Prevention & Politics: An Investigation of Sex Education Policy in Pennsylvania

Open Access
Oster, Maryjo M
Graduate Program:
Educational Theory and Policy
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
March 03, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Kai Arthur Schafft, Dissertation Advisor
  • Kai Arthur Schafft, Committee Chair
  • Gerald K Letendre, Committee Chair
  • Dana Lynn Mitra, Committee Member
  • Eric Plutzer, Committee Member
  • Edward A Smith, Committee Member
  • sex education
  • teen pregnancy
  • STIs
  • prevention
  • adolescents
  • morality policy
  • culture wars
Sex education in the United States is a complicated and expansive issue. Its reach extends into many different public, political, and theoretical arenas and it serves multiple (and often competing) purposes, including, but not limited to, the prevention of adolescent pregnancy and HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) acquisition, the prevention or delay of adolescent sexual activity, and the promotion of critical thinking and healthy decision-making skills around sexuality. The content, duration, and approach of sex education programs and curricula vary considerably both within and across states as a consequence of the U.S.’s decentralized education system. This study employs survey and case study methods to respond to two research questions: what types of sex education policies and programs are currently in place across the state of Pennsylvania, and what factors influence their adoption or design? The methods of data collection and analysis are rooted in a culture wars theoretical framework, which purports that American attitudes on issues involving morality policies are not a function of individual material stakes, but rather of personal fundamental beliefs about right and wrong and about the source(s) of moral authority. The results of this investigation demonstrate a great deal of variation in program offerings across the state and suggest that time and resource constraints (due in large part to standardized testing demands) as well as the progressive or orthodox impulses of those responsible for sex education decisions are the most influential factors on these offerings. Implications for policy and theory are discussed.