Sex Ed Is Taught Through a Heteronormative, White Lens—and It’s Failing Our Kids

Much of our current sexual education curriculum was created by a white man to serve heterosexual, white families. It's time that changed.

A group of high school students study in a library


What Should Sex Education Look Like in 2023?

This year, for the 2023 Parents Sex Education survey we asked 1,500 caregivers to find out what they really think about the state of sex education today. Here's what they said—and how to start the conversation with your kids.

More Parents in America are rethinking what education looks like than ever before. Meanwhile, adolescents are at a pivotal point in sexual exploration and identity formation, which can be influenced by many external environmental factors—friends, culture, religion, family, and friends. Whether parents decide to homeschool or take part in any of the other ever-changing school options, those influences are still there, and anti-racist sex education is a must as part of the curriculum.

It’s important for parents to understand that the term sexuality is all-encompassing and includes not just physical intimacy but body image, sexual fantasies, vulnerability, emotional risk-taking, gender identity, gender roles, sexual orientation, and sexualization. But in schools across America, the circles of sexuality, a model designed by a cisgender white man, is commonly used to inform sexual health education. According to the Parents 2023 Sex Education survey, Black parents were most likely to prioritize body image (70%), abstinence (69%), and gender identity and expression (62%) when having "the talk" with their kids.

Unfortunately, sexuality is not a topic that’s free from the effects of racism and other issues. This is evidenced in many different ways: over-sexualization and stereotyping of Black women in the media, lack of access to basic reproductive health for Indigenous women, reinforcing traditional gender roles, and misguided stigmas around sex education and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Sexual health education is long overdue for restructuring, and as we look at how the education system overall needs changing post-pandemic, now is a good time. “Sex education was initially created under the guise of preventing venereal diseases and socially undesirable pregnancies,” says Tracie Gilbert, Ph.D., researcher, and independent sexuality educator. “Certain groups—immigrants, disabled people, poor whites, and African Americans, most notably—were problematized for deviating from the middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, phallocentric sexual experience.”

Talking About the Role of Racism

It is no surprise that the medical system is known to systematically oppress women of color, especially Black women. Clinicians are more likely to pressure Black women into using contraception, resulting in a general sense of mistrust and frustration. A frustration that is warranted when considering the traumatic history of reproductive coercion faced by Latinx, Indigenous, and Black women.

Studies have also shown that girls of color are also more likely to get pregnant. This is amplified in Latinx and Black teenagers.

Confronting Sexual Stereotypes

Stereotypes, tropes, and general ideologies around race have a profound impact on healthcare treatment. In the case of Black women specifically, researchers have studied how simply existing at the intersection of being a woman, pregnant, and Black contributes to adverse sexual health outcomes. Racial stereotypes, such as "the jezebel" lead to implicit biases amongst clinicians where they view their young Black teenage patients as being inherently promiscuous, hyper-sexualized, or sexually available.

Similar studies have also shown that people are more likely to perceive Black women as having had more sexual partners than their white counterparts, less likely to use any form of birth control, and less likely to follow instructions provided by their doctor. Teens need to understand how these stereotypes work to increase racial disparities in sexual health and are a threat to access and use of contraception and sexual health care among their peers. These stereotypes don’t just affect the way BIPOC receive health care, but they play a role in designing public assistance programs, federal laws, policies, and school systems.

Parents Can Play A Role in Education

Abstinence-only education harms Black teens and other teens of color. While much of the onus is on the system to counteract these racial prejudices and implicit biases, parents can also play an important role in ensuring their children get the health care they need during the most important phase of their life. Dr. Gilbert emphasizes the need to divest and move away from sex-negative, objectifying, and binary-focused education about sexuality. It’s critical to move away from the prevention of risk as the main concern and to move toward teaching young people that their sex lives should actively affirm who they are as a person.

At home, the organization Sex Ed for Social Change recommends parents create a safe space for conversations around sex. Avoid trendy words and euphemisms and have more conversations around sexual health more often, and if possible, earlier on in your children’s lives. Understand that sexual health is also teaching your children about healthy relationships, consent, and refusal skills. Foster a sex-positive approach at home. This includes creating a shame-free, judgment-free space where your child can explore their sexuality. Before all of these, unlearn and challenge your own biases around contraceptive use and sex in young people.

Was this page helpful?
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anderson, J. R., Holland, E., Heldreth, C., & Johnson, S. P. (2018). Revisiting the Jezebel Stereotype: The Impact of Target Race on Sexual Objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly42(4), 461–476.

Related Articles