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Risky Lessons

Sex Education and Social Inequality

Jessica Fields

Publication Year: 2008

Curricula in U.S. public schools are often the focus of heated debate, and few subjects spark more controversy than sex education. While conservatives argue that sexual abstinence should be the only message, liberals counter that an approach that provides comprehensive instruction and helps young people avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy is necessary. Caught in the middle are the students and teachers whose everyday experiences of sex education are seldom as clear-cut as either side of the debate suggests. Risky Lessons brings readers inside three North Carolina middle schools to show how students and teachers support and subvert the official curriculum through their questions, choices, viewpoints, and reactions. Most important, the book highlights how sex education's formal and informal lessons reflect and reinforce gender, race, and class inequalities. Ultimately critical of both conservative and liberal approaches, Fields argues for curricula that promote social and sexual justice. Sex education's aim need not be limited to reducing the risk of adolescent pregnancies, disease, and sexual activity. Rather, its lessons should help young people to recognize and contend with sexual desires, power, and inequalities.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Series in Childhood Studies


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p. vi


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pp. ix-xi

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Chapter 1: Introduction: Asking More of Sex Education

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pp. 1-36

When I entered seventh grade in Connecticut in the late 1970s, school felt like a minefield of sexual pleasure and danger. I flirted with boys in the hallways, wore sparkly lip balm to class, and gathered with friends in the girls’ bathroom to check that no hairs or scents were out of place. As a pretty-enough white girl in a school dominated by white students, popularity was within my reach...

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Chapter 2: Differences and Divisions: Social Inequality in Sex Education Debates and Policies

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pp. 37-67

In 1997, newspaper readers throughout North Carolina learned that the Franklin County School Board had decided to slice three chapters from its ninth-grade sex education textbook (2001). A board-appointed committee had reviewed all sex education materials in use in the county’s public schools and determined...

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Chapter 3: The Prophylactic of Talk: Sex Education’s Competing Lessons on Sexual Communication

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pp. 68-97

At the turn of the twenty-first century in the United States, abstinence-only advocates worried that discussing sexual activity with young people was tantamount to condoning sexual irresponsibility and undermining marriage, family, and conventional gender roles. These conservative activists promoted instruction that focused on the risks of premarital sexual activity...

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Chapter 4: Natural and Ideological: Depicting Bodies in Sex Education

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pp. 98-136

I scheduled a time to talk with Lee Ann Finch after hearing her make the case in Southern County school board meetings and newspaper editorials for abstinence-only education. I met the white, upper-middle class, and middle-aged Finch in her office, and she explained that if Southern County had to offer school-based sex education at all...

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Chapter 5: Embattled Knowledge: Curiosity and Understanding in Sex Education

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pp. 137-163

My interest in sex education began in the late 1990s, when I was one of about a dozen women in a feminist theory seminar at the University of North Carolina. One afternoon, a woman told us that she had been surprised to learn the night before that her son’s eighth-grade sex education class...

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Chapter 6: Conclusion: Policy, Practice, and Sexuality Education

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pp. 164-174

Sex education is the stuff of situation comedies. Almost every television sit-com about young people at some point features some version of the following scene: the boys sit behind desks in a classroom or in ill-fitting shorts in a school gymnasium. An uncomfortable middle-aged man—the coach, usually—stands at the front of the room, whistle around his neck...

Methodological Appendix

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pp. 175-180


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pp. 181-182


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pp. 183-196


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pp. 197-204

About the Author

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p. 205

E-ISBN-13: 9780813544991
E-ISBN-10: 0813544998
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813543345
Print-ISBN-10: 0813543347

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 2 photographs, 1 lillustration, 10 tables
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Series in Childhood Studies
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner, Ph.D., Founder of Rutgers University Center for Children and Childhood Studies See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 276270117
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Risky Lessons