Sexuality Education in Rural Midwestern Communities

Although my interests as they pertain to sex(uality) are broad, anyone who has gone through the process of writing a thesis or dissertation knows that specificity is the key to success, not to mention finishing! My focused dissertation research examined sexuality education policy implementation in two rural midwestern communities in Iowa. I approached this comparative case study through a social cognitive lens. My study was unique in the sense that very little research has examined sexuality education policy implementation, and no research that I was able to find focused on the midwest as a discreet community. The social cognitive lens I used to examine and interpret my findings also amounted to a new application of social cognition theory. As a lifelong resident of the midwest, and current resident of Iowa, my investment into the local community is high. Having experienced a form of sexuality education myself, I am familiar with the community dynamics that impact that way in which sexuality education is delivered.

Although a full review of the history of sexuality education is outside the purview of this site, it is important to note that the way we approach sexuality education has an extensive and sordid history. Several scholars, including Robin Jensen, Alexandra Lord, Kristin Luker, and Jeffrey Moran, have reviewed this history in excellent detail, and I would refer you to their work for a more extensive discussion. This past has brought us what Marty Klein and others refer to as “America’s Culture Wars” or America’s War on Sex. Debates continue to rage over funding, policy, and curriculum on multiple fronts. Although the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that children should receive comprehensive sexuality education (Constantine, Slater, & Carroll, 2007; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004), a small but vocal minority of individuals continue to lobby against such policy initiatives, citing various personal reasons for objecting. The act of objecting to comprehensive sexuality education for yourself or your children is certainly within anyones’ rights, but infringing on the rights of others in the process has become problematic for a country higher birth and STI rates than all other industrialized nations.

This history, in addition to fueling my general passion for the topic, lead me to study sexuality education policy implementation in rural communities. The overall purpose of this study was to provide a qualitative case study analysis of sexuality education policy implementation in two rural midwestern communities in the state of Iowa. I was interested in learning how local agents in rural midwestern communities implemented sexuality education policy, and understanding that process from a social cognitive theoretical framework.

I utilized a qualitative case study methodology for this study. Seven local implementing agents (defined as those directly responsible for the implementation of sexuality education policy received from the state of Iowa) from two rural school districts in the state of Iowa were interviewed, and relevant documents pertaining to the implementation of sexuality education policy were analyzed. The case study methodology provided the opportunity for participants to share individual values and beliefs regarding sexuality education policy, and discuss their experiences implementing this policy.Analysis of the data was guided by the following research questions: (a) what are the roles of individual implementing agents in the implementation of sexuality education policy in two rural, midwestern school districts?  (b) Are there significant individual and group influences on how implementing agents choose to implement sexuality education policy? (c) What is the community context in which implementing agents implement sexuality education? How significant is that context to implementing agents’ decisions regarding sexuality education policy implementation? and (d) how is sexuality education policy implementation organized and administered in rural midwestern school districts?

My findings were thought-provoking and insightful, and generated a greater understanding of how policy is implemented in these areas, and how this can impact the way we address the sexuality education needs of young people in these communities. Four main themes emerged, and my findings were centered around these areas.

#1. Values & Beliefs of Implementing Agents- The values and beliefs of implementing agents were of particular interest from a social cognitive perspective (Bandura, 1986; 2001; Cohen & Barnes, 1993; Guthrie, 1990; Jones, 1989). In the present study, personal and professional values and beliefs could not be distinguished from one another, and implementing agents were generally supportive of comprehensive sexuality education. They were willing to provide resources for young people, and were not significantly influenced by any religious or otherwise conservative belief structures. A lack of formal training, and a focus on addressing teen pregnancy were also reflected in the values and beliefs of implementing agents. These values and beliefs did not expand the definition of sex(uality) education beyond a biological context.

#2. Community Context- The community context emerged as a second significant theme (Arnold et al., 2005; de Coste, 2011; Smith & DiClemente, 2000). Despite previous findings, the present study found the community to be relatively silent on matters of sexuality and sexuality education. In general, if the implementing agents could rationalize the curriculum, then others in the community deferred to their expertise and were more interested in avoiding sexuality-related conversations themselves. Parents did play a limited role in both districts, and smaller community groups influenced the sexuality education policy implementation in one of the two communities. Additionally, lack of access of health services emerged as relevant to the present study.

#3. Implementing Agent Interaction- The interaction among implementing agents was found to be minimal in both districts. Agents acted mostly independently in matters of sexuality education policy, and were generally unaware of the actions of other implementing agents. This was especially interesting as administrators generally had less direct knowledge of how sexuality education policy was being implemented than with other curricular areas.

#4. Organization and Administration of Sexuality Education- The organization and administration of sexuality education varied greatly in each district. For both districts, the focus on core subjects such as math and science was very high. Policy implementation was a completely internal process in one district, whereas outside presenters and organizers participated in the other district.A careful examination of the curriculum materials made it clear that the materials each district possessed were either outdated or lacked comprehensive information. As a result of the poor quality and lack of access to quality curricular materials, implementing agents in both districts were forced to cobble together handouts, activities, and resources from a variety of external sources to shape their lessons. This lack of clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date curricular materials severely hindered the ability of implementing agents in both districts to implementing sexuality education policy effectively. Furthermore, implementing agents in both districts expressed a lack of knowledge about where to find additional resources should they wish to improve the manner in which they implement sexuality education policy.

Although the findings of this study are not necessarily generalizable to all rural midwestern communities (nor was that the expectation, as is true of much qualitative work), they are still quite significant for how we understand the policy implementation process in these communities. The findings indicate a need for more resources, professional development and training, community leveraging, and diversification of curricular content in rural midwestern communities.

At least one-fourth of all young people go to school in rural communities (Beeson & Strange, 2000) and these areas are often viewed as being insulated from the social concerns of larger urban areas (Blinn-Pike, 2008; Champion & Kelly, 2002). Since a majority of sexuality education curricula are focused on addressing these social concerns, there is a belief that sexuality education is less necessary in rural communities. However, evidence suggests that the need is just as great in rural communities, which are often underserved and lack the available resources of larger urban areas (Alexander et. al., 1989; Blinn-Pike, 2008; Blinn-Pike et al., 2004). Thus, the need for not only more research, but action to encourage more comprehensive implementation of sexuality education policy, is timely and warranted.


Alexander, C.S., Ensminger, M.E., Kim, Y.J., Smith, J., Johnson, K.E., & Dolan, L.J. (1989). Early sexual activity among adolescents in small towns and rural areas: Race and gender patterns. Family Planning Perspectives, 21, 261-266.

Arnold, M.L., Newman, J.H., Gaddy, B.B., & Dean, C.B. (2005). A look at the condition of rural education research: Setting a direction for future research. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 20(6), 1-25.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Beeson, E., & Strange, M. (2000). Why rural matters: The need for every state to take action on rural education. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 16(2), 63-140.

Blinn-Pike, L. (2008). Sex education in rural schools in the United States: Impact of rural educators’ community identities. Sex Education, 8(1), 77-92.

Blinn-Pike, L., Berger, T.J., & Hewett, J. (2004). Evaluation of the ‘Reducing the Risk’ curriculum: 18 month follow-up. Journal of Adolescent Research, 19, 495-511.

Champion, J.D., & Kelly, P. (2002). Protective and risk behaviors of rural minority adolescents. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 23, 191-207.

Cohen, D.K., & Weiss, J.A. (1993). The interplay of social science and prior knowledge in public policy. In H. Redner (Ed.), Studies in the thought of Charles E. Lindblom. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Constantine, N.A., Slater, J. K., & Carroll, J. (2007). Motivational aspects of community support for school-based comprehensive sexuality education. Sex Education, 7(4), 421-439.

Coste, d. (2011). Federal initiatives and sex education: The impact on rural United States. Critical Education, 2(13), 1-16.

Guthrie, J.W. (1990). Policy into practice. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(3).

Jones, J.W. (1989). Personality and epistemology: Cognitive social learning theory as a philosophy of science. Zygon, 24(1), 23-38.

Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, & Harvard University. (2004). Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey. Menlo Park, CA: The Foundation. 

Smith, M., & DiClemente, R.J. (2000). STAND: A peer educator training curriculum for sexual risk reduction in the rural South. Students together against negative decisions. Preventive Medicine, 30, 441-449.

Let’s Have “The Talk”

Did you have “the talk”? You know the one I’m talking about. The conversation with a parent, guardian, sibling, cousin, or some other random (hopefully not stranger) person related to you about that awkward and uncomfortable topic. I’m talking about SEX! Uh oh, the cat’s out of the bag. I’ve gone and named it. I said the “S word”. The next thing you know, I’ll be busting out the “F word”. I can probably guess what you are thinking, but I mean feminism. Anyway, the fact that you remember that conversation, or remember the general lack of an appropriate conversation is probably significant. In short, sex(uality) matters.

From the moment I picked up D’Emilio & Freedman’s Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, I was hooked. My own “talk” or lack there of, is fodder for another post. First, some introductions are in order. Well, I guess that could be part of the introduction, but I don’t want to give away the whole story when we’ve just only met. Let’s get to know each other first, eh? This blog is my attempt at broaching the diverse, intimate, often controversial, and seldom discussed topic of sex(uality). My word choice and formatting is quite intentional, and hopefully will continue to provoke such head-scratching moments as you are now experiencing- “what does he mean by ‘sex(uality)’? Why doesn’t he just say ‘sex’?

The answer, like many things, is complicated. As a researcher and generally well-meaning participant in our society, I view sexuality as a socially constructed notion falling somewhere in the space where history, identity, biology, politics, psychology, and theory intersect. The result is a pretty darn messy Venn diagram, but you get the idea. Over the lifespan of this blog, I will do my best to sit down with each of these intersecting ideas and have a sometimes serious, intelligent conversation. My goal is to explore the many ways that our ideas about sex and sexuality impact us on a micro, meso, and macro level. There is no sex(uality)-related topic that is out-of-bounds (until I stumble into it, anyway), and you will hopefully find yourself nodding in agreement at times, as well as questioning my ideas, and jumping at the opportunity to proffer a new or alternative idea. I welcome those comments, and look forward to the opportunity to engage you in dialogue on these topics, while also sharing resources, new research, current events, and doing my best give voice to marginalized groups in this discussion.

In many ways, most people in our society have been silenced around issues of sex(uality). It is a form of oppression that has many faces, and is often misunderstood. With that being said, our discussion and discourse around issues of sex and sex(uality) has historically been very White, middle-class, European, like many other aspects of society. The result has and continues to be a gap in the understanding of and education for historically marginalized populations, which is saying something considering the generally poor (but optimistically improving) state of sex(uality) education in this country. I approach these discussions from a feminist multicultural perspective, for reasons which will become clear as time goes on. I am guided by and motivated by my background, my identity, and my educational pursuits.

So, if you’ll indulge me, I invite you on a journey. This journey will chronicle my research endeavors, my ever-changing understanding of my identity, and hopefully some unique and interesting discussions on the topic of sex(uality). Together, let’s explore just why sex(uality) matters. Let’s have “the talk”.