Difference and Denial: The Effects of Sex Education on Queer Youth in North Carolina
By Allison Davis
In the state of North Carolina, a law called the "Healthy Youth Act" went into effect in the Fall of 2010. This legislation created the option for parents of NC public school students to opt-in for an abstinence-based, but more comprehensive, sexual education course for their children.Proponents hailed the act as a highly progressive step for North Carolina, but the curriculum left much to be desired for queer youth. By implementing the language of "reproductive health," the act ignored the needs of students having or intending to participate in non-reproductive sex. The curriculum also continued to focus its abstinence message on the ultimate goal of marriage, which remains illegal for same-sex couples in North Carolina. In its original version, the bill provided that the sex-ed course should teach abstinence until "committed relationships," a step which supporters and opponents to the bill touted as an institutional recognition of the reality of LGBTQ relationships in North Carolina. However, this language became a point of contention with conservative lawmakers and was ultimately compromised. Since the passing of the Healthy Youth Act, the House has not reviewed any bills concerning sex education in North Carolina, though the climate for LGBTQ issues in the state remains largely dismal. (Comer)
Because the voices of LGBTQ people in the State of North Carolina have been silenced by institutional ignorance, interviews were conducted of NC lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, pansexual, and fluid identified youth who are either currently enrolled in North Carolina high schools or graduated from an NC high school between the years 2007 and 2012. Their voices described the institutionalized heterosexism in the sex education they received and its effects on their own sexuality and sexual practice. These stories detail the unique joys and tragedies of queer sexual upbringing in North Carolina and the process of seeking out information about one's own body in a sea of mixed messages in an unmistakably homophobic part of the country. The findings are organized by common themes of the interviews.
Here are quick bios of each participant for reference later on. All subjects have been assigned aliases for the purposes of this publication. Ages listed are accurate as of mid-April, 2012.
19, from Davidson County, male, gay
20, from County, female, bisexual
20, from Davidson County, male, gay
21, from Watauga County, female, queer
20, from North Hampton County, male, gay
20, from Guilford County, female, fluid
20, from Guilford County, female, lesbian
19, from Buncombe County, female, queer
19, from New Hanover County, male (trans), straight
21, from Carteret County, male, pansexual
21, from Beaufort County, male, gay
21, from Guilford County, male, gay
Deviance, Difference, and Denial
When asked if they felt their sex education was effective or applicable, most interviewees responded with an immediate, "no." Dulce explained, "Literally, it was a total waste of my time. I went to class to learn about sex other people would be having." High schools in the state are graduating students who have never been guaranteed reliable and unbiased sources of info about their own bodies. Dulce continued, "Never in my life will I need to put a condom on a penis...but because of that class, I could do it like a champ. But I didn't learn about dental damn until I'd already had unprotected sex with a woman. I mean, what did the school even do for me?" These sentiments of wasted time came up repeatedly during the interviews, but as Johnathan put it, "There just wasn't a place for me there. And the lack of it...well, it just led to a lot more questioning of my place...it just didn't help anything at all."
Almost every interviewee reported feeling a sense of deviance or difference from sexual norms, unsurprising considering that none of the participants reported learning about the mechanics of non-normative sex from their schools' sex ed programs. Andre described that his high school curriculum, which centered on reproductive health (conception and contraception) and was taught by a biology teacher, altered his understanding of his place among his peers. He explained, "It separated people, just as far as, like, well, I don’t do this...this isn't for me...so what am I supposed to be paying attention to here?" He continued with, "It definitely ostracized some people." Others reported feeling specifically shamed by educators who not only left their needs out of the curriculum, but directly criticized or degraded same-sex behavior. Samantha described the lessons she took from her course. "We were made to understand that sex was wrong, and gay sex, above all else, was a sin. I felt frustrated because I was so aware that I was being left out." Nia described a clear social binary that privileged heterosexuality and made invisible any same-sex desire or behavior. This was taught to her in middle and high school and she developed a sense of difference that she still hosts today. "I don't know...it's just like, you're either straight or YOU don't have sex. It just makes you think...what's happening inside me? It would have been so helpful to be included."
Much of the consequences of this lack of inclusion result in a delayed acceptance of sexuality or gender identity.Matthew detailed internal damage and missed opportunities caused by his feelings of deviance during his youth. "It really held me back for most of my life...I think I would have come to accept everything, come to accept myself, a lot sooner in an environment that handled sex, gay sex, differently. I just honestly think it would have been so beneficial." Johnathan felt the result of his sexual education class not only extended the period of denial of his sexuality, but also made him incredibly aware that his school and teachers were part of a larger system that wanted him to be someone he could not be. "It's just one of the many societal pressures to be straight...it's not like it was the only thing that instilled that...you know that internalized homophobia we all feel, but it just didn't help anything at all."
Pornography, Fantasy, and the Internet
Of all the interviewees, only one person reported not having sought out pornography to explain non-heterosexual sex. Looking through the interviews, some of the frequently used words to describe the effects pornography had on understandings of the mechanics of gay/lesbian/trans sex were "damaging," "inaccurate," "scary," and "misleading." However, of the eleven students who reported seeking out pornography, ten added a caveat reminding that, while pornography tended to be misleading, it also tended to be more informational than their school classes. As Keith put it, "At least it taught me more than my sex-ed class...now I knew where to put what and how, so that was a step. It probably kept me from some serious embarrassment down the road."
However, pornography also contributed to low self-esteem, poor body image, and performance anxiety in many of the respondents. Andre's experiences with pornography led him to have what turned out to be false expectations of sex. "Porn...it really hyper-fantasized sex for me...sex turned out to be a lot messier than it looked...whatever, sex is messy...I mean, it was informative, but just not all that useful in real life...nobody looked, talked, or acted like me." Samantha held very strong views on the damaging nature of pornography and discouraged the use of it as a source of information for queer kids. "You need sex information that isn't misinformation...and so much of mine was, or at least, it was so biased that it bordered on misinformation...porn just transfers such strong sexual power dynamics onto kids...when you get initiated into sex, it's through the pornographic lens because the school is failing to tell you everything you need to know...and...it just affects you."
As far as other internet sources go, though, the group had many positive things to say. Johnathan affirmed, "The internet was reliable and unbiased. Honestly, I don't know where I'd be without it." Tracy resonated this train of thought by explaining, "You have these LGBT groups where you can ask questions and dispel myths. There are people out there making up for what the school doesn't teach." However, Keith reminded that schools and students cannot rely on the internet to fill the gaps in sex education. "I mean, because of the web I wasn't clueless in the bedroom, which was great...don't get me wrong. But, I mean, I was still left out in school, and I was lucky that I could sort through what was online crap and what wasn't. I mean, one site told me you could cure AIDS by having sex with a virgin...people should be fielding false statements like that, 'cause that obviously has serious consequences." Still, most interviewees named the internet as their number one most accessible and reliable source for information about queer sex.
The Question of Consent
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), one in thirty-three American men, or about three percent, will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Of the seven men I interviewed, THREE of them reported incidents of unwanted sexual contact, which calculates to about forty-three percent, obviously much higher than the national average. A survey of seven is much too small to be able to represent an accurate cross-section of society, but these numbers and the ways in which the interviewees labeled their experiences seem to suggest that these percentages might be skewed by unreliable self-reporting. All three men hesitated to label the incidents of "unwanted" contact as "sexual assault." David confessed, "There were things happening to my body that I didn't want, but I don't know...I just didn't know I could say no. I thought it meant, like, I wasn't gay...or wasn't a man. I just didn't know." Keith echoed this sentiment when telling his story. "It was like...I hadn't ever been told I could, like, not want sex...'cause I'm a man and we're supposed to want it all the time...especially gay men are portrayed to be like really hedonistic...so I just didn't have that voice...but the next morning I felt so violated and confused...and I still can't look at him." Jackson advocated that, "I think there needs to be a discussion in sex-ed, that men have the rights to their own bodies. And that sexual violence is not just a heterosexual phenomenon. We need to raise awareness in the minds of the youth."
Trial and Error
The most lively portion of the interviews, by far, tended to be the first-time stories, which, because of the lack of education, generally involved some degree of trial and error, or as Dulce preferred to call it, "the hands-on education I needed all along." Johnathan and Andre both cited learning, through sex, lessons that they strongly wished were taught in schools. Johnathan shared, "Someone needs to teach men not to freak out if they can't maintain an erection. And masturbation. They should teach about masturbation, and how it's normal. And...excrement...we should talk about that, too. And then hygiene." Andre discussed how he learned from his first time how race would come to play a role in sex, which was something he knew could not be taught in schools. "He just kinda took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, and how it's different for people of color...how there's a lot more emphasis put on the sexuality of the black man...like, as far as penis length and performance. No one told me white boys wanted to sleep with me just because they thought I would be like...I don't know...an animal. But that's what they had been taught." Almost all the participants cited their first times as a moment of acceptance or recognition of their sexuality, but some explained that their first time represented the first chance for education to make up for what the schools lacked and correction of what they learned from unreliable sources. As Samantha phrased it, "My sex ed was nothing...it gave me no sense of knowledge, confidence or security for my first time. But I learned, with each new time, and I think I turned out ok."
Black_men_depression. N.d. Photograph. Fitness Entourage
Comer, Matt. ""Compromise" Bill Leaves Much to Be Desired" QNotes. 09 May 2009: n. page. web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://goqnotes.com/2381/compromise-bill-leaves-much-to-be-dsired/>.
Gay-depression. N.d. Photograph. San Francisco Sentinel, San Francisco.
"Safe sex rainbow." iStockphoto. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr 2012. <http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-5584000-safe-sex-rainbow.php>.
Unrealistic Porn. N.d. Photograph. Funny Junk