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The Sex Education Debates

reviewed by Sue Crowley - January 31, 2014

coverTitle: The Sex Education Debates
Author(s): Nancy Kendall
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226922286, Pages: 296, Year: 2012
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The Sex Education Debates by Nancy Kendall provides a much needed account of the decades old battle over sex education in American public schools.  The book offers a finely honed ethnographic approach to the topic, using observations and interviews with teachers, students, and administrators in classrooms across four states and in varying social contexts from small town Wyoming to urban Los Angeles.  The author chronicles three main types of sex education, Abstinence Only (AO), Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE), and Abstinence Plus (AP), revealing the extent to which sex education programs of all kinds are both nested within and constrained by multiple factors.  In so doing, she reveals the raw power of government policies tied to top down funding streams, the fear of reprisals from community activists, and problems that limit the effectiveness of each sex education program.

The author manages to negotiate this highly contentious territory by considering the “hidden curriculum” (p. 9) that in one form or another underlies the practices she and her assistant observed in each classroom.  Whatever type of sex education was offered, students were caught between the gendered moral imperatives of AO programs and the dust bowl dry rationality of CSE programs.  Ultimately, Dr. Kendall concludes that none of the three sex education approaches currently in use adequately addresses the needs of young people.

The book is organized into two sections.  Part I includes Chapters Three through Six and offers a microlevel analysis of classroom observations in three of the four states and interviews in all four states.  Part II of the book includes Chapters Seven through Eleven, which focus on a macrolevel analysis of the structural implications inherent in sex education practices.

In Chapter Three the author chose to study Florida’s efforts to support and implement AO programs. Under the leadership of Jeb Bush, the state was second only to Texas in the amount of funding received to support AO education. Kendall notes that much of that tax money went to support private-sector organizations that specialized in AO programming.  She discovered that school officials were reluctant to allow her to observe their classrooms, limiting her access to only the state approved private providers of sex education.  Effectively blocked from public classrooms in public schools, Dr. Kendall instead interviewed school and district personnel to understand how federal and state policies impacted their efforts to provide sex education.  Those who wanted to offer comprehensive programming saw their funding evaporate.  Failure to cooperate with the federal and state AO standards would cost school districts both funding and political favor.  The author asserts that “funding…was employed in a coordinated, state led effort to grow, mobilize, and privatize an AOUME (Abstinence Only Until Marriage Education) movement that will likely survive future funding ups and downs” (p. 27).

Based on interviews and written materials from private AO providers, several key features of these programs emerged.  Sex education was designed to (1) reify gendered norms of sexual behavior with girls carrying the burden of policing boys behavior, (2) emphasize the physical and emotional negatives associated with teen sexuality, particularly for girls, (3) reinforce heteronormativity in family structure, present the media as a bad influence, and (4) present the AO movement as an underdog in American society.  The author also highlighted the extent to which AO programs were distinguished from CSE and AP programs by their emphasis on multiculturalism in their materials and outreach, particularly with Asian and Latino populations.

Chapter Four presents a very different picture of sex education in a small town in Wyoming.  After a major battle led by a local pastor featuring personal attacks on two sex education teachers in the 1980s, the school board adopted a libertarian compromise.  Parents could choose from a menu of options.  Parents could opt for AO curriculum, a pull out curriculum in which their children would not be exposed to discussions of contraceptive use, homosexuality, and abortion.  While the two teachers who were at the center of the earlier debate remain, they each expressed concern about student participation and fear of further attacks if they were not very careful in presenting the approved materials.  There comments were in stark contrast to the newest addition to the sex education faculty who employs a strictly AO approach.  He feels under no obligation to conform to or adjust his teaching to satisfy a range of parental opinions on sex education.

Even though all three teachers followed the same curriculum, their classes varied greatly in content and style.  This will not surprise teachers who, unlike policy makers, understand that content is always filtered through the relationship that emerges between teacher and students in the classroom.  One teacher encouraged student involvement and open conversation about their own and their peers’ behavior.  Sometimes, this resulted in students expressing clearly sexist, racist, and/or homophobic opinions that the teacher did not feel empowered to challenge.  In a second class, the teacher appeared to be uncomfortable with the material.  This translated into an unspoken agreement, “he would not embarrass the students by making them talk about sex and, they would not embarrass him by asking questions about it” (p. 67).  Both of these teachers assiduously avoided any mention of their own opinions or beliefs about sexuality.  That stood in stark contrast to the third and newest faculty member who, as noted above, was openly opinionated in favor of AO.  Even when students questioned him about false or misleading information, he felt comfortable ignoring them.

Overall, unless discussing AO options in sex education, the teachers’ voices were often silenced and students were left frustrated or bored.  The message, the hidden curriculum, students received was clear.  Don’t talk openly about sexuality in any public space.  Actual questions or concerns belonged in the nurses’ office, the counselor’s office, the privacy of one’s home, but not in school.  Though the adults in this small town were satisfied that they had dealt equitably with the issue of sex education, the lack of student voice in decision making combined with the legitimate fears of two of their teachers combined to ensure that little effective education was happening.

The next chapter features a Wisconsin high school that offered primarily a comprehensive approach (CSE) to sex education.  The class had been taught by the same highly respected teacher for 20 years.  She was hosting a student teacher, however, whose approach was strictly AO.  In this classroom the teacher did weigh in with opposing arguments when students made prejudicial remarks.  Nonetheless, all opinions were legitimized.  Rather than contradict students, the teacher would offer information as a logical corrective.  As the author notes, “In the name of valuing all voices, CSE classrooms and schools were ironically full of sexist, heteronormative, homophobic, and racist student talk that undermined the CSE ideology of valuing all people as equals“ (p. 93).  As a means of dealing with what Dr. Kendall refers to as “a classic liberal dilemma” (p. 93), this CSE teacher relied on the power of information and the educational value of objectively derived data.  As a result the students in this class received two different experiences, one taught by the student teacher who emphasized AO and reinforced the message with clearly personal opinions and one focused on objective information processing.   

In Chapter Six the author focuses on an urban high school with a diverse student body, including immigrant and ESL students from various cultural backgrounds.  This CSE was designed as an evidence-based program within the science curriculum and was thought to be appropriate for all students.  That would prove not to be the case.  Although diversity or the lack thereof had been discussed in relation to Native American (Wyoming) and African American (Wisconsin) students, this chapter places the challenges of teaching a CSE program to a multicultural student body at the center.  Of particular interest are the experiences of CSE teachers in classes that represent the different tracks in which students are placed.  In this school, as in so many others, tracking serves as a means of separating students by race, class, and national origin.  Classes in the higher track ran smoothly, with the teacher sometimes challenging students by critiquing opinions when she felt they infringed on group rights, and inviting students to reexamine assumptions.  These interventions were met with respect.  When the same lessons and activities were offered to students in the lower English Learner (EL) class, the teacher encountered much resistance.  One example involved the different forms and uses of contraception.  The teacher focused on the scientific differences between barrier (condoms) and non barrier (the pill) contraceptives, considering when one or the other might be most useful.  The students were less concerned with these distinctions, instead focusing on contraceptives “as tools whose meanings and uses were always negotiated within relationships” (p. 116).  Young women pointed out the difficulties in using condoms within communities or relationships where power relations and trust needed to be negotiated carefully.  The scientific discourse that typified the CSE program was simply inadequate to deal with significant interpersonal issues of social difference.  The CSE teacher was also unprepared to deal with overtly and insistently homophobic remarks made by the students from cultures that emphasize conservative sexual values.  Appealing to scientific evidence about the causes of homosexuality or the rights of individuals made no difference.    

Dr. Kendall contends that the emphasis on individualistic and scientific norms in CSE programs fails to capture the powerful structural forces at work in students’ lives, whether they come from Wisconsin or Malaysia.  “The lack of engagement with structural inequities and relational dynamics affected the sex education that all students received, and at times resulted in the CSE instructors sounding remarkably like AOUME (Abstinence Only Until Marriage Education) instructors” (p. 122).  

In section II of The Sex Education Debates, the structural issues discussed at the end of Chapter Seven come into full focus.  Chapters Seven through Ten discuss the ways in which CSE and AO sex education policies and practices (1) address key outcomes for risk, (2) reveal either hidden gendered expectations (CSE) or the biological and moral basis for traditional gender roles, (3) consider the ways in which different sexual identities are understood and presented, and (4) discuss consistent features of the post-feminist discourse on rape which continue to focus on blaming the victim.

CSE and AO programs place a similar emphasis on negative outcomes, focusing primarily on medical problems such as STIs and unwanted pregnancies.  These fear-based approaches vary in their use of presumedly scientific evidence and the extent to which treatment options are considered.  Both approaches to sex education, however, consider only a narrow range of acceptable sexual behaviors, linking them to the choices teenagers can make to avoid negative outcomes.  At least one problem with this approach is that it explicitly (AO) or implicitly (CSE) places blame on those teens who contract SDIs.  

Pregnancy is also presented in this light, as a failure of either moral and/or rational decision making.  In CSE programs, the author noted a tendency to emphasize the need to avoid choices that would complicate the students’ options for the future, often framing that future in terms associated with those most available to white, middle class students.  Even though both sex education models rely heavily on their separate and dueling data sets, neither appears to address findings indicating that many teen pregnancies are actually wanted rather than unwanted.  They are both apparently unwilling or simply unprepared to address the contextual and social influences that might lead a young woman to want a baby.

Chapter Eight deals with gender issues.  Among AO proponents, traditional gender roles are understood as biologically determined and morally necessary for a healthy individual and society.  AO approaches place young women front and center in family, home, church/synagogue, and community.  In so doing, however, they reconstruct what others might consider a dangerously high pedestal.  The author explains,

Such an understanding of girls’ empowerment precludes any discussion of power in sexual relationships (particularly forced sex); of sex as anything other than a commodity to be exchanged; and of the possibility of a variety of girls’ desires and needs.  It limits models of empowerment to women’s capacity to control men, and expunges the possibility of a woman’s life not revolving around a man. (p. 160)

CSE approaches to gender rely on reason, rationality, and primarily quantitative data.  The author faults CSE perspectives on gender for failing to consider the extent to which young women’s sexual choices are seldom made in circumstances that are conducive to rational decision making.  Teachers were seen to fall back on stereotypes that were not much different than those found in AO curricula.  In addition, teachers did not seem to know how to combat insults or other remarks that clearly placed young women on the margins.  These included jokes about rape and the continued use of the word ’girl’ as an insult.  Homophobic and heteronormative language was prevalent and for the most part unchallenged.  Dr. Kendall describes the problem this way, “CSE programming assumes that society consists of a collectivity of equally agentic, emancipated, and empowered individuals” (p. 167).  This leaves CSE educators with little if any ability to engage students in a critical examination of their gendered assumptions.

In Chapter Nine the author critiques both AO and CSE programs for their reliance on scientism to understand the nature of homosexual desire.  They employ selectively different bodies of literature to support opposing views.  As with pregnancy, AO programs use risk factors to justify their understanding of homosexuality as an immoral choice and link that to the larger issue of decay in American cultural values.  For their part, CSE programs appear reluctant to address issues of sexual identity.  While the author acknowledges the increased acceptance of homosexuality in the larger society, she found that such tolerance is not easy to find in most high schools.  The context itself may limit the extent to which open and respectful discussions of the topic can be constructed.  In addition, the threat of community backlash remains clear,  “It is because of this sort of activism that the CSE programs I observed generally limited the amount and scope of formal materials and classroom exercises on sexual identity” (p. 186).

Of all the chapters in this well crafted book, Chapter Ten may be the most disturbing because of its implications for the sexual health and well being of young women.  Basically, when it comes to rape, nothing has changed.  Feminist movements and legal penalties not withstanding,

Rape was … not an infrequent topic of jokes.  As with female-bashing and

anti-gay epithets, rape-joking among boys (and sometimes girls) was common in classrooms and schools and consistently went unchallenged by teachers. (p. 209)

AO programs emphasize that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual behavior, especially in cases of date rape.  AO ideology on sexuality is predicated on a binary biological model of desire.  Men are more easily aroused and, thus more inclined to misunderstand a woman’s body language, clothing choices, and general demeanor.  Knowing this helps young women avoid sending the wrong signals.  Actually, much of the focus on rape in AO programs sounds like standard rape prevention workshops for women.  Policing one’s own body is the best protection by limiting alcohol consumption, dressing conservatively, traveling in twos at night, and being careful about one’s choices when dating.  There is no mention of male responsibility for rape.  

CSE programs followed an equally familiar liberal script about not blaming the victim.  Much of the focus, however, was on national statistics and other abstract data on the prevalence of rape and its psychological consequences.  While the data was passively received, the assertion that the victim was not to blame was regularly challenged by boys, and sometimes girls.  The author sees in this a serious flaw in the CSE model of individual decision making and agency.  Given this emphasis, students found opportunities to point out flaws in the argument that victims’ behaviors were off limits for discussion.  One girl called out, “But what if the person was being stupid“ (p. 213).  What ensued was a litany of victim blaming tropes; walking alone, dressing sexually, and/or being drunk.  

In both AO and CSE models, individuals are responsible for the consequences of their actions.  When those consequences include being raped, AO adults and CSE students focus on the behavior of the victim prior to the attack.  The religious and theoretical underpinnings of both sex education models allow no rational, individual place for women’s innocence when rape occurs.

none of the sex education curricula I observed could engage students seriously in a discussion about force and violence.…  Instead, students’ discussions about rape remained highly gendered … and were infused with comments about girls’ responsibility to avoid the trouble in the first place. (p. 221)

The final chapter of the book considers the ways in which all types of sex education emphasize (1) a fear-based approach to teen sexuality, (2) the power of individual choice, (3) the negative role of the media, (4) traditional gender roles, and (5) the value of quantifiable scientific data.   In so doing, they give credence to the status quo and hegemonic gendered norms.  

Dr. Kendall concludes by calling on educators and parents to reconceptualize sex education in the U.S. in at least two ways.  First, by placing teenagers at the center of the discussion.  Allow questions to be generated by students, not politicians or other adults.  What are they most interested in understanding about their own and others’ sexuality?  What would they identify as unmet needs?  With whom and in what circumstances would they like to have such discussions?  Secondly, the author contends that no viable sex education curriculum can be of service to young people without complicating discussions by addressing the relational power dynamics that are embedded in the dominant structural frameworks within which they live.

The Sex Education Debates offers a rich addition to the literature on sex education.  Nancy Kendall provides many insights into the ways in which adults have abdicated their responsibilities to young people because of their own discomfort with and fear of adolescent sexuality, particularly girls‘ sexuality.  Adult fears come in many forms.  Foremost is fear of the extent to which teens are actively constructing their own sexualities, fear of community backlash led by religious conservatives, fear of cultural differences, and fear of challenging gendered inequalities when students endorse them.  Kendall provides numerous cautionary tales about the inadequacies of sex education in our public schools.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 31, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17394, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 2:20:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Sue Crowley
    Binghamton University
    E-mail Author
    Sue Crowley is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University. Research interests focus on identity formation among marginalized youth, including young women who are survivors of sexual abuse and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transexual, and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Publications include a book, The Search for Autonomous Intimacy: Sexual Abuse and Young Women’s Identity Development, journal articles on the impacts of childhood sexual abuse, identity formation among young lesbian and bisexual women, and feminist pedagogy. Most recently, Dr. Crowley co-edited a volume entitled, Beyond Progress and Marginalization: LGBTQ Youth in Educational Contexts. She teaches graduate foundations courses for students in secondary education, combined undergraduate and graduate courses in adolescent development and psychology, and an interdisciplinary course of current issues in education.
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