Communication Currents

Communicating about Sex-Education through Stories

June 1, 2011
Health Communication

Schools in 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 of knowledge 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 United States. 

In 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 knowledge.

Our 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.

Although 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.

Other 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.

Finally, a 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.

The results of our study also demonstrate the importance of retrospective sense-making, 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 adulthood, especially 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. 

About the author (s)

Jennifer J. Bute

Ohio University

Assistant Professor

Robin E. Jensen

University of Utah

Associate Professor