Misrepresentation, Mixed Messaging, and Missed Opportunities: A Critical Queer Ethnography of High School Sex Education Curriculum and Policy
Literature on school-based sexual health education in the United States generally finds that curricula reproduce heteronormative, racialized, gendered, and heterosexist inequalities that exclude sexual and gender diverse identities, experiences, and bodies (Bay-Cheng, 2003; Connell & Elliott, 2009; Elia & Eliason, 2010; Kendall, 2013). However, there have been few attempts to explore alternative approaches that challenge the contemporary dichotomy between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education. Drawing on Foucauldian discourses of education and queer theory, this critical queer ethnography follows the course of a comprehensive sex education class in a California public high school to investigate the impact of state legislation and policies on students. It draws on participant observations, curriculum and instruction, interviews with students, and interviews with their teacher to contextualize the gap between influential and allegedly progressive legislation such as the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA) and the way those policies are executed in the classroom. Findings illuminate the limitations of contemporary sexual health education and unveil how an approach falsely described as “comprehensive” does not provide opportunities for truly inclusive experiences. This work suggests a deeper, more critical examination of existing institutionalized ideologies, directed by an intentional commitment to building relationships and community collaboration that approach all youth in humanizing, affirming, and non-discriminatory ways. Further and most importantly, findings make visible the detailed account of youth voices in the space of sexual health education, highlighting their agency, genuine curiosity, and critical awareness of complex issues. The implications of these findings demonstrate the need for community-based solutions to sexual health education that are youth-led and youth-run.