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Harm Reduction, what's that? And what's it got to do with Sex Education?

In this week’s zine, we take a deeper dive into harm reduction, we will look at what harm reduction is, and what harm reduction has to do with sex education. Harm reduction as a strategy and the wider social justice movement rooted in destigmatization, respect, and human rights. Using the tools of the harm reduction method, we can reduce the risks of sexual activities whilst growing together towards a point of holistic sexual destigmatization, respect, and human rights in all sectors.

What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction refers to two things, a method, and a movement.

  • The Method: Harm reduction is: a set of practical strategies, ideas, and tools which have the goal of reducing negative consequences, or risks related to drug use and other risk-potential activities.

  • The Movement: Harm reduction is also a wider social justice movement. According to the National Harm Reduction Coalition, this movement is “built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”

Subjectivity of Risk

Risk is a part of everyone’s life. Many day-to-day activities have a certain element of risk: driving to work every day, for example, is risky because there is always a possibility of getting in a car accident. There are things one can do to reduce risks of driving like driving safely, knowing the rules of the road, and wearing a seatbelt. Isn’t it funny to think about how seatbelts are harm reduction tools?

Most people do not think of daily driving as a big risk. That is because certain risky activities like driving are normalized while others such as sex work, drug use, and some sexual activities are criminalized. Risk is subjective meaning folks define what to them as a “risky” or “dangerous” activity. We may not always agree with each other but it is our responsibility to provide the tools and resources to accurately gauge risk and reduce harm whenever possible.

Harm Reduction in Practice

Harm reduction focuses on reducing risk instead of eliminating risky behaviors. At the core of this framework is treating every person with dignity. Within this framework, no one is shamed, ostracized, or criminalized for engaging in risky behaviors. Rather, people are educated, offered clean and safe spaces, and are cared for. This method demands interventions and policies that reflect this holistic human-centered approach. There is no one definition or rule book for applying harm reduction, however, examples of methods include:

  • Creating safe, clean spaces to use

  • Offering free syringes and safe disposal

  • Educating people on risk reduction practices

  • Managing use through medications like naloxone

  • Providing alternative practices or therapeutic care

  • Addressing conditions of use along with the use itself

  • Meeting people who use drugs “where they’re at”

What does harm reduction have to do with sex education?

Across much of the world, the model of education regarding issues of sex and sexuality is through fear of risk, rather than risk reduction. This risk-based paradigm means that the goal of giving any sexual information is to entirely avoid the risks of sexual activity, by abstaining from sex altogether rather than learn skills to reduce risk and experience pleasure. In public education sex, and especially pleasure, is often viewed as a “risk” to fully avoid (for example- abstinence-only “education” methods) similarly to drugs. It has been proven time and time again that telling youth to abstain from something, whether sex or drugs, is a damaging, ineffective mode of “education.”

Sex indeed has risks both healthwise and emotionally. A harm reduction framework is highly useful in the context of sex education to allow folks to accurately gauge and reduce their risk. Holistic sexual health education reduces potential risk by providing young people with tools and information on:

  • Safer sex practices

  • Contraception

  • Consent

  • Healthy relationships

Abstinence-only education methods deprive young people of the tools and information they need to keep themselves safe. “Just say no” does not work. Youth deserve an education that gives them tools to safely engage with risks and pleasures in the world around them. Abstinence-only education treats sex as something shameful which can lead to a lack of consent awareness and other dangers for young people.

Principles of Harm Reduction*

*Created by the National Harm Reduction Coalition, visualized by Queer Sex Ed CC.

Harm reduction means learning, working together, and creating a better, safer world without criminalizing activities, what could be better than that? Harm reduction can and does save lives. To learn more about harm reduction, sign up for free harm reduction training, and more: visit

As usual, let us know what you think! We're always interested in hearing from our readers so feel free to email, comment, or slide into our DMs.

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