Touchy subjects: Teens' perspectives on stigma, risk, and adulthood in school-based sex education
Smith, Sarah H.
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Scholars have long argued schools play important roles in organizing and reproducing dominant meanings and values across social fields to legitimize structural inequalities. Sex education in particular is an important institutional arbiter in the teaching and learning of both official language and unwritten social rules surrounding sex and sexualities, reproducing stigma regarding sexually transmitted infections (STI), pregnancy, and sexual identity. This dissertation extends that literature in two ways. First, by sampling at two different schools in the same public school district, I explore ways in which teens' perspectives may be shaped by organizational-level differences in context, such as school rank, demographic composition, and aggregate levels of poverty at each site. Second, where much United States based literature on sex education focuses on adults, is limited to girls, and/or narrowly examines outcomes such as pregnancy, my research explores patterns of thematic similarity and difference in meanings internalized by girls and boys. Drawing on 63 interviews, I find that students perceive sex education's lessons through amplification of fear-based, stigmatizing messages about pregnant teens and those suffering STI. By simultaneously muting talk about same-sex relationships and amplifying fear of infection and pregnancy, sex education reinforced dominance of heteronormativity and homophobia for most students. Further, I find that students make sex education meaningful first through adults' perceptions of risk that overshadow students' own perceptions of risk, and second through anticipations of their own adulthoods. Lastly, while the majority of students at both schools lacked knowledge about consent, boys at the low-ranked school were particularly vulnerable to this lapse, as well as to stereotypes of the hypersexual teen.