Sex Education Essay

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Sex education broadly refers to the teaching of information, awareness, and skills to enable learners to promote their own sexual health and well-being and to enhance the quality of their intimate relationships. Although people learn about sexuality at all ages and through a range of informal channels (including from family members, from written materials, and from popular culture), the term sex education often refers to more formal curriculum-based programs offered to young people by teachers or counselors in schools, clinics, or community institutions. Such programs generally aim to achieve public health goals—most often to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. The more immediate objectives toward reaching those goals typically include delaying first sex, promoting monogamy, and/or encouraging condom use; many programs also seek to increase awareness of and help prevent sexual coercion and sexual violence.

In the United States, school-based sex education began in the early 20th century as part of a movement by progressive reformers for “social hygiene.” Since that time, many schools (and community organizations) have offered basic health and sexuality information under a variety of names (e.g., sexuality education, sex education, sex and relationships education, life-skills, or family life issues). Such programs may be taught by instructors who normally teach health education, biology, physical education, or another topic; in some schools, nonprofit organizations such as Planned Parenthood send special sex educators to make presentations. Although the specific objectives and content of sex education programs vary widely, they typically emphasize technical information (about reproductive anatomy and physiology, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, and disease prevention). They also may include lessons on life goals, values clarification, sexual decision making, sexual orientation, relationships, and communication–negotiation skills.

Polls show that the majority of American parents endorse the idea of their children receiving information on these topics. In addition, a number of international agreements recognize the right of all people, including young people, to accurate information on sexuality and sexual health. However, most sex and/or HIV education programs are not scientifically evaluated to determine their effectiveness. Among those that have been closely studied, approximately two thirds had positive effects on sexual behavior or outcomes, whereas one third did not achieve any such success. Research has also shown that sex and/or HIV education programs do not themselves lead to increased sexual activity.

Nevertheless, sex education has become the subject of policy debates. On one hand, a number of conservative and religious groups have mounted significant opposition to sex education. On the other hand, a number of researchers and feminists have argued for the need to strengthen current approaches to sex education. Underlying both critiques are fundamental assumptions and values about gender roles.

Since the 1980s, conservatives have organized to replace sex education programs with curricula that teach students that heterosexual marital relationships are the only context in which sexual activity is morally acceptable; in other words, masturbation, premarital sex, and homosexuality are all proscribed. Because such curricula exclude mention of contraception or condoms as methods of protection or present negative messages about these methods, they are often called abstinence-only programs. Although abstinence-only programs often include information about trying to avoid sexual coercion, they tend to reinforce the traditional gender roles and marital arrangements that often facilitate sexual coercion and violence.

Because conservative movements gained substantial political influence beginning in the 1980s, schools have faced increasing pressure to teach abstinence only curricula; indeed, between 1998 and 2005, $1 billion of American tax dollars were spent to support abstinence-only education. As of 1999, one quarter of public school districts in the United States required educators to teach abstinence as the only option in sex education. Indeed, the proportion of sex education teachers who teach only about abstinence increased from 1 in 50 in 1988 to 1 in 4 in 1999. Research suggests that such programs have no benefit on sexual health outcomes, and in some cases, have a negative impact on students’ health; however, their proponents adhere to their view that they are morally necessary.

More recently, some researchers and educators— mindful of the potential for improving the efficacy of sexuality education programs further and of the effects of gender, race, and class on adolescent experience— have promoted an alternative social studies approach to sex education. This approach places greater emphasis on teaching young people to think critically about the societal factors that drive sexual behavior. In particular, it responds to the fact that a young person’s attitude about gender roles is an important antecedent of his or her sexual health behavior and outcomes. For example, adolescents who adhere to more traditional or conservative gender norms are more likely than their peers to have sex at an earlier age, are less likely to use contraception or condoms, and are more likely to be exposed to unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV.

A social studies approach also embraces the belief that everyone has a basic right to sexual health and well-being, including being free from sexual coercion and from violence. Therefore, such programs specifically promote critical reflection about the social norms that condone intimate partner violence and the notions of masculinity and femininity that underlie date rape, unwanted sex, and unsafe sex. Nongovernmental organizations (particularly in a number of developing countries) have often led the way in creating such sex education programs. However, in response to declarations from global policy leaders that achieving gender equality is critical to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, more public-sector programs are beginning to show interest in paying more attention to gender issues and to critical thinking skills.


  1. Brückner, H., & Bearman, P. (2005). After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 271–278. Fields, J. (in press). Sexual subjects: Students, teachers, and sex ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  2. Kirby, D., Laris, B. A., & Rolleri, L. (2006). Sex and HIV education programs for youth: Their impact and important characteristics. Washington, DC: Family Health International. Retrieved from
  3. Luker, K. (2005). The hidden sexual revolution. New York: W. W. Norton. Rogow, D., & Haberland, N. (2005). Sexuality and relationships education: Toward a social studies approach. Sex Education, 5, 333–344.

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