to work up the courage to bring it up myself. But because they themselves did not have the knowledge that would most benefit a young gay boy like me (why would they?), I often find myself wondering if it’s fair to expect them to teach me. Whose responsibility should it have been to teach me how to be “safe and smart”?
While I’m no sex expert now, I have gradually come to learn what sex looks like for me, how to enjoy it, and how to mitigate the potential risks. Only a small fraction of this understanding came from formal sex ed or my parents, which seems to be a common thread in the queer community. So many of us never get “the talk” at all, or get a version that does not apply to us.
It’s equally comforting and concerning that I’m not alone in this experience. I work part-time in HIV prevention research, and spent most of 2020 and 2021 interviewing young, queer-identifying people about the many ways that they manage their sexual health. The earlier parts of our conversations covered their formal sex education, as well as the other places they learned what they now know about sex.
Very few of the participants I spoke to received any formal sex education that covered the types of sex and sexuality found on the spectrum of queerness, and therefore had to resort to educating themselves by scouring the internet, watching porn, and learning through experience. Just like me, they found themselves in some compromising situations as a result of this miseducation, and sharing these experiences openly often felt like medicine for both parties. One person told me they felt that “everyone dropped the ball” when it came to providing them with the resources necessary to have a healthy relationship with sex.
As a result, queer people, and queer adolescents in particular, are left behind. The consequences extend beyond not having a meaningful sex education from trusted authority figures and needing to find information on our own. It creates a real alienation from sexuality, gender, and the body, and makes the road toward a healthy relationship with each of them exponentially longer. It’s not just about fumbling around on the internet in search of porn. Not learning about the marvels of your own body and its desires alongside your peers sends the message that something is different about you — and that difference is best explored in private.
How do we make this information more accessible, both in formal and informal structures? The internet could always be a more hospitable, inviting place, especially when it’s being used to learn such sensitive information. It shouldn’t be the only place to do so, though, especially for those at the margins. The aim should be for a queering of formal sex education, incorporating all types of sex and sexuality, so those who need it most are not left searching on their own.
To queer something means to look at it in a new way, from a different perspective that interrogates or problematizes it. The very reclamation of this term suggests a rebellion against its original, derogatory uses. In this case, queering sex education means to approach the curriculum from the fringes, asking how minority or underrepresented students would received the information being presented. What might they want to know that wouldn’t necessarily be useful to someone who is straight, white, and able-bodied?
Truly queer sex ed wouldn’t just be a caricature of “the future liberals want,” with all students learning how to administer an enema or receiving free poppers in class. It would simply approach sex as part of a wider life. All types of sex would be taught without judgment or stigma and students would be free to ask questions without needing to label themselves or their desires. This might sound utopian, but we can’t begin to build these educational infrastructures without first imagining and articulating them.
We also need to make space for the many facets of life and relationships that revolve around sex. To focus entirely on sex as a physical act is to ignore the entire ecosystem in which it operates. From discussions of trust, intimacy, consent, and pleasure on the interactional level to inequality and discrimination on a systemic level, a thorough and inclusive approach to teaching sex necessitates an informed relationship to all of these factors.
In light of recent debates over banned children’s books and drag queen storytimes, a common argument is that being exposed to straight things doesn’t make gay kids straight, so being exposed to gay things can’t be assumed to turn straight kids gay. Similarly, including non-heterosexual and non-cisgender relations in sex ed curricula likely won’t result in an onslaught of, say, anal penetration. Instead, it will arm the minds of those who need it most with the correct information on how to be safe.
I’ll dive more into a real-life example of this attitude in practice not far from my home in Philadelphia, in my conversation this Wednesday with Al Vernacchio, a seasoned and sensitive sex educator. His classroom embodies the kinds of inclusivity and transparency that are key to providing a meaningful sex education experience to all people at a crucial age. ●