Sex Education, broadly defined, any instruction in the processes and consequences of sexual activity, ordinarily given to children and adolescents. Today the term usually refers to classroom lessons about sex taught in primary and secondary schools.
Historically, the task of instructing adolescents about sex has been seen as the responsibility of the parents. But parent-child communication in sexual matters may be hindered by parental inhibitions or by various intergenerational tensions, and studies have shown that children rarely receive their first information on sexual matters from their parents.
In the late 19th century, attempts by educators and social workers to supplement parental sex instruction concentrated on what was then known as “social hygiene”—basically, biological and medical information about human reproduction and venereal disease. In the post-World War II era, however, the relaxation of traditional social norms governing sexual activity, as well as the torrent of sex-related information available to children via the mass media, made a more sophisticated and comprehensive program of sex education seem desirable to many. The obvious forum for such an effort was the public school.
In the mid-20th century, many U.S. school districts established sex-education programs that ranged from a few lectures given to secondary school students to integrated and comprehensive lessons beginning in kindergarten and extending through 12th grade or junior college. The variety of subjects covered include the physical processes of human reproduction; the workings of male and female sex organs; the origin, dissemination, and effects of venereal disease; family roles and structures; and the emotional and psychological causes and consequences of sex, marriage, and parenting. Frequently, however, the larger societal and ethical questions stemming from sexual behaviour, being highly subjective in nature, are not regarded as appropriate to a strictly factual approach. At all levels of instruction, teaching methods may include visual aids, lectures, and moderated discussions.
Surveys have shown that in the U.S. many parents approve of some type of public school sex education, but in practice, there has always been opposition to such programs. Questions about the state’s usurpation of parental rights and responsibilities, the adequacy of ethical instruction, and the wisdom of imparting sexual information to immature minds have been raised by concerned opponents.