For novelist Lev Rosen, school sex ed involved putting condoms on fruit. We need to be much more creative – and fun, he argues
By Lev Rosen
When I was 13 years old, when I knew I was queer but wouldn’t be saying so for a year, I remember some boys at school during lunch talking about gay sex. They called it “gross”, they laughed about it. That’s what I heard from my peers about the topic. I heard nothing from my teachers; I wasn’t about to ask my parents; and the gay people on TV never did more than peck each other on the lips.
Sex education for teens is one of those topics we tend to dance around. No one wants to talk to them about sex. It sounds pervy to tell kids how to have sex – as if you’re ruining their innocence or, worse, grooming them. I don’t know what your sex education was like, but I remember mine: it was putting condoms on bananas.
Fun fact about bananas: they’re all genetically identical. Every banana you’ve eaten is the same as every other banana you’ve eaten. And many of the sex-education classes taught today are exactly the same as the one I attended more than a decade ago. Condoms on bananas, STDs, reproduction – no talk of pleasure or consent, much less gay sex.
So, I wrote a novel for teens that features guides to oral sex, anal sex, and basic BDSM. I didn’t do this just so people had someone new to send hate mail to; I did it because teens have heard all this already from TV, playground talk, and online porn. Even sheltered teens already have some idea about how sex works; pretending they don’t isn’t going to help anyone. And while not all of them want to try these things, those who do, need to know how to do it safely, and with consent. Instead, they learn all of that from the media.
In most media aimed at teens, queer men tend to be sweet and sexless. You’ve seen or read the gay best friend character who talks about how hot guys are but never touches one. Or you’ve experienced mainstream gay romance – with gentle kissing, hand-holding, maybe a hug (fully clothed). Even when they get to say what they want, these boys on TV or in film rarely long for more than a kiss and a cuddle. We never see the mimed, under-the-covers sexy-and-shirtless making-out that our straight peers are treated to. Straight teens get to have sex on TV. Gay ones, not so much.
There’s this thing I call the glass closet: the idea that liberal-minded, well-meaning folks who genuinely don’t think they have a problem with queer people tend to confine them to a rigid definition of “good” queerness. For women, this means not going too butch, usually. For men, it means not going too femme, and also, not being too slutty. “I love gay people, but do they have to be so in-your-face about it?”; “I love gay people – but not being ‘too gay’, OK guys?”
And gay sex? That’s way too gay.
Society likes to keep gay teens sexless. It likes to maintain that gay content (even something non-sexual, like the representation of gay parents) is inappropriate for children’s TV or books. Those who complain say it’s too adult – implying that queerness, essentially, is all about sex, while straightness is just what a normal relationship looks like. It’s a weird dichotomy: straight people holding hands are non-sexual, while queer people holding hands is somehow the same as broadcasting pornography. The message is clear across all media: gays have to be kept sexless because they’re already too much about sex.
And so, if all the gay teenagers on our screens are portrayed as “good” gays, kept safely in the confines of the glass closet, and sex-ed doesn’t discuss more than bananas and STDs, then real queer teens turn to the one place they can see their desires: porn.
If you haven’t seen any gay (male) porn, let me describe most of it: everything is clean and polished (yes, even most of the dirty stuff). Everyone has lots of vocal fun. No one ever flags until they finish.
Of course, porn is fantasy, and the men in these videos do massive prep for these scenes. It looks much easier than it is – that’s half the fantasy. And as fantasy, it’s fine. But as a primary source of education, gay porn leaves young queer men with an idealised, routine set of acts that suggest a (wrongly) regimented set of requirements for “real” queer sex. Standardised sexual imagery, it turns out, is just bananas with abs.
I’ve also spoken to queer women about their sexual education. They didn’t always go to porn for their sex-ed, but they didn’t find it at school or home either. Those who did look for it in porn had the additional problem that the fantasy being presented wasn’t even being presented for them.
“Many young women will encounter lesbian sex through mainstream porn,” says Allison Moon, sex educator and author of Girl Sex 101. “This means everyone, not only girls, can get some very wrong ideas about lesbian sex, because the lesbian sex in mainstream porn is designed for male visual pleasure. So queer women have to navigate male sexuality whether or not it interests them.”
And that leaves queer teens in sex-education classes in an awkward place. Straight teens can ask about things they’ve seen on TV, they can apply condoms-on-bananas to what they learn from the media, and come away with a basic framework of sex. Queer teens can only turn to porn.
The good news is that, in some places, things are changing. When I contacted my old high school to find out how the condom bananas were going, I spoke to the director of health and wellness about how the sex-education curriculum has changed, and how it’s about to change even further.
“We can do better, and we’re on the cusp,” she told me, before going into future plans: a curriculum that covers the usual safe-sex issues, but also talks about consent, healthy relationships, porn literacy and queer sex. I was thrilled to hear it. I may have even become a little teary, thinking about a class of young queer people who get a real sexual education that applies to them.
But not every school does this. And they need to, because queer people are everywhere. We’ve made strides in acceptance, but today I still see gay men in their 20s and 30s online saying they don’t know how things work. I get emails from men saying my book taught them things they wish they had learned as a teen. Teens today tell me that it’s so nice to hear someone talk about gay teens having sex, about how they feel, as though, even if they’re out, they’re still not allowed to act on their desires – or are unsure how.
Right now, teenagers’ choices for learning are two extremes (the “good gay” or the “bad gay”) – neither of which is helpful. Either way, these teens end up feeling as if they’ve done something wrong. And we can fix that so easily. Just start talking about it, teaching it. We do it with straight sex. We can fix this the way we can fix most things in life: just gay it up.
What gay teens should watch and read
Another Gay Movie (2006) A raunchy teen sex comedy about four gay guys trying to lose their virginity before graduating. There are gross sex gags, some nudity, and the pressure to lose one’s virginity is problematic, but if you wanted a queer male version of the American Pie movies (or the more recent Blockers), this is it.
I Killed My Mother (2009) A French-Canadian film that features young gay men having fun, sexy sex without being porn – like many of the straight teens you see on TV today.
Release, by Patrick Ness There are plenty of graphic, but beautifully wrought sex scenes in this book about a queer teen trying to find some freedom for himself in a small American town and with his deeply religious family.
Under The Lights, by Dahlia Adler This fun romp on the set of a Hollywood television show has explicit lesbian sex behind the scenes, as the character deals with who she’s playing on TV, and who she is when she’s with her publicist’s daughter.
Princess Cyd (2017) In this quiet and beautiful film about a teen girl (Cyd) spending the summer with her aunt, there’s one great scene between Cyd and Katie, who is a “little bit boy” (and played by a non-binary actor). It’s exactly the sort of sex we should be seeing everywhere.
• Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by LC Rosen is published in paperback by Penguin on 7 February at £7.99.
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