In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sex Education in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Construction of Childhood and Adolescence
  • Schools and Schooling
  • Student-Teacher Interactions and Experiences
  • Abstinence-Only Education
  • Social Ideologies, Faith, and Morality
  • Family Communication
  • Social Inequalities
  • Pleasure and Desire
  • HIV/AIDS/STI Education
  • Culture, Media, and Technology
  • Adult Sex Education

Childhood Studies Sex Education in the United States
Maggie Scott, Carolyn S. Marsh, Jessica Fields
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0114


The terms sex education, sexuality education, and sexual health education—mentioned throughout this article—all reflect the diverse scholarship that considers how sex and sexuality are taught and learned in different contexts across the lifespan. While people learn about sex and sexuality throughout their lives, most discussion of sexuality education focuses on the lessons learned by children, adolescents, and youth. And, though young people learn about sex and sexuality from various sources, US debates about sexuality education focus on school-based learning. This article considers the social construction of childhood and debates around school-based sex education as well as scholarship that examines other sites of sex and sexuality education. Families, religious and secular communities, media, and the Internet all play significant roles in dispersing information and values surrounding sex and sexuality. These and other sites of sexuality education reflect and contribute to societal and cultural ideologies around sex and sexuality. Research on sexuality education has also considered the ways sex education has the potential to reproduce, as well as contest, societal inequalities. This article focuses on sexuality education in the United States, and while the majority of the scholarship reflects this focus, included are some texts written within other national contexts that have influenced scholarship or thinking about sexuality education research and practice within the United States. While this article does not contain a section explicitly engaging with citizenship, the ways sexuality education has been involved in constructing and policing US national identity comes up in several sections. (The authors thank Jen Gilbert and anonymous reviewers for feedback on earlier versions of this article.)

Construction of Childhood and Adolescence

Sexuality education is entangled with prevailing ideas about adolescence; indeed, sexuality education helps to create those ideas. Moran 2000 links the emergence of “adolescence” as a distinct social category with the widespread incorporation of sex education into public schools during the 20th century. According to Moran, social anxieties around disease, morality, and citizenship fueled these simultaneous developments. Lesko 2001 provides a historical analysis of contemporary constructions of adolescence in media, schooling, and national rhetoric. Levine 2002 offers a related critique of modern social ideals around childhood sexual innocence—making the controversial claim that US media, policymaking, and schooling eroticize children and youth, even while claiming to protect them. Heins, the founder of the Free Expression Policy Project, turns readers’ attention to the legal landscape. Heins 2001 pulls from historical and contemporary examples to critique US indecency laws and other legal avenues for shielding young people’s presumed sexual innocence. Fields 2005 continues the critique, arguing that while abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education advocates often appear polarized, the seemingly neutral language of “children having children” that both sides deploy builds on and conceals racialized and gendered messages. In a historical analysis of sex education in the 20th and 21st centuries, Carlson 2012 underscores the prevailing conception of young people’s sexuality itself as problematic or risky and urges educators to reject this approach and instead approach young people’s sexuality through a framework of social justice and rights. Diorio and Munro 2003 argues that gendered lessons about puberty and anatomy leave girls with negative attitudes about and understandings of their bodies, particularly the experience of menstruation. Robinson 2013—a recent study of childhood, sexuality, and innocence that spans Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States—suggests these issues reach well beyond US borders.

  • Carlson, Dennis. The Education of Eros: A History of Education and the Problem of Adolescent Sexuality. Studies in Curriculum Theories Series. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203140178

    In this historical analysis of sexuality education throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Carlson argues those involved in sex education debates often frame adolescent sexuality and desire as a problem. Carlson explores and endorses contemporary approaches to sexuality education that locate sexuality and sex education within a discourse of social justice, rights, and sexual subjectivity.

  • Diorio, Joseph A., and Jenny A. Munro. “What Does Puberty Mean to Adolescents? Teaching and Learning about Bodily Development.” Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 3.2 (2003): 119–131.

    DOI: 10.1080/14681810309040

    According to Diorio and Munro, a strictly biological approach to teaching about puberty often neglects social, nonreproductive, and nonheterosexual understandings of development and maturity. Such neglect denies young people opportunities to understand and engage with the full range of adolescent development.

  • Fields, Jessica. “‘Children Having Children’: Race, Innocence, and Sexuality Education.” Social Problems 52.4 (2005): 549–571.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2005.52.4.549

    Fields explores the racialized and gendered messages embedded within the seemingly neutral rhetoric of “children having children” deployed in sex education debates. Despite the prevailing sense that abstinence-only education and comprehensive sexuality education represents opposing curricular options, Fields finds advocates on both sides use this rhetoric to promote their curricula.

  • Heins, Marjorie. Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

    Heins explores indecency laws and other legal efforts to protect young people’s sexual “innocence.” Drawing on historical and contemporary examples, the book identifies and criticizes the ideologies guiding these laws, focusing on the assumption that sex and sexual knowledge represent a danger for youth.

  • Lesko, Nancy. Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001.

    Lesko examines historical and contemporary factors that shape cultural and social ideas around adolescence. Resisting traditional chronology, Lesko examines history’s continued impact on constructions of adolescence and sexuality through media, schooling, and nationalism.

  • Levine, Judith. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

    Levine received significant media attention—favorable and unfavorable—for Harmful to Minors and its challenge to social ideals around childhood sexual innocence. Concerned that these ideals constrain educational possibilities in a conservative era, Levine argues for a reimagining of how US society “protects” children while also eroticizing young people.

  • Moran, Jeffrey P. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    Moran traces the rise of “adolescence” as a period of development and the concomitant push for schools to educate adolescents about sex throughout the 20th century. Consistently, social panics about sexual behavior, disease, and national citizenship compelled a national movement to teach young people about sex.

  • Robinson, Kerry. Innocence, Knowledge and the Construction of Childhood: The Contradictory Nature of Sexuality and Censorship in Children’s Contemporary Lives. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203117538

    In this book-length study, Robinson draws on her previous work on childhood educators, ethical relationships in childhood, and sexual harassment. Robinson critiques adults’ claims of regulating children’s sexual knowledge in order to protect them from harm. Instead, such protectionism renders children more vulnerable to exploitation and violence, and hampers their efforts to become contributing members of their communities.

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