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Sex Ed for Caring Schools Creating an Ethics-Based Curriculum

reviewed by Colleen McLaughlin & Alireza Tabatabaie - February 16, 2015

coverTitle: Sex Ed for Caring Schools Creating an Ethics-Based Curriculum
Author(s): Sharon Lamb
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775398X, Pages: 168, Year: 2013
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Despite having strong theoretical and evidence-based support, sex education still remains one of the most difficult educational challenges across the world. Sex Ed for Caring Schools: Creating an Ethics-Based Curriculum reflects on the problematic of school-based sex education, particularly in the US. The current discourse on comprehensive sex education in the US is largely dominated by a rights-based argument in which the emphasis is placed on young people's entitlement to sexual health and well-being. Sharon Lamb takes a distinctive approach: she examines and advocates comprehensive sex education from an ethics-based perspective and ties school-based sex education to the notions of ‘democracy’, ‘citizenship’, and ‘ethics’. This book is written in a reader-friendly but highly scholarly style and is based on Sharon Lamb’s faith and belief in adolescents; a faith that is central to this book and central to envisioning a democratic society:

Adolescents … are loyal, imaginative risk takers …, ready to devote themselves to strong causes, with full access to emotional life that fuels them. Rather than the randy, hormonal, confused troublemakers or innocents whose impulsivity prevents them from making good decisions, I choose to see teens not as people to control, but as people to inspire and be inspired by. (p. 18)

Sex Ed for Caring Schools serves three purposes: first, to introduce the reader to the field of sex education; second, to provide the reader with an overview of critiques and an opportunity to take a critical stance towards some of the important aspects of sex education; and finally, to present a new view of comprehensive sex education that is rooted in a democratic, ethical, liberal arts perspective, and emphasizes education on character, citizenship, and caring—the three Cs.  Written primarily for pre-service teachers and other graduate students in education who may teach sex education classes in the US, Sex Ed for Caring Schools can also be used by a wider geographical audience and all stakeholders involved in adolescent sex education, including teachers, principals, board members, and parents.

In Chapter One, Lamb discusses the history of sex education in the US and argues for the importance of addressing ethics in a sex education curriculum. Lamb notes that fundamental to a democratic society is democratic education, and central to democratic education is teaching ethics and moral education. Based on this, she argues that schools—as major agents of nurturing good democratic citizens—have an important duty to address, through their comprehensive sex education practices, “not only the personal and health issues of adolescents, but the ways in which they can become and behave like good sexual citizens” (p. 10).    

Chapter Two is a comprehensive and balanced critical discussion of the current major trends in sex education in the US. Examining both abstinence until marriage and comprehensive sex education programs, she describes the current practice of sex education in the US today to be as ‘a sad picture’:

Curricula are riddled with stereotypes; tend to exclude LGBTQ youth; do not support democratic education; skirt around the idea of pleasure; show a White, middle-class, heterosexist bias; have been shown to be ineffective with regard to prevention of STIs, pregnancy, and first sex; and, perhaps most importantly, have lost their ethical focus. (p. 43)  

Based on such a criticism, she moves on in Chapter Three to present an in-depth exploration of the kinds of ethics sex education curricula should endorse. Highlighted in this chapter is a discussion of the ‘Ethics of Care’ (p. 48) in which care is prioritized over justice to protect groups that have less power. She encourages teachers in sex education classes to engage their pupils in discussion of ethical dilemmas and questions in order to nurture their ethical thinking and reasoning and learn what an adequate justification for ethical behavior is.

Chapter Four presents guidelines for creating and implementing an ethical, democratic, and caring sex education curriculum. It includes examples of activities that will be found very useful by teachers in preparation as well as experienced teachers. For example, she advises that such an ethical, democratic, and caring sex education curriculum encourages students to think deeply and broadly about the ethics that underline sexual decisions, attitudes and behaviors through encouraging them to engage in discussions in the classroom and reading outside the class.

In Chapter Five, Lamb examines, in depth, the kinds of ethics students need to develop to facilitate their interpersonal interactions involving sex and then in Chapter Six she discusses the societal aspects of ethics in sex education, which aims to nurture democratic sexual citizens.

This is a timely and brave book. Its candid approach and acknowledgement of the reality in which teachers and young people find themselves is welcome indeed. The failure of sex education to acknowledge and seriously engage with the highly sexualized world that young people live in and the growing number of sexual matters in society are two very strong reasons to change our approach. The topics with which Sharon Lamb wants us to engage (e.g., pornography, sexual violence, gender stereotyping, objectification, prostitution, and religion) are the central moral, social, and personal issues of our time. The critical pedagogy approach informs this book and its ideas and seems entirely appropriate and useful. She argues, convincingly, for the need to bring ethics back into the liberal discourse around education. Leaving ethical discussions out of sex education and concentrating only on sexual health is to the detriment of young people and their need to engage with a complex world. This book will make a major contribution to a new debate about sex education: one that acknowledges the centrality of sexuality, sexual relations, socio political sexual matters, morality, and democracy in all of our lives. It will make the task of sex educators rightly complex and challenging.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17863, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:05:22 PM

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About the Author
  • Colleen McLaughlin
    University of Sussex
    E-mail Author
    COLLEEN MCLAUGHLIN is a Professor of Education and Head of Department at the University of Sussex. She has worked in the field of sex education for many years and has just completed a major research project in Sub Saharan Africa on engaging young people and the community in school sexuality education. This approach is now being replicated in Australia. This is reported in McLaughlin, C., Swartz, S., Kiragu, S., Walli, S. and Muhamed, M. (2012) Old Enough To Know: Consulting Children on African Sexualities. Cape Town, SA: Human Sciences Research Council Press.

    Related publications:

    McLaughlin, C. & Swartz, S. (2015 - in press). Inviting Backchat: How schools and communities in Ghana, Swaziland and Kenya support children to contextualize knowledge and create agency through sexuality education. International Journal of Educational Development.

    Cobbett, M., McLaughlin, C. and Kiragu, S. (2013) Creating ‘participatory spaces’: involving children in planning sex education lessons in Kenya, Ghana and Swaziland. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 13(1), S70-S83, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2013.768527

  • Alireza Tabatabaie
    University of Cambridge
    E-mail Author
    ALIREZA TABATABAIE is a medical doctor and specialist in clinical sexology. He is currently in his last year of PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK, investigating young people’s sexualities, sexual health and education with a particular focus on young British Muslim males.

    Related Publications:

    Tabatabaie, A. (2015–forthcoming). Childhood and adolescent sexuality, Islam, and problematics of sex education: a call for re-examination. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning.

    Tabatabaie, A. (2015–forthcoming). Constructing the ideal Muslim sexual subject: problematics of school-based sex education in Iran. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning. doi: 10.1080/14681811.2014.992066

    Tabatabaie, A. (2014). Sexotic therapy: embracing the exotic, irrational and paradoxical experience of living and loving. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29(1), 8–20. doi:10.1080/14681994.2013.861595

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