Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

MA in Women's History


Women’s History Graduate Program


This thesis examines the social and political history of public adolescent sex education in the United States between 1980 and 2018, while working to highlight contemporary teenage narratives. Tying together theories of citizenship, welfare, and adolescence, this thesis explores how American teenagers have been treated as dependent citizens without personal responsibility or choice during this historical moment. I examine how the State justifies denying access to quality comprehensive sex education in favor of punitive abstinence-only curricula based on the position adolescents hold in American society. This marginalization resulting from age intersects with other identities —race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship— to affect young people in a variety of ways. However, this thesis is not a demographic study of effect, rather I examine the production and spread of sex education messaging itself. Drawing on public policy related to federal abstinence-only education funding (1980s – 2000s), national newspaper articles (1990s), Evangelical Christian media (1990s), texts written by educators (1990s), and teen drama television (1994 – 2007), this thesis follows the sex education discourses throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Using interviews I conducted with young people between October 2017 and January 2018, I also add the voices of teenagers affected by this history throughout. The final chapter, which compiles and analyzes my oral history interviews with teenagers, acts not only as testimony to the potential harm of non-comprehensive sex education curricula, but offers solutions for improvement. The young people I spoke to form a community within these pages to illuminate our audience about how sex education could change in order to combat systemic injustice and embolden the bodily autonomy and physical and emotional sexual health of teenagers.