When Even LGBTQ Sex Ed Is Plagued By The Gender Binary

“All my sex toys are femme when I use them, because I’m femme.”

Gender symbols drawn on a blackboard
Gender symbols drawn on a blackboard Photo by Shutterstock

As a sex educator, I’m constantly pushing myself to learn more, better understand different sexual experiences, and be more inclusive in my work. Especially when I’m working with youth. Any type of educator knows that the knowledge we empower young people with does just that—empowers. With this knowledge, we hope that these young people will grow to make the best decisions for themselves. We don’t get to be alongside them when they make these decisions, so we shouldn’t leave out information that might be vital to the learning process.

But we do that every day when it comes to sex education. Whether we leave out information on pleasure, different sexual identities, communication, or how to deal with STIs—we are leaving gaping holes in the knowledge we allow young people to have about sex.

We are gate keeping information that is vital to their health and pleasure. And I’m not okay with it.

I recently attended and presented at Woodhul’s Sexual Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. It’s an opportunity for people who work in sex ed, sex therapy, sex work, or sex blogging to learn from one another. I was so excited! I’m still budding when it comes to my sex educator credentials so I was eager to learn from those who have been paving the way in this field. I was ready to be a sponge, soaking up all the new information!

When looking over the workshops on the bus down to D.C. I immediately bookmarked one titled “Femme/Butch Sexversations.” I turned to my friend sitting next to me on the awful, freezing Greyhound and said: “This is going to be amazing—we have to go to this one.”

Walking into the workshop on Day 2 of the conference, I was a little fatigued but ready to join the conversation. Much to my immediate dismay, I realized the absence of a femme presenting person on the panel. I turned to my femme friend and we exchanged skeptical looks. Turns out, they had 3 butch women and 1 femme person scheduled to speak, but the femme person had to cancel last minute because of lacking childcare (so real!). This seemed like the perfect opportunity for the conversation to bring up the imbalance of labor femmes often feel—from emotional labor, to physical labor, to care labor, we’re often left taking on the brunt of it. This was never mentioned.

However, one of the butch women did ask my friend Cameron Glover to talk about her identity as a femme to ensure they had “femme representation.” Cameron eloquently and powerfully put into words what so many femmes feel daily. “Femme connects us to a community, it’s not so much about hair and nails and makeup—I mean that stuff is great too. It’s more about connecting me to powerful femmes and people who inspire me to use my voice and to get shit done,” Cameron told the audience (insert proud friend moment!).

Cameron Glover speaking about femme experience
Cameron Glover speaking about femme experience  Photo by Corinne Werder

For me, that moment was the highlight of the entire workshop. After that, the conversation went from pretty binary to hella binary, real quick. It was as if butch meant “man” and femme meant “woman” to these presenters. They attempted to get the audience to identify which sex toys they saw as butch or femme. Yet again, Cameron raised her hand and said: “All my sex toys are femme when I use them because I’m femme.” So true! Sex toys don’t have genders—try telling my sparkly, purple dildo that she’s butch. I think not.

From there the presenters had two audience members (one butch, one femme of course) enact a demonstration of putting on a strap-on. The presenter instructed the butch woman to put on the strap—instead of allowing the two people participating to communicate and decide who would wear the strap-on, which is how it should work in a real sexual dynamic of introducing a toy into the act. At this point, I was so disappointed by the presentation and the gaping holes it was leaving for everyone in the room. What they presented was a very basic and super binary surface level exploration into lesbian femme/butch dynamics.

These binary assumptions are damaging for so many reasons. Not only do these assumptions uphold heteronormativity and pigeonhole people into specific sexual experiences that might not be in line with their actual desires—they leave out so many LGBTQ people. They leave out femme4femme and stud4stud relationships, they ignore gender-nonconforming folks, they ignore trans folks, they ignore femme dommes, and masc subs. When we leave out the very people we set out to include by creating LGBTQ specific sex ed—we are gate-keeping information from young people by not allowing them to feel seen in their desires and identities.

Just the other day GO posted the article “I’m Femme, Do I Have To Be A Bottom?” on our Facebook page and received so many “obviously, no” type comments (which were all on point, btw). One person saying “No need to bother reading this article. The answer is a hard “no,” and it’s sad that the question need even be asked in 2017. Read a book, this topic has been covered tons already. For years.” And yet—though we’ve been having these conversations for years, we somehow still end up in the same place of perpetuating gender binaries and heteronormativity in our very queer sexual experiences.

That’s part of the problem within this topic, we seem to have people who know it all and think all the information is very accessible (i.e. the Facebook commenter) and then we have educators and the likes teaching very dated and binary concepts like these butch women at the conference. Everyone in-between these two realms is left wondering where to go for information that is affirming to their experience? They can’t seem to find it within sex education and it becomes intimidating when everyone in your community already seems to have the knowledge you crave. When it comes to sex ed, so many of us were left in the dark for so long (and still are). That’s why educators have to start at the basics and go from there—we can’t assume that everyone knows that butches don’t always have to play the role of top.

Holistic sex ed is an approach that takes into account the LGBTQ community and though it’s becoming more widely implemented into curriculum these days, we still fall prey to heteronormative assumptions. I urge sex educators—LGBTQ self-identified or not—to push beyond these assumptions, ask yourself where they came from, and explore new ways of teaching outside the binary with your students.

We all deserve access to knowledge that will empower us to make the best possible sexual decisions for ourselves.