Why Aren’t We Talking About Sex(uality) Education?

I recently returned from Philadelphia, having attended the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Conference. This was my second time attending the conference, and it was once again an academically rewarding experience. There is no question that the sheer size of the conference can make it a bit overwhelming, with thousands of educators (PK-16) from around the country converging on the Philadelphia Convention Center to present and discuss their research and practice. The organizational achievement alone is enough to be proud of, and this conference and organization, more than any other, highlights the amazing diversity of educational research being conducted around the country.

The theme for this year’s conference was “The Power of Education Research for Innovation in Practice and Policy“, and was described as follows:

“We live in exciting times in education research, where every day new ground is being forged in research design, methodology, instrumentation, and assessment. Questions regarding how people learn, what should be taught by whom, and to what ends remain at the core of our field, enveloped in a “cloud” of new ideas and technologies. In our rapidly changing world it is clearly time to take stock of the value of education research, of how it has spurred innovation, and of its problems and the potential solutions it can provide for improving the learning and well-being of children and adults. The theme for the 2014 Annual Meeting aims to encourage submissions that link the possibilities of education research, recognizing how evidence of varying types can be used for tackling persisting issues in education and for their innovative resolution.”

This theme left me excited for the possibilities of exploring sex(uality) education research and learning about the scholarship being done in this area around the country. After all, one of the main goals of sex(uality) education should be to improve “the learning and well-being of children and adults.” The wide array of research in multiple disciplines around issues of sex(uality) education, which is showcased in other professional organizations and research arenas, seems like a perfect fit for such an immense educational research organization. Surely the topic of sex(uality) education must come up in many presentations among the hundreds and hundreds being offered. A review of the program guide as I was preparing to leave for the conference revealed some interesting information. Many topics related to sexuality were represented prominently, including, but not limited to those below.

AERA Topics

Now, each of these topics is certainly relevant and critical to understanding and discussing sex(uality) education. However, further examination of the program guide revealed just one presentation explicitly discussing sex(uality) education…mine (there was one other presentation which discussed sex(uality) educators). This fact baffled me! Well, I should say that it baffled me for a moment. Perhaps I got my hopes up too quickly, or made assumptions that I should have made. Unfortunately, the silence surrounding sex and sex(uality) that I observe in many other facets of society had crept into AERA as well. In a conference of more than 17,000 educational researchers, with 12 divisions and countless special interest groups, nobody was talking about sex(uality) education.

I suppose that statement isn’t entirely true. I did have some very interesting and intellectually stimulating conversations with colleagues who were researching the above topics. It’s clear that their interest does wander into sex(uality) education as a curriculum area. However, the above topics seem to be safer to discuss. It’s ironic that issues and topics, all social-justice focused, that can quickly become polarizing and taboo outside the walls of a professional conference such as this, are represented prominently. It’s certainly an exciting environment to be a part of, and to be able to talk openly about the above issues with other educators is a breath of fresh air to say the least. It is reaffirming to know that so many folks are doing such amazing work on these topics, and pushing the boundaries of scholarship. However, why aren’t we talking about sex(uality) education?

Clearly there are many scholars, activists, and community members doing amazing sex(uality) education research, curriculum design and development, reform, and policy implementation work. However, that work continues to be pushed to the shadows of academia. The pervasive culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s that positioned sex(uality) education as a hyper-liberal attempt at indoctrinating young people seems to have effectively silenced many folks to this day, and created an area of academic interest that folks may explore, but rarely discuss outside their own research and organizational circles. It continues to be controversial to talk openly about sex, even in academia, where the celebration of intellectual curiosity and freedom is key to our work.

The ability to overcome the damage caused by a small but vocal minority of abstinence-only advocates rests on our willingness to bring the discussion back into the mainstream. The research speaks for itself, but only if someone is giving it a voice beyond the pages of the journals it is currently trapped in. Comprehensive, multiculturally-inclusive feminist sex(uality) education is of the utmost importance for the continued support, growth, and education of young people. The work of scholars who advocate on behalf of this need must be given a mainstream voice so this critical aspect of education is not left in the shadows, away from the major educational discussions currently taking place. I truly believe that we are at an educational crossroads in this country as we debate the merits of curriculum, assessment, access, and identity, and sex(uality) education can and must play a part in these discussions.



About @chasing42

I'm a thirty-something academic who studies and teaches multicultural education, Women's & Gender Studies, and sexuality, as well as providing educational opportunities on issues of diversity and inclusion. I also work on affirmative action and Title IX compliance and education. When I'm not reading, writing, or teaching, I'm thinking about those things while piling on the miles. I've only been running for a few years, but I've found it to be a true passion and a lifelong commitment that never ceases to interest and amaze me. The academic and physical pursuits compliment one another quite nicely in my life as I strive to be the best partner and educator I can be.

Posted on April 17, 2014, in sexuality education, social justice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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