Northwestern University

06/14/2024 | Press release | Archived content

LGBTQ+ students may need to seek sex education outside school due to curricula gaps

LGBTQ+ students may need to seek sex education outside school due to curricula gaps

Doing so could force them to seek inaccurate, potentially dangerous advice elsewhere

Media Information

  • Embargo date: June 16, 2024 11:01 PM CT
  • Release Date: June 14, 2024

Media Contacts

Kristin Samuelson

  • Addressing negligence could be 'life-saving,' argue study authors
  • Curricula based on abstinence-only approaches or religious principles, or contained oppressive, suppressive elements marginalized LGBTQ+ youth, survey found
  • 'I wish I was taught about gay sex, sexual orientation, and all the other controversial topics that [are deemed] 'grooming,' one survey respondent said

CHICAGO --- Children across the U.S. who identify as LGBTQ+ say the sexual health-education curricula they receive is leaving them without essential information to make informed decisions about their sexual health, which could force them to seek potentially inaccurate or dangerous advice elsewhere.

The results of a new, national, peer-reviewed survey, show these young people - aged 13 to 17 - believe crucial topics surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity are being omitted from sexual health-education programs.

One survey respondent said, "I wish I was taught about gay sex, sexual orientation, and all the other controversial topics that [are deemed] 'grooming.' When kids aren't taught good sex ed, they learn how to do it in an unhealthy way from other sources like the internet or word of mouth. If we teach children about these topics, they'll be safer when they become teenagers." (Read more comments below)

Experts who led the study say the addition of key items in the curricula could be "life-saving."

The study will be published June 17 in The Journal of Sex Research.

"LGBTQ+ youth expressed a strong desire to learn more about topics related to their sexual orientation and gender identity, highlighting a critical gap in existing curricula," said study author Erica Szkody, a postdoctoral research associate at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who led the data collection for the study.

"Despite the well-known benefits of comprehensive sexual health education, the majority of school sexual health-education curricula in the U.S. is non-comprehensive and excludes LGBTQ+ students. Our analyses underscore the extent of this exclusion."

Szkody works in the Lab for Scalable Mental Health, which is directed by Jessica Schleider, associate professor of medical social sciences and pediatrics at Feinberg.

Of more than 800 survey respondents, most participants reported a lack of LGBTQ+ content in their sexual health-education experiences. In order to be educated on sexual health, most were using extracurricular sources including online spaces, friends and personal experiences with sexual exploration. The authors found these extracurricular sources are frequently preferred by LGBTQ+ youth; but may lack accuracy and reliability.

Overall, participants described feeling marginalized by curricula that were based on abstinence-only approaches, religious principles or contained oppressive and suppressive elements, such as negative remarks about LGBTQ+ individuals or skipping required LGBTQ+ content altogether.

"The exclusion of LGBTQ+ students from the curricula may contribute to poor health outcomes in LGBTQ+ youth, with some research beginning to document these experiences and provide recommendations for curricula changes," said lead author Steven Hobaica, clinical psychologist and research scientist at The Trevor Project, whose mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ+ young people. "Addressing this negligence is urgent and could be life-saving."

"Given the current political climate, with legislation attempting to exclude LGBTQ+ information in schools, we encourage policymakers to continue fighting for LGBTQ+ inclusion in curricula as a means to prevent health problems for a vulnerable group," he said.

The survey also provided LGBTQ+ young people the opportunity to openly share on their experiences and recommendations for change regarding sexual health education:

These suggestions included:

  • More LGBTQ+ content in sexual health education curricula, as well as more detail on healthy and diverse relationships (e.g., non-monogamy, polyamory), consent, safety in relationships and communication skills.
  • Creating safe and supportive spaces while considering legitimate fears due to a possible increase in bullying, as they had heard students make fun of the material or use discriminatory language during past implementation.
  • Updating sexual health-education materials to reflect LGBTQ+ lived experiences, history and risk factors.
  • Creating sexual health interventions focused on LGBTQ+ experiences and concerns. Improving access to reliable sexual health information.
  • Creating more accessible sexual-health information via other avenues, such as online and through mobile applications.

Other comments from survey respondents include:

"I wish others understood that while the anatomy-related knowledge is important, we need sexual [health] education that is relevant to today's world. This involves sexual [health] education [about] dangers and safety on the Internet, [same-sex/gender] relations, and education geared towards attraction and feelings rather than a lesson only [regarding] heterosexual procreation. I wish they took our real-life experiences and insecurities into account."

"It is NOT HARMFUL to talk about gender identity and sexuality with high schoolers. It SAVES LIVES."

The authors hope their findings contribute to a "critical" policy shift toward including LGBTQ+ young people in sexual health education, a community that is "often underserved."