Let’s Talk About Sex (Education)

By: and Caroline Hodge

October 17, 2018

Everyone has a story about sex education. From awkward conversations with their mother aided by a discreet pamphlet talking vaguely about “changes,” to school health class presentations consisting of one graphic picture after another of the effects of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), to a simulation where students had to plan for life with an unexpected baby (including finding an apartment and “applying” for welfare), to a class where the teacher gave each student a plush toy facsimile of STDs (a stuffed chlamydia or gonorrhea or syphilis) to take home and learn about for a week (a sort of literal “living with herpes” style exercise), these activities endure in people’s memories because they seemed to be awkward, absurd, and breaking taboos of talking about sex.

The landscape for sex education in the United States is highly varied: just over half of states mandate it, only about half of those require that the education be medically or scientifically accurate. Even in states that require sex education, an enormous amount of discretion is given to school districts, and sometimes even individual school administrators to determine what is taught, and when, and to whom. Nevertheless, in spite of this incredible diversity, nearly everyone I speak to has some sort of story like the ones mentioned above. The through-line, so to speak, of sex education seems to be that it nearly always contains activities that seem, even in retrospect, like odd ways to learn about sex and sexuality. Indeed, many of these activities don’t seem to be about sex at all. They are about its consequences, its ill effects, the technologies which surround it, but they don’t really address the thing itself. So what is sex education?

My research aims to understand these sex education programs more deeply, and on their own terms. How do they come to look the way they do? Who has a hand in their creation and to what end? What sorts of effects do they have on the teenagers who participate in them? Do they change the way they conceive of themselves, their sexuality, or their relationships? In other words, do these programs really matter? Or do they simply serve to make some adults feel better about what they’re doing to shepherd teenagers to healthy adult lives, while enraging others? To start answering these questions—indeed, to determine whether these are, in fact, the right questions to be asking at all—I undertook a preliminary field project in Philadelphia with the generous support of the Penn Museum and the Department of Anthropology. I met with and interviewed sex educators, policy makers, physicians specializing in adolescent health, non-profit professionals, and reproductive health advocates.

This binder contains all the lesson plans for a certain comprehensive sex education curriculum. Photo by author.

I’m especially interested in how these questions play out with regard to so-called “comprehensive” sex education programs. These programs, often created and administered by progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood, which is one of the most prolific providers of sex education in Philadelphia, pride themselves on their commitment to presenting scientifically accurate and developmentally appropriate lessons for students, setting themselves apart from (at least implicitly and sometimes explicitly) ideologically driven curricula, like abstinence-only programs. Their curricula do embody these ideals, but even such a commitment to scientific knowledge does not preclude normative questions from creeping in. For in addition to straightforward facts about contraception, puberty, or STDs, these curricula also tackle questions like “what makes a healthy relationship?” and “what is healthy and normal development?” Even if scientific evidence might be mobilized to support a particular answer to one of these kinds of questions, recourse to science itself is not enough: these are moral questions, in the broadest sense.

Planned Parenthood – The Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center in Philadelphia. Planned Parenthood is one of the largest providers of sex education in Philadelphia, as well as nationally. Photo by author.

Indeed, given the kind of arguments that circulate about comprehensive sex education in political debates, I was surprised by the degree to which my interlocutors leave evidence, at least narrowly construed in the sense of scientific evidence, aside. When making decisions about how and what to teach to a particular group, their calculus involved at least as much consideration of the students and parents in question—what they might be comfortable with, think appropriate, expect from the educator, etc.—as it did recourse to statistics about adolescent behavior in Philadelphia, or the latest research on contraception. As my fieldwork continues, I’m eager to dive more deeply into this world. I hope my dissertation will shed light on the social forces which shape sex education programs, as it takes seriously the experiences of teenagers at whom they are aimed, for their perspectives are too often ignored in conversations about sex ed. At the very least, I’ll end up with a lot of great stories about the embarrassing, ridiculous, and awkward things people do in the name of sex education.


Caroline Hodge is an MD/PhD student in cultural anthropology, studying sex education in the United States. Her project, based in Philadelphia, seeks to understand the social life of sex education programs: how do they come to be, who has a hand in their creation and to what end, what effects do they have on the teenagers who participate in them, and how do they figure in national discourses of sexuality and adolescence? This summer, funded by the Penn Museum and the Department of Anthropology, Caroline did preliminary fieldwork for her dissertation, making contacts in the area and learning what kinds of questions her dissertation research should be asking, of whom, and in what contexts. Ultimately, she hopes to practice medicine as a specialist in adolescent health, caring for patients, and continuing to do anthropological research on reproductive healthcare in the US.