08 SES 13, Health awareness and health behaviour
Globally, sexuality education is increasingly becoming invested with hope for the formation of sexually flourishing and gender equal societies. It is also the subject of intense activist effort, ideological controversy and political dissent. In England, ‘Relationships Education’ (at primary level) and ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ (at secondary level) are both set to become statutory parts of the national curriculum in September 2019, following a heavily contested political process. The controversial status of sexuality education stretches far beyond the English context, with dissent repeatedly clustering issues such as the early ‘sexualization’ of children and apparently inappropriate teaching about non-normative sexual and gender identities.
The contested nature of sexuality education across these contexts has highlighted the deep entanglements of sexuality education with the political influence and public claims of the religious. Notably, recent research has drawn attention to the characteristically progressive, liberal and secularist political foundations of school-based sexuality education advocated most prominently in European nations (Rasmussen, 2015). However, scholarship has not yet examined the implications of these underlying assumptions for religious young people undertaking school-based sexuality education. Previous research has addressed important topics at the interface of sexuality education and religion, such as inclusivity (Halstead and Reiss, 2003), parental attitudes (Dent & Maloney, 2017), legal processes (Vanderbeck and Johnson, 2015) and sexual health knowledge (Coleman and Testa, 2008). However, there is little research addressing the way sexuality education is experienced by religious young people themselves within the broader contexts of their lives and in relation to other influential sources of learning about sexuality. Repeatedly, scholarship has drawn attention to the importance of sexuality education policy, pedagogy and practice being informed by young people’s needs (Allen, 2001). But thus far we know little about religious young people’s needs, whether those needs can be articulated explicitly, or indeed whether those needs can be addressed adequately within schools.
In light of this, a research project focusing on the English context was developed around the central research questions ‘What are Christian young men’s experiences of sexuality and relationships?’ and ‘How do Christian young men learn about sexuality and relationships?’. The theoretical framework designed to answer these questions is rooted in the interpretative tradition of social research utilizing qualitative research methods, particularly narrative theory. Narrative theory assumes that the practice of telling, listening to and interpreting stories gives us access to various forms of knowledge about social and personal life. In this case, it provides a philosophical basis for the assumption that oral narratives of personal learning experiences can illuminate changing forms of sexual and religious subjectivity.
With a grounding in narrative theory, a study was designed to answer the research questions utilizing biographic narrative methodology (Wengraf, 2001); an explorative, in-depth, qualitative approach working with a small sample. The narrow focus on a single religion, single gender and age range (16-19) aided the development of fine-grained and detailed analysis. Ten participants were interviewed twice; first a narrative interview aimed at facilitating the participant to tell their story of relationships and sexuality, second a semi-structured interview asking about learning from specific sources (parents, peers, internet, school and church). Recordings were transcribed and analysed through a ‘twin track’ approach focusing on both the ‘lived life’ and the ‘told story’ to develop an account of the changing subjectivity of the participant across time. The two central research questions were brought together by contextualizing the young men’s narratives of learning about sexuality from within their wider life-story of sexuality and romantic relationships and their evolving sexual subjectivity therein. Addressing the narrative context of learning in this way also shows how their explicit and implicit needs around sexuality education emerge through their lived and recalled experiences.
Three major themes emerging from the data analysis will be presented followed by the implications of the findings for (a) the way that schools formulate their sexuality education policy, (b) organizations that will train the workforce required to implement sexuality education curricula, (c) teachers and educators delivering sexuality education in a variety of settings, in school and beyond and (d) wider social scientific scholarship aimed at representing youth sexual cultures for the purpose of developing effective policies. Through engaging with the findings important ethical and political questions are raised that extend beyond this limited sample and its English context: are the putative aims of sexuality education common across European countries relevant for religious young people? How might statutory sexuality education provision be enriched by becoming inclusive and sensitive towards religious young people?
Allen, L. (2001). Closing Sex Education’s Knowledge/Practice Gap: The reconceptualization of young people’s sexual knowledge. Sex Education, 1(2), 109–122. Coleman, L., & Testa, A. (2008). Sexual health knowledge, attitudes and behaviours: variations among a religiously diverse sample of young people in London, UK. Ethnicity & Health, 13(1), 55–72. Dent, L., & Maloney, P. (2017). Evangelical Christian parents’ attitudes towards abstinence-based sex education: ‘I want my kids to have great sex!’ Sex Education, 17(2), 149–164. Rasmussen, M. L. (2015). Progressive Sexuality Education: The Conceits of Secularism. London: Routledge. Vanderbeck, R., & Johnson, P. (2015). Homosexuality, religion and the contested legal framework governing sex education in England. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 37(2), 161–179. Wengraf, T. (2001). Qualitative Research Interviewing. London: Sage Publications.
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