One of the most divisive topics in education is undoubtedly the debate over the degree to which sexual health education should be incorporated into public schools. The topic attracts a great deal of impassioned argument for perspectives at either end of the spectrum of inclusion, ranging from advocacy of sexual education being left to the domain of family-based education in the home to the inclusion of contraceptive method teachings in order to promote healthy sexual behaviors.
While the opposition to including sexual health education into the public school curriculum is not entirely faith-based, the resurgence of the religious right-wing in the United States has resulted in a great deal of the anti-sexual health education theory and rhetoric having overtly Christian overtones. The promulgation of the benefit of the inclusion of sexual education does not have as cohesive a philosophical stance, with arguments in its favor ranging from the proposed medical benefits to the defense of students' First Amendment rights to access to a full range of educational topics.
Many scientific research studies have been conducted, financed by a number of different political and educational institutions in order to more accurately asses the impact of various sexual education models upon students. Broadly defined, there are roughly four categories of sexual education models employed in American schools currently. The first is a model in which human sexuality is not discussed at all, or only marriage and relationship dynamics are discussed to the exclusion of human sexuality. The second type of sexual education offered is the abstinence-only model in which the discussion of sexuality occurs only in the contexts of emphasizing that sex should not occur outside the context of heterosexual marriage. The third type of human sexuality education offered in American schools is one in which abstinence is emphasized but some discussion of contraception options and STI-statistics are discussed, but no material resources are offered and abstinence is heavily emphasized as the ideal. The fourth broadly-defined category of sexual education offers comprehensive contraceptive information and often material resources, including condom access. Abstinence is often mentioned as one valid choice in personal sexuality, often along with safer sex practices and a de-stigmatized approach to handling inquiries and information around abortion, STI risk reduction and homosexuality.
Each of these methodologies has been studied in the context of efficacy and sociocultural impact upon students' individual sexual health and knowledge and sexual health outcomes. One particular area of interest in sexual health research is whether or not comprehensive sexual health teachings increase or reduce rates of sexually-transmitted infections and pregnancy. This is also a frequent area of inquiry regarding abstinence-only sexual health education, which has been challenged as unrealistic by many social science researchers (Mabray and Labauvre 2002). From a scientific and human rights perspective, a great deal of research has been published advocating the greater success of comprehensive sexual health education over abstinence-only education in reducing races of teen, premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infection rates.
The utility and efficacy of sexual education programs employing pedagogy beyond abstinence-only education in lowering pregnancy rates among sexually-active students has been an area of research undertaken by many social science researchers. One recent metastudy looks at the differential outcomes of abstinence-only, abstinence-promoting, and multidimensional sexual education models. The authors conclude that in a population that is already sexually active, comprehensive approaches to human sexuality education are more appropriate and effective in reducing pregnancy rates (Mabray and Labauvre 2002). The authors advance a 'multidimensional' model that could be employed to address teens regardless of sexual activity status or personal and cultural sexual beliefs:
"The proposed model, a multidimensional approach to adolescent sexual education, is not only appropriate for abstinent teens, but it also addresses those who are or have been sexually active. As opposed to the current abstinent-only approaches that focus on the pre-teen, this proposed model addresses 12-16-year-olds. This approach involves, among other things, the education of teens and parents, addresses physical and emotional needs and goal setting and institutes a community service element Mabray and Labauvre 2002: 1)."
Interrogating Philosophical Tensions
Beyond delineating types of sexual education offered in public schools, some research has been conducted to interrogate and define the trends in attitudes toward sexual health education and to assess the impact of these philosophies upon the cultural attitudes toward sexual education research. A paper published in the Journal of Moral Education in 1995 examineed the underlying philosophical perspective framing the creation and dissemination of five distinct attitudes toward sexual health education availability in public schools. The five categories of sex education rhetoric were identified as, "school sex education should not occur; school sex education should promote physical health; school sex education should promote personal autonomy; school sex education should promote responsible sexual behaviour; school sex education should take place within a religious framework. (Reiss 1995: 1)" The paper's concluding argument is that teachers best serve students by adopt[ing] a position which combines elements of affirmative and procedural neutrality (Reiss 1995: 1)." This paper was notable in attempting to bridge the polar ends of the philosophical spectrum by publishing an apologia of sexual heath education in a morality and religious-based educational journal (Reiss 1995).
Another paper also attempted to cross this philosophical divide within the context of British sexual health education. This paper also exposes some of the unique cultural challenges of British sexual health education while offering general arguments for interrogating the insight into a culture that sexual health education offers to social scientists and cultural critics. The author of 2001 paper critically appraised sexual health education in the United Kingdom and the way in which the government's role in directing its formation and implementation has affected its efficacy and betrayed underlying philosophical inconsistencies. The public school system does not allow for any discussion of spirituality pertaining to human and/or personal sexual development. The author takes a Christian perspective in analyzing the potentially beneficial effects of incorporating some element of spiritual and religious teachings into sexual health curriculum (Thatcher 2001).
Psychosocial Importance of Sexual Education
A 2008 article from Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning looks at the role of sexual education in the creation of sexual ideals in adolescents that endure over the course of a lifetime. The authors argue that sexual education can be an important and powerful psychosocial force in creating health sexual ideals that frame behavior and attitudes toward sexuality over the course of a lifetime. The paper defines sexual ideals in the context of sexual education as the concept of best practices and favorable concepts and conditions for healthy and safe manifestation of sexuality. The authors argue for the importance of incorporating sex education into public school curriculum along the philosophical basis that:
"The main aim of schools is to assist students to become educated persons and well-functioning citizens of a liberal democracy. This means that, inter alia, schools have a duty to provide sex education, because this is part of the prudent and moral baggage that students need. They need to know the dos and don'ts and not only know but also feel committed to the moral principles concerning sexual behaviour, which should minimally be the principle of mutual consent to having sex (de Ruyter and Spiecker 2008)"
The authors of a 2007 paper published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education look at the psychosocial implications of abstinence-only sexual health education upon students' conceptions of selfhood in civic contexts. Specifically, the rhetoric of abstinence-centric pedagogy is interrogated to look at the message sent to students about 'responsible citizenship.' This form of sexual health education emphasizes the importance of heteronormativity to full participation in social and civic citizenship. Those falling outside this norm suffer the risk of being othered and ostracized as the educational paradigm privileges and reinforces the power of those conforming to perceived sexual mores. "While all sexuality education offers students lessons in "good sexual citizenship," abstinence-only-until-marriage education reserves the rights and responsibilities of membership and belonging for those who are willing or able to conform to expectations of heterosexual marriage and excludes those whose sexual lives are routinely cast as suspect and excessive by the prevailing rhetoric. (Fields and Hirschman 2007)." The paper offers the form of cultural critique of American sexuality implied through the sexual educational standards of the most politically-restrictive sexual health system as was theorized by Thatcher.
The critical feminist lens in a novel one through which Lenskyi examines Canadian sex education in order to disprove conservative political forces opposing progressive, comprehensive sexual health education. The article positions that there are two major contributing forces to the developing of adolescent female sexuality: "male sexual violence and compulsory heterosexuality (Lenskyi 1990: 1). The author argues that a curriculum and pedagogy that does not have specific anti-sexist and non-heteronormative tenor harms the development of female sexuality and harms their social status:
The problems resulting from unprotected heterosexual intercourse -- pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases -- have a central place in most existing sex education programs, evidence of the generally reactive rather than…