Essentialism in Sex Education

-by lnicolewesley and jandre9818

Back to BasicsEssentialism post

Some may be of a certain age where they can clearly remember the “Back to Basics” movement in the 1970s and1980s. This popular movement was born from the essentialist ideology, which seeks to instill basic knowledge, skills and traditional morals in learners. It is based on the philosophies of idealism and realism as well as the traditional, conservative values of American society. Historically, essentialism sought to improve American educational standards by the promotion of traditional disciplines such as math, science, history and literature.

Students progressively move through the various subjects with increasing complexity once they have proven mastery of a subject, which is most often done through an achievement test. The goal for essentialism is to teach learners to work within the established morals of society as opposed to teaching students to reshape or alter current sociopolitical standards. Students take on the role of the passive learner, who listens to the teacher’s instruction. Only by mastering the required material are students promoted to the next higher level. Essentialists believe that students should acquire essential education as well as virtues such as respect for authority, discipline, practicality and perseverance.

Does this sound familiar? Essentially, essentialism is the theory that underlies most classrooms that the 30-and-over crowd would remember with both fondness and not-so-fondness. Student desks usually sit in rows directed at the teacher, who not only bestows upon students their omnipotent knowledge, but also virulently rules over the precious ticket to freedom and restrooms otherwise known as the “hall pass.” Think Saved by the Bell without the funny antics of Zack Morris and his gang of awkward teenage friends.

Rote memorization is a hallmark learning method in essentialism, where critical analysis is shunned. On the other hand, the fear that came along with the dreaded test and subsequent grade was more than enough to promote learning and performance of students. I can remember feverishly studying lesson material on index cards for fear that my mother would make due on her promise to discontinue paying my college tuition if I produced any grade less than a “B.”

Essentialist Sex Education

A sexuality educator utilizing an essentialist educational theory focuses on the facts. Essentialists support a basic knowledge of sex to include concepts such as anatomy, physiology, biology and hygiene. Since essentialism is based on conservative values, the main moral lesson in an essentialist sex-education curriculum is abstinence-only until marriage. The objective of sex education from this prospective is to educate students about the sex organs and functions of the body rather than the full spectrum of sexuality.

Religious-based organizations and conservative school districts typically implement sex- education programs based on essentialism. Topics such as pleasure, communication, gender identity, orientation and relationships are not be covered. For those interested in teaching from this perspective, it would be beneficial to think of essentialism in sex education as only the most basic knowledge needed for students to understand their bodies and reproductive systems.

An essentialist sex education curriculum may emphasize the importance of abstaining from any and all sexual activities until marriage by presenting lessons regarding healthy relationships and communications utilizing tools such as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) 2009 to help teens identify their values and how to negotiate abstaining from sex while in a relationship.

Research conducted by Advocates for Youth, revealed that the federal government has poured more public dollars into abstinence-only sex education than any other kind to a sum of $1.5 billion since 1988. This demonstrates how much our society’s core value system is based on the tenets of essentialism. Unfortunately, teaching the basics in sexuality does not prove to be effective in deterring the negative consequences of sexual activity such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) according to Advocates for Youth.

Their research found that abstinence-only education is neither responsible for a delay in sexual activity amongst adolescents nor the recent decline in teen pregnancy. As a student of abstinence-only sex education, I can attest to the need for comprehensive education as showing a group of seventh graders the worst cases of gonorrhea ever does nothing to stop them from having sex behind the bleachers after school. Conversely, some sex education is better than none, so essentialist sex education does serve its purpose.

Some pros and cons of essentialism

Some critics argue that essentialism manufactures students, who are unable to think critically for themselves. Others believe that essentialism excludes more creative and contemporary education that would promote individuality. Supporters argue that basic education provides the foundation needed for further learning.  Conservatives support the American morals and values that are taught from this perspective.


Links to Web sites about essentialism

Sample Curricula

Resources for Parents & Educators


7 responses to “Essentialism in Sex Education

  1. I love the way this ended; so many great resources! (and so nicely organized, might I add.)
    I learned a lot from this post. It helps to know the history and attitudes of the past to explain present positions. You seemed to have explained the philosophies and ideologies really well. Some people, I might think, may feel that you have just described school and that’s it! I would have loved to hear a little more on the pros and cons, but over all, this was great!

  2. Yes, I think essentialism is sort of the basis of what we know of as school in the States. In terms of the pros, the rote memorization and testing definitely forces students to study for fear of failure. Think our 644 bio class. The cons is that this ideology does not promote or encourage critical thinking, which is a skill students will need in real-world situations/scenarios.

  3. This is a great clear explanation of essentialism, but I wonder about this sentence “Since essentialism is based on conservative values, the main moral lesson in an essentialist sex-education curriculum is abstinence-only until marriage.” As Lauren pointed out, Widener’s 644 class on biology is somewhat essentialist (and the Human Sexuality program is hardly conservative!).

    I would agree that essentialist curriculum often, even mostly, spring out of a conservative world view, but I wonder if it might also be used by educators who simply have a lot of factual information they have to cover in a fairly short period of time. I know I wouldn’t want, for example, my driver’s ed class to be affective and student centered. I want to go in, learn what I need to be a safe driver and get out!

    In the same way, a sexual education curriculum could have an essentialist section, although I completely agree that making that the only learning method would be very problematic.

    • That’s a very good point Annalisa and I think you’re correct in the assumption that when educators have a lot of factual information, essentialism might work best for getting that information out to an audience. I think of courses that, unfortunately for learners like me, are more lecture based; the sciences generally. It’s harder to put in more affective things when so much is based on fact. I think that there are ways to incorporate activities but it can’t always be hands on education.

      I do wonder about the idea of student centeredness, however. For me, students should be the center of every lesson, but I don’t necessarily think we do that because of a variety of reasons. Educators often are expected to teach for a test and it’s less about retaining it for your own personal gain as a student, but rather retaining it for a grade or for a government program or benchmarking, etc.

  4. This was a great review. I can´t criticize this approach because my education back home was mainly essencialist. And I know that its weakness (not leting the students thnik by themselves) can be seen as an obstacle to education. However, this model can be use in combination with others and be very useful, such as a lecture. Very good sumary.

  5. Whenever I think of Essentialist sex based education I think of my 5th grade health class when they separated the boys from the girls and taught each group what changes our bodies were going through, and where babies came from. And all I remember thinking was “Oh these amateurs, I already know what a period is because I became a woman over the summer”. Nonetheless, you did a great job summarizing the essentialist point of view Lauren.

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