The Sex Education Debates

The Sex Education Debates

by Nancy Kendall

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Educating children and adolescents in public schools about sex is a deeply inflammatory act in the United States. Since the 1980s, intense political and cultural battles have been waged between believers in abstinence until marriage and advocates for comprehensive sex education. In The Sex Education Debates, Nancy Kendall upends conventional thinking about these battles by bringing the school and community realities of sex education to life through the diverse voices of students, teachers, administrators, and activists.   Drawing on ethnographic research in five states, Kendall reveals important differences and surprising commonalities shared by purported antagonists in the sex education wars, and she illuminates the unintended consequences these protracted battles have, especially on teachers and students. Showing that the lessons that most students, teachers, and parents take away from these battles are antithetical to the long-term health of American democracy, she argues for shifting the measure of sex education success away from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates. Instead, she argues, the debates should focus on a broader set of social and democratic consequences, such as what students learn about themselves as sexual beings and civic actors, and how sex education programming affects school-community relations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226922294
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/03/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,083,769
File size: 746 KB

About the Author

Nancy Kendall is assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

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The Sex Education Debates


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92229-4

Chapter One


The Battle over Sex Education in the United States

The statistics are grim: the United States has the highest rates of adolescent and unwanted pregnancies among industrialized countries, one in three girls will become pregnant before the age of twenty, and four out of every one hundred girls will give birth to a baby before they are twenty years old (CDC 2010b). Sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates among US teens are some of the highest in the industrialized world, and one in four adolescents between the ages of fourteen and nineteen has already been diagnosed with an STI (Forhan et al. 2009).

In response to these realities, there has been a sea change in public support for school-based sex education. In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and rising teen pregnancy and STI rates led to political and grassroots advocacy for school involvement in sex education. Since that time, the vast majority of public schools have begun offering some form of sex education to their students (Kaiser Family Foundation 2000), and the vast majority of parents and teachers say they approve of this change (National Public Radio, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Kennedy School of Government 2004).

Beyond this broad approval, however, public discussion indicates that there is little agreement about what forms of sex education should be taught in schools. Should students be taught about contraception? Abortion? Sexual identity? Should they learn relationship skills? Practice refusal skills? Teach each other about sex? Practice putting condoms on cucumbers?

The content of sex education programs has become a key battlefield in the so-called culture wars, and sex education has been cast in terms of two diametrically opposed positions. On one side are Abstinence Only Until Marriage education (AOUME) proponents, who support the belief that sex is private and sacred and that abstinence is the only morally correct option for unmarried people. On the other side are Comprehensive Sexuality education (CSE) proponents, who believe that sex is a natural act and that people are empowered by receiving complete and correct information they can use to improve their sexual decision-making and, by extension, their health (Luker 2006).

This divide shapes the legal, political, media, research, resource, and curricular debates that occur throughout the country, producing a highly contentious and shifting policy arena that involves some of the most important actors and institutions in Americans' daily lives: families, friends, religious institutions, schools, government actors, and the media. Over the past decade, a tension has built between those policy makers who favor AOUME approaches, and the general public and sex education researchers, who tend to favor some type of abstinence-emphasizing CSE (e.g., Bleakley, Hennessy, and Fishbein 2006). The policy makers seem to be winning: in 1988, one in fifty teachers who taught sex education reported that they were required by school, district, or state officials to teach abstinence-only approaches; by 1999, this figure was one in four (Dailard 2001). Between 1996 and 2010, the federal government provided over $1.5 billion to fund AOUME activities throughout the United States, but provided no resources to fund school-based CSE activities until 2010 (SIECUS 2010).

There is recent and uneven movement away from the trend of federal and state policy makers supporting AOUME approaches. A mounting body of scientific evidence indicating the limited success of AOUME programs in meeting their stated goals has led to recent federal cuts to AOUME funding (Landau 2010), and new federal funding may support abstinence-based CSE programs. An increasing number of state governments have stopped accepting federal AOUME funding and have passed legislation declaring that sex education curricula must present "medically accurate" information—a strike at AOUME curricula, which are often charged with misrepresenting sexual health and contraceptive facts (e.g., United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform 2004). Recent positive evaluations of abstinence-based (not AOUME) programs have generated interest in mixed abstinence-based and CSE programming, potentially tailored to specific student populations. At the same moment, however, some states are returning to stricter AOUME policies after adopting more CSE-supportive policies.

Caught in the middle of these debates and policy shifts, public school teachers, parents, students, and administrators are trying to navigate the highly charged terrain of talking with kids about sex in a public institution. I decided to write this book because I have become increasingly concerned with the growing divide between teens' daily experiences with sex and sexuality and adults' school-based efforts to inform and regulate these experiences. The debates about school-based sex education have made it harder for schools to be responsive to students' concerns and needs, have often negatively affected student, teacher, and community relations, and have played a key role in reshaping our national commonsense notions of who has the right to influence decisions about what happens in public schools. The issues surrounding school-based sex education are thus twofold: what adults try to teach teens about sex, and what lessons students, teachers, district officials, and parents learn about their roles, rights, and responsibilities in shaping public institutions like schools. On both fronts, I will argue, school-based sex education is not serving us well.

The ethnographic research on which this book is based was conducted in schools, communities, and districts in five states in the United States. In examining the voices and actions of teachers, students, parents, district officials, and sex education instructors, activists, and advocates, the book reveals some disturbing trends concerning both the formal lessons students are learning about "the facts" of sex and sexuality, and the hidden lessons that students and teachers are learning about equity, social relations and expectations, and democratic participation and processes.

Consequences Matter

Sex education is important in and of itself, but also because it reflects and influences central facets of our society and democracy. The evidence from this study suggests that (1) school-based sex education, as currently conceptualized and practiced, is not doing a lot of good for students, schools, or communities; (2) in order to improve sex education and students' experience of it, we need to better understand the full range of consequences, intended and unintended, of different sex education approaches; and (3) by paying more attention to sex education practices and consequences, instead of just policies and official outcomes, we can shift the debates about and daily experiences that constitute school-based sex education and civic engagement in public schools. If we reframe the sex education debate from one of official policies to one of sociopolitical consequences, then rather than AOUME and CSE supporters sparring over how to best decrease pregnancy and STI rates through formal programming interventions, we could focus on how students, teachers, parents, schools, and communities interact around these issues. These patterns of interaction would serve as a basis to determine how school-based sex education experiences can support physically, emotionally, socially, politically, and economically healthier teens, as well as more engaged and more democratically inclined students and community members.

The premise of this work is that understanding the range of intended and unintended consequences of sex education practices on US public schools and students is a necessary springboard to improving sex education. To that end, this book argues for a shift in our national conversations away from a focus on the official policies (such as federal AOUME definitions), content (the formal curriculum in a school), and official outcomes (such as reported changes in STI rates) of sex education and toward a focus on the sociopolitical consequences of sex education. These consequences include the lessons students and parents learn about themselves as sexual and social beings, about how we as a country make decisions and talk about sex in public institutions, about critical thinking, about broader school and social mores and values, and about appropriate forms of civic engagement with public institutions.

What Is School-Based Sex Education, Anyway?

Current debates and research concerning the effectiveness of different school-based sex education approaches are important because they reveal some of the key ideological assumptions underlying AOUME and CSE approaches—assumptions that largely account for the unintended, inequitable, and undemocratic consequences that I observed resulting from sex education programs in public schools. The section below describes the kinds of sex education approaches I observed and lays out in broad strokes the central ideological concerns of each. It also defines terms used throughout the book, many of which are contentious and used in a variety of ways in sex education literatures.


AOUME approaches are based on a moral framework that derives from a particular interpretation of biblical and contemporary Christian texts. Many of the people and organizations involved in the national AOUME movement, and most of the popular AOUME curricula, come from the New Christian Right, a term I use to denote a heterogeneous group of socially conservative evangelical Christian people and organizations that seek to shape the social and political cultures of the United States through direct involvement in political, legal, and social movements and activism.

Since its inception in the 1970s, individuals and institutions of the New Christian Right have been more or less unified in their approaches to engaging the secular world and their calls for a reconstruction of American culture and society based on God's authority, as transmitted through and reflected in the "traditional family" (Liebman and Wuthnow 1983). The movement operates within a religious framework that makes particular claims about biblical truth and its connection to patriotism and national morality (Rose 1989). Although not all members of the New Christian Right are in agreement on all issues, central components of this ideological framework include the idea that the nuclear family is the basic unit of identity, community, and nation, that the male is the head of the family and adults have authority over children, that these hierarchies are biblically ordained and necessary to the social order, that sex is a sacred act that should be kept private and within marriage, that sex that occurs outside of marriage is socially destructive, and that when sinful behavior is widespread, the sinner, society, and nation all suffer.

AOUME proponents believe that teaching students these values will help restore the country's morality and cure "social ills" including homosexuality, single-parent families, and the STI epidemic. As such, although the recipient of school-based AOUME is the student, conceptually the nuclear family is the primary unit of social analysis and importance in AOUME approaches. Moreover, although proponents often draw on public health rationales to argue for AOUME approaches, for members of the New Christian Right, AOUME is not fundamentally (public) health education but moral education.

The federal role in defining AOUME

The federal government played a key role in the first decade of the twenty-first century in defining which programs would qualify for federal AOUME funding through what are commonly called the federal A-H guidelines. These guidelines emphasize the core AOUME beliefs that abstinence before marriage is the only morally acceptable and healthy behavioral option for teens, and that sex outside of marriage has negative implications for individuals and society. Abstinence programs that do not specifically embody these moral prescriptions are not eligible to receive federal AOUME funding.

In 1996 large-scale federal support for AOUME created a new funding mechanism for individuals and organizations to develop, market, and profit from AOUME materials and programs (Pruitt 2007). States' capacity to fund AOUME advocacy organizations and to provide free AOUME services to schools, community groups, and religious institutions was dramatically expanded. To access these federal resources, organizations had to standardize their programs in terms of both the A-H guidelines and federal rules concerning the separation of church and state. Federal involvement thus narrowed the range of AOUME curricula and programs implemented in public schools to a portion of all existing AOUME curricula. In this study, when I talk about AOUME curricula and programs, I am referring only to those programs that have or could have been implemented in public schools with federal AOUME funding. A number of AOUME curricula and programs have two versions: one for use in churches and by families, and one for use in public schools. This book refers to only the second version.


Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is less clearly defined than AOUME. There is no official definition tied to federal resources or monitoring processes, and the actors and institutions involved in creating curricula and programs have historically been more ideologically and disciplinarily diverse than those in the AOUME movement. CSE definitions come into being for various reasons: for example, some are developed in response to AOUME approaches and claim to positively address topics (such as contraception, abortion, and sexual identity) that AOUME programs do not. Others, often crafted by individuals and organizations that have been involved in CSE for decades, reflect institutional mandates (for example, to serve Latin@ youth or improve teenage girls' reproductive health). The latter include frameworks developed by groups such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and Planned Parenthood, curricula developed by groups such as the Unitarian Church, and compendia of best-practice programs and curricula put together by sex educators, community leaders, and others. CSE programs range from those that strongly emphasize the benefits of abstinence but provide extensive facts about contraceptive devices to programs designed to support adolescents' positive exploration of their own sexuality. Still other programs focus on building self-esteem or exploring sexual identity and identity-based bullying.

CSE programs implemented in public schools generally understand sex and sexuality to be natural aspects of individuals, each of whom has the right to explore and represent their sexuality as they see fit so long as they do not impinge on others' right to do the same. Most CSE supporters view themselves first and foremost as providing scientifically "complete and correct" information to adolescents, who are thereby empowered to make better individual decisions about their sexual behavior and health. In practice, however, as McKay (1998) points out, these ideals of rational individual agency, scientific rationality, and political liberalism combine to create a set of assumptions about what "healthy sexuality" looks like that is more constrained than might be imagined. CSE supporters claim that their approaches are based on scientific evidence and a rational public-health model, and therefore do not constitute morality education. However, like AOUME models, CSE models are shaped by embedded assumptions about what constitutes "good" individual decision-making and "good" sexual behavior and relations.


The rhetoric in the sex education debates often makes it seem that there only exist AOUME and CSE approaches. In fact, between these approaches lies a vast (and expanding) range of programs that are often classified as "abstinence," "abstinence-plus," "abstinence-based," or "abstinence-centered" programs.

A growing number of researchers and policy makers view "abstinence-and" approaches as efforts to combine the strengths of AOUME and CSE approaches into a new formulation that emphasizes abstinence as the healthiest and best alternative for adolescents, but that does not present sex-negative messages and provides more information about topics like contraception than traditional AOUME approaches, do. Pruitt describes the difference between AOUME and "abstinence-and" approaches as follows:

Abstinence-only essentially tells youth not to have sex and is unconcerned for those who don't take the directive. Abstinence-plus tells kids to remain abstinent but allows for those who don't listen. That allowance means that sometimes abstinence-plus programs teach about contraception. Abstinence-plus programs, by the way, usually do not meet the letter of the law as stated in the A-H definition. (Pruitt 2007, 3)


Excerpted from The Sex Education Debates by NANCY KENDALL Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Sex Education Research and Policies

Part I: Microanalyses of Sex Education
Chapter 3. Florida’s “It’s Great to Wait” Campaign: The State as Manager, Marketer, and Moral Arbiter
Chapter 4. “It’s a Local Thing”: Sex Education as Compromise and Choice in Wyoming
Chapter 5. No Idea Is Bad, No Opinion Is Wrong, but Knowledge Is Power: Sex Education in Wisconsin (coauthored with Kathleen Elliott)
Chapter 6. Engaging Diversity: Sex Education for All in California

Part II: Macroanalyses of Sex Education

Chapter 7. Morality Tales: Adolescent Desire, Disease, and Fertility in Sex Education Programs
Chapter 8. “Men Are Microwaves, Women Are Crock-Pots”: Gender Roles in AOUME and CSE
Chapter 9. “What Are We Doing about the Homosexual Threat?”: Scientism, Sexual Identity, and Sexuality Education
Chapter 10. Rape as Consuming Desire and Gendered Responsibility
Chapter 11. Concluding Thoughts: Sex Education as Civics Education?
Appendix 1
Appendix 2

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