In This Article Sex Education in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Abstinence and Abstinence-Only Education
  • Construction of Childhood, Youth, and Adolescence
  • Culture Wars and Community Debates
  • Curriculum Studies
  • Desire, Erotics, and Pleasure
  • Ethics, Citizenship, and Rights Education
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Family and Home
  • Historical Perspectives
  • HIV Education and Harm Reduction
  • Legal and Policy Perspectives
  • LGBTQ Sexuality and Youth
  • Race, Class, and Gender
  • Religion and Faith
  • Sexuality Education outside the School
  • Student and Teacher Perspectives on Improving Sexuality Education

Childhood Studies Sex Education in the United States
Maggie Scott, Carolyn S. Marsh, Jessica Fields
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0114


People learn about sex and sexuality throughout their lives; however, most discussion of sexuality education focuses on the lessons learned by children, adolescents, and youth. And, though young people learn about sex and sexuality throughout their days and lives, US debates about sexuality education focus on school-based learning. Recent policymaking and funding in the United States for sexuality education has rested on the contested question of whether abstinence-only or comprehensive sexuality education best meets the needs of students, families, and communities. Scholars have contributed to this debate with evaluations of programs’ pragmatic effectiveness; reflective and critical analyses of explicit and implicit lessons in sexual health curricula, well-being, and morality; suggestions for curricular and pedagogical innovation and improvement; and efforts to locate these debates in broader social conflicts about changing gender and sexual norms and expectations. These scholarly works—along with the debates and teaching practices they consider—reflect the social conflicts they attempt to analyze. Thus, changes wrought by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights movement, feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and religious conservatism fill the pages of the scholarship we review—whether as subjects of analysis or as frameworks guiding the analysis. Though politics routinely informs academic research, it may be especially the case in a subject like sexuality education. Thus, this bibliography and the scholarship cited in this article reflect the leanings and concerns of public debate, though this article has made an effort to include authors and texts that resist the conventional leanings and push our thinking beyond the usual bounds. This bibliography also focuses on sexuality education in the United States, though included are some texts written about other national contexts when the arguments have particular resonance with US concerns. (The authors thank Jen Gilbert for her feedback on earlier versions of this bibliography.)

Abstinence and Abstinence-Only Education

In the United States, abstinence continues to structure debates about sex education, even as study after study dispute the effectiveness of abstinence-only education for reducing teen pregnancy, delaying the onset of sexual activity, and promoting safer sex practices among youth (see, for example, Santelli, et al. 2006). Santelli 2006 has been at the forefront of this critique, demonstrating how ideology, rather than science and research, drives US policies around sex education and abstinence. Abstinence-only programs violate a young people’s right (affirmed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) to reliable sexual health information and resources, free of coercion. As Gilbert 2010 asserts in the introduction to a special issue of Sex Education, the focus on abstinence (in conservative, abstinence-only instruction as well as more liberal, abstinence-plus curricula) does not prepare youth either to meet the challenges of negotiating sexual relationships or to understanding sexuality as an aspect of experience that is larger than sexual intercourse. Similarly, Fisher 2009 and Schalet 2011 demonstrate how the focus on abstinence neglects the experiences of LGBTQ youth and casts youth as a monolithic category. And yet, even as abstinence continues to dominate US sex education debates, the term itself evokes ambivalence and conflict among teachers, parents, and health care providers. As Hess 2010 notes in the author’s study of abstinence-only sex educators, adults often navigate tensions between the abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and their own commitments to the health and well-being of youth.

  • Fisher, Christopher Michael. “Queer Youth Experiences with Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Sexuality Education: ‘I Can’t Get Married So Where Does That Leave Me?’” Journal of LGBT Youth 6.1 (2009): 61–79.

    DOI: 10.1080/19361650802396775E-mail Citation »

    Fisher draws on qualitative interviews with self-identified gay and bisexual young men who explore their experiences in abstinence-only sexuality education classes. Participants report feeling silenced and excluded, though data also reveal participants’ resilience: many sought information from alternative sources and spoke up in classes—even those classes students considered hostile.

  • Gilbert, Jen. “Ambivalence Only? Sex Education in the Age of Abstinence.” Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 10.3 (2010): 233–237.

    DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2010.491631E-mail Citation »

    Gilbert argues that debates over abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education mistakenly asserts a certainty about what sexuality is and how teachers and students can best approach teaching and learning about sexuality. At its most meaningful, sexuality education allows teachers and students to suspend defensiveness and bring their ambivalence to the classroom.

  • Hess, Amie. “‘Hold the Sex, Please’: The Discursive Politics between National and Local Abstinence Education Providers.” Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 10.3 (2010): 251–266.

    DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2010.491632E-mail Citation »

    Hess explores a tension between the stated aims of the US abstinence-only-until-marriage education movement and local sex educators’ understandings of abstinence and abstinence programming. Educators often feel ambivalent about abstinence-only education and work to adjust their classes to better meet their understandings of community and student needs.

  • Santelli, John. “Abstinence-Only Education: Politics, Science, and Ethics.” Social Research 73.3 (2006): 835–858.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.06.002E-mail Citation »

    Santelli outlines the relationship between research and US policies on sex education, arguing that ideology, not research and science, drives many federally funded abstinence-only education programs and policies aimed at teenagers. The author argues for improved communication among scientists, citizens, and government health programs.

  • Santelli, John, Mary Ott, Maureen Lyon, Jennifer Rogers, Daniel Summers, and Rebecca Schleifer. “Abstinence and Abstinence-Only Education: A Review of U.S. Policies and Programs.” Journal of Adolescent Health 38.1 (2006): 72–81.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.10.006E-mail Citation »

    An analysis of turn-of-the-21st-century evaluation research indicates abstinence-only programs are ineffective in delaying sexual activity. These programs often have a negative impact on the knowledge and well-being of young people, particularly LGBTQ and other marginalized youth, and violate all young people’s right to reliable sexual health information and resources.

  • Schalet, Amy T. “Beyond Abstinence and Risk: A New Paradigm for Adolescent Sexual Health.” Women’s Health Issues 21.3 (2011): S5–S7.

    DOI: 10.1177/1524839910370420E-mail Citation »

    Exploring US and international contexts, Schalet explores the limitations of the two dominant approaches to sexual health education: abstinence-only-until-marriage and sex-as-risk paradigms. She identifies two necessary components to overcoming these limitations and offering young people better access to useful, comprehensive sexuality education: recognizing diversity and removing disparities to sexual health.

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