Sex education curriculum is underestimating our young people

27 May 2022
Meet our SSSHARC Fellow: Jen Gilbert
Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair in Sexuality Studies Fellow, Professor Jen Gilbert speaks about sex education and LGBTQ+ issues in schools.
Jen Gilbert

Professor Jen Gilbert is an expert in sexuality education, youth studies, and LGBTQ issues in education at York University. She is a 2022 Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair of Sexuality Studies at the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC). She is collaborating with Dr Victoria Rawlings and Dr Kellie Burns on the development of an international network of interdisciplinary sexuality education researchers.

What exactly is sex education?

There are lots of different ways we could define sex education. The term can refer to information delivered through an official curriculum, like those awkward, torturous lessons that you sit through in school health classes. Then there is also informal sex education. That’s all the different ways that we learn about sexuality and gender through our lives outside of health class. Those informal lessons can be learned via the media, our friends, families, and faith communities. All the time, we're receiving these lessons about what it means to be a woman, or to be a man or to be in a relationship. We are taking in these lessons without noticing they are part of our sex education.

What role does sex education play in schools or other institutions?

Young people are learning about sexuality and gender all day long in school. Kids tease each other, flirt with each other, and are policing each other’s behaviours. But somehow we have put formal sex education into this box—health class. Health class becomes a place where we put all the things we don't want to talk about in other classes—sex, drugs, bodies.

Formal sex education in schools often serves to contain conversations about sexuality and gender. As opposed to opening up conversations, too often sex education in schools is a way of controlling and managing discussions of sexuality and gender.

It turns out that young people's ideas about sexuality and gender are much more complicated than schools and teachers imagine.
Professor Jen Gilbert

How do you evaluate the success of sex education programs?

Young people need access to medically-accurate, non-judgmental information about topics like pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and consent. But there is so much more to a healthy, enjoyable, and ethical sexual life. I think a good enough sex education program is one that gives people information but also creates space to explore what my colleague, Jessica Fields, calls ‘intimate possibilities’ – all the desires, relationships, identities, and pleasures you might anticipate, pursue, and claim for yourself and others.

You've done a lot of work around LGBTQ+ issues in education. Can you tell us about the Beyond Bullying Project?

In North America, schools have gradually become more comfortable inviting conversations on LGBTQ+ related topics, as long as those conversations are about risk, harassment, or bullying. However, this framing of LGBTQ+ topics as about bullying has meant that LGBTQ+ related topics became tied to ideas about risk and vulnerability. As researchers, we knew from our own work that there were all sorts of things about being queer or trans that were beyond bullying— like love, friendship, movies, breakups and disappointments. We wanted to see what other stories about sexuality and gender were also circulating through the school.

So, in this study, we set up storytelling booths in high schools and invited students and teachers to enter the booth and tell a story about LGBTQ+ sexuality or gender. We set up a table in front of the booth and always had a big bowl of mini chocolate bars. That way young people could say that they came by for the candy and not necessarily because they were interested in the project, since that might be socially risky. And then we would say, “Why don't you tell a story?” Those that wanted to would go into the booth and tell a story. We would lock the door so no one was in there with them. When they were done telling the story they'd knock and we'd let them out. We collected about 450 stories from students and teachers. Last year, we organized another Beyond Bullying storytelling project, this time using an online platform. Students would register and then be sent a private zoom link where they could share their stories.

One of the big lessons from both versions is that we have this idea that the school’s role is to educate young people out of homophobia and transphobia, and other bad behaviours, but it turns out that young people's ideas about sexuality and gender are much more complicated than schools and teachers imagine. Even if students themselves didn't identify as LGBTQ+, their lives were touched by queerness—they had gay cousins, or a lesbian pastor, or friends who are non-binary for instance.

How can educators promote more inclusive and supportive sex education programs in schools?

I think that teachers can model openness in their classrooms. We can use the words queer, lesbian, gay, trans, and bisexual. We want to normalise conversations about sex, gender and identity so that these topics and experiences are just a regular part of school life. Young people are so much smarter than the sex education curriculum gives them credit for. Schools can turn to their students as a source of expertise and ask them key questions: “What is important to you?” “What do you want to learn about?” “How are you thinking about sexuality?” We can include young people in sex education as not only learners but knowers working across the formal and informal curriculum.

Jen Gilbert is a 2022 Hunt-Simes Chair of Sexuality Studies. Funded by the late Dr Gary Simes—a linguistic historian, bibliographer and University of Sydney graduate—the Hunt-Simes Chair of Sexuality Studies bequest enables a number of fellowships per year. Applications for 2023 Fellowships are now closed a new round will open in 2023.

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