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On Taking an Interpretive Risk in Sex Education

by Brian Casemore, Karyn Sandlos & Jen Gilbert - April 13, 2011

Sex education in the United States remains stuck in a conceptual deadlock between discourses of abstinence and the promise of scientific rationality. In both versions, however, sexuality is understood as a risk from which youth must be protected. What remains obscured in this debate are the challenges youth face interpreting emotional experiences of sexuality experiences in excess of the language of biology, psychology, public health, and religion. We argue that sex education must be an opportunity for youth to think through the emotional experience of sexuality and to develop new perspectives on the sexual dilemmas they encounter.

It comes as no surprise that sex education is highly regulated in compulsory schooling. The dominant voices in the field have emphasized, on one hand, abstinence, age of consent, and object choice, and on the other hand, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual assault, bullying, and suicide. With these concerns at the fore of conversations in sex education, the perception of sexuality as a risk from which youth must be protected substantially limits the educational opportunities youth currently have in sex education. What remains obscured by this approach to sex education are the challenges youth face interpreting emotional experiences of sexuality—experiences in excess of the language of biology, psychology, public health, and religion. We argue that sex education must be an opportunity for youth to think through the emotional experience of sexuality and to develop new perspectives on the sexual dilemmas they encounter. While such an approach would allow youth to make more thoughtful decisions in their sexual lives, it finds little ground in the context of the current sex education debate. The claustrophobic terms of the debate pit abstinence against comprehensiveness as competing frameworks for sex education; both, however, share an agenda: youth sexuality is a risk that needs to be managed by the educational interventions of adults (Lesko, 2010).

In our three-year qualitative research project on the meanings of sex education for teachers, youth, and sex educators, we have considered how the concept of abstinence has shaped sex education and how youth, in particular, have re-invented the borders of this concept in developing relations with others, with themselves, and with culture. In focus groups with teachers, youth, and community advocates in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Toronto, we screened short films and excerpts from feature length documentaries as a prompt for conversations about the emotional conflicts of sex education. The films—made by independent filmmakers working in collaboration with youth—represent qualities of youths’ experience that are important to sexual health education; they focus, for instance, on how youth define and describe their emerging identities, make sense of their newly adult bodies, and negotiate the emotional complexities of love and relationships. The films also examine how the language of sex education—including the ideological vocabulary of choice, tolerance, respect, and responsibility—is taken up and re-worked by youth in diverse cultural and educational contexts. Considering responses from youth and teachers on the question of the meaning of abstinence, we sought understanding of the dynamics of teaching and learning at stake when sex education centers on risk, prohibition, and restraint. Talking about these films with youth and teachers led us to the emotional geography of sex education, specifically to the conflicts, uncertainties, and desires that circulate where sexuality meets the sexual regulation of schooling.  


Our focus group conversations showed us how the fraught conception of sexuality as risk intrudes upon the intimate work of teaching and learning. With sexuality posited as a problem to be overcome, the necessarily uncertain features of learning—emergent thoughts, provisional interpretations, and exploratory dialogues—take on a greater sense of difficulty, freighted as they are with an impossibly risky sexuality. Researchers of sex education have noticed this problem when they have demonstrated how talk about sex is imagined to be sex itself; talk in sex education, they show, comes to be seen as a violation of the child’s innocence (Fields, 2008; Irvine, 2004; Levine, 2002). One common response to this risk has been the promotion of scientific evidence in sex education, a move toward instrumentalism, which is often wedded to discourses about health. With the current support for comprehensive sex education and a renewed interest in the problem of teenage pregnancy, discourses of scientific rationality and health outcomes have indeed replaced discourses of morality that are dominant in discussions of abstinence (Gilbert, 2010). However, this conceptualization of sex education—as health—is inadequate to both youths’ experience of their sexual selves and the representation of sexuality in youth popular cultures. By centering the measurable effects of particular sexual behaviors and sex education interventions, the reliance on scientific discourse, like the discourse of morality, is, in our view, an attempt to evacuate the contingency of sexuality, a contingency that is felt in the play of language and the interpretive risks that enliven conversations in sex education.

The assumption that stable forms of knowledge and correct pedagogical strategies exist for each difficult incident in sex education no doubt finds support in the instrumentalism of our current educational culture of standards and accountability (Taubman, 2009). This grasping at “best practices” to negotiate complex subjective and intersubjective events of an extremely particular nature is also encouraged by the sex education framework that binds sexuality to measurable outcomes in public health. We have been struck by a dilemma at the heart of these conditions. While sexuality circulates through schools, animating the relations between students, teachers, and the curriculum, sexuality also troubles learning and upsets the belief that sex education moves us ineluctably toward “correct” behaviors, responsible choices, and healthy relationships. In sex education, the drive for educational progress meets the complexity and, indeed, the enigmatic force of sexuality. As educators consider the particular experiences, questions, and challenges that youth face in their sexual development and imagine curriculum and teaching that would best help youth learn to navigate the complexities of their sexual lives, they struggle to translate all that is uncertain and uncontrollable about sexuality into the seemingly manageable features of formal education. Yet sexuality endlessly surpasses educational control, challenging at every turn our interpretive capacities.   

Two typical examples will illustrate how conflicts over meaning in sex education point to the need for attention to the work of interpretation in sex education research, curriculum development, and teaching. The examples reveal the range of meanings available for interpretation in both the language that shapes and the emotional experience that underlies sex education. First, the language used to define and manage youth sexuality is unstable and subject to interpretation. Youth have developed a complex lexicon to describe their experience of being sexually active while also “not having sex,” leaving the word abstinence—a term of great significance to the field—open to wide-ranging meanings. In the Toronto Teen Survey, for example, 4% of youth respondents reported being unsure about whether they had had sex. Within the group of youth who were uncertain, 21% reported having vaginal intercourse, 28% reported having oral sex, and 9% reported having anal sex (Flicker, 2009). This surprising data suggests that sexuality troubles our wish for transparency and that sex education must grapple with the multiple, widely varying meanings of sexuality. Understanding conflicts over meaning requires an interpretive lens—one, in particular, that tolerates uncertainty with regard to interventions and outcomes and that offers insight into the way youth make sense of their sexual practices from complex and contradictory meanings, emotions, identifications, and desires.

A second interpretive challenge for sex education emerges when, in discourses of science and health, information is decoupled from emotional life. While the emotional paucity of sex education is a problem for youth, it also places the teacher in a double bind: teachers try to teach sexuality through a formal health curriculum while also being profoundly aware that something is missing. Although there is considerable discussion of how best to instruct youth about the risks and responsibilities of becoming sexually active, less often do teachers have opportunities to think about and discuss the emotional demands of their role. The teachers we spoke with felt confident in their ability to give students the information they need about sexuality and safer sex. However, they also shared worries about what to do with the world of teenage emotion, where information can often fail to hold at bay the consequences of sexual activity. Sex education reaches into a messy, socio-cultural terrain of beliefs, family ties, and life choices. And teachers of sex education are called upon to deal with the complex problems of relationality that arise in sex education conversations: to navigate the differences between their own beliefs and those of their students; to make professional judgments about what is best for their students; and, from time to time, to manage relations between the school and the community. Thus, the teacher’s understanding of her work is shaped and affected by a split between information and emotion (Britzman, 2009): how does she decide between adhering to a curriculum of facts and figures or siding with youth in their efforts to make meaning of wild thoughts, emotional difficulties, and seemingly impossible questions?  

To address these dilemmas, we find great promise in the kinds of interpretation that are part of aesthetic experience. In our research, we have used film in focus groups to prompt conversations with students and teachers about sexuality and sexual health education. The films invite a thoughtful orientation from the participants and the researchers, allowing us to integrate our attention to key concepts and problems in sex education with reflection on emotional life. Considering the dilemmas of sex education while discussing a film’s meaning and emotional effect has enabled groups of youth and educators to more productively hold the emotional difficulties that sex education introduces. We introduce the films as aesthetic rather than instructional texts. Rather than asking participants to identify and reiterate key information in the films, we have invited them to reflect on the multiple meanings that the films convey and to reconstruct those meanings through their own perspectives, concerns, and questions. Approaching the films as aesthetic texts, participants explore the instability of language in sexual health education and address the split between information and emotion through stories of teaching and learning. While reflecting on their emotional responses to events in the films, their identifications with characters, or their speculative readings of a film’s purpose and value, participants found ways to articulate their situated and developing knowledge of sexuality and sexual health (Casemore, 2010; Sandlos, 2010).

We think that sex educators and researchers of sex education might evoke this dynamic interpretive terrain by watching films and reading novels with youth. We understand that to do so might feel like a transgression—a promiscuity of meaning—given the slippery relationships between youth, language, and sexual practices. We therefore want to emphasize that centering aesthetic texts and experiences in the sex education curriculum does not displace the concern with youth’s sexual knowledge; instead, it provides youth the opportunity, through interpretive practices, to experience a developing and therefore trustworthy relationship with a body of knowledge that might inform the decisions they make in their sexual lives.

The fear of ambiguity that saturates much sex education practice, policy, and teaching is managed, in part, through the focus on measurable risks. Sex education is currently organized in relation to risk: teen pregnancy, STIs, sexual assault, bullying, and suicide, among other harms. Cordoned off in the health curriculum, sex education stays far away from the everyday, messy contexts of youth’s sexual decision making. And yet, we are arguing that learning about sexuality is not contained by health class and permeates the school environment. We find examples everywhere: in the seductions of reading a novel or watching a film, the sight of a pregnant teen walking down the hall, the loneliness of the gay student in the counselor’s office, and the uncontrolled giggles that punctuate references to bodies and sex in class. In each of these instances, we feel something of the dual sense of urgency and vulnerability that imbues the social environment around any one of sexuality’s impossible questions. If aesthetics could offer a new discourse of learning to sex education, interpretation might replace compliance as the central goal of sex education. Our research suggests that an interpretive rather than an instrumental orientation to sex education is better able to approach the uncertain experiences and events of sexuality. Toward this goal, we hope that in sex education we can cultivate in ourselves and others a curiosity about all the potential meanings of sexuality, a genuine openness to those with whom we share difficult spaces of thought and emotion, and a capacity for listening reflectively and without judgment.

This orientation requires the willingness to risk an interpretation. Taking an interpretive risk is a way of reclaiming the force of contingency from discourses that tie risk in sex education to epidemiology—that is, to risk factors and conditions of risk. Risk-taking, we must remember, is never an unequivocal mark of pathology, just as assent to the facts of sex education does not ensure health (Gilbert, 2007). In these ambiguous spaces of sex education, the work of interpretation provides an opportunity for learning to negotiate the subjective risk that ambiguity introduces, a manner of risk-taking and an adventure in meaning that is fundamental to self-formation and the integration of knowledge, sexual or otherwise.


Britzman, D. 2009. The very thought of education: Psychoanalysis and the impossible professions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Casemore, B. (2010). Free association in sex education: Understanding sexuality as the flow of thought in conversation and curriculum. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 10(3), 309-324.

Fields, J. (2008). Risky lessons: Sex education and social inequality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Flicker, S., Flynn, S., Larkin, J., Travers, R., Guta, A., Pole, J., & Layne, C. (2009). Sexpress: The Toronto Teen Survey Report. Planned Parenthood Toronto: Toronto, ON.

Gilbert, J. (2007). Risking a relation: Sex education and adolescent development. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 7(1), 47-62.

Gilbert, J. (2010). Ambivalence-only? Sex education in the age of abstinence. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society, and Learning, 10(3), 233-237.

Irvine, J. (2002). Talk about sex: The battles over sex education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lesko, N. (2010). Feeling abstinent? Feeling comprehensive? Touching the affects of sexuality curricula. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 10(3), 281-297.

Levine, J. (2002). Harmful to minors: The perils of protecting children from sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sandlos, K. (2010). On the aesthetic difficulties of research on sex education: Toward a methodology of affect. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society, and Learning, 10(3), 299-308.

Taubman, P. (2009). Teaching by numbers: Deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 13, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16383, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:09:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Brian Casemore
    George Washington University
    BRIAN CASEMORE is an assistant professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the George Washington University. His research focuses on autobiographical curriculum inquiry and psychoanalytic conceptions of educational experience. In his current research, he is investigating the emotional geography of conversations in sex education. Recent publications include “Free Association in Sex Education: Understanding Sexuality as the Flow of Thought in Conversation and Curriculum” in Sex Education: Sexuality, Society, and Learning (2010), and The Autobiographical Demand of Place: Curriculum Inquiry in the American South (Peter Lang, 2008).
  • Karyn Sandlos
    School of the Art Institute of Chicago
    E-mail Author
    KARYN SANDLOS is an Assistant Professor of Art Education and Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program in the Art Education Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Her research focuses on adolescence, sexuality, aesthetic conflict, and film as curriculum. Sandlos is co-investigator on a Ford Foundation Research Grant, "Sex Education in the Age of Abstinence: Conversations Toward a Revitalized Curriculum." The purpose of this research is to understand the emotional meanings that complicate and enliven conversations among youth and educators about sexuality and sexual health. Recent publications include the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy (2008), The Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies (2009), The Journal of Sex Education (2010), and The Journal of Sexuality, Research and Social Policy (2011).
  • Jen Gilbert
    York University
    E-mail Author
    JEN GILBERT is an Associate Professor at York University in Toronto. Her research interests include sex education, LGBTQ youth and psychoanalytic theories of teaching and learning.
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