Comment: Sex education can help stop the rise of HIV in young gay men

Deborah Jack May 15, 2009
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Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust (NAT), argues that rising HIV rates in young gay men means the government must ensure all schools provide sex education for gay students.

Fewer than 20 years ago, homosexuality was still listed by the World Health Organisation on its list of mental disorders. That classification was removed on May 17th 1990 and since then we have marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia every May 17th.

As with many such occasions it highlights how far we have come in a short time but it also draws attention to the parts of society where homophobia remains.

For those working in the HIV sector it is clear that homophobia continues to drive the spread of HIV around the world. The arrest of six gay men conducting HIV prevention work in Senegal earlier this year is a stark reminder of this.

Homophobia also constrains HIV prevention work here in the UK, not least in our education system. Gay students are not provided with sex and relationships education that is equal to that received by their straight peers and we are seeing the results in rising HIV infections.

The last two years have seen the highest ever recorded number of HIV diagnoses among gay men in the UK. Particularly worrying has been the rise in the numbers of young gay men being diagnosed with HIV. Diagnoses in this group have more than doubled in the last decade, from 128 in 1998 to 281 in 2007.

Sex and relationships education is not just about preventing teenage pregnancy; it is also about the long-term health of our young people. Yet in the UK, the education needs of our young gay men are often an afterthought. The recent government-sponsored Condom: Essential Wear adverts prove that gay relationships are not represented and HIV is not mentioned.

Earlier this month, the Department of Children, Schools and Families published its review of the proposal to make PSHE compulsory in schools. It has been a long hard fight to get the government to agree that comprehensive sex and relationship education should be compulsory in all schools and that this should include discussion of same-sex relationships. So it is incredibly disappointing that already commitments are faltering.

The government has said that schools will be given discretion to teach sex education in line with “the context, values and ethos of the school”. For those faith schools where beliefs condemn homosexuality – this could mean the current inequality will remain. It risks being a cop-out by a government that says it is committed to equality for all, irrespective of sexual orientation.

The government is considering the detail of its sex and relationship education requirements at the moment. So it is vital that over the coming months, as decisions are made as to what is ‘core’ in sex and relationships education, that voices are shouting for the rights of young gay men in the classroom. No school, no parent, has the right to deny a young gay man respectful and supportive education about his sexuality and his health.

In the UK, one in 20 gay men have HIV but HIV is not inevitable. Nineteen out of 20 gay men in the UK don’t have HIV. A real commitment to the education and health of young gay men could equip the next generation to avoid HIV infection.

NAT will continue to push this government, and the next, to take the issue of same-sex relationships in education seriously. Not just to protect the health of our younger generations, but because it is right in a society that claims to value equality.

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