Method: Focus groups were conducted with an ethnically and racially diverse group of 34 undergraduates (17 men and 17 women) in 6 focus groups of 5-6 students each, at a large Midwestern university. Questions addressed participant experiences and perspectives regarding their sex education, including timing, content, and tone. Analytical memos were written after each focus group. Audio recordings were transcribed by undergraduate research assistants, and a process of open and focused coding (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995) was used to analyze these data.
Results: Participants reported great variation in timing and content of sex education, with two broad sets of messages emerging. The first included factual information about biology, disease, and contraception. The second focused on sexual abstinence, relationships and love. Many participants reported receiving one or the other set of messages, with little overlap between the two. Many expressed that they wished they had received both. Additionally, young women and men reported receiving different messages. Women received more messages about refusal skills, abstinence, fear and caution. Men received more messages about issues including sexual pleasure and rape. Participants identified learning about a victim-perpetrator dichotomy, in which girls were portrayed as victims, and boys as sexual predators.
Implications: Findings suggest that youth receive incomplete and inconsistent messages in their school-based sex education programs, that messages are often dichotomous, gendered, and heteronormative, and that males and females receive different, possibly conflicting, messages. This may contribute to differing expectations and miscommunications in later interactions, and could lead to problems including marginalization, power dichotomies, unwanted experiences and partner violence. Findings suggest a need for broader message delivery, so that youth may learn about biology and relationships, and more consistency among messages conveyed to boys and girls. Social work practitioners should consider messages being communicated, and better contextualize these messages when working with youth. Social work policymakers must also be vigilant in advocating for more egalitarian and responsible sex education programming and instructor training. Further research is needed to better understand implications of sex education, and develop more competent programming.