Barriers to Teaching Sexuality Education

  Cartoon of pregnant woman with a man standing in the back.  The woman is holding her stomach and saying, "Gimme a little credit!  I said 'no' practically the whole night!"

The Beginning

The controversies about sexuality education have been debated in communities all across the country since the 1960’s when the John Birch Society and other ultraconservative organizations charged that such programs were “smut,” “immoral” and “a filthy communist plot” (Haffner and deMauro, 1991). Even back when the National Education Association (NEA) passed a resolution supporting sexuality education in 1982, and 22 years later supported a specific training in that area for teachers, there were many individuals opposed to sexuality education.  These leaders and members of religious communities argued that schools were usurping parental authority in this matter, that this discussion did not belong in the schools, and that it would remove children’s innocence.  These controversies continue to this day.

When the AIDS epidemic started, those who were opposed to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which promotes the health of adolescents while avoiding negative sexual health outcomes, argued that the main goal was to promote abstinence-only-until-marriage.  Abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum focuses on delaying any sexual activity until marriage due to the negative repercussions of having sex outside of a committed, monogamous relationship.  Their tactic was to offer their own curriculum, funded by the government, which was based on fear and shame. Many of these tactics and arguments focused on parental fears, such as STDs and teen pregnancy.   As time progressed, however, more conservatives stopped using fear-based curricula, which were funded with federal money.  Some communities have discontinued fear based curricula, but continue to use abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.  Abstinence-only curriculum does not discuss any options other than strict abstinence (no sexual contact) until marriage, while fear-based sexuality education attempts to negatively stereotype and control adolescent behaviors by focusing on their shame and fear.   These controversies mirror larger political and social issues. Research demonstrates that that these abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have had no impact the on the sexual behavior of teenagers.

Who Decides on Content of Instruction

Because the board of education within each school district or charter school determines the content of instruction, as well as policies regarding referrals and parental notification regarding contraception, it is important to elect board members who support comprehensive sexuality education and don’t just to promote their own conservative and/or religious-right view of human sexuality. The board also notifies all parents and guardians of the content of instruction and allows them to remove their students from instruction if they so desire. The curriculum is usually available for public inspection before the instruction actually begins, so again the parents and guardians have the final say if their student attends the class or if they can opt out.

Personal Experience

I see firsthand the lack of knowledge that many of the students I teach have regarding sexuality, including sexual orientation, in Delaware.  Some school boards have placed restrictions on what is allowed to be taught within the Delaware curriculum. For example, I am unable to review or teach basic anatomy as it is only taught in biology class.  In addition, controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortion, masturbation, and contraception are prohibited from being taught and discussed.

Recently, while at a high school, the students and I had a thorough discussion of the female anatomy including reproduction.  In these schools where certain subjects are “taboo,” what is the responsibility of a sexuality educator and health teacher to respond to these students’ issues and questions?  While discussing the female anatomy with the students, one asked, “where do females urinate from?”  A female student, who had made it known that she was sexually active, proudly raised her hand and stated, “my clitoris.”  All I could think about was not only my job security but the reality of the need for comprehensive sexuality education.  

The focus needs to be on incorporating comprehensive sexuality education into the general curriculum, not necessarily only in health classes.  This will ensure that everyone is using correct language, being inclusive, and not assuming heterosexuality.  These risks of suicide among teenagers due to being bullied is unfortunately on the rise as evident by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s report (CDC) in 2012.  This report revealed “that between January and May 2012, there were 11 suicide deaths in Kent and Sussex Counties, and 116 suicide attempts from students between the ages of 13 and 21” (O’Malley, 2012).  Not addressing these issues can lead to unhealthy behavior and, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health, “sexual minority youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience suicidal thinking or attempt suicide” (Russell & Joyner, 2001).  This study accurately addresses the need to develop and implement specific lesson plans tailored towards these students and these findings could not be more relevant when examining sexual orientation and the impact of restricting controversial issues in our schools.  This dramatic rise of teen suicides in Kent and Sussex Counties is the validation we need to pursue sexuality education (sexual orientation as a topic) in school curricula.

Advocating for Sexuality Education

In conclusion, advocates for sexuality education in the schools need to their homework. They need to find out what programs are being taught, who the instructors are, and they need to keep up with the most current research and literature. As mentioned previously, advocates also need to know about the school board members, their opinions, and if there are any advisory committees mandated by the state.  It is also extremely important to note that not all parents have an equal say in the decision making process, and only parents whose children are involved in these programs should participate. Along the same lines, student input should be a main focus and consideration in these discussions, as they are the ones most impacted by decisions made at local, state, and national levels.

Breaking Barriers


Haffner, D.W. & de Mauro, D.  (June 1994).  Winning the Battle: Developing Support for Sexuality and HIV/AIDS Education, New York: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), 1991; and People for the American Way (PFAW), Teaching Fear: The Religious Right’s Campaign Against Sexuality Education, Washington, DC: PFAW.

O’Malley, S . (November 2012).  Delaware Children’s Dept. addresses teen suicides in budget proposal.  Newsworks.

Russell, S. & Joyner, K.  (August 2001). Adolescent Sexual Orientation and Suicide Risk: Evidence from a National Study.  American Journal of Public Health.  2001; 91 (8): 1276-1281.

3 responses to “Barriers to Teaching Sexuality Education

  1. Many of us health educators have seen the struggles that come with teaching within the public sphere, but the history behind where the opposition comes from is rarely discussed. Thanks for detailing that timeline out for all of us!

    In regards to the transparency of the curriculum, it would be wonderful to be able to use that as an opportunity for discussion with the parents, especially those who oppose. In this way, the parents are shown respect for their values and beliefs by being included in the planning and learning process and given the opportunity to ask questions as to why certain topics are included. If framed as a conversation opportunity, the teachers may have a better chance at rationalize the content, and provided that the teacher provides an explanation that *assimilates* with the parents’ beliefs, the teacher may just be able to illustrate the need for the parents’ participation for the student to learn. Here’s hoping…

    • Teal, you read my mind. I think the best way to get sexuality education in schools is to start including parents into the curriculum process. Not only in what they teach their students but also offering workshops for parents on values and talking to their own kids about sex. I think values clarification exercises are what we really need as a culture overall but especially parents who want to raise sexually competent children. It’s important for these parents to feel like their values are being acknowledged and respected within the curriculum. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking and to have the time and resources for all of this work seems a little far-fetched at this point but if we take small steps toward assimilation, we are on the right track.

      Thank you for the post!

  2. Molly,
    This was very insightful. After reading about your personal experience in the classroom, I am a firm believer that sexuality education should begin when children are around age 5. For a female to believe that she urinates out of her clitoris is telling me that kids in America are clueless about sex and that’s sad. I am thankful that my mother was available for me to talk to about the anatomy of my body. Thanks again for sharing.

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