When Sex Goes to School

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Kristen Luker. When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex--And Sex Education--Since the Sixties. W.W. Norton and Company. 2006. Pp. 368. $25.95. Hardcover: ISBN 9780393060898


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

Federal policy in the United States officially promotes the idea of abstinence-only until marriage, while limiting information about effective contraception and ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases for sexually active students. At the same time public opinion surveys have consistently shown that there is widespread support for a comprehensive sex education program. With her book When Sex Goes to School: Warring views on sex--and sex education--since the sixties, Kristen Luker, a sociology professor, examines the sex education debates in America. Her studies are based on an ethnographic analysis of the ideas and beliefs held by a sample of 105 local activists in four different communities. She examines the motivations and values of some of the most vocal participants in these debates.

Luker begins with a social and political history of sex education in the United States. She begins with the conception of an early form of sex education by the social hygienists during the first sexual revolution about 100 years ago. Then she examines the very different sexual revolution that took place in the sixties and finally she looks at the contemporary sex-education approaches that are behind the highly politicized debates of today.

Luker refers to her research participants as either sexual conservatives or sexual liberals. These labels, according to Luker, come from the participants themselves. Through their interviews they refer to themselves as either a conservative or a liberal when it comes to sex education. For the conservatives, “sex outside of marriage is wrong because the Bible says it is.”(136) The liberals, “however, think that the question of sex before and outside of marriage comes down to facts.”(137) These facts might include “contraception success rates or knowledge about the emotional maturity of one’s partner.”(137) Luker argues theat the sexual revolution of the sixties and “all it stood for” divided the country into these two groups: “those who embrace the revolution and those who look back longingly to the old order it replaced.”(91)

According to Luker the debate over sex education is “really a debate about sex and marriage, and that debates about sex and marriage are also debates about gender, about how men and women should relate to one another, sexually and otherwise.”(258) She proposes that we tell young people this. She states that we should “tell young people that Americans today hold two very different views about sexuality, views rooted in very different notions of the relationship of sexuality to marriage.”(258) By bringing marriage back into the conversation means “addressing different views about the nature of gender and women’s roles.”(259) Luker asserts that young people need to know that “one of the most profound and historical changes in the past century was the rise of the second women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.”(259) She concludes that “in the end the debate about sex education is a debate about whether the gender and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s have not entirely fulfilled their promises or were based on empty promises to begin with.”(259) Where you stand on this issue, according to Lukers, labels you as either a liberal or conservative.


Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

One problem I found with the book is that Luker does not refer to a sexual middle. Everyone is either a liberal or a conservative. This creates a problem in my mind with her description of the liberals. The liberals - anyone wanting a comprehensive sex education program - are portrayed as somewhat hedonistic. They are described by the philosophy of "if it feels good do it."(100) I don't believe that every person wanting a comprehensive sex education program is accepting of sex outside of marriage. However, this is how they are grouped by Luker. They are also shown as all in "support of homosexuality."(112) I just think it is dangerous to lump every person together simply because they have one belief in common - that children should have a comprehensive sex education program. Her book might have been helped by another category - those who want a comprehensive sex education program to be offered but are not necessarily ok if they go out and have it before they are married.

Overall I found this book to be extremely interesting, well researched, and well written. Luker has outlined the book like a personal journal. It is written in the first person and contains a great deal of persoanl anecdotes from her own family life. This format allows her to present all of her meticulous research in such a way that doesn't bog readers down. The book has a very nice flow to it.

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