“Age-Appropriate” Sex Education Leaves LGBTQ Kids Behind

One of the many perpetual controversies around sexual and reproductive education is the question of what information is “appropriate” to impart to young children. The intensity of this conflict can be witnessed in the virulent comments left after feminist author, Jessica Valenti tweeted a photo of the poster her daughter’s teacher made to educate their class about sexual orientations and gender identities.

Tweet by Jessica Valenti: "To the folks who find LGBTQ language 'confusing': If my daughter's second grade class gets it, so can you. Picture shows the definitions for bi, transgender, cisgender, queer and straight.

The comments below illustrate some of the rage and terror people feel about the possibility of seven-year-olds being educated about sexuality and gender identity.

Tweet by @AngelaC63254832: You shouldn't be allowed to be around children if you think this us appropriate or necessary at this age.
Tweet by @kf9ug: Teaching innocent children of this age about sex is child abuse. Children this young shouldn't even be exposed to "progress" smut. The Communist Takeover of America - goal #26 "26 Present homosexuality, degeneracy and promiscuity as "normal, natural, healthy."
Tweet by @the1murdock: That school should be ripped apart for child mental abuse there. KIDS have NO REASON to learn those things at that age. NO wonder suicide rates are higher now than ever before. OVER EXPOSURE to PARENTAL FREAK SEXUAL FANTASIES. SHEESH!

But what does “age-appropriate” really mean?

Although people clearly have very strong opinions about what is and is not acceptable for children to be taught, very few people can seem to pinpoint what “age-appropriate” actually means. There has been significant research showing that a fundamental awareness of gender and sexuality emerges from ages of 3 to 5. Although this conceptual understanding is present from a very young age, the social lore that has built up around protecting innocence has obscured the innate sense of sex and gender that exists within young kids, and inevitably leads to confusion when it is not addressed in a timely manner. Because of this, the question of what “age-appropriate” actually is, seems unsolvable.

There are many blog posts, articles and op-eds, by parents, teachers, doctors and therapists alike, readily accessible online – all of which have opinions about what you should be teaching your child about sex, and when. Some of them even take a more age-specific approach, and lay out year-by-year guides to raising kids with healthy attitudes toward sex. Some others are so bold as to suggest that sex education starts from birth, with the naming of body parts and the embracing of nudity and appropriate touch.

There is a wide and inconclusive scope of opinions on when to talk to kids about sexuality, ranging from 4 to 12 years old. Even then, many simply suggest that you begin conversations when kids start asking questions. Although this may seem like a good measure of readiness in a curious child, if they are asking questions, they are likely already confused.

How does this impact LGBTIQ children?

One largely unacknowledged impact of the age-appropriate sex education model is its disproportionate consequences for LGBTIQ kids. LGBTIQ issues in education are still deemed inappropriate for younger children, so queer kids are often left knowing even less about their feelings and experiences than others. In many cases, education about LGBTIQ issues and identities is provided retroactively, once a child has already begun struggling to understand themself. The fact that queer children receive so little positive information leaves them to grow up into understandings of themselves that have formed around the hostility they experience in the world. Even indirect hostility is absorbed and has a profound impact. In concrete terms, this often means that young kids are bullied for being “different” before they even know what’s different about them or what it signifies. It means that in the absence of a real education, LGBTIQ kids are instead taught by a creeping sensation of unwelcome that there is something wrong with them and there may not be a place for them.

What does the UN have to say about “age-appropriate” sex education?

(Picture courtesy of UNESCO)

This year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released an updated version of its International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. It provides a universal guideline for educators teaching school-aged children and young adults about sexuality and reproductive health. The UN’s involvement in creating space for comprehensive sex education also highlights that sex education and sexual health in general are basic human rights. In an attempt to be more inclusive and diverse in the process of updating their guide, UNESCO accepted contributions from OutRight UN Program Coordinator Siri May on how best to incorporate LGBTIQ identities into comprehensive sex education. Although the result is significantly more LGBTIQ-inclusive than the previous version of the UNESCO guide, there are still major flaws.

(Picture courtesy of UNESCO)

The most glaring deficiency is that even within the new guide, which breaks sex education down into age groups, starting at 5 years old, explicit references to LGBTIQ individuals do not appear until the sections for kids aged 9 to 12 years old. This means that although children are receiving instruction about sexuality and relationships starting in kindergarten, the existence and legitimacy of queer experiences may not even be mentioned to them until fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh grade. Even then, although the guide makes mentions of queer issues in sections on parenting, human rights and gender norms, in the sections specifically devoted to understanding sexual behavior, the only explicit mention of LGBTIQ sexuality is a statement asserting that people should not be discriminated against for their same-sex attraction. While this is of course immensely important, the fact that there is no discussion whatsoever of actual queer sexual behavior or pleasure reveals an enormous gap in the inclusivity of UNESCO’s updated guide. Furthermore, there are no explicit mentions of LGBTIQ-specific experiences in the realms of violence (gender-based or otherwise), peer pressure and HIV/AIDS. These are glaring inadequacies. So although UNESCO makes an attempt to concretize age-appropriate sex education, it fails to disrupt prejudice against inclusive instruction, and continues to leave LGBTIQ kids behind.

Does sex ed really hurt young children?

Although this focus on restricting knowledge at young ages is pervasive, proponents of the age-appropriate model ignore the ubiquity of sexuality and gender commentary in input directed at young children in society. As the tweet below points out, we gender and sexualize our children everyday without noticing it:

Tweet by @zizzybaloobah: Questions if you think this is age-inappropriate: 1. when you introduce kids to straight ppl who are dating (or married), do you describe how they have coitus? 2. Ever asked a child if so-and-so was their BF (or GF)? 3. Ever allowed kids to pretend to be married/play house?

From the moment kids are born, they are unwittingly gendered by the clothes they are dressed in, the toys they are given to play with, and the way they are socialized to interact with others. Whether we like it or not, their minds are full of notions about sexuality and gender from very young ages just from being in the world. Even some of the blogs linked above, detailing sex education at every age, explicitly state that differentiating between genders is an essential part of the very first stage of sex education. One writer encourages parents of babies and toddlers to “start pointing out the differences between boys and girls – boys have penises and girls have vulvas.”

This is only one of many ways people inadvertently influence their children’s notions of gender and sexuality. But such influences are pervasive. For instance, if you look up “girl boy child” on the internet, most of the first ten pictures that appear are of young children kissing, hugging, or holding hands. The internet is rife with images of toddlers staging mock weddings. This kind of sexualization and gendering of young children is no different from providing concrete sex education. In fact, the existence of these pictures only proves that children need sex ed because they are pushed into these gendered and sexualized roles, and they deserve an explanation.

What can we do about it?

(Picture via Feminism in India)

Despite the prevalence of the age-appropriate model, a handful of LGBTIQ activists and organizations around the world have caught onto this inadequacy in comprehensive sex education, and have slowly begun to try to fill that gap. Instead of merely measuring the appropriateness of material based on age or subject matter, these activists tune into the needs, experiences, and backgrounds of individual groups of kids, in order to make real steps towards improving sex education.

Two such activists, Ericka Hart and Roan Coughtry, travel to give presentations at schools, universities, businesses and other spaces, using their own experiences as queer individuals to help inform a wide variety of people about LGBTIQ lives. As a cancer survivor and person of color, Hart incorporates intersectional understandings of sexuality, gender, and other vectors of oppression into her work. She creates interactive workshops that help participants of all ages learn how to create safe spaces for discourse and diverse experiences. In their seminars with people of all ages, Coughtry encourages participants to develop safe and healthy relationships with their own bodies and experiences, before focusing on interactions between individuals. They also highlight the ways cultural repression causes us to internalize negative messages about sexuality and other identities.

FEMMEPROJECTS is a South African organization devoted to providing comprehensive education on sexual and reproductive health and gender identity and expression to under-resourced communities. FEMMEPROJECTS cofounder Kim Windvogel explains their approach to LGBTIQ-inclusivity and gauging students’ readiness for information, stating:

Working in schools and with kids has taught us that “age-appropriate” is primarily based on location, access, home circumstances, whether there are older siblings, etc. In general it is usually about the environment these kids find themselves in that adds texture to how we speak about certain issues or how much they know and how far they can push the boundary…of what is deemed to be appropriate for them.

Over the last four years I have realized that one can prepare a workshop in an “age-appropriate” manner and still be surprised at the lack of information kids have for their age or be taken aback at the depth of their questions.… Education and the level thereof should be guided by those in your classroom and not by what you think they are ready for based on their age.

Most importantly, Kim stresses that LGBTIQ identities must be discussed in all workshops, no matter the age range, and that “these are topics that should not come after the fact.” While it may be more practical to teach younger children about LGBTIQ issues through playing educational games, rather than having a discussion, there are always ways to educate people of all ages about the issues that matter.

Comprehensive sex education has been proven to make a significant impact on the long term sexual health of young people. By finding ways to have conversations about a diverse range of sexual experiences from a very young age, parents can prepare their children to embrace and understand their own burgeoning identities, and to respect the identities of those they encounter in the world. Taking a fear-based approach to sex education can only mitigate the positive impact of sex ed in the first place. All kids need and deserve access to knowledge and information about their own bodies, and letting go of the fixation on age-appropriate education is an important step in helping children prepare for healthier, safer, more self-assured futures.


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Em is currently a student at Barnard College, where they study Human Rights and Gender and Sexuality Studies. They were recently a Communications Intern at Outright Action International. When not reading about genocide and queer theory, they make lots of bowls at the Barnard Clay Studio, where they teach wheel-throwing classes.

Em has written 1 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, it was wonderful!

    This is especially timely because in Ontario right now, the new Conservative provincial government that was elected this past June has decided to throw out the new Sex Ed curriculum that the previous Liberal government instituted back in 2015. This new curriculum was an update to the previous one from 1998, and included things like talking about consent, and sexting, and yes, the existence of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender folks. And the new Conservative government has thrown it out and put the old, outdated, 1998 curriculum back in place. They’ve also developed a literal “snitch line” for people to report teachers who are teaching the 2015 curriculum instead of the 1998 curriculum.

    I don’t have time to get into all the details now, but if you’re interested you should read up about the debate and what progressive organizations, teachers unions, school boards, and parent associations are doing to fight back. It been a HUGE debate in Canada’s most populace province for the last few years, and has gone into overdrive since the election.

  2. Thank you for this, it was wonderful!

    This is especially timely because in Ontario right now, the new Conservative provincial government that was elected this past June has decided to throw out the new Sex Ed curriculum that the previous Liberal government instituted back in 2015. This new curriculum was an update to the previous one from 1998, and included things like talking about consent, and sexting, and yes, the existence of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender folks. And the new Conservative government has thrown it out and put the old, outdated, 1998 curriculum back in place. They’ve also developed a literal “snitch line” for people to report teachers who are teaching the 2015 curriculum instead of the 1998 curriculum.

    I don’t have time to get into all the details now, but if you’re interested you should read up about the debate and what progressive organizations, teachers unions, school boards, and parent associations are doing to fight back. It been a HUGE debate in Canada’s most populpous province for the last few years, and has gone into overdrive since the election.

  3. While I agree with your sentiment overall, I think you’re conflating a more everyday, values-informed use of “age-appropriate” with its use to develop educational programs that try to meet groups of diverse students where they’re at in terms of cognitive development, emotional development, and life experiences. This is not to say that the “age-appropriate” model is without flaws, far from it. But I think your criticism is more of those values-informed uses of the term and of the model’s specific application in the UN guidelines. I’m curious about your thoughts on SIECUS’s guidelines, which were put together for US educators specifically: https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Guidelines-CSE.pdf They still fall short on exposing kids to gender identity content until they’re in late elementary school, but perhaps they had a reason for doing that? I’m not sure. You wrote “There has been significant research showing that a fundamental awareness of gender and sexuality emerges from ages of 3 to 5.” I’d be interested in links to those studies, if you wouldn’t mind sharing.

    PS: I hope this comment doesn’t come off as combative or nit-picky. I’m a PhD student on the other side of Broadway – what up, Barnard?! – so this is just how I’m trained to interact when discussing issues that fall within my realm of expertise [ew…yes, I know that all sounds kind of gross. Trying to own what I’ve worked hard for makes me feel elitist, but also impostor syndrome is the death of POC in academia sooo…*shrugs*]. My intention is to have a collegial discussion.

    PPS: You’re killing it. Keep on writing about such important issues!

    • I can’t speak for how your comment feels to Em, but it came across as professional and collegial to me. I too fight the internal battle of “am I coming across as a know-it-all? Will this feel like an attack? Oh no, what if my comment actually just shows I didn’t understand the material? What if what I have to say is true but trivial? Ugh is this impostor syndrome again? Am I letting internalized crap keep me from furthering an interesting discussion?” Blah blah blah.

      I love that we apparently have a lot of highly educated commenters here with a range of areas of expertise, and I love that we have a lot of people who (regardless of level of formal education) engage thoughtfully with the articles and each other. Nothing you’ve said is gross, and if I read you correctly then this topic is something you know a lot about, so by all means, share! You’ve worked hard to get where you are for a reason; you’re a resource. And anyone who chose to read this article and the comments would probably be happy to learn more.

      Wishing for supportive mentors and colleagues for all of us, and loads of collegial discussion!

    • Thanks so much for your feedback Desiree! I looked into the SIECUS guidelines a bit and they do seem to have some more explicit discourse around sexuality and gender identity in the “Level 1” (ages 5 to 8) portions. They also state clearly that “Programs and materials should be adapted to reflect the specific issues and concerns of the community as well as any special needs of the learners,” which leaves more room for the curriculum to be altered according to the classroom. However, the guide does still use very binary terms and they very first point of the curriculum (Topic 1, Level 1) focuses exclusively on gendering body parts in a very narrow, binary way. So I think that while the SIECUS guide is a step up in terms of its explicit recognition of LGBTIQ experiences at a younger age, it could definitely do a lot more to be inclusive in its overall language. Guides like this can’t be fully inclusive until all parts of the curriculum make space for people of every identity and experience.

      Also here are a few links to articles discussing the development of gender and sexuality in young kids…
      https://theconversation.com/when-do-children-develop-their-gender-identity-56480
      https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Gender-Identity-and-Gender-Confusion-In-Children.aspx
      https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/development.html

      Hope this helps!

  4. Em, thank you for a well-done article on a really important topic. I can’t add academic commentary like Desiree, and we all already know plenty about indirect hostility and lack of early knowledge, so I’ll just speak as a parent.

    My daughter is the same age as those kids theoretically traumatized and warped and ruined forever by that “age-inappropriate” poster. And, um…she already knows a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns, and this does not seem to have ruined her. And one of her best friends is a transgender girl with autism…and this does not seem to have warped her. And we’ve talked about what transgender, non-binary etc. mean, and none of it seems to have traumatized her even slightly. And she knows that one of her friends has two moms, about which she could care less.

    I’m sure if I had approached those discussions with fear and anxiety, or treated the friend’s identity as a dirty shameful secret, that I could have warped her. But it would have been my fears that did so, not the facts themselves.

    She’s fine. The kids are all right, ya know?

  5. Oh what a great topic! I’m not in academia, as in the jargon and such will lose me, but I am a student, so I guess I am? However, I do work in a public library and I spend a lot of time with little ones. We just had a drag queen story hour and it was amazing. Drag queen story hour is just what it sounds like, we brought in a local drag queen (Noelle Diamond) to read stories and do a craft. 200 people came! It was marketed for ages 0-10 (story times don’t usually have that age range, but this was a way to include all), and we had young boys arriving in skirts and eye make up. They were so excited to see someone expressing their gender in a way that’s not the ‘norm’. Those were the kids that needed this earlier, in my opinion. They needed this at 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5. They needed to see how gender can be expressed in so many ways, and they needed to hear words like cisgender and transgender and gender fluid and gay and straight and queer, because they aren’t too young. Parents brought their infants and their toddlers and introduced them to Noelle. Two and three year old children were exposed to these ideas that are going to help them form the world around them. I stand firmly in the camp that age appropriate sex ed is one that is inclusive and it’s one that introduces kids from an early age. Teach your 1 and 2 year old the correct words for the body. Introduce them to people across the spectrum. When they get to be 4 and 5 start talking about consent (‘you should ask Ali if she wants to be hugged before you hug her’) and bodies. Let kids know that they can be themselves. It doesn’t need to be this huge thing. It doesn’t need to be wildly sexual. We brought kids in for drag queen story hour and they talked about gender expression and pronouns and heard stories about gender fluidity and acceptance and they also danced and sang songs and had an awesome time. They probably went home and asked their adults all sorts of questions, and they found age appropriate ways to discuss it. That’s what age appropriate means, to me. It means finding ways to talk about these big things in ways your child can understand. Ok so you’re 2 or 3. Let’s find books that explain LGBT things on your level. Ok so you’re 5 or 6. Let’s find books and materials and ways to talk about bodies and where babies come from. Ok so you’re 10 and you want to talk to me about queerness. Let’s see what we can find that breaks it down for you to understand. Don’t deprive. Teach and expose.

  6. So how does this work in areas of the world where transgender(3rd gender) have existed for many years before Christian colonialism banned/tried to erase these people? Relatedly some of this moves from sex education to history and culture when talking about, for example, Two-Spirit in indigenous cultures, or the Hirja of the Indian Subcontinent. I know for me if science class mentioned that trans people existed(and wasn’t bad like media at one point portrayed), it would have made my discovery easier.

  7. Age-appropriateness is particularly bullshit for gender identity. Some trans people knew what gender they were as far back as they can remember. I’m not one of those, but even I knew that something was different about how I related to gender and how other people related to gender as early as second grade, though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. Not talking about gender identity and trans experience denies trans kids critical information they need to understand themselves. I’ve been permanently maimed by going through the wrong puberty, no one should have to experience that.

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