The idea of having to talk about sex with your teacher would probably have filled your teenage self with dread. In fact, your teacher probably wasn’t looking forward to the day they had to stand in front of a whole class of 15-year-olds and stick a condom on a plastic phallic-looking object. Not to mention declaring “this is the most important lesson of your lives!” in an attempt to restore order among the giggling audience. As if that wasn’t awkward enough, a 20-minute lecture on the dangers of sex usually followed. Sex between a man and a woman, of course.
My sex education lesson were taught by our school nurse, who used to march in with a plastic toolbox containing a dildo and condom packets. The conversation was very much centred on sex between two people of the opposite sex and I don’t remember gay men being brought up at all. As for anal sex, well, that part of the anatomy didn’t even appear on the sex education radar.
My experience doesn’t seem to be uncommon, considering that very few gay men consider their sex and relationship education to have been relevant to their sex lives. There seems to be too much emphasis being placed on how condoms are used to prevent conception, which leaves gay people out of the conversation entirely. What’s more, even when they are talked about for preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, HIV is rarely discussed.
It’s clear that sex and relationship education is failing young gay people, given that many are having sex without the basic understanding of how to engage in safer sex. It is important for young people to be educated on how to protect themselves and their sexual partners. But moving beyond learning about protection, we also need to let young people know that they are important and that their choices are equally important. If a young gay man feels as though the sex he wants to have is seen to be wrong, or something that he should be ashamed of, he is not going to care about making choices to engage in safer-sex practices; practices that involve healthy levels of self-respect. We need to be sending out the message in sex education lessons that irrespective of who you have sex with, your sexual decisions matter and are important.
Perhaps one of the most recent discussions about sex among gay men has been about the use of PrEP, the once-a-day HIV prevention medication currently available in the US and France, and which is about to undergo a small NHS-funded roll-out in the UK. I think that the idea of introducing PrEP as a widely available tool for gay men would be an extremely positive step in reducing the transmission of HIV. That said, let’s not forget the gay men who may not be aware of PrEP, such as young gay men, who have been left out of the sexual health conversation. We should also be concentrating our efforts on them; inclusive sex education in every secondary school may well hold part of the solution.
If we want young gay men to be educated about sex, challenge society’s views on gay men having sex and decrease the rates of sexually transmitted infections, we must start by advocating for inclusive sex and relationship education. There seems to be a consensus that more needs to be done to educate young LGBT+ people about sex, yet equally there seems to be a resistance to introducing change. Young gay people are being failed by the current sex education curriculum, which is having a knock-on effect in their adult lives. They deserve to be taught how to stay safe while enjoying healthy, fulfilling relationships.
Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer and journalist. Follow him on Twitter @wordsbyhadley.