Back to School on Language: Making Sex Ed More Inclusive

It’s that time of year again and lots of high school students across Canada have headed back with big changes this year! Ontario has introduced a new sex ed curriculum that includes gender and sexuality from elementary school on; Quebec is piloting its new sex ed program; and the Vancouver school board is continuing to implement a very progressive trans inclusion policy. Championed together with huge victories for gay marriage in the US and giant media coverage of trans issues across Canada, this means that youth are bringing new questions to the table. With so many efforts going into making spaces as safe as possible for diverse groups of students and the people around them, teachers, parents, and school administrators are navigating new and murky waters trying to find ways to make it work. One such technique is adapting language to make it more inclusive.

I coordinate a program called SextEd, where people in Montreal can anonymously text questions that they have about sex, gender, and relationships and a team sends back researched, non-judgmental answers within 24 hours. While this is fantastic for answering questions that young people are too afraid to ask in person, 160 characters doesn’t tell us a lot about who is texting in. Early on, we knew that we would need to check our language to make sure that we weren’t making assumptions and accidentally hurting anyone coming to us for help. After working on this new challenge over a few months, we’ve found a few solid suggestions that work well, and we’re writing here to share them and potentially gain other tips from you in the comment section below! These tips were originally made with sex ed teachers in mind, but anyone who loves talking about sexual health can use them to adapt their own language!

Focus on Body Parts, not the Gender of People who Have Them

First off, as a general practice, we try to talk about body parts and what they do rather than assuming what body parts they have and what information they would need based on their gender. For example, trans women don’t need to get PAP smears, and many men don’t have Adam’s apples. Instead of making assumptions, we talk about body parts and say “people who have [insert body part here],” which takes gender out of the equation and makes what we say into simple truths: “people who have a cervix should get regular PAP tests,” “when penises ejaculate semen, they can release millions of sperm”—easy!

Look out for Gendered Safer Sex or Contraception Messages

Some men take the pill, and there’s a lot of unnecessary gendering when it comes to talking about safer sex. In some cases, this is really easy to fix! Saying “internal condoms” rather than “female condoms” is not only trans-inclusive, it makes it easier to talk about using them for anal sex! For other contraception, sticking to phrases like “people with ovaries” or “people who ejaculate semen” can let you explain what risks are relevant and how people can reduce them—all while staying gender neutral. Talking about safer sex in a gender neutral way can help you be more specific with your content, for example, “Giving analingus” tells your audience a lot more than “giving a woman oral sex.” This lets you talk about the specific risks involved and strategies to minimize them.

Open Up Limiting Statements

Another helpful tip is to avoid making limited statements. Adding words like ‘may,’ ‘might,’ or ‘could,’ can help include needs that are often overlooked. For example, “During puberty, people may start feeling sexually attracted to others” ensures that people who are asexual are not excluded. Saying that ‘many’ or ‘some’ people have experiences helps in the same way—“Many people have penises and vaginas that look like these diagrams” can acknowledge the experiences of people who are intersex without making them the focus. Having direct conversations around intersex anatomy can run the risk of peers reacting strongly and saying hurtful things, but small changes to language are a great way to normalize the incredible diversity of bodies and experiences!

Make a Difference with Inclusive Sex Ed Language!

Changing everyday language can seem daunting to a lot of people, but ultimately, it’s worth the rewards. Sex ed classes or conversations are already tense for most kids. While many can giggle that tension away, it can make a big impact when someone feels that that the information you’re giving doesn’t apply to them or makes something that discounts a big part of their life. Not being considered “normal” can lead anyone to disengage, no matter how relevant the information. When you make small changes in how you talk about sex, people will recognize the effort you’re making and will feel safer, more welcome, and more likely to ask questions that are important to them.

Learning More

If you’re interested in finding more ways to adapt your language, there’s a lot already out there that can help! Cory Silverberg’s fantastic sex ed books for younger kids make sure that a variety of experiences are included and encourage all kids to start learning what’s important to them. Scarleteen works to make its sex ed articles inclusive too! Planned Parenthood Toronto even has a whole website dedicated to sex ed for queer and trans people, giving key information that is usually left out of sex ed. The SextEd website also has a long list of answers to sex ed questions we’ve been asked and Action Canada will be launching a third edition of Beyond the Basics next fall, a great resource for educators on sexuality and sexual health with inclusive language and activities!

Still want more?

Check out our checklist for inclusive sex ed language and these helpful infographics below! (click on the images to enlarge)