the U.S. generally offer sex-education lessons in an effort to
provide young people with the information and decision-making skills they need
to lead healthy, productive, and happy lives. Almost 90% of public secondary
school students in the United States receive some sort of formal sex education,
and the U.S. government spends roughly 175 million dollars per year
subsidizing such programs. Unfortunately, recent research on individuals’
knowledge of sexually
transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, and general sexual health has reported
disappointing results. And a lack
among adolescents seems to follow them into adulthood. Perhaps not
surprisingly, this gap in sexual-health knowledge functions to exacerbate
already high rates of STIs, unintended pregnancies, and sexual violence in the
attempts to understand why formal sex-education programs seem to be having so little influence on Americans’ knowledge,
attitudes, and behaviors, researchers have studied the content of existing
programs and policies, the effectiveness of various curricula, and media
coverage of sex-education courses. What research has not explored fully is how
individuals tell stories about their own experiences with sex-education. We
found that identifying and analyzing how individuals tell narratives of their
formal sex-education offers a glimpse into the experience of learning about sex
in school and offers new insight into the widespread lack of sexual-health
research is based on interviews with 30 low-income women in a Midwestern U.S.
state. We asked women to tell stories about their experiences with
sex-education in school settings and to reflect on how the lessons they learned
shaped their decisions and behaviors. We focused on low-income women in
particular because access to and experiences with formal sex education may be
especially important for individuals with limited or intermittent access to
adequate health information from other sources. All the women in our study reported
an income at 200% of the poverty level.. Only three had had
the opportunity to complete a college degree, and six women had no access to
health insurance coverage.
each woman in our sample told a narrative informed by her own unique
experiences, we noted common themes across the stories. Some women narrated
tales of regret in which they lamented the absence of any sort of formal
education or regretted that the lessons they had were not more complete and informative. For instance, in
recalling a story about her first pregnancy, one woman realized that if she had
learned in school that antibiotics make oral contraceptives less effective, she
might not have become pregnant before she was ready.
women described satisfying experiences as they told stories of their
sex-education lessons, though not all women in the sample agreed that sex education
should be the domain
of the public school system. One woman explained that her teacher’s stern
warnings against premarital sex encouraged her to wait
until she was an adult to have sex and become pregnant.
number of women told stories characterized by uncertainty in which they
expressed doubt about what they learned in sex-education courses, had trouble
understanding what they learned, or struggled to connect their lessons to their
own subsequent beliefs, decisions, and behaviors. For example, one woman we
interviewed explained that sex-education courses changed her behavior “not a single bit,” but later suggested
otherwise by noting that she was inspired by the class to find out more about
the topic outside of school. Overall, she did not seem to regret anything about
the lessons’ content, but neither did she express satisfaction in what she
learned. In this way, her narrative of sex education demonstrated a lack of
coherence that made it difficult to follow her narrative of events and
ultimately demonstrated that she had not yet seemed to process how her formal
sex education connected to her larger narrative of self.
results of our study also demonstrate the importance of retrospective
of looking back over one’s life and coming to some understanding about why
certain events took place and why certain decision were made. The older women
in our sample who had had more time to reflect on their sex-education in school
were more likely to tell stories with a sense of certainty in which they
expressed how sex-education helped or hindered their sexual health decisions.
On the other hand, younger women were somewhat more likely to express
uncertainty about whether sex-education was helpful to them as adults. Overall,
women’s stories suggest that individuals with the most distance from an event
might be less likely to express doubt about their experiences and more likely
to integrate those experiences into their broader stories of self.
The voices of
women in our study offer a number of practical implications for the field of
sex education that might be useful to scholars and educators alike. First,
women’s narratives suggest that a lack of formal sex education compels
individuals to seek information elsewhere, which could result in incomplete or
inaccurate information (e.g., learning that condom use is important but not
learning the proper way to use a condom). A lack of comprehensive school-based
lessons might also suggest a need for ongoing educational efforts, perhaps into
for those who might not have access to information from a traditional
health-care provider. Regarding school-based curricula, several narratives from
our study suggest that the teacher’s style and demeanor are particularly
important, whether teachers are known for crafting memorable messages or for
discouraging open dialogue in the classroom. Finally, the retrospective
sense-making that women engaged in during their interviews suggests that
sex-education can influence individuals over the course of their lifetimes.
Though many educators likely recognize that sexual behaviors can have lifelong
consequences, they might not realize that early educational experiences can
influence individuals in varying ways well into adulthood. As such, it would benefit educators to
conceptualize sex-education courses as teaching life skills with potentially
lasting effects as opposed to teaching skills intended to help students
navigate their teenage years.
Jennifer J. Bute (left) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio
University in Athens, OH, USA, and has just accepted a position, beginning this
fall, as Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Indiana
University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, IN, USA.
Robin E. Jensen (right) is currently an
Assistant Professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, USA, and has
just accepted a position, beginning this fall, as Assistant Professor of
Communication at University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT, USA.
This translation essay appeared in the
June 2011 issue of Communication Currents,
and is based on the scholarly article, Bute, J.J., & Jensen, R.E. (2011). Narrative sense making and time lapse: Interviews with
low-income women about sex education.
Communication Monographs, 78, 212-232. Communication Currents
and Communication Monographs are
publications of the National Communication Association.