Abstract: WITHDRAWN: Still at Risk: Sex Education and Sexual Minority Youth (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

WITHDRAWN: Still at Risk: Sex Education and Sexual Minority Youth

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Dana S. Levin, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose: Sex education has long been a controversial topic in North America, with heteronormative and fear-based messaging often prevailing in school-based programming. In Canada, years-long controversies over sex education have focused in large part on LGBTQ-inclusive information and education. Despite some advances in inclusion, curricular directives continue to be ambiguous, many of the specifics of content delivery are left to educator discretion, and parents may choose to opt their children out of lessons. Sexual minority youth are already at greater risk than their heterosexual peers for adverse outcomes including reduced mental health, victimization, suicidal ideation, and risky sexual behaviors. Further marginalization is cause for concern, especially in a setting that should be safe and supportive. Although some research focuses on sexual minority youth in schools, the relationship between school-based sex education and sexual risk-taking in sexual minority youth is understudied. Accordingly, this study explored these issues.

Methods: Participants were 345 first-year undergraduates (mean age=18.8 years; 56% female; 60% Caucasian; 70% heterosexual) attending a university in southwestern Ontario. Participants received course credit for completing an online survey. Using a 0-3 scale, participants indicated the extent to which schools had communicated 60 gender and sexual values. Through factor analysis, several subscales were created, including messages about a gendered double standard (11 items; alpha=.87); messages that sex is natural (8 items; alpha=.84); messages that “sex is a game” (7 items; alpha=.82); messages that sex is serious (5 items; alpha=.75), and LGBTQ-affirming messages (3 items; alpha=.80). Participants also reported their experiences of sexual risk-taking.

Results: Participants who identified as LGBTQ+ reported lower satisfaction with their sex education (t(318)=2.435, p=.016) than their heterosexual peers. They also reported receiving more messages endorsing the idea that sex is a game (t(314)=-2.724, p=.007) and fewer LGBTQ-affirming messages (t(313)=2.383, p=.018). After controlling for relevant socio-demographics, OLS regression revealed that sexual minority youth had higher rates of sexual risk-taking in both casual (b=.22, p<=.01) and committed (b=.15, p<.05) relationships. There were also links between messaging that “sex is a game” and sexual risk (casual relationships: b=.19, p<.01; committed relationships: b=.18, p<.01). Additionally, when added into the final regression, an interaction term between sexual orientation and sexual messaging was significantly linked with sexual risk in committed relationships (b=-.47, p<.05) suggesting that sexual orientation moderated the relationship between sexual messaging received and sexual risk-taking.

Conclusions and Implications: Sex education messaging may affect sexual risk behavior, especially with regard to LGBTQ+ youth, who are already at greater risk for negative outcomes. Given potential health consequences, more research is needed to better understand school-based sexual messaging and associated risk. It is critical to challenge unhealthy and discriminatory messaging, shift cultural norms, and promote healthier communication within school sex education. Social workers are well-positioned to work within schools and communities to support resources for, and inclusion of, sexual minority youth. The field of social work can and should play a critical role in advocating for, and supporting the creation of, inclusive and socially just sex education for all young people.