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Many Teen Girls Don’t Know They Can Get an STI from Other Girls

A new University of British Columbia study looks at high schoolers’ understanding of safe lesbian sex.

Sarah Berman

Sarah Berman

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Remember that sex ed class from your youth when everyone learned to put condoms on bananas? According to a new study out of the University of British Columbia, those lessons aren’t doing much for bisexual and lesbian teen girls.

The paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in collaboration with the non-profit Centre for Innovative Public Health Research reveals some brutal sexual health misconceptions by girls aged 14 to 18 living across the United States. In interviews with 160 teens who self-identified as queer, researchers highlighted major gaps in high school sex education.

“I’ve never thought of the transfer of STDs between girls. I’ve never been taught about STDs between females,” one 15-year-old girl told researchers.

“No one I know has any idea about how to have safe lesbian sex,” responded another 18-year-old. “I looked to the internet when I first started having sex and I didn’t see anything about using protection if you’re a lesbian.”

The researchers argue that many lesbian and bisexual girls don’t know they can get STIs from other girls because sex education is mostly designed for their straight peers. The study suggests STI prevention programs should explicitly address gay and lesbian sex.

“What surprised us was their overall lack of knowledge when it came to safe sex practices with female partners,” UBC youth health researcher Jennifer Wolowic said in a statement. “When we asked why, many told us they didn’t find their sex ed programs—if they even had one—to be very informative. And even when they asked questions, the focus on heterosexual sex made them feel uncomfortable.”

According to the study, risk of STIs and pregnancy is actually on the rise among queer-identifying teen girls. Diseases like HPV can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, or through fluids on shared sex toys.

Many of the respondents associated condoms with pregnancy and didn’t associate them with female sexual partners. Many said they were more trusting of female partners when it comes to sexual health.

The girls surveyed in the study had a bunch of reasons for not wanting to use barrier methods of protection with other girls. Some thought putting on a dental dam would ruin the mood, while others thought it would reduce sensation.

“I never really used a barrier because I felt it would be weird,” reads one 18-year-old’s response. “Like laying down a sheet of plastic over her vagina just doesn’t seem very sexy.”

Others simply didn’t know where to buy them. “Like where the heck do you buy dental dams?” asked one 15-year-old respondent. (For the record, you can order them online or pick them up at your local sex shop—but you’ll admittedly be pressed to find them at a drug store).

Instead of using condoms or dental dams, some of the girls said they prefer getting regularly tested with a long-term partner. “If we’re clean, I’d much rather go without any barriers.”

Many of the sexually active participants said they didn’t use protection, but some said they would use condoms or dental dams during one-night stands in the future. “If it’s a one-time thing, then you should definitely use dental dams or condoms,” one of the teens told researchers. ‘This is mainly because, for one-time flings, you won’t want to ask about STDs or sexual history, especially if you’re in the moment.”

Though the study focused on American teens, UBC nursing professor and lead author Elizabeth Saewyc said researchers find some of the same trends among queer Canadian teens.

Canada has national guidelines in place to ensure sex ed includes info for “sexual minority young people.” But Saewyc says the guidelines “do not provide detailed and specific guidance on what kind of information is relevant, and schools may or may not provide age-appropriate and medically accurate information that is up to date for LGBTQ youth.”

“Young people need accurate sexual health information, but sex education has traditionally focused on heterosexual sex,” said Saewyc. “Our findings suggest that we need to create a more inclusive curriculum to help lesbian and bisexual girls have the knowledge they need to make healthy sexual decisions.”

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