Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Power in Sex Education

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According to UNESCO, comprehensive sexuality education is recognised as "a culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgemental information."[1] This definition already identifies a few key academic stakeholders and hints to a possible conflict of interests and consequently tensions between researchers of different disciplines. Through the exploration of the Foucaultian power-knowledge theory, this Wikibooks chapter will examine the tensions arising in the effective implementation of sexual education between the disciplines of anthropology, medical sciences, public policy and religious studies.

Interdisciplinary tensions in sex education

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Anthropology and Medical Sciences

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Power in the production of sex education research within medical sciences is delineated through the implications of gender bias in scientific literature through the application of anthropological concepts.

Emily Martin, a feminist anthropologist, exposes this linguistic sexism through her work The Egg and the Sperm by highlighting the contrasting tones depicting menstruation in women and sperm maturation in men suggests the subtle implications of linguistic sexism. While menstruation is illustrated as a “chaotic disintegration” that employs negatively-connotated words such as “‘ceasing’, ‘dying’, ‘losing’”, sperm development is labelled as a “breathless prose”.[2] As a result, power is utilised linguistically to construct our subjectivities and ultimately continues to perpetuate the traditional stereotypes surrounding women. While Martin argues to employ gender-neutral descriptions in place of the ones above,[2] scientific publications, however, failed to acknowledge her suggestions as the egg cell was portrayed instead as an aggressor who “captures and tethers” the sperm. [3]

The enforcement of gendered stereotypes within scientific literature could also serve as a reflection of the widespread gender bias within medical sciences. Some studies argue that female stereotypes fuel the assumptions that women are unsuitable to become scientists, resulting in widespread prejudice against them within the field.[4] Others suggest that the gendered environment could be demonstrated through the exclusion and underrepresentation of women in scientific literature.[5] Thus, the failure to collaborate with more socially receptive disciplines such as anthropology would contribute to the inherent power imbalance within and between the disciplines causes the production of gendered sex education literature.

Medical Sciences and Public Policy

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UNESCO’s ambition to provide comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) for all[6] is not entirely successful due to interdisciplinary tensions between medical sciences and public policy, as caused by a power imbalance. This tension can be framed by the implementation of abstinence-only education (AOE).

AOE emphasises that sexual abstinence before marriage avoids sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and adolescent pregnancies.[7] AOE programmes hence commonly provide medically inaccurate facts and withhold information regarding various aspects of reproductive health, such as contraception and safe sex.[8][9] Such dangerous methods conflict with the spirit of CSE and science.

Despite the abundance of scientific research proving the inefficiency and perverseness of AOE programmes,[10] and the widespread acknowledgement that scientists produce reliable, life-saving information, there was a resurgence in government funding towards AOE rather than the science-aligned CSE in the United States in 2018. [10][11] This was no coincidence, but due to the power imbalance that exists between medical scientists and public policymakers.

Governmental bodies look to policymakers and their research to inform decisions - a reliance that establishes the relation between the two. Yet, policymakers, perhaps driven by personal beliefs or pressure from government objectives, have ignored the research of medical scientists on sex education in their work.[9] This ignorance is aided through direct coercion by using governmental power to deviate funds away from medically informed CSE into AOE. Today, only 17 states in the US required medically accurate program content.[12] There is a clear disconnect between scientifically produced knowledge and sex education as a result of this tension.

Religious Studies and Public Policy

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Secularism, which is defined as the separation of religious and state institutions,[13] holds a significant presence within the relationship between education and religion.

However, taking the USA as an example, Christianity still holds the authority as the single largest religious denomination nationwide, [14] therefore, it has a major impact on sex education (SE) curriculum. The tensions that emerge between religious studies and public policy on SE appeared from the Christian view on sexuality. SE that Christian communities prefer mostly consists of abstinence-only-until-marriage or abstinence-only programs, promoting prohibition of any premarital sexual contact. These programs tend to include words such as "purity", "virginity", "chastity" and ignore information about contraception, STDs, and abortion.[15] The supporters of these programs believe that excessive information induces interest, which makes teenagers more likely to sexually explore, [16] contradicting the initial aim of medically accurate CSE.

It is likely that for the USA government, religious beliefs concerning SE prevails over scientifically accurate ones - in 2019, 88% of all Congress members were Christian. [17] Therefore, having institutionally coercive powers on public policy by funding more AO schools and promoting abstinence rather than medically accurate curricula affects the quality of SE. In states such as Arkansas or Texas,[12] state governments do not provide CSE curriculum with medically accurate information on contraception and safe sex leading to the highest rate of teen pregnancies in these states. [18]

Possible resolution: Communication studies, the bridging discipline

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Communication studies in contrast to the aforementioned disciplines does not work towards creating knowledge in sexual education (SE), but rather towards bridging the gap of cultural, linguistic and institutional differences that make interaction challenging.[19] It uses power as a strategy to promote collaborative work.

Communication studies is an academic discipline examining the process of human communication, its creation, delivery and receiving of messages.[20] Understanding the power dynamics and language of decision-makers of different disciplines, communication scholars can bring about collaboration and the effective, widespread implementation of SE. By overcoming disciplinal divides, such as the quantitative, positivist approach taken by scientists[21] and the interpretivist approach of anthropologists and communication professionals,[21] better forms of SE knowledge can be created. To illustrate, communication professionals might argue for the incorporation of media as an educative tool, as qualitative research has shown that popular media is increasingly becoming the preferred source of information for teenagers seeking sexual guidance.[22] Nonetheless, health professionals may remain skeptical about the traditionally 'entertainment infused'[23] portrayal of sex in the media, as analyses have shown that 80% of movies have sexual content, however without showing the risks of unprotected intercourse or STDs[24] — thus making them medically and educationally inaccurate. Ultimately, in communication studies power is used as a strategy, to articulate and mediate voices between decision-makers of various disciplines to find common ground and share knowledge and consequently bring about effective SE to the public.


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The Foucaultian power dynamics delineates the reluctance of co-operation between the scientific and non-scientific disciplines causing these tensions to arise in the production of sex education knowledge. What is “culturally relevant”, is decided by the government and may not be unbiased or scientifically accurate. The power dynamics between these disciplines create a hierarchy where anthropologists’ work is undermined by medical scientists through linguistic sexism, while medical scientists are undermined by policymakers and religious studies specialists in the form of ignorance. Thus, constructive communication between disciplines would be integral in effectively producing sex education knowledge.


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  1. UNESCO. Emerging Evidence, Lessons and Practices in Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A global review, UNESCO, Paris, 2015. Available from:
  2. a b Martin E. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 1991; 16(3):485–501.
  3. Wassarman P. The biology and chemistry of fertilization. Science. 1987; 235(4788):553–60.
  4. Carli LL, Alawa L, Lee Y, Zhao B, Kim E. Stereotypes About Gender and Science: Women ≠ Scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2016; 40(2):244–60.
  5. Williams WM. Editorial: Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate. Front Psychol [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2020 Dec 13]; 8. Available from:
  6. UNESCO, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women, WHO. International technical guidance on sexuality education: an evidence-informed approach. 2nd ed. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),; 2018.
  7. Abstinence Education Programs: Definition, Funding, and Impact on Teen Sexual Behavior [Internet]. KFF. 2018 [cited 8 December 2020]. Available from:
  8. Ott M, Santelli J. Abstinence and abstinence-only education. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology [Internet]. 2007 [cited 8 December 2020];19(5):446-452. Available from:
  9. a b Santelli J. Medical Accuracy in Sexuality Education: Ideology and the Scientific Process. American Journal of Public Health [Internet]. 2008 [cited 8 December 2020];98(10):1786-1792. Available from:
  10. a b Fox A, Himmelstein G, Khalid H, Howell E. Funding for Abstinence-Only Education and Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention: Does State Ideology Affect Outcomes?. American Journal of Public Health [Internet]. 2019 [cited 8 December 2020];109(3):497-504. Available from:
  11. K. Donovan M. The Looming Threat to Sex Education: A Resurgence of Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only Programs? [Internet]. Guttmacher Institute. 2020 [cited 8 December 2020]. Available from:
  12. a b Sex and HIV Education [Internet]. Guttmacher Institute. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from:
  13. What is Secularism? [Internet]. [cited 9th December 2020]. Available from:
  14. Regnerus M. Forbidden fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press; 2009
  15. Goldfarb E, Constantine N. Sexuality Education. Encyclopedia of Adolescence. 2011;:322-331
  16. Ponzetti J. Evidence-based approaches to sexuality education. New York: Routledge; 2016.
  17. Faith on the Hill: The religious composition of the 116th Congress [Internet]. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. 2019 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from:
  18. Martin J, Hamilton B, Osterman M. Births: Final data for 2015. National vital statistics report. 2017;66(1):3-9.
  19. Communicating research for evidence-based policymaking A practical guide for researchers in socio-economic sciences and humanities [Internet]. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union; 2010. Available from:
  20. Ferguson S, Lennox J, Ahmed R. Communication in Everyday Life: Personal and Professional Contexts. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2014.
  21. a b Alharahshe H. A Review of key paradigms: positivism VS interpretivism. Global Academic Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences [Internet]. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020];2(2):39-43. Available from:
  22. Arthurs J, Zacharias U. Sex Education and the Media. Feminist Media Studies. 2006;6(4)
  23. Livingstone, S., and J. Mason, Sexual Rights and Sexual Risks Among Youth Online: A review of existing knowledge regarding children and young people’s developing sexuality in relation to new media environments, London School of Economics, London, 2015.
  24. Kunkel D, Cope KM, Maynard-Farinola WJ, et al. Sex on TV: content and context. Menlo Park (CA): Kaiser Family Foundation; 1999.