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Life Kit: The importance of inclusion in sex education

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across the country, some state lawmakers are working to restrict the rights of LGBTQ youth. On Friday, a Florida bill went into effect that restricts school personnel from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in class. Opponents have called it the don't say gay law. More than a dozen states have proposed similar bills. This could affect what students are taught in sex education. For NPR's Life Kit, Lilly Quiroz explains the basics of queer sex education.

And please be aware, this story contains frank discussions about sex.

LILLY QUIROZ, BYLINE: Before we dive in, you should know that the takeaways we're going to cover here can apply to anyone, no matter what your identity is. So what is sex? Well, it's sort of whatever you want it to be. Let's first debunk the obviously false notion that sex can only be heterosexual or involve intercourse.

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MILENA GIOCONDA DAVIS: Expanding our notion of what sex can look like is super important.

QUIROZ: Meet sexuality educator Milena Gioconda Davis, who also goes by their stage name, Milena Gaze. They are a performer and co-founder and director at Vulgar, based in Mexico City.

GIOCONDA DAVIS: One of the awesome opportunities about being a queer person is that we may not be as entrenched in some of the gender narratives and roles that can be kind of prescriptive around sexuality. So I think it can be a really amazing opportunity for us to explore our sexuality outside of those norms and patterns. It can also be kind of confusing because it could just be like, well, what do I do?

QUIROZ: Know that there isn't a singular or right way to have sex. Sex can be whatever brings you pleasure.

And Milena Gaze encourages you to create your own definition of sex.

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GIOCONDA DAVIS: For me, it would be, like, pleasure-oriented experiences or interactions that involve some sort of arousal. You know, that doesn't mean that it has to end in orgasm.

QUIROZ: This last point is pretty important. Not everyone experiences them, and not everybody wants to.

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QUIROZ: Human sexuality is very complex. Throughout time, you can be firm that you are fluid and firm that you are not. You can also not know or not feel strongly about your identity, and that's also fine.

GIOCONDA DAVIS: So I think it's important to empower everyone with the information that they need so that they can make decisions with their body and not assume that, like, identities are going to be static forever.

QUIROZ: All right, y'all. Our second takeaway is get to know your body and discover what pleasure feels like to you. So why do we even have sex? Well, for one reason, many of us enjoy the pleasure it gives us, right? And one of the best parts about it is that we can access a lot of that pleasure on our own. So set the mood, just like you might for someone you're interested in, and have a date night to yourself. Explore every inch of your body.

Ericka Hart is a sexuality educator with a focus in racial, social and gender justice.

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ERICKA HART: Young people should know all of their genitals.

QUIROZ: Exploring your anatomy - how it looks, how it feels and how it functions - will get you one step closer to understanding your sexual needs and wants. It's also possible to discover you might not have any of those needs or wants. Now, depending on what your sex history looks like, you may already know some of what you like sexually. Some of it might be informed by the messages you've gotten from society.

HART: It's a matter of just taking in messages that you're receiving from the world and seeing if they are a fit or not.

QUIROZ: And if those messages don't apply to you, work on unlearning them.

HART: Regardless of, you know, who you're having sex with - that you get to say, like, this is what feels good for my body - right? - and this is what doesn't feel good for my body.

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QUIROZ: Once you figure out what does affirm you, you can choose to throw a person into the mix, and you can communicate with them some of what you've just learned. So think of it this way. You're basically providing another person with your guidebook, and they can provide you with theirs. As time goes by, you might get more comfortable sharing more guidelines. Also know that changing the guidelines is fair game.

And that's our third takeaway - communication should be ongoing with sexual partners to make sure everyone is comfortable and satisfied.

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QUIROZ: Of course, consent is part of this conversation.

HART: Consent is also ongoing. Have a conversation about that. Get more specific, right? Specific is another value - another aspect that has to be included in consent.

QUIROZ: So don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask for what you want. Listening is also necessary. If someone says no to a particular act, it's important to respect that. Hart recommends Scarleteen's website, with its "Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist." This checklist helps you decide what your boundaries are, what physical and non-physical acts you're comfortable with, what words affirm you and more. You and your partner should go through this list individually at first. Then, you can compare notes. Here's another way this can look.

HART: I think it's different for just about anybody, but I would say let's have a conversation about what feels good for our bodies. You know, I think that would feel good for me, right? I statements are important. Is that something that you want to do?

QUIROZ: This communication should be ongoing if you continue pursuing sexual activities with the same person. Bodies and bodily expression can change, so it's good to make sure you and your sexual partners remain comfortable.

All right, before we go, I want to leave y'all with one final takeaway - don't let shame or stigma prevent you from caring for your sexual health.

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QUIROZ: We've come a long way in the medical field, but Melina Gaze says some stigmas have stuck around.

What are the misconceptions around STIs or STDs?

GIOCONDA DAVIS: Oh, my God, there are so many (laughter). I think the biggest thing is that STIs make you dirty, which is just a terrible lie. And also, I think the other one is, like, if you get an STI, your sex life is over. Like, no - most STIs are curable or treatable, and it doesn't have to be, like, this mark of shame.

QUIROZ: Lastly, Gaze says that your mental health is also a part of your sexual health. If you want to hear more on that and the takeaways you just heard, you can listen to the full episode at npr.org/lifekit. For NPR News, I'm Lilly Quiroz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.