Skip to main content

Whose Responsibility? The Politics of Sex Education Policy in the United States

  • Jocelyn Boryczka (a1)

Whose responsibility is it—that of the individual, society, or both—to meet the needs of citizens and to what degree, how, when, and why? This article investigates this set of inquiries by examining the ongoing debate over sex education in the United States between advocates for the abstinence-only and the comprehensive approaches, conveyed here through their curricula. The debate reflects a broader ideological struggle over how a democratic political community distributes moral responsibility. Personal responsibility is illustrated by abstinence-only curricula, whereas social responsibility is made evident in the comprehensive approach. These approaches establish a dualistic framework for understanding morality that marginalizes politics, deflecting attention away from the moral assumptions behind the gendered distribution of resources in a political community. Collective responsibility, this article argues, provides an alternative moral groundwork and inclusive conceptual perspective that brings politics and the power dynamics of the distributive function within a community into focus. From a collective perspective, the answer to the question “whose responsibility?” then shifts from either the individual or society to both at the same time.

Hide All
Advocates for Youth. “What We Believe.” (Accessed June 29, 2008).
Advocates for Youth, and SIECUS. 2001. Toward a Sexually Healthy America: Roadblocks Imposed by the Federal Government's Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education Program. Washington, DC. and New York.
Alan Guttmacher Institute, The. 2006. “Facts on Sex Education in the United States.” December. (Accessed February 15, 2007).
Arendt, Hannah. [1968] 2003. “Collective Responsibility.” In Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Kohn, Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 147–58.
Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Badgley, Anne M., et al. . 2004. Heritage Keepers: Abstinence Education Teacher Manual I. Charleston, SC: Heritage Community Services.
Benn, LeAnna, and Alfred, J.Derby, M.D. 1999. Maturing in Body and Character. Teen-Aid, Inc. Materials.
Boryczka, Jocelyn. 2009 “The Separate Spheres Paradox: Habitual Inattention and Democratic Citizenship.” In Feminist Interpretations of Alexis de Tocqueville, ed. Locke, Jill, and Hunt-Botting, Eileen. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Bush, George W. 2004. “State of the Union Address by the President.” (Accessed July 7, 2005).
Campos, David. 2002. Sex, Youth, and Sex Education: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Darroch, Jacqueline E., et al. 2001. Teenage Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries: Can More Progress Be Made? Occasional Report No. 3 (November). New York: The Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1981. Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fine, Michelle. 1988. “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” Harvard Educational Review 58 (February) 1: 2953.
Finer, Lawrence. 2007. “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954–2003.” Public Health Reports 122 (January/February) 1: 7378.
Focus on the Family. 1999. No Apologies: A Character-Building Abstinence-Based Program. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family Educational Resources.
Frainie, Kris. 2002. Why kNOw: Abstinence Education Programs. Curriculum for Sixth Grade Through High School Teacher's Manual. Chattanooga, TN: Why kNOw Abstinence Education Programs.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hunter-Geboy, Carol. 1995. Life Planning Education Manual: A Youth Development Program. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth. (Accessed February 25, 2007).
Jaggar, Alison. 1991. “Feminist Ethics: Projects, Problems, Prospects.” In Feminist Ethics, ed. Claudia, Card.Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 78106.
Jemmott, Loretta Sweet, et al. 1996. Be Proud! Be Responsible! A Safer Sex Curriculum. Harriman, NY: Select Media.
Kempner, Martha E. 2001. Toward a Sexually Healthy America: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs That Try to Keep Our Youth “Scared Chaste”. New York: SIECUS.
Luker, Kristen. 2006. When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—and Sex Education —Since the Sixties. New York: W. W. Norton.
Martin, Shannan, Rector, Robert, and Pardue, Melissa G.. 2004. Comprehensive Sex Education vs. Authentic Abstinence: A Study of Competing Curricula. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation.
McClain, Linda C. 2006. The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Millett, Kate. 2000. Sexual Politics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Minow, Martha, and Shanley, Mary. 1996. “Relational Rights and Responsibilities: Revisioning the Family in Liberal Political Theory and Law.” Hypatia 11 (Winter) 1: 429.
National Guidelines Task Force. 2004. Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten through 12th Grade. 3d ed.New York: SIECUS.
Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and The Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pateman, Carole. 1988. The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 2004–2005. Educational Resources. and (Accessed February 25, 2007).
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Rose, Susan. 2005. “Going Too Far? Sex, Sin and Social Policy.” Social Forces 84 (December): 1207–32.
SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). 1982–2007. “Federal Spending for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs.” New York: SIECUS. (Accessed January 30, 2007).
SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). 2008. “The Federal Government & Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs” Factsheet. (Accessed May 24, 2008).
Singh, S., and Darroch, J.. 2000. “Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing Levels and Trends in Developed Countries.” Family Planning Perspectives 32: 1423.
Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.
1996. “Care as a Political Concept.” In Revisioning the Political: Feminist Reconstructions of Traditional Concepts in Western Political Theory, ed. Hirschmann, Nancy J. and Di Stefano, Christine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Chapter 7.
True Love Waits. 1999–2000. Crossing Bridges with Purity. Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Family and Youth Services Bureau. “Fact Sheet: Section 510 State Abstinence Education Program.” (Accessed January 23, 2007).
U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform—Minority Staff, Special Investigations Division, Prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman. 2004. The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs. (Accessed January 25, 2007).
Ventura, Stephanie, et al. 2006. “Recent Trends in Teenage Pregnancy in the United States, 1990–2002.” Health E-States. December 13. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. (Accessed July 24, 2007).
Walker, Margaret Urban. 1998. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. New York: Routledge.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Politics & Gender
  • ISSN: 1743-923X
  • EISSN: 1743-9248
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-gender
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed