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The use and misuse of pleasure in sex education curricula


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Since Michelle Fine's writing on the missing discourse of desire in sex education, there has been considerable prompting among sexuality educators and feminist scholars to incorporate talk of pleasure into sex education curricula. While the calls for inclusion continue, few have actually examined the curricula for a pleasure discourse or explored how it is contextualised within sex education curricula. In this paper, we analysed curricula used in the USA in the past decade. A qualitative thematic analysis revealed that the discourse around pleasurable sex was often linked to a range of dangerous or negative outcomes including not using condoms, rushing into sex without thinking, regretted sex, and pregnancy or STDs. When the discourse around pleasure was included in sections on ‘knowing one's body’, this discourse took a medicalised, scientific tone. Pleasurable sex was also presented in more positive ways, either linked to marriage in Abstinence Only Until Marriage curricula, or within a more feminist discourse about female pleasure in comprehensive sex education curricula. Our research indicates that a discourse of desire is not missing, but that this discourse was often situated as part of a discourse on safe practice and there, continues to equate pleasure with danger.
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The use and misuse of pleasure in sex
education curricula
Sharon Lamb a , Kara Lustig b & Kelly Graling b
a Department of Counseling and School Psychology , University of
Massachusetts , Boston , MA , USA
b Department of Psychology , University of Massachusetts ,
Boston , MA , USA
Published online: 23 Nov 2012.
To cite this article: Sharon Lamb , Kara Lustig & Kelly Graling (2013) The use and misuse of pleasure
in sex education curricula, Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 13:3, 305-318, DOI:
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The use and misuse of pleasure in sex education curricula
Sharon Lamb
*, Kara Lustig
and Kelly Graling
Department of Counseling and School Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA;
Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA
(Received 27 May 2012; final version received 8 October 2012)
Since Michelle Fine’s writing on the missing discourse of desire in sex education, there
has been considerable prompting among sexuality educators and feminist scholars to
incorporate talk of pleasure into sex education curricula. While the calls for inclusion
continue, few have actually examined the curricula for a pleasure discourse or explored
how it is contextualised within sex education curricula. In this paper, we analysed
curricula used in the USA in the past decade. A qualitative thematic analysis revealed
that the discourse around pleasurable sex was often linked to a range of dangerous or
negative outcomes including not using condoms, rushing into sex without thinking,
regretted sex, and pregnancy or STDs. When the discourse around pleasure was included
in sections on ‘knowing one’s body’, this discourse took a medicalised, scientific tone.
Pleasurable sex was also presented in more positive ways, either linked to marriage in
Abstinence Only Until Marriage curricula, or within a more feminist discourse about
female pleasure in comprehensive sex education curricula. Our research indicates that a
discourse of desire is not missing, but that this discourse was often situated as part of a
discourse on safe practice and there, continues to equate pleasure with danger.
Keywords: sexuality education; pleasure; desire; danger; USA
There has been a tremendous response to Fine’s (1988) article pointing to the missing
discourse of desire in sex education. In the article, Fine connected desire to female sexual
subjectivity and argued that sex education’s tendency to emphasise female sexual
victimisation results in the suppression of a discourse about female desire and pleasure.
More recently, researchers note that while pleasure is now a part of the conversation about
female adolescent sexuality and is commodified in popular culture, little change has
occurred within sex education since the article was published (Fine and McClelland 2006),
in part due to the dominant presence of Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM)
curricula in the USA. Although AOUM curricula was the primary type of sex education
funded in the USA over the past two decades, Comprehensive and Evidence-Based
curricula were taught in schools in states that turned down funding and by religious and
community organisations. Unfortunately, little research has examined whether a discourse
of pleasure now exists and if it does, when and where this discourse is contextualised
within sex education curricula. The current study examines a variety of these curricula for
discourses about pleasure and attempts to understand how authors use pleasure to persuade
and educate in these teaching texts.
q2013 Taylor & Francis
*Corresponding author. Email:
Sex Education, 2013
Vol. 13, No. 3, 305–318,
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The call for the inclusion of pleasure into sex education has continued since Fine’s
article (Allen 2004; APA 2007; Bay-Cheng 2003; Fine and McClelland 2006; Lamb
1997; Thompson 1990; Tolman 2002) and has extended to a discussion that includes
both boys and girls. Rasmussen (2004) writes that, ‘Sex and pleasure are fundamental
aspects of students’ lives and school cultures ... integral to students’ sense of well-
being’ (446). Nevertheless, researchers have noted that school-based curricula are
saturated with fear-based, rather than pleasure-based or other sex-positive messages
(Bay-Cheng 2003), and continue to be replete with sexual stereotypes (Lamb, Graling,
and Lustig 2011). Recent critiques of both abstinence and comprehensive sex education
(CSE) demonstrate that these curricula continue to focus on the danger of sex instead of
pleasure for both boys and girls (Fields 2008; Kendall 2008; Lamb, Graling, and Lustig
2011). When sex educators teach to address this danger (e.g. by teaching refusal skills),
sexual desire and entitlement, for girls especially, become associated with being ‘bad’ or
‘slutty’ (Tannenbaum 2000) and negatively affect the development of female sexual
subjectivity. This is particularly problematic for Black, low-income girls, for whom
exploring or expressing desire makes them further vulnerable to the stereotype of being a
‘ho’ (Froyum 2009; Lamb 2010b). In practice, more open discussions may take place
that address such stereotypes, as curricula often provide discussion questions that do (as
Fine 1988 showed), but the focus of lessons limits peer classroom discussion to topics
related to the dangers of sex.
The discourse of pleasure in sex curricula is not always absent. In her research on New
Zealand curricula, Allen (2007a) noted that pleasure is discussed: however, only within a
focus on danger prevention. Kiely (2005) argues that in Irish Sexuality and Relationships
curricula, the narrowing of sex to mean one act, coitus, means that other pleasurable, and
even safer acts are not considered. In these curricula, information about masturbation,
sexual positions, fantasy, non-genital activities, and oral genital contact are not
mentioned, suggesting that these behaviours are preliminary to the ‘real thing’ (Kiely
2005, 259).
Students and teachers have voiced reactions to the missing discourse of pleasure in sex
education. Although students have been critical when pleasure is missing in the curricula
(Measor, Tiffin, and Miller 2000), they also express worries that sex is something
too personal to teach and should happen naturally (Allen 2007a, 2007b). Teachers also
express worry about how pleasure can be incorporated into sex education and difficulty
talking about pleasure outside of the stereotypes of heterosexual relationships (Harrison,
Hillier, and Walsh 1996). In one study, when pleasure was used in a way to bolster
talk about safety, teachers expressed feeling more comfortable (Harrison, Hillier, and
Walsh 1996).
The inclusion of pleasure in sex education curricula could improve education for both
girls and boys. Teaching an ‘ethics of pleasure’ (Allen 2007a, 2007b; Carmody 2005;
Lamb 2010a; Rasmussen 2004) could open up ‘new possibilities for understanding
sexual subjects’ (Allen 2007a, 583– 4), including non-heterosexual identities.
Consideration of non-heterosexual sexual activity is typically absent from sex education
curricula (Fine and McClelland 2006). Teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
(LGBT) sexuality from a positive and pleasure-oriented perspective in the classroom has
almost been ‘unthinkable’ (Mayo 2011, 70). Rasmussen (2004) argues that sex education
should include teaching about pleasure for pleasure’s sake and not be used in an attempt
to fight ‘homophobia, misogyny, or patriarchy’ (455). But teaching about pleasure
inclusive of LGBT-identified young people can provide a counter-narrative to the ‘it gets
better’ project ( and ‘wounded identity’ discourse (Rasmussen
306 S. Lamb et al.
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2004), a discourse that positions all LGBT youth as always harmed by homophobia.
Without specific reference to LGBT pleasures, talk about pleasure can re-inscribe
harmful stereotypes.
In this paper, we examine discourses of desire and pleasure with consideration of past
critiques of sex education, including the framing of discussions of sexual desire in lessons
on danger, focus on coitus, and exclusion of LGBT sexuality. We do this in the context of
recent school-based sex education in the USA where the federal government has provided
more than $1 billion for abstinence-only programming since 1996 (Kendall 2008; Santelli
et al. 2006). While President Barack Obama and congressional leaders have called for an
end of funding for programmes that do not have evidence to support their effectiveness
and have recommended increasing funding to states for teenage pregnancy prevention
programmes (Guttmacher Institute 2009), in 2010 the US Congress elected to maintain
$50 million of funding for states that wanted to continue to use AOUM curricula. The new
focus on evidence-based and health-oriented sex education may mean that goals such as
the development of sexual agency and entitlement are again pushed to the side (Lamb
2011, 2012). Although sexual health and sexual pleasure are connected (Tolman 2002), it
is unlikely that, given the current political climate, a fully comprehensive sexuality
curriculum that addresses pleasure will emerge for use in schools.
The current study examined curricula from the last decade to explore how talk of
pleasure was integrated into curricula and in what context it arose. We decided to examine
three types of curricula: AOUM curricula, curricula that were written by those who
advocate comprehensive or evidence-based sex education (including those comprehensive
curricula revised to fit into an abstinence-plus framework abstinence plus comprehensive
information about birth control), and a comprehensive curriculum that is taught outside of
the schools but that is considered by liberal sex education advocates to be the gold standard
of comprehensive curricula (Estrella 2012). Choosing a range of curricula that represented
various political agendas enabled us to see how discourses around pleasure are put to
different uses.
Discourse always functions to assert some ideologies over others and our title, the use
and misuse of pleasure, is meant to invite reflection over ways in which pleasure might be
included in curricula to support more ethical sexual practices in addition to student health
and well-being. This paper does not lay out a framework by which pleasure can be put to
better use, as previous theoretical writings address this issue (Allen and Carmody 2012;
Carmody 2005; Lamb 1997, 2010a; Lamb and Peterson 2011).
The discourse approach stems from Foucault’s (1979) writings regarding sexuality as a
social construction that is discursively constituted through ‘a plethora of social institutions
whose meanings are historically and culturally located’ (Allen 2007b, 249). If individuals’
sexualities are forged through such discourses, then an examination of the pleasure
discourse within sex education curricula can inform with regard to what kinds of pleasures
are permitted, when, where, and how.
This research arose as part of a broader study of ethical issues in current sex education
curricula for young people in which an array of curricula were analysed. For the current
paper, we selected primarily school-based curricula from both AOUM and CSE sources.
We reviewed only those curricula that are in wide use today in the USA, were published in
the last decade, and were used to teach sex education to adolescents in middle school and
high school. Despite substantial efforts, we were unable to obtain accurate statistics about
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the frequency with which any curriculum is used. The determination of ‘popular’ curricula
was made by looking at the Abstinence Clearinghouse website, talking to leaders in the
field at two sex education conferences (individuals in leadership positions of two national
organisations), and noting which curricula have been included in previous evaluations of
curricula (Administration for Children and Families and the Department for HHS 2007;
Committee on Government Reform 2004; Kirby 2007; LeCroy and Milligan Associates
2003; Trenholm et al. 2007). Informed by this information, we created a sample of
convenience. This sample included four AOUM curricula, six CSE curricula, and one non-
school-based CSE curriculum (see Table 1). AOUM curricula were self-classified in their
titles and by their primary focus on encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse versus
how to engage in sexual intercourse safely. Two of these curricula have new versions that
came out recently, but to ensure that we were comparing a similar sample of curricula, we
chose to analyse the older versions of these curricula that were written under the same
administration’s legislation when AOUM curricula were fully supported. We also
analysed six CSE curricula, four of which were included in lists of evidence-based,
effective curricula (Kirby 2007). The fifth, Making Sense of Abstinence, is a group of
lessons written by a CSE advocate to conform to AOUM expectations (Taverner and
Montfort 2005). We included a sixth truly CSE curriculum, Our Whole Lives (OWL 2000),
which was written for delivery in Unitarian churches, because OWL has not been edited to
conform to legislation around sex education as it is not school-based. We included it with
the expectation that it would provide us with examples of what can be said about pleasure
in sexuality when not confined by legislation and school restrictions. CSE curricula were
classified by a central focus on how a student who chooses to engage in sexual intercourse
can do so safely.
To analyse sex education curricula, we used a thematic analysis methodology
described by Braun and Clarke (2006) conducive to the exploration of discourse. Although
we concentrate on themes, our analysis follows discursive psychology’s practice of
examining language with regard to how it works to construct subjects, in this case sexual
subjects, and knowledge, in this case sexual knowledge (Potter and Wetherell 1994; Willig
2008). Following the authors’ general guidelines, two to three members of the research
team independently read through curricula and identified on note cards salient quotations
and comments that were relevant to the theme of pleasure. The team then met and sorted
the cards into categories representing overarching themes. One person sorted the
quotations. Then the second and third members of this research team re-sorted the first
person’s categories until all three coders agreed that a quotation or topic fit under a
particular category. Quotes were permitted to lie under different themes. Initial reliability
statistics were not attempted as the process was collaborative and first codings were not
meant to form lasting categories. Temporary theme titles were assigned to each group.
Members next defined and developed each theme (Braun and Clarke 2006). At the end
of this process, we narrowed the categories down to three broad themes with sub-themes.
After identifying themes, we used quotes to develop a description of themes and then
proceeded to analyse the theme and any problems that might arise in shaping the pleasure
discourse for students. The three authors also worked with other research group members,
who were consulted on quotes that were difficult to place.
Pleasure discourse fell into three themes with sub-themes: health and knowing your body;
problematic pleasure; and positive pleasure. Themes and sub-themes are identified below.
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Table 1. Name, abbreviation, and type of curricula utilised.
Curriculum Abbreviation Type Age group Citation
WAIT training (Why am I so tempted) WAIT AOUM Middle and high school Krauth (2003)
Aspire Aspire AOUM High school Phelps (2006)
Choosing the best journey Journey AOUM 9th and 10th Cook (2006)
Game plan GP AOUM 7th grade Green (2007)
Becoming a responsible teen BART CSE High school St. Lawrence (2005)
Be proud! Be responsible! Strategies to
empower youth to reduce their risk for HIV/AIDS
BPBR CSE High school Jemmott, Jemmott, and McCaffree (2004)
Positive images: Teaching about abstinence, contraception,
and sexual health
PI CSE High school Brick and Taverner (2001)
Reducing the risk: Building skills to prevent pregnancy,
STDs and HIV
RR CSE 9th and 10th Barth (2004)
Streetwise to sexwise: Sexuality education for
high-risk youth
SWSW CSE High school Brown and Taverner (2001)
Making sense of abstinence: Lessons for comprehensive
sex education
MSA CSE High school Taverner and Montfort (2005)
Our whole lives OWL CSE 10th 12th Goldfarb and Casparian (2000)
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Health and knowing your body
There is a long history of US sex education including information about body parts,
reproduction, and the mechanics of sex. In the past, this information has narrowly
represented heterosexual sexual intercourse (Moran 2000). We found that there were still
lessons that presented this information and that some of these lessons referenced pleasure
and arousal (MSA, PI, SWSW, and OWL).
How the body works: knowing oneself versus pleasing another
Pleasure was sometimes included in larger discussions of physical health and knowledge
of the body. In some of these discussions it was presented in a scientific, expert tone
that differed from the tone of many of the other chapters, which took on a more casual
or conversational tone. This discourse described arousal in a way that suggested
that by providing such information, students would better understand how their bodies
For example, in PI’s sections on negotiating sexual relationships, the authors refer to
sexual arousal with slang expressions such as ‘feeling very horny’ or ‘getting very “hot”’
(Brick and Taverner 2001, 19). However, when presenting pleasure information in lessons
on knowing one’s body, the authors use a more neutral, expert, and regulating tone,
common to the discursive shift from a values emphasis to a science emphasis in sex
education (Carlson 2011). For example, PI uses the following language to describe sexual
excitement for girls: ‘hav[ing] wetness in the vaginal area when sexually aroused’ (Brick
and Taverner 2012, 142). By presenting the biological bases of arousal and pleasure
separately from other chapters and using language and tone that is more medical and
expert, the authors take pleasure out of the realm of the emotional and relational
experience of sex. While this may imply that pleasure ought to be domesticated through
integration into discussions of relationship, we merely mean to point out that most pleasure
occurs in relation to another person whether in actuality or in fantasy, and to take it out of a
relational context may support a more self-focused, neoliberal project of self-management
(Rose 1996). This language also suggests to students that pleasure is achieved through
focus on their own sexual responses rather than the sexual responsiveness and arousal of
others, which has been discussed as a problem in sex education (Lamb 2010a, 2011).
While discussion of arousal in medicalised language may have drawbacks, it may also
have benefits. Specifically, normalising discourse about pleasure may undermine feelings
of shame. MSA, SWSW, and PI provide information that normalises arousal. After
including a description of puberty changes (e.g. wet dreams, vaginal lubrication, etc.),
SWSW’s authors add that students may also ‘desire to masturbate more’ (Brown and
Taverner 2001, 197), thus normalising masturbation. In the past, the discourse of science
and medicine has problematically been used to control and discipline those who do not fall
under the narrow version of ‘normal’ and so such a discourse should be critiqued.
However, in these curricula, it may be a strategy for those CSE authors who would like to
more freely teach about pleasure to insert information about pleasure in an acceptable
format. It is also possible, however, that this ‘expert normalisation’ creates more problems
than it solves by creating hegemonic norms that might alienate individuals experiencing
different forms of pleasure and arousal, or who may even be asexual or pre-sexual. Sexual
experiences, such as masturbation or the sexual arousal response, are not universal and
often vary (Tiefer 2004).
Despite past research pointing to heterosexism in the way sexual education presents
sex, this was not apparent in the manner in which CSE curricula presented biological
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information on desire and arousal. In fact, in almost all cases there was no sexual partner
within these discussions, which made the sexual response or behaviour being described
more applicable to a variety of relationships. The one exception to this is when SWSW
describes the vagina as the ‘place that holds the penis during sexual intercourse’.
Although the presentation of this information in these curricula was largely not
heterosexist in its language, there was one interesting omission that may be related to
homophobia. In the curricula’s discussion of pleasure and desire in the body, none discuss
the anus or perineum as a potential source of pleasure. This omission is particularly
noticeable when these curricula discuss the other points of pleasure in the body (clitoris,
penis, vagina, G-spot, and skin). While several of these curricula include the anus on a
diagram (SWSW), include anal intercourse in their lessons on sexual decision-making
(OWL), or mention anal intercourse in passing (MSA), curricula do not explore these
regions of the body as pleasure areas. This omission could be related to the stigma against
gay men and anal sex among heterosexuals.
Making healthy sexual choices
Talk about pleasure also occurred in the context of making healthy choices and was used
as a way to increase the attractiveness of safe sexual behaviours. For example, in BPBR,
the authors write that, ‘some people focus on how to make sex feel really good and be fun
for both people. They also need to think about being safe. ... Openly communicating
needs and concerns can increase enjoyment of the experience’ (Jemmott, Jemmott, and
McCaffree 2004, 127). Readers should note that pleasure is fully acknowledged and
integrated with a message that also speaks to safety.
Condom use is also an area in which both pleasure and safety are integrated. BART’s
authors attack the idea that condoms decrease pleasure with the response from one student
to another in a vignette, ‘It will feel good to know we’re keeping each other safe’
(St. Lawrence 2005, 174). In this way, the pleasure of sex is matched with the pleasure of
taking care of the other person. PI asks, ‘which part in the process feels the same whether
or not a condom is used?’ (Brick and Taverner 2001, 103), in order, it would seem, to show
that there is still sexual pleasure to be experienced with a condom even if, during
intercourse, it may be lessened. SWSW even makes a suggestion to further increase the
pleasure of safe sex, ‘A bit of lubricant inside the condom gives many guys more feeling
during intercourse’ (Brown and Taverner 2001, 79).
Several curricula also focus on non-coital pleasure as a way to keep sex safe. For
example, SWSW suggests that there are ‘things that two people could do with each other if
they want to be sexual’ but not have intercourse, and asks students if these activities ‘feel
good’ (2001, 219). OWL (Goldfarb and Casparian 2000, 91 2) asks students to think up a
safe sex fantasy: ‘sexually exciting and fulfilling behaviors that do not involve
penetration’. These curricula may be countering the common cultural assumption that
intercourse, especially unprotected intercourse, feels the best. This assumption is not
presented directly as a myth or a cultural belief, but is addressed indirectly through the
promotion of other practices, including what some call ‘outercourse’ (MSA; Taverner and
Montfort 2005, 61).
AOUM curricula reviewed in this study did not include pleasure information from
a ‘know your body’ or ‘safe practices’ perspective. The restriction regarding teaching
about contraception derives from the belief that teaching about a subject leads to
experimentation with that subject. When contraception is mentioned in AOUM curricula,
as in the case of Journey, it is with the purpose of reinforcing the message that only
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abstinence is 100% effective against pregnancy and STIs. Discussion of arousal and
pleasure may also be seen by these authors as too evocative.
Problematic pleasure
Talk of pleasure was also included in discussions of risk, self-control, regrettable sex, and
peer pressure. However, in this context, pleasure is not typically discussed in a way that is
meant to enhance self-knowledge, fun, getting to know someone else, or developing
sexual subjectivity. Instead, pleasure is presented as a problem in that it is an obstacle to
restraint, abstinence, and health.
Pleasure makes it hard to control oneself
In our analyses of AOUM curricula, we found that several AOUM curricula present sexual
pleasure as an impediment to self-control. However, when AOUM curricula teach that any
sexual activity is dangerous because, once started, a student might not be able to stop, they
imply that sex feels good. Several of these curricula use metaphors for desire that tie
pleasure to uncontrollability. Journey includes a lesson about ‘chemistry’ and ‘attraction’
and compares them to lighting a match. When one lights a match, the fire is not contained
and it can burn out quickly or burn down the house. But when one lights a log in a fireplace
(meant to symbolise marriage or commitment), the fire burns over time and in a ‘safe space’
(Cook 2006, 37).
This message of desire being uncontrollable was also found in a CSE curriculum. RR
presents students with a list of pleasurable activities and asks them to say whether the
activities, including massages, fantasising, masturbation, mutual masturbation, and oral
sex, are risky or not. In ‘red alert’ situations (Barth 2004, 161), pleasure is identified as a
red alert sign, thus only presented in relation to danger. The uncontrollability of sex is not
questioned or explored as an aspect that might make sex enjoyable. Moreover, in some
sense the argument that sex is overwhelming and uncontrollable implies a biological, even
animal model of sex, which is problematic. Choice is available as an option to students, but
only at a certain point in the progression towards sexual intercourse, after which point
choice is more difficult or even impossible. In this discourse, having a choice and being
able to make a choice is the focus supporting, once again, a discourse of self-management
of the neoliberal subject (Bay-Cheng 2012; Lamb 2012).
Pleasure in relation to STDs and pregnancy
Several of the curricula, both CSE and AOUM, implicitly and explicitly link pleasure and
desire to the negative consequences of STDs and pregnancy. For example, in RR,
instructors are told to ask the students to identify some of the consequences of having sex:
‘Students may include some positive outcomes (e.g. it’s fun or it makes us feel close) and
these should be acknowledged as reasons that millions of teenagers risk getting pregnant,
or infected with HIV and other STD each year’ (Barth 2004, 40). The immediate and
dizzying jump from fun and intimacy to infection is reminiscent of AOUM curricula,
although RR is not identified with that ideology. In MSA, students are given five scenarios
in which someone is aroused but needs to make the decision to remain abstinent from
sexual intercourse. As with the discourse on sexual arousal inevitably leading to
intercourse because it is hard to control, here arousal is presented as leading to disease or
pregnancy. While it is true that these are serious risks that are attached with intercourse,
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the linking of pleasure to these risks raises questions with regard to authors’ intended
message to students about pleasure.
Pleasure and regret
AOUM curricula also make the case that there are emotional risks linked to pleasure. In
several AOUM curricula, desire or pleasure was linked with regret. For example, one
vignette presents a couple who had decided to wait to have sex, and, in the ‘heat of the
moment, they ended up having sex’ and then regretted it and broke up (Journey; Cook
2006, 54). Other curricula do not explicitly mention the pleasure in the ‘heat of the
moment’, but still introduce the idea of regret. For example, in GP (Green 2007, 45),
students are warned, ‘many are surprised at the shame and guilt they may experience after
engaging in intimate sexual behaviour. They may also feel that they were being used in a
relationship for sexual gratification alone’.
Pleasure and pressure
Another very common use of desire and pleasure appeared when curricula presented
examples or vignettes of one person pressuring another to have sexual intercourse. This
occurred in both CSE and AOUM curricula, although less so in AOUM curricula. In many
of these instances, examples were used to help students prepare to deal with these
situations. For example in one vignette, a male says to a female, ‘we can take things slow I
promise. But I think you might change your mind ... you don’t know how good it could
be’ (Journey; Cook 2006, 62). Another example from BART demonstrates one young
person pressuring another to have sex by saying, ‘come on, baby, I’m going to make your
earth move’ (St. Lawrence 2005, 217). In this manner, pleasure is again presented as
uncontrollable and linked to potentially regrettable or unwanted sex.
Positive pleasure
In addition to discussions about the negative consequences of having sex, we also looked
for discourse that acknowledges pleasure in a positive way. We found many positive
references to the pleasure of sex, surprisingly in both AOUM and CSE curricula, as well as
in OWL. True to their aims, the AOUM curricula emphasised how pleasurable sex can be
in marriage. Other curricula emphasised the pleasure of sex in reference to mutuality or
female sexuality.
Pleasure in marriage
The aim of many AOUM curricula is to encourage students to wait until they are married
to have any form of sex, especially sexual intercourse. One of the promises made to
students is that if they wait, they will less likely encounter the negative consequences from
sexual activity. But these curricula also advertise better (presumably more pleasurable)
sex when a student waits: ‘A study done by the University of Chicago shows that married
people are having the best and the most sex’ (WAIT; Krauth 2003, 58). These curricula
also emphasise the role of fidelity and trust in creating more pleasurable sex. GP relates
that, ‘couples who are faithfully married report better satisfaction with their sex lives than
couples who aren’t married’ because ‘their trust, love, and respect for each other make
their physical relationship more enjoyable’ (Green 2007, 60). Thus, positive pleasure is
mentioned in some AOUM curricula, but only in the context of marriage.
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Pleasure together/mutual pleasure
We found that OWL and one CSE curriculum also talked about pleasure within the context
of relationships, although not specifically marriage. In SWSW the authors write, ‘Sexually
healthy people feel positive about sexuality, like their own bodies, can talk openly about
sexuality, and see sex as mutual, loving, pleasurable, fun and safe for both partners’
(Brown and Taverner 2001, 26). On the very first page of OWL, the authors write that
people, ‘engage in healthy sexual behavior for a variety of reasons, including to express
caring and love, to experience intimacy and connection with another, to share pleasure, to
bring new life into the world, and to experience fun and relaxation’. Contextualising
pleasure within relationships may be a way in which pleasure was ‘tamed’ in an era where
safety is the primary purpose of sex education. Surprisingly, this was not a tack taken by
the majority of CSE curricula which included very few messages about mutual pleasure.
There was also very little discussion in CSE curricula that counteracted the ‘regret’
discourse and pointed out the positive benefits to a relationship once a couple has sex. This
may have been a taboo topic in the era of AOUM sex education.
Female pleasure/female pain
Several curricula made special attempts to discuss both female pleasure and sexual abuse
and victimisation. This may have been an attempt to address some of the concerns
expressed over the past two decades with regard to sex education and the lack of a
discourse around female pleasure and subjectivity (Fine 1988). Many CSE curricula
included information about the female body and female arousal. BPBR gave explicit
information with regard to how many women receive pleasure:
Most women need to have their clitoris (the arousal organ in their vulvas) touched, directly or
indirectly in order to have an orgasm ... sexual intercourse is not the only way for couples to
express feelings, to feel good, or to have fun ... Using a condom can become part of the
touching and stroking that happens prior to intercourse ... The lubrication will make it more
comfortable for her and more slippery and exciting for him .... (Jemmott, Jemmott, and
McCaffree 2004, 128)
Note that the message of condom use and safety (although combining talk of pleasure
with talk of risk) emphasises both male and female pleasure. SWSW authors also discuss
‘false scripts’, which include beliefs that are deterrents to female pleasure. False scripts
include: ‘Orgasm is the primary goal of sexual intercourse’; ‘Intimacy or a feeling of
relationship with a partner is less important’; and ‘A sexual encounter is over once the
male has had his orgasm’ (Brown and Taverner 2001, 12). OWL also explicitly includes
information that tells male students to think of one’s partner after orgasm. Teachers are
told to, ‘tell the group that once the condom is removed, the man may relax with and hold
his partner, or continue to pleasure his partner without further penetration with the penis’
(Goldfarb and Casparian 2000, 87). Although the authors do not specify the gender of the
partner, the mention of the man as the main actor suggests it is an antidote to the stereotype
of men forgetting about their female partners.
Another way that curricula now seem to address female concerns is by including
information about victimisation. Sometimes information about victimisation contains
information about pleasure and sex in that pleasure is introduced as an impetus for date
rape in several vignettes. In SWSW, Larry gets turned on and tries to go further with Diane
and she pushes his hand away and says no. He later insists, ‘I’m so turned on let’s do it’
(Brown and Taverner 2001, 140). These vignettes possibly suggest the problematic idea
that pleasure is no indication that someone is safe and that pleasure is linked to female
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exploitation. The man is pictured as overwhelmed by his own arousal, whereas a different
presentation of this scene might have presented him as predatory or very much in control
with regard to wanting to have sex independent of the girl’s consent.
The message that sex should be pleasurable may be important to combat victimisation.
Some feminist theorists purport that young women’s experiences of desire increase their
ability to assert themselves against coercive or unwanted sex (Fine 1988; Tolman 2002).
Today pleasure is synonymous with sexual subjectivity and agency (Gill 2008) and
research shows that sexually agentic women are more able to assert their needs and say no
(Impett, Schooler, and Tolman 2006). However, it is unclear how messages about pleasure
convey information to boys about assertiveness and violence. Curricula do not say enough
about how and why pleasurable sexual experiences are sometimes linked with exploitation
and what boys can do about it.
Pleasure is not merely a biological experience; it is defined, controlled, and evoked
through context. In this paper, we were interested in examining desire and pleasure as they
were represented in sex education curricula in the USA during a historical period during
which the mention of pleasure most likely needed to be circumscribed, whereas sex is
over-represented in the media young people use. This perspective led us to ask several
questions: is pleasure included in curricula at all? If it is, in what context and to what use?
Overall, we found that pleasure is no longer ignored and this was true for both AOUM
and CSE sex curricula, and that the discourse around pleasure had various functions.
Pleasure and desire were included in medicalised, expert CSE discussions about the body.
Many curricula were heterosexist and failed to discuss anal or non-heterosexual pleasures.
In many of the curricula, discourses of desire and pleasure are linked with messages about
danger and risk, including desire being uncontrollable, desire carrying emotional and
health risks, desire used in peer pressure, and desire in relation to victimisation. Positive
references to pleasure and desire took place in the context of discussions about the
pleasures of safe sex, marital sex, mutual relationships, and being female.
One might argue that students do not need to know that sex is pleasurable, that they
will find that out soon enough, or that messages of pleasure are infused within popular
media already. However, as noted in the introduction, research suggests that the manner in
which girls are socialised interferes with the development of sexual subjectivity (Tolman
2000, 2002; Tolman et al. 2006), that students themselves want to know what feels good
(Allen 2007b), and that lack of discussion about the pleasure of sex makes curricula seem
to students less relevant (Allen 2007b). Moreover, representations of sexuality in popular
media more often than not tend to be heterosexist, sexist, and derivations from
pornography (Dines 2010).
The discourse of desire is no longer missing, but is often situated as part of a discourse
on safe practice and thus equates pleasure with danger. In a climate where AOUM
curricula were federally funded and the authors of CSE curricula were attempting to show
CSE’s effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and STD reduction, it is no surprise that
pleasure and risk were deeply connected. While the acknowledgement of the ‘fun’, ‘good
feelings’, and pleasure of sex goes far to undermine the link between shame and sex that
has been present in a number of eras of sex education (see Carlson 2011), this emphasis on
prevention practice largely overshadowed any discussion of issues relating to mutuality
and the importance of developing pleasurable sexual practices for both male and female
students, though there were exceptions.
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How was pleasure defined in these curricula? There were no overarching definitions or
detailed descriptions of sexual pleasure per se, none similar to those suggested by
researchers like Fine (1988), Tolman (2002), or Allen and Carmody (2012). Perhaps that
was why we as researchers were limited to teasing out a discourse of pleasure by examining
phrasing regarding ‘getting horny’, getting carried away, and the mechanics of arousal.
There are a variety of pleasures that could have been described. Authors pursue a discourse
of restraint around desire and instructors are told that if students ask for permission to list the
positive consequences of sex (after exercises in which they list negative consequences),
then they are to respond with reminders that sex is dangerous.
Although sexual safety is a laudable goal, the juxtaposition of pleasure with danger
reinforces old messages about sex and shame; that if one gets carried away, enjoys sex with
abandon, or seeks out sexual pleasure, harm will come. Largely missing in discourse on
sexual pleasure is a discourse that connects pleasure to mutuality in non-marital
relationships (Lamb 2010a, 2012). Focusing on prevention and danger, educators miss the
opportunity to talk to adolescents about pleasure in the context of a good relationship, one
in which the adolescent can take care of both her/himself as well as her/his partner. When
the young person is positioned as reckless, easily pressured, unknowledgeable, or unwise to
consequences, rather than as a human being who seeks relationship and pleasure within it,
discussions of sexuality will be as superficial as the kind of sex these curricula are trying to
prevent. As the OWL curriculum reminds us, talk of pleasure ought to be embedded
in discourse about negotiating relationship, communication, and mutuality. In so doing, the
goal of prevention may be reached while higher and more positive goals are also attempted.
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... Fine (1988) criticized sexual health policies for suppressing discourse regarding sexual desire, promoting discourse on sexual victimization, and privileging married heterosexuality. Her study was limited to women's sexuality; however, the idea of incorporating sexual desire into sexual health policies has been extended to men (Lamb, 1997;Lamb et al., 2013). In particular, Lamb (1997) criticized sexual health policies for silencing the sexual desire of men. ...
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Introduction Adolescent sexual activity is an important topic for public health policies and can be shaped by them. This study examines the relationship between sexual knowledge and sexual activity and tests the moderating effect of gender. Methods This study uses a random sample of 1246 Polish adolescents aged 18−19 years. The methods of partial least squares path modeling and bootstrap testing are utilized. Results Among boys, unlike among girls, a low level of sexual knowledge was associated with early and intense sexual activity represented by an early age of sexual initiation, a high number of sexual partners, and a short time since last sexual intercourse. Additionally, the average level of sexual knowledge was lower among boys than among girls. More specifically, the difference in knowledge of every element of the male reproductive system between boys and girls was not significant; however, girls were more aware of the female reproductive system than boys. Conclusions Gender differentiated the relationship between sexual knowledge and sexual activity. The revealed moderating effect could reflect gender differences in the motives of sexual activity of adolescent men and women. The early and intense sexual activity exhibited by boys with limited sexual knowledge exposed them to sexually transmitted diseases and unintended parenthood. Policy Implications The self-selection of boys with low sexual knowledge levels into early and intense sexual activity may be of interest to public health.
... Inclusion of sexual desire in sex education was first suggested in 1988 (Fine, 1988). While efforts have been made to include sexual desire in sex education (Lamb et al, 2013;Tolman, 2005), further exploration is needed. ...
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Sexual desire issues are one of the main reasons why couples go to therapy. Managing the balance of sexual desire whilst cohabitating in a long-term relationship is one of the challenges of modern relationships. This study aims to understand what makes for a healthy sexual relationship according to cohabitating couples, how the experience of eroticism whilst growing up impacts their current erotic space and how emotional desire impacts sexual desire and vice versa. Findings show that a balance between autonomy and connection facilitates sexual desire maintenance. Communication of expectations, strengthened and shaped by the level of attachment, also impacts sexual desire levels. Furthermore, culture and social ambiance as well as support systems are external factors which affect relationship satisfaction and sexual desire maintenance.
... This study noted that the CSE curriculum tends to focus more on the consequences of unprotected sexual activity and fails to consider safer and pleasurable sex topics. Despite being controversial [5], studies have indicated that discourse around pleasured sex is often associated with negative outcomes [49]. However, many scholars advocate that this topic be included in CSE content [5,8,17,44,50], as CSE on sexual expression and pleasure yielded more positive outcomes [7]. ...
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Background: Responding to adolescents' educational needs in sexual and reproductive health and rights is central to their sexual health. In 2016, Rwanda introduced the Competence-based curriculum (CBC) that integrated comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). However, globally, the content of CSE is sometimes dissimilar, and little evidence surrounds its scope in many settings. This study aimed to assess major topic areas of the school-based CSE for early adolescents, analyse how this CSE correlates with international guidelines, and make recommendations accordingly. Methods: We reviewed the CBC and conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants concerned with sexuality education to map sexuality education contents and related CSE competences for pre-primary, primary and lower secondary levels. We selected eleven of the 23 CBC documents for the final review. We manually extracted data using a standard form in Microsoft Excel. We conducted a descriptive analysis (frequency tables and charts) of review data and a thematically analysed interviews in NVivo 11 for Windows using the International Technical Guidance of Sexuality Education (ITGSE). Findings: Overall, we found 58 CSE competences from the CBC. CSE competences increased with school grades: 4/58 (6.9%) in pre-school, 5/58 (8.6%) in lower-primary, 17/58 (29.3%) in upper-primary, and 32/58 (55.2%) in lower-secondary levels. Subjects of Kinyarwanda (13/58, 22.4%), Biology (10/58, 17.2%), and Social studies (9/58, 15.5%) abounded in CSE. Four ITGSE key concepts abounded most in CSE competences: Sexual and reproductive health (13/58, 22.4%); Human body and development (11/58, 19%); Values, rights, and sexuality (9/58, 15.5%); and Understanding gender (8/58, 13.8%). The CBC CSE covered least the area of Violence and staying safe (2/58, 3.4%). Six of 27 ITGSE topics had only one CSE competence, and eight ITGSE topics were not represented in the CBC. Recommended additional contents are sexual pleasure, sexual orientation, sexual desire and modern contraceptive methods such as condoms. Conclusion: CSE for early adolescents is delivered mainly in three subjects and aligns, to some extent, with the international guidelines for sexuality education. CSE intensifies with school grades and emphasises more on some topics than others that are equally important. The study recommends additional topics for CSE for this age group.
... This study noted that the CSE curriculum tends to focus more on the consequences of unprotected sexual activity and fails to consider safer and pleasurable sex topics. Despite being controversial [9], a previous qualitative study indicates that discourse around pleasured sex is often associated with negative outcomes such as not using condoms, rushing into sex, regretted sex, pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases [53]. However, many scholars advocate that this topic be included in CSE content [9,17,26,49,54], as CSE on sexual expression and pleasure yielded more positive outcomes [16]. ...
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Background Responding to adolescents’ educational needs in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is central to their sexual health and achieved through school-based comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). In 2016, Rwanda introduced CSE through the competence-based curriculum in schools to enhance learners’ knowledge about sexuality, gender, and reproductive health issues, including HIV/AIDS. However, globally, the content of CSE is sometimes dissimilar, and little evidence surrounds its scope in many settings, including Rwanda. In addition, the extent to which CSE aligns with international guidelines has yet to be well known. This study assesses major areas of CSE for early adolescents in Rwanda, analyses how CSE correlates with international guidelines and makes recommendations accordingly. Methods We reviewed the Rwandan competence-based curriculum to map CSE competences for early adolescents and conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants (N = 16). Eleven of the 23 curriculum documents met the selection criteria and were included in the final review. We manually extracted data using a standard form in Microsoft Excel and analysed data using frequency tables and charts. Interviews were thematically analysed in NVivo 11 for Windows. Findings We found 58 CSE competences for early adolescents across various subjects, increasing with school grades. All recommended CSE areas were addressed but to a variable extent. Most competences fall under four recommended areas: sexual and reproductive health; human body and development; values, rights, and sexuality; and understanding gender. The least represented area is violence and staying safe. Of the 27 expected topics, there are two to six CSE competences for 13 topics, one CSE competence for each of the six others, and none for the eight remaining ones. Qualitative findings support these findings and suggest additional content on locally controversial but recommended areas of sexual pleasure, orientation, desire and modern contraceptive methods. Conclusion This study explores the CSE content for early adolescents in Rwanda and how they align with sexuality education standards. Ensuring equal coverage of CSE areas and addressing missing topics may improve CSE content for this age group and foster their SRHR.
... Interviews with practitioners taking part in a sexuality education project promoting pleasure in the UK show that they generally bring a critical lens to teaching about pleasure, and an awareness of the risks of commodification and co-option (Wood et al. 2019). However, analysis of the use of pleasure in the US sexuality education curriculum shows pleasure featured sometimes as a promise of "good sex you won't regret if you wait until marriage" in abstinence promotion content (Lamb, Lustig, and Graling 2013). Where pleasure is taught in sexuality education in schools in China, it can serve a similar function of celebrating the wait for the imagined good sex in a socially approved relationship in the future (Jolly 2016). ...
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Eleven years ago, I published an article in this journal detailing the ways that international development work was heteronormative, assuming heterosexual gender stereotyped household models and framing sexuality as a problem of ill-health or violence, rather than a potentially pleasurable contributor to well-being. Over a decade later, while the sector is largely still heteronormative, LGBTI and sexual pleasure have now made an entry into development discourses. However, they have both been co-opted at least to some degree to reinforce other intersecting axes of inequality. A more productive frame for addressing sexuality would be an integrated sexual rights and sexuality politics approach.
In this chapter, the concept of sexual citizenship (Evans, Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. London: Routledge, 1993) is elaborated and employed as a lens to analyse to what extent recent Irish policy developments and more specifically the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) (NCCA, Report on the Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Primary and Post-primary Schools., 2019) indicate a shift away from a construction of the student’s sexual citizenship as a problematic citizenship in need of regulation and control. It is argued that while there are positive indicators that a more positive conception of the student as sexual citizen is evident in the NCCA review of RSE (NCCA, Report on the Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Primary and Post-primary Schools., 2019), there are also clear indicators that the revised RSE curriculum is unlikely to trouble or move beyond normative conceptions of sexualities in significant ways. This means that the space to pursue the goals of equal and inclusive sexual citizenship in the revised RSE programme may still be limited.
Despite the much-touted ‘sexual revolution’, during the 1960s-70s, at the time most Western education systems avoided sex education. This article identifies contradictory discourses about sex as manifested in two distinct cultural expressions that co-occurred in those years in the UK. The first represented mainstream social conservatism – in the form of short sex education films produced for schools and colleges. The second, more radical alternative was the British-Australian underground magazine Oz, which expressed the sexual freedom of the counterculture. Both are discussed from the perspective of visual cultural history as competing agents of sex education – one reproducing the conservative paradigm, and the other aiming to dismantle it. While the films took a biomedical and preventive attitude to sex and embodied a patriarchal heteronormative approach , Oz supported sexual freedom and shattered taboos about such issues as abortion and sexual diversity, as well as celebrated women’s sexuality. Nevertheless, male-dominant culture was also reflected on its pages, particularly in gratuitous images of female nudity. Despite this visual sexism, the article highlights the magazine as a countercultural entertainment medium educating for sexual pleasure and offering a creative, nonconformist perspective on sex that was way ahead of its time, and also of our own.
Metaphors are a common way to make sense of complex concepts, including sexuality. In interviews with 39 individuals who teach sex education in Illinois and Ohio, I find that sex educators compare driving to sexual behavior to gain buy-in and make lessons more concrete. While useful for achieving these goals, the metaphor overlooks key differences between driving and sex. Driving metaphors further a particular narrative of sexual health, one where reducing personal risks is prioritized over consideration and care for a sexual partner. The limitations of driving metaphors reflect larger failures of sex education to recognize these topics. This study offers an opportunity to analyze one component of the hidden curriculum that exists within sex education classrooms by examining the underlying meaning educators introduce when they highlight particular aspects of sex education and sexual behavior through metaphors.
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For over a decade, battles have raged between conservative Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) sexuality education advocates and liberal Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) advocates. While these battles have focused on the inclusion of health information about contraception and whether or not a curriculum must advocate abstinence as the best and only method to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, these debates have often ignored other important values about sex. In this article, Sharon Lamb reviews the recent history of these sexuality education battles, criticizes both AOUM and CSE curricula, and discusses how, in CSE's accommodation to AOUM objections, ethical dimensions of sex education may have been neglected in favor of evidence-based practice. She then suggests ways in which the current curricula could teach ethical reasoning and make sex education a form of citizenship education, focusing on justice, equity, and caring for the other person as well as the self.
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Nearly twenty years after the publication of Michelle Fine's essay "Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire," the question of how sexuality education influences the development and health of adolescents remains just as relevant as it was in 1988. In this article, Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland examine the federal promotion of curricula advocating abstinence only until marriage in public schools and, in particular, how these policies constrict the development of "thick desire" in young women. Their findings highlight the fact that national policies have an uneven impact on young people and disproportionately place the burden on girls, youth of color, teens with disabilities, and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender youth. With these findings in mind, the authors provide a set of research guidelines to encourage researchers, policymakers, and advocates as they collect data on, develop curricula for, and change the contexts in which young people are educated about sexuality and health.
The familiar story that organizes 'normal' female adolescent sexuality is a romance narrative in which a (good) girl, who is on a quest for love, does not feel sexual desire - strong, embodied, passionate feelings of sexual wanting. In this story, sexual desire is male; it is intractable, uncontrollable, and victimizing. There continues to be no readily available image or story of a normal girl who has and responds to her own sexual desire. Following a social constructivist perspective, the ways in which we do and do not 'story' sexuality into being are definitive in how we make meaning out of our bodies and our relationships, and so the ways in which we do and do not speak about sexuality are crucial. This perspective also suggests that providing critiques and alternatives to sanctioned stories can be a crucial intervention. This point is illustrated by following the stories that are available to one girl for understanding her sexuality, and by portraying the tensions, revelations, and challenges that the interplay between these stories and her lived experiences produce. The use of a method for analyzing narratives to develop an understanding of adolescent girls' sexuality in terms of their own desire is described. The article presents an analysis of a case from the author's current exploration of how girls' knowledge and experiences of their bodies and of their desire is shaped, enabled, and undermined by stories available in the culture about female intimate relationships and sexuality.
Curricula in U.S. public schools are often the focus of heated debate, and few subjects spark more controversy than sex education. While conservatives argue that sexual abstinence should be the only message, liberals counter that an approach that provides comprehensive instruction and helps young people avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy is necessary. Caught in the middle are the students and teachers whose everyday experiences of sex education are seldom as clear-cut as either side of the debate suggests. Risky Lessons brings readers inside three North Carolina middle schools to show how students and teachers support and subvert the official curriculum through their questions, choices, viewpoints, and reactions. Most important, the book highlights how sex education's formal and informal lessons reflect and reinforce gender, race, and class inequalities. Ultimately critical of both conservative and liberal approaches, Fields argues for curricula that promote social and sexual justice. Sex education's aim need not be limited to reducing the risk of adolescent pregnancies, disease, and sexual activity. Rather, its lessons should help young people to recognize and contend with sexual desires, power, and inequalities.
Michelle Fine argues that the anti-sex rhetoric surrounding sex education and school-based health clinics does little to enhance the development of sexual responsibility and subjectivity in adolescents. Despite substantial evidence on the success of both school-based health clinics and access to sexuality information, the majority of public schools do not sanction or provide such information. As a result, female students, particularly low-income ones, suffer most from the inadequacies of present sex education policies. Current practices and language lead to increased experiences of victimization, teenage pregnancy, and increased dropout rates, and consequently, ". . . combine to exacerbate the vulnerability of young women whom schools, and the critics of sex education and school-based health clinics, claim to protect." The author combines a thorough review of the literature with her research in public schools to make a compelling argument for "sexuality education" that fosters not only the full developmen...