Critical Topics, General Articles

Advancing Inclusivity: The Impact of Gender Segregation in Sex Education

by Fola Wilson, MPH

Often, when sex education is taught in schools (especially among younger grades), students are broken into two groups – girls and boys. In these segregated spaces, students learn about their developing bodies—what’s normal and what’s not, and the basics of reproduction. Sometimes, after they finish their separate discussions, the groups come together to share what they have learned. The intention behind separating students into “boy” and “girl” groups has been rationalized by educators as providing a more open and comfortable space where students can discuss body parts and functions with peers who share the same characteristics. While this rationale is respectable (we all want students to feel comfortable learning about sexuality and their bodies), the unspoken and unintentional harm far outweighs any benefits. Segregation in this form excludes students beyond the binary, perpetuates sexist perceptions of gender and sexuality, and fuels inadequate and incorrect information.

Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes in Educational Settings

When schools segregate sex ed by gender in sex education classes, the information presented to students may be influenced by or perpetuate stigma or gendered stereotypes—leaving students with misinformation and unstandardized content matter. In the “boy talks,” it’s common for conversations around masturbation and erections to come up, and teachers reassure students that their feelings and functions are normal (think, “wet dreams” and “morning wood”). Because of societal expectations of how women should present their sexuality, in “girl talks,” many teachers shy away from discussing arousal and masturbation or may supplement this information with stigma. As a result, students learn harmful stereotypes such as women are inherently less sexual than men and that women who do seek arousal and pleasure are hypersexual, masculine, or promiscuous. Teachers should be educating students about anatomy and bodily functions without reinforcing gender norms and stigmatizing those who do not comply with those stereotypes.

The Consequences of Insufficient Sex Education

When discussions are focused on the anatomy of one sex, students receive insufficient information about other sexes. At some point in a person’s life, they will explore their sexuality. When individuals explore their sexuality with someone who is dissimilar, they are approaching sexuality without a clear understanding. Without sufficient information about other sexes, youth may be unprepared or rely on other means such as pornography, media, peers, or the Internet to understand other bodies. This defeats a core purpose of sex education as it can lead to misinformation or inappropriate sexualization and may lead to unintended pregnancy, STI transmission, or otherwise impact their sexual and reproductive well-being.

Challenging Heteronormativity and Gender Binaries

Segregated sex education creates a “girls vs boys” dynamic that fails to prepare youth for adulthood by limiting their understanding of gender, sexuality, and sexual health. By perpetuating this dynamic, students learn that the content discussed during sex education instruction, such as sex, sexuality, and anatomy, should not be talked about with members of different genders, which could create challenges in communicating consent, sexual desires, or discomfort. In addition, segregating by gender reinforces heteronormativity, completely dismissing the experiences of LGBTQIA+ students.

Inclusivity in Sex Education for Trans and Gender-Nonconforming Students

Importantly, separating sex education by gender can harm trans, gender-nonconforming, and intersex youth. Separating students by gender can pressure transgender students to out themselves or closet themselves, which can create a host of emotional and social challenges. Gender nonconforming, nonbinary, or two-spirit youth may feel discomfort or dysphoria choosing and participating in classes of binary gender categories. Similarly, intersex youth may feel discomfort selecting a gender to align with if their gender does not fall within binary categories. One purpose of separating sex education is to provide sex-specific information about the anatomy and puberty of males and females. However, this gives insufficient information on the experiences of transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex youth, whether that be changes relative to puberty blockers, hormone therapy (for older teens), as well as differences in puberty for intersex youth. The information and delivery of sex education must ensure the safety and inclusion of transgender, gender-expansive, and intersex students.

Teacher Preparation and Community Involvement in Sex Education

Often, the segregation of sex education is used to make teachers and parents/guardians more comfortable. Some teachers do not feel equipped with the knowledge or preparation to adequately communicate with youth about sexuality, reproductive anatomy, or the ways that local law impacts their access to health, especially if their gender is perceived as different from the student. Connecting with students about sexual health topics can be challenging, but teachers shared that professional development offered by their schools helped to alleviate discomfort for themselves and their students when teaching sex education (regardless of the student’s gender). Additionally, parents and teachers may be worried that discussing sex and contraception options in an inclusive classroom environment will lead to increased sexual activity, however, three decades of research have found the contrary.

A Vision for Inclusive and Empowering Sex Education

SIECUS imagines sex education as a safe and inclusive space where students are encouraged to explore their own identities and values and understand the needs of their peers without being restricted to binary notions of sex and gender. With proper resources for teachers, the classroom environment can be inclusive, empowering, and respectful for all young people. These classrooms should provide students with the information and the skills they need to make informed decisions and communicate their needs effectively.

While comfort is a primary argument for segregating sex education classrooms, a little discomfort when talking about sex, sexuality, and anatomy is normal (for both the educator and the student). Many students and educators have not had space to discuss these topics openly and may be ingrained with the idea that these topics are shameful, private matters. However, educators are responsible for creating a space that normalizes some discomfort, respects student boundaries, and de-stigmatizes these conversations. Sex education teachers can create a safe classroom by incorporating anonymous question boxes, embracing cultural diversity, and utilizing multiple learning strategies. In practice, educators must have the proper resources, training, and preparation to facilitate discussions and ensure diverse experiences are valued.

Supporting the Development of Sex Education

Investments in the training and curricula development for sex education teachers are crucial to improve the inclusivity of sex education, enhance comprehension of sex education material, and ensure educators feel confident in the classroom. SIECUS is a founding member of the Sex Education Collaborative, which strengthens the infrastructure for educator training on sex education that is grounded in equity and social justice and is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate, inclusive, medically accurate, sex positive, and trauma-informed through the Training Hub. SIECUS supports the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program, which is a national, evidence-based grant program that funds the implementation of effective and innovative approaches to prevent teen pregnancy, prevent sexually transmitted infections among youth, and promote positive youth development. Community organizations can apply for this funding to give their educators the most effective preparation. Legislators can expand the mission of the TPP program by passing the Real Education and Access for Youth Act, which would repeal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and grant funding to the Department of Health and Human Services to train education professionals to effectively teach, and otherwise support, sex education that aligns with the National Sex Education Standards.

Special Thanks to Nicole Cushman, Alison Macklin, Nawal Umar, and the SIECUS policy team for their contributions to this article.


SIECUS envisions sex education that is inclusive of all genders, sexualities, and bodies, promotes safety and security within communities, and provides a comprehensive understanding of gender, sexuality, and anatomy. The content, structure, and accessibility of sex education are each important in ensuring youth can communicate effectively, explore their own identities and values, and grow into sexually healthy adults.

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