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The Sex Education Debates

Educating children and adolescents in public schools about sex is a deeply inflammatory act in the United States. Since the 1980s, intense political and cultural battles have been waged between believers in abstinence until marriage and advocates for comprehensive sex education. In The Sex Education Debates, Nancy Kendall upends conventional thinking about these battles by bringing the school and community realities of sex education to life through the diverse voices of students, teachers, administrators, and activists.
Drawing on ethnographic research in five states, Kendall reveals important differences and surprising commonalities shared by purported antagonists in the sex education wars, and she illuminates the unintended consequences these protracted battles have, especially on teachers and students. Showing that the lessons that most students, teachers, and parents take away from these battles are antithetical to the long-term health of American democracy, she argues for shifting the measure of sex education success away from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates. Instead, she argues, the debates should focus on a broader set of social and democratic consequences, such as what students learn about themselves as sexual beings and civic actors, and how sex education programming affects school-community relations.


The Sex Education Debates is a comprehensive analysis of US sex education debates, policies, and classroom practice. As Nancy Kendall argues, debates, policy, and practice vary greatly across state and local contexts, and those variations have enormous consequences for teachers’, students’, and communities’ experiences of teaching and learning about sexuality. With incisive readings of the field data, she offers a rigorous engagement with issues of structural and other social inequalities. Her analysis makes a significant contribution.”

Jessica Fields, San Francisco State University

The Sex Education Debates is one of the most nuanced and insightful analyses of a controversy that lies at the heart of the ideological conflicts that pervade education. Nancy Kendall has written a book that challenges us both to rethink the sex education controversy and to create educational programs that deal honestly with the realities that educators, communities, and especially students face. It is crucial reading for anyone involved in policy and practice in education.”  

Michael Apple, University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Sex Education Debates is an original and wide-ranging book that makes noteworthy contributions to understandings of the politics and practices of the most prevalent approaches to sex education in the contemporary United States. Comprised of both description and interpretation of sex education policy and practice in four states, it elucidates guiding ideological assumptions while illuminating students’ misconceptions of sex and sexuality and the questionable information that is routinely pedaled to them by teachers who are ill-prepared, overly ideological, and, above all, anxious.”  

Peter Demerath, University of Minnesota

“Kendall provides a comprehensive examination of how policy and societal beliefs shape the discourse and practice of sex education in five states through intensive interviews and immersion in comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and Abstinence Only until Marriage Education (AOUME) initiatives. Her in-depth ethnographic research details the lived realities of students, illustrates the anxiety of many ill-prepared teachers, and points out discrepancies in teaching methods as well as the shortcomings of current curricula.” 

R. James | Choice

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Sex Education Research and Policies

Part I: Microanalyses of Sex Education

Chapter 3. Florida’s “It’s Great to Wait” Campaign: The State as Manager, Marketer, and Moral Arbiter
Chapter 4. “It’s a Local Thing”: Sex Education as Compromise and Choice in Wyoming
Chapter 5. No Idea Is Bad, No Opinion Is Wrong, but Knowledge Is Power: Sex Education in Wisconsin (coauthored with Kathleen Elliott)
Chapter 6. Engaging Diversity: Sex Education for All in California

Part II: Macroanalyses of Sex Education

Chapter 7. Morality Tales: Adolescent Desire, Disease, and Fertility in Sex Education Programs
Chapter 8. “Men Are Microwaves, Women Are Crock-Pots”: Gender Roles in AOUME and CSE
Chapter 9. “What Are We Doing about the Homosexual Threat?”: Scientism, Sexual Identity, and Sexuality Education
Chapter 10. Rape as Consuming Desire and Gendered Responsibility
Chapter 11. Concluding Thoughts: Sex Education as Civics Education?

Appendix 1
Appendix 2


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