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Definition: sex education from The Macquarie Dictionary

education about sex, especially relating to methods of contraception and safe sex.

Summary Article: Health and Sex Education
from Gender and Education: An Encyclopedia

Educators must be cognizant of gender when planning and implementing sexuality curricula. Expectations regarding appropriate gender role characteristics have changed considerably over past decades, especially for girls and women. The appropriate incorporation of gender differences in sexuality curricula should provide students with the climate for questioning the nature, validity, or origin of gender stereotypes.

Historically, challenges to gender stereotypes played little role in sex education curricula, which were primarily concerned with matters of public health and family life. Even at the present time, curricula based on the abstinence model of sex education are tied to conservative views of masculinity and femininity that support, rather than undermine, stereotypes about women and men. In contrast, the comprehensive sexuality model of sex education aims to undermine the limits of these stereotypes by empowering students not only by giving them information about sexuality and related matters but also by helping them to improve their decision-making and communication skills, clarify their values, and increase their understanding of themselves and their relationships.


The demand for sexuality education in the United States began in 1912 when the National Education Association (NEA) issued a request for teacher preparation programs focusing on sexual health. In 1940, the U.S. Public Health Service specified sexuality education as an “urgent need” in public schools and promoted the concept throughout the nation. A conservative approach to the controversial topic was initiated in 1953 by the American School Health Association with the implementation of the “family life education curriculum.” The American Medical Association and the NEA followed the trend in 1955 with the development and distribution of five informational brochures referred to as the “Sex Education Series for Schools” (Pardini, 2002).

Arguments against even this conservative, family oriented curriculum surfaced in the 1960s when the Christian Crusade movement and the John Birch Society characterized all sexuality education as “smut, raw sex,” and a “filthy Communist plot.” Opponents of sexuality education viewed course content as a precursor to sex that would ultimately lead to an increase in sexual activity among students (Pardini, 2002).

Public attitudes regarding sexuality education dramatically changed in the early 1980s with the diagnosis of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) among newborns, heterosexual females, and gay/homosexual males. U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop launched a proactive approach against AIDS and called for an immediate response to the threat of the disease through comprehensive AIDS and sexuality education beginning in the third grade.

Sexuality course content in typical U.S. schools evolved from teachers making references to animal sexual behavior patterns in the 1950s to displaying reproductive organs of animals to students during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Human sexual behaviors emerged as a central topic in most health classes in the 1970s with diagrams of the male and female reproductive anatomy being used by educators. Reproduction, contraception, and decision-making skills, threaded with emphasis on individual responsibility, became the normative content of sexuality classes during the early 1980s. Koop's call for the inclusion of AIDS awareness in health classes led to the progression of comprehensive sexuality education with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), risky sexual behaviors, and the use of condoms being integrated into course content during the mid-1980s. Because of the growing incidence of AIDS in the United States and worldwide, conservative opponents of sexuality education found it difficult to ban the curriculum. In response, traditionalists initiated a new trend to control the content of sexuality education courses by launching the abstinence-only education movement (Pardini, 2002).


Two opposing philosophies prevail in the current content and delivery of sexuality education in the public and private K-12 curriculum and in college courses. Abstinence-only education enforces abstinence as the only option of sexual expression among the unmarried and censors information about contraception for the prevention of unintended pregnancies and STDs. In partial contrast, comprehensive sexuality education emphasizes abstinence as the most effective means to prevent STDs and pregnancy, but also incorporates human development, sexual behavior, sexual health, and contraception into the curriculum.

One in three U.S. schools incorporates the principles of abstinence-only sexuality education into the content of health classes (Cordi, 2002). Often referred to as “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs, the foundation of the curriculum is based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs that support self-discipline as the primary means to avoid risky sexual behaviors among students. The abstinence-only movement gained momentum with the enactment of the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981 that funded educational programs that sanctioned prudent approaches to adolescent sex. In 1996, Congress inserted an abstinence-only provision to the Welfare Reform Bill for school and community-based sexuality education programs. Programs wishing to receive government funding for abstinence-only initiatives must comply with the following mandates specified by the Federal government: (a) teach the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; (b) teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children; (c) teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, STDs, and other associated health problems; (d) teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity; (e) teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; (f) teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society; (g) teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drugs increase vulnerability to sexual advances; and (h) teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity (Perrin & DeJoy, 2003).

Prevention-based sexuality education is the underlying principle of the comprehensive sexuality education framework. The philosophy guiding the model is based on the theory that students will be empowered to make prudent decisions regarding risky sexual behaviors and choose abstinence when they participate in an age and developmentally appropriate sexuality curriculum (Pardini, 2002). Supporters for comprehensive sexuality education understand that marriage does not magically enable a couple to understand the constructs of contraceptives, pregnancy, monogamy, and STD awareness; but rather an inclusive educational approach promoting abstinence plus education is required. The content base for the majority of comprehensive programs includes: families and family life, relationships, decision-making skills, abstinence, sexual maturity, values clarification, reproductive health, communication skills, contraception methods, and recognition and prevention of STDs and AIDS. Additional issues discussed in more liberal environments include abortion, masturbation, sexual fantasies, sexual orientation, sexual dysfunctions, and sexual art and culture. Although the comprehensive model has been found to be more effective in delaying sexual activity than the abstinence-only model, utilization of a specific model is dependent upon the milieu of the educational and community environment in which the course is being delivered.


The sensitive nature of the content of sexuality courses can create a barrier to learning and behavior change for participants. Program delivery can be facilitated through the selection of educational strategies that are age and developmentally appropriate without reference or inference to gender bias. The utilization of the multiple intervention approach, combined with a variety of teaching methodologies, can enhance a student's cognitive awareness of and positive attitudes toward the course content. Strategies that have been identified in the current literature as innovative techniques to incorporate prevention-based information into sexuality education programs include: web-based sexuality education; the use of media interventions, including TV, newspapers, and magazines; peer education programs including youth-developed newsletters and one-tier discussion groups.

The Internet provides an opportunity for students to inquire about sex-related information while protecting their identity from classmates, parents, and program facilitators. Since birth, many members of the Millennial Generation have been indoctrinated to computer and Internet use and have become confident users of the World Wide Web format. By using these skills, students maintain a sense of privacy and anonymity while they seek information regarding sensitive sexual issues. As with any Web site, program facilitators must ensure that these sites are secured and sponsored by a governmental or voluntary health organization such as Planned Parenthood's site for teens ( and ETR's Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (

Protected sites also attempt to control gendered sexual scripts that can influence normative behavior among both sexes. In contrast, many Web sites utilize and even foster gender stereotypes. In a comparative study of 52 teen-oriented sexuality education Web sites, Bay-Cheng (2001) determined that females were targeted more often than males regarding sexual values, males were portrayed to be the sexual initiator, and females were pursued as objects of sexual desire searching for protection without being allowed to discuss their own sexuality. These findings suggest the importance of using Web sites as part of a broader program of sexuality education in which gender stereotypes can be challenged.

Mass media campaigns provide an ideal opportunity to communicate sexual health information to students. Patterned after public information campaigns, sexual health campaigns target audiences who rely on the media as a primary source of entertainment and a resource for acquiring information. Findings from an American School Health Association study completed in 1996 indicate that 25 percent of adults in the United States rely on media sources to obtain information pertaining to STDs. These sources include public service announcements (PSA), billboards, commercials, documentaries, celebrity spokespersons, brochures, and press releases. Subtle health information, referred to as embedded messages, are often infused into existing television programs targeting a specific viewing audience. The information portrayed in the episode is often highlighted at the end of the show with a PSA from the cast and then mentioned as a feature story on the news. Program facilitators can use sexual health media campaigns to reinforce and complement the content of their curricula and course activities. Research in this area suggests that mass media campaigns positively influence sexual health decisions when messages are shown on a long-term basis, are repeated extensively, and are linked to a hot line or Web site for immediate use (Keller & Brown, 2002).

Feature articles highlighting sexual health issues in local, state, and national newspapers offer program facilitators an inexpensive and accessible resource for the classroom. Topics such as abortion, AIDS, dysfunctional relationships, contraception techniques, and STDs are common headlines that appeal to the student readers' emotions regarding functional sexual relationships. Integrating news articles into the curriculum enhances student readership, improves their scope of problems facing society, and helps them relate to the experiences and consequences of others. Subject matter can be used as a lead-in to other sexual topics and can also reinforce course content previously discussed in the classroom. Teachers can use news articles to improve their students' critical thinking skills by developing reflective summaries, creating an issue and trend file on a sexual health topic, brainstorming alternatives to issues discussed in the article, or submitting a “letter to the editor” in response to the article.

Youths and young adults rely on magazines as an important resource to acquire information about sexual issues such as reproduction, sexual skills and techniques, sexual health, and alternative lifestyles. The ease and accessibility of magazines and articles on the Internet provides an unlimited source of sex-related information. Independent reading has a significant effect on a student's cognitive knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding sexual health. According to Cultivation Theory, the reader's beliefs evolve as a result of constant exposure to a consistent set of messages (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). Magazines targeted for male and female readers offer sexuality educators a means for students to utilize their critical thinking skills in the analysis of the article content and compare it to sexual health issues discussed in class. Cultivation Theory can be utilized in the course with the instructor generating readings from various texts that relate to the content of the articles found in popular youth magazines. Sexual gender roles portrayed in articles can be discussed in a debate or panel discussion format, compared to previous generational roles, and analyzed for behavioral modifications.

The peer education movement can provide a safe learning environment that promotes confidence and comfort for teens and young adults to discuss sensitive topics that relate to sexual health issues. Peer-led programs have shown significant success in both the abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education models. Adolescents and young adults cite peers or friends as their primary source of sex-related information and rely on them for reinforcement of course content they receive in the classroom (Hoff, Greene, & Davis, 2003). The underlying principle of the “friends teaching friends” initiative is that peers have the ability to exert greater influence than teachers on young people's behavior. Participation is the key to effective programs with peers taking an active role in the planning, promotion, implementation, and evaluation components of the curriculum. Program facilitators typically serve as mentors to peer educators with their role focusing on training and communication with the peer leaders.

Sex, etc., a newsletter on sexuality for teens, written by teens, and published by the Network for Family Life Education, reaches 400,000 teens in 49 states each year. Articles include information on abstinence, contraception, teen parenthood, sexual harassment, violence, abortion, and adult and child sexual abuse. Teens are recruited across the state to conduct phone interviews, focus groups, and brainstorming sessions to generate stories for the newsletter. Members of the Associated Press coordinate production of the newsletter that is published three times per year. Sex, etc. has been recognized by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and is used in community-based organizations serving youth. The newsletter concept can be replicated at the local level and tailored to meet the specific sexual health issues that face youths in high schools and universities.

Small-group discussions personalize and reinforce course materials presented in the larger lecture format. These groups are of particular importance in sexual health classes because they provide a safe environment for students to investigate their attitudes and understand the diversity of others in the class. Course instructors divide the class into diverse groups representing gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and teaching experience. Students participate in an instructor-led lecture twice per week and then lead discussions in a small-group session once a week. Each student rotates as a discussion leader during the semester and prepares activities, lesson plans, and an evaluation under the guidance of the course instructor. Many students enjoy this format and the availability it offers for group ownership and creativity in the classroom.


Sexuality educators are faced with the challenge of delivering sensitive information to student populations from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds while attempting to remain objective in their personal views regarding course content. Ultimately, the primary focus of sexual health education is to develop self-empowerment in youths and young adults to enable them to cope with social norms and pressures associated with sexual maturity. The foundation is the provision of sexual knowledge based on scientific facts within the cognitive dimension of learning. Attitudinal exploration and discussion is the next level of the curriculum, followed by a behavioral component that will empower participants to make realistic goals and healthy sexual decisions affecting their lives.

The utilization of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors can be integrated into the sexual health curriculum through the combination of learning experiences and teaching methodology that includes the following: (a) utilizes upbeat interactive activities and teaching styles; (b) focuses on a student-centered approach; (c) requires a clear and sensitive insight into behavior; (d) uses participatory and experiential learning techniques; (e) ensures that program content is facilitated through a cohort of instructors; (f) supports peer education and leadership of youth; (g) creates opportunities for open and frank discussions about sensitive issues; (h) provides prevention efforts that are developmentally, age, and culturally appropriate; (i) focuses on reducing one or more risky sexual behaviors; (j) employs theoretical approaches that have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing risk-taking behavior; (k) incorporates research findings that identify determinants of selected sexual behaviors; (l) gives clear and consistent messages about sexual activity, condom use, and contraceptive methods; (m) provides accurate information about risks of sexual activity, about methods of avoiding intercourse, and about using protection against pregnancy and STDs; (n) includes activities that address social pressures that can influence sexual behaviors; (o) teaches assertive communication, negotiation, and refusal skills; (p) utilizes a variety of teaching methods designed to involve participants and have them personalize course information; (q) conveys behavioral goals, teaching methods, and materials that are appropriate to the age, sexual experience, and culture of students; (r) lasts a sufficient length of time to deliver the entire curriculum, activities, and interventions; and (s) solicits instructors and peers who are committed to the program and provide them with appropriate training.

Sexuality educators must be cognizant of their own feelings regarding sexuality. Their own inhibitions, attitudes, or misconceptions might obstruct honest, open communication with their students. Facilitators can further enhance learning by creating a sense of safety and comfort for students by respecting the diversity of their students regarding sexuality, promoting objectivity in the delivery of curricula, empowering students to increase personal responsibility, building collegiality and trust between students and facilitators, and serving as positive role models in the classroom (Valerio, 2001).

  • Bay-Cheng, L.Y. (2001). Values and norms in web-based sexuality education. Journal of Sex Research, 38 (3), 2.
  • Cordi, S. (2002). Fight for your right…to sex ed. Girls' Life, 9 (2), 88.
  • Gerbner, G.; Gross, L.; Morgan, M.; Signorielli, N.; Shanahan, J. (2002). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant; D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research (pp. 43-68). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Hoff, T.; Greene, L.; Davis, J. (2003). National survey of adolescents and young adults: Sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and experiences. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • Keller, S.N.; Brown, J.D. (2002). Media interventions to promote responsible sexual behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 39 (1), 67-72.
  • Pardini, P. (2002). Part 5—Sexuality education. In Classroom crusades: Responding to the religious right's agenda for public schools (pp. 58-67). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools. Available at
  • Perrin, K.; DeJoy, S. (2003). Abstinence-only education: How we got here and where we're going. Journal of Public Health Policy, 24 (3), 445-459.
  • Valerio, N.L. (2001). Creating safety to address controversial issues: Strategies for the classroom. Multicultural Education, 8 (3), 24-28.
  • Rosanne S. Keathley

    Martha A. Bass

    Alice M. Fisher
    © 2007 by Barbara J. Bank

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