Master Debaters: Using Debate in Sex Education


Debate is as old as ancient Greece and is still relevant today. Debate is a useful teaching tool to have students practice public speaking, critical thinking, and research skills. Especially when debates are organized as opposing groups, rather than pairs, students are able to demonstrate their personal strengths while moving towards the same goal. As educators, debate can be a long project or a one-time activity depending on the subject and the curriculum arrangement. 

When planning your lesson involving debate it’s possible to get creative with what you want the students to get out of the experience.  Learning new vocabulary and research practice are reasonable objectives but also consider empathy building or gaining cultural perspective.  Using debate could be a way of teaching about cultural perspective.  Although debate itself comes from a specific worldview, the topics debated can take into account other cultural perspectives by assigning the teams specific values or beliefs that they need to “act” out while debating.


I definitely recommend that sexual health topics are debated in groups, preferably large groups. It’s easy enough to divide the class in half. With sensitive topics, it’s probably not a good idea to expect students to publicly express their personal opinion on a controversial topic. To avoid discomfort, assign the students to a position that you determine, rather than ask them to define their own.  This also will allow you to determine which concepts you want them to better flesh out and understand.

Once the teams are established, each needs time to research their argument.  This could be an overnight assignment, a week, or even just a few minutes.  Have students understand both sides so they can defend the opposing team

You can make the debate very structured with time limits and scoring but keeping aligned with sex education objectives, it might be more effective to have a loose back-and-forth between sides.  Although maintaining a level of competition can be a way of keeping the class engaged.  In conclusion you could have students discuss possible solutions that would accommodate both sides of an issue and follow up with individual essay assignment that gives each participant to express their personal feelings and what they learned.


Before a debate would be a good time to remind students of the classroom guidelines and think of some new rules that can be instated for this particular exercise.  Not only are ground rules important for creating a manageable classroom, it creates a safe space where learning can happen freely and students can engage with the material without fear of unanticipated limits.  A few ground rules that should be emphasized during debate are:

  • -Raise hand to speak/ No interrupting
  • -No personal attacks
  • -Acknowledge and praise each other’s work
  • -Give full effort to your position no matter personal preference

Topics in Sexuality Education for Debate

When choosing the topics that your students will be debating, it’s important to keep in mind the general atmosphere of the class. If the students (and administration) are open to discussing difficult topics then push your students to think about those. If your students (or administration) are slow to open up about sexuality issues, start small so they can gain confidence in this technique. Always be up to date with current issues around sexuality and bring them into the classroom. This is an easy way to keep students engaged with current events.

Possible topics for debate in a sex education setting might be

  • Should abortion be legal without restrictions?
  • Is it necessary to have laws mandating condom use in pornography?
  • Should babies born with ambiguous genitals be surgically modified to an assigned gender?
  • Is sex education in schools necessary?
  • Should schools provide free barrier contraception?



A Teacher’s Guide to Introducing Debate in the Classroom 

Debate Roles and Rules

An Introduction to Classroom Debates

The Psychology of Worldviews 

5 responses to “Master Debaters: Using Debate in Sex Education

  1. I love the concept of using debate in the classroom, as it can be an incredibly effective method for bringing in different experiences and perspectives. I don’t necessarily think that the debate groups need to be large, as the students aren’t necessarily giving their opinion but debating the side they were given.

    I’m glad that you’re challenging the educator to use debate to teach empathy and not just debate skills because debate can be a great tool for many reasons.

    The Socratic Method ( is one way to educate with debate effectively. The Socratic Method allows for many different skills and conversations to come into play, as suggested by the attached article, including: the nature of the question, problem, or issue that is on the floor, validity and interpretation of the data and information, the skill to question everything, the implications, and alternative perspectives.

  2. Nice breakdown of a classroom debate format! What is the minimum age requirement you recommend, if the goal is to gain new insight or a new cultural perspective? I hadn’t really considered debate as a classroom tool, probably because I remember being scarred by this format in the 8th grade (we had to pretend to be Congressional senators in the 1840’s and have a debate about slavery. I was assigned a southern congressman, so you can guess where that put me on the argument). The room quickly devolved into personal attacks against anyone who had to say anything in favor of “continuing slavery:” personal attacks continued into the hallway, and for the rest of the week. Besides being the worst topic to select for a History class debate, the maturity level just wasn’t there to handle a debate format.

    I would say that if you’re going to use this format for a group of middle or high schoolers, be very careful about the selection of topic (choose something on the low end of controversial), and remind students over and over that just because someone is arguing a side does not mean that they actually believe in that side.

  3. Excellent blog post. I believe that using debate in the classroom is a great idea, especially with students in high school. I remember doing a debate in 11th grade language arts about rights for homosexuals. I was on the side for rights and it was difficult for me and my teammates only because it was a very unfamiliar topic to me (this was during the years 1997/1998 when homosexuality wasn’t talked about as much as it is today). I like how you tied in possibly debate topics for a human sexuality education class. Great job!


  4. Great post covering how to implement debate in the sexuality education classroom. I appreciated that you added empathy building and gaining new cultural perspectives as possible objectives for the debate. I would not have thought about empathy building, but it is a great way to see both sides of an argument and to potentially build empathy for a side a person may not agree with. I also like that you suggest assigning students to a side, rather than having them choose which side to debate from. I think this would be especially important for adolescent learners. Developmentally, they are very concerned with their peer group and fitting in. If an individual believed or supported an issue they thought might not be a popular choice, they may be afraid of alienation from their peers if they debated their stance. If the teacher is choosing what side the student must be a part of, they should not have to worry about exposing what their true beliefs or values are.
    One thing I think that could be addressed is the best age debate would be useful for. For learners with very concrete minds and lower attention spans, I don’t know if debating is something that could be effectively implemented. I feel like it would probably work best with learners who are at least in their mid to late teens. I think that the younger you go, the less controversial the topics should be. It may also be hard to create a debate for any controversial topic depending on the setting you are working in.
    I also think it’s great that you addressed creating rules. Debates, especially with younger learners, can easily get out of hand and turn into a name-calling match. By making it more structured with creating rules and giving the students sides to work on would hopefully help to alleviate this. Great post Sarah!

  5. Debates can be such a great tool for students, especially in sexuality classrooms. Often we can get so caught up in our own bias on subjects that we forget about the valid perspectives of others. Debate (with rules!) allows for a safe space for students to explore alternative perspectives, as well as those they agree with, and learn more about how they apply to a situation or concept. In addition, because so many concepts in sexuality education tend to be contentious in society it provides students with the opportunity to assess their own values and views of an issue so that they can then use that understanding during conversations outside the classroom.

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