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Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas across a Political Divide



“Sexuality education”– broadly defined as teaching and learning about a range of issues related to puberty, sexuality, and relationships – occurs all day every day, formally and informally, intentionally and unintentionally. Nevertheless, adults organize policy and instruction for young people around a constrained set of concerns: first, that the sexuality education youth receive does not help them navigate an increasingly sexualized and dangerous world and, second, that the lessons are themselves damaging, exacerbating the risks youth and children already face. I discuss sexuality education’s entanglement with these conventional cultural ideas about youth, sexuality, and education. I consider the ways that abstinence-only and comprehensive school-based sexuality education rest on a series of a discursive framings, including a commitment to regulating sexuality and youth, a contemporary “moral panic” that renders all talk about youth and sexuality provocative, and normative and instrumental conceptions of teaching and learning about sexuality. I conclude by discussing the implications of these discursive framings for classroom practice and imagining an alternative model in which sexuality education might embrace ambiguity and ambivalence as a necessary and even welcome condition of young people’s sexuality and education.