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Re-thinking Sexuality Education

Adolescent boy and girl in intimate relationship

A few weeks ago I started teaching a University ‘Sexualities Education’ course (stage 2 paper). I have taught this course for over six years and still relish the opportunity to challenge students to think critically every single day. However, over the last four years, I have embarked on my PhD in sexuality education. The PhD process has been the biggest challenge of my career and made me question everything around sexuality education, including what is the real purpose/aim of the University course. In preparation for my class, I re-read three articles that I want to draw on to challenge sexuality educators (and all adults) practice in sexuality education (referenced below).

I am not a structured type of ‘follow the powerpoint slide’ teacher. I often question my pedagogical practices because rather than imparting ‘information’. I want students to think critically about the power inherent in the construction of what we come to understand as ‘knowledge’. I want my students to challenge the constructed discourses that anchor commonly held beliefs and assumptions. Students are expected to think about the ‘why’ of sexuality education, and ‘what does this produce’? (Especially in terms of social (in)justice). Thinking outside of what feels comfortable is where I see the most growth happen in my students. It may be a challenging space (for them and me) but it also the most rewarding.

As my 2020 students discussed their experiences of ‘sexuality education’ they still recounted junior high school sexuality education based on the ‘banking’ of sexuality information. Information still framed within bio-medical and risk-based discourses and teachers as experts (Friere, 1974). The NZC states that young people need to be actively involved lifelong learners who are critical and creative thinkers. However, it appears many educators have little opportunity to delve into what this looks like in a sexuality education context.

As I re-read the articles referred to here, I pondered on my years of experience, my students' needs, and key questions that sexuality educators should reflect on.

  • What do we think sexuality education can actually ‘do’? What do we want it to ‘do?

  • How do we understand what young people need/want to learn in sexuality education?

  • How do young people make sense of their contemporary worlds?

  • What knowledge, skills and undserstandings do they draw on?

  • How can pedagogical practices support educators to provide opportunities for students to challenge, explore, and critique the complexity of sexuality positioned within gendered, classed and racial contexts?

  • How do young people’s questions inform us about the ‘internally persuasive discourses’ that frame their sexual becoming? (Sanjakdar, 2019)

  • What does the provision of sexuality education REALLY produce?

Cushman et al. (2015) highlight the importance of teaching sexuality education through a paradigm where the interdependent nature of all four dimensions of wellbeing (emotional, spiritual, physical and social) underpin learning. However, many of my students feel their sexuality education focused on sex as something that occurs between bodies rather than a holistic understanding of ‘people’.

Exploring sex(uality) as occurring between people allows for the exploration of the complexity inherent in relationships. The title of Cense’s article Navigating a bumpy road acknowledges the development of our sexual subjectivity across the lifecourse as full of ups and downs. Sexuality education that tries to smooth out the bumps through the provision of factual information does not recognise that our sexual self develops through social and cultural contexts. In a neoliberal environment, adults take on the ‘responsibilisation’ to ensure their children turn into responsible sexual citizens.

This responsibility often leads to adults feeling inadequately prepared to engage in discussion around the difficult (and always complex) topics that young people are grappling with, such as pornography. The moral panics perpetuated in the media then drive adults to try and be the experts through delivering messages aimed at protecting our young people. Sanjakdar (2019), Cushman et al., (2015), and Cense (2018) remind us that we cannot lose sight of the importance of letting young people drive their learning. Learning that encourages young people to narrate their lived experiences while critiquing the wider moral landscapes in which they are positioned and position themselves.

As I re-read these articles, I was drawn back to my 2019 class. They were an amazing bunch of young people who, as they became more comfortable deconstructing ideas in class, started bringing examples of constructs to discuss. It was not information about STI’s or how to put a condom on, rather the why, and what does this produce for society. An example to illustrate this point was their desire to unpack the construction of ‘love’. After one lecture on love turned into two, students continued to regularly bring to class stories/articles/items that reflected other cultural constructions of love. A student asked to show the class a Youtube clip of Fish Love narrated by a Rabbi. Afterwards, an extensive discussion about culture, class, race and socio-economic factors connected to love ensued.

The key questions students starting unpacking were:

  • How do different societies and cultures construct love?

  • How is romantic love constructed across history and in the media?

  • What does this ‘construction’ produce for relationships and power imbalances?

As a consequence of these questions students reflected on their positioning around love. One student shared his experience of the enhanced relationship that came about through discussing with his partner the different ways they understand and show love. It was then that I realised the power of what Sanjakdar (2019) discuses as dialogic teaching. Rather than using conversation as a pedagogical tool, dialogic teaching pays attention to the patterns of talk to open up spaces where students can challenge and critique complex issues inherent in sexuality. In dialogic teaching, educators use interactive pedagogies that include specific acts of meaning-making and questioning strategies. Through these strategies, young people are active participants in their learning and are encouraged to grapple with what Cense (2018) would call the ‘bumps’ on the sexuality road. Dialogue, therefore, becomes collective, reciprocal, cumulative, supportive and purposeful (for more detail and practical examples see Sanjakdar, 2019)

Cense (2018) challenges us to shift from educators that “resist the required shift from the one who knows and explains to the one who asks questions and invites pupils to reflect” (p. 10). However, all three authors acknowledge this is not an easy task for educators who do not have access to ongoing opportunities for reflection and training. As I reflect on my statement at the start of this article, I realise that my pedagogical practices, although not typical of a university PowerPoint lecture style, may reflect much of what Cushman et al., (2015), Cense (2018), and Sanjakar (2019) call for in their articles. Embrace sexuality as messy, complex, irrational, emotional, and part of being (becoming) human. Don’t look for the ‘right’ answers from young people, but rather allow them to explore the complexity and joy of sexuality as they navigate the always ‘bumpy’ road.

I wish to acknowledge the sad passing of my supervisor Professor Kathleen Quinlivan. I am only realising now how she constantly pushed me to think deeper and challenge myself. For this, I am eternally grateful.

The most important factors they found important in acting as PCEs were:

  • Felt able to talk to their family about feelings

  • Felt their family stood by them during difficult times

  • Enjoyed participating in community traditions

  • Felt a sense of belonging in high school (not including those who did not attend school or were home schooled)

  • Felt supported by friends

  • Had at least two non-parent adults who took genuine interest in them

  • Felt safe and protected by an adult in their home


References ( If you are not a member of research gate and wish to read the articles, please contact me at )

Cense, M. (2018): Navigating a bumpy road. Developing sexuality education that supports young people’s sexual agency, Sex Education.'s_sexual_agency

Cushman, P., Brown-Hajdukova, E., & Clelland, T. (2015). Moving towards a holistic paradigm: Teaching sexuality education in a New Zealand university. British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science 9(4): 265-276.accessed from

Freire, P. (1974). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press.

Sanjakdar, F. (2019): Dialogic teaching: towards reconfiguring classroom talk about sexuality. Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Access available through

Written by

Tracy Clelland

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