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Whilst often purporting to be the conveyance of a body of scientific knowledge, in fact sex education” connotes and has always connoted hegemonic discourses relating to politics, morality, sexuality, and social control. As such, it is subject to a multitude of approaches, meanings, and pedagogical strategies and is highly contextual, with localized cultures and understandings making significant differences to both the purposes and practices involved. It is, therefore, often highly politicized.
Historically, and in the present, sex education has occupied an uneasy position, straddled between the perceived need to tell young people about the dangers of illness and pregnancy and the fear that talking about sex will make it even more attractive. In this respect, moral hygiene (avoiding talking about it) is counterposed to physical hygiene (preventing the spread of disease and pregnancy).
This simultaneous need for selective information about sex and the wish to control people, has determined sex education in the Anglophone world throughout the twentieth century. In the UK, the white (settler) colonies of the British Commonwealth and in the USA this was accompanied by an imperative to avoid miscegenation” and ”excessive breeding” by subjugated people. In this context social purity” campaigners called for sex education in schools, while vice campaigners argued against it (Irvine 2002).
Contemporary approaches to sex education in Anglophone countries fall into three categories:
- the promotion of sexual abstinence (strongest in the USA)
- a focus on sexual reproduction and danger, with a nod in the direction of relationships (mainstream in most countries)
- emergent sociological, psychological and historical approaches (virtually non-existent in schools).
The first two approaches are rooted in the attempted social control of young people but have been proved unsuccessful in this regard – in the case of abstinence education, spectacularly so.
Fine (1988) suggests that this is the result of the missing discourse of desire”. In developing” countries, sex education follows the first two approaches, often seen as a form of contraception, limiting population growth and aiding economies. In the context of HIV, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, approaches often stress danger, instructing people to Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomize” (ABC). These countries have also seen a growth of peer sex education with some limited evidence of success.
The third approach is barely in evidence anywhere, despite being advocated by a number of researchers in response to the failures of the first two approaches and the urgency of the HIV pandemic.
- Epstein, D., O’Flynn, S., & Telford, D. (2003) Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities. Trentham Books, Stoke-on-Trent.
- Irvine, J. (2002) Talk about Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.