High School Sex Education in the Context of State Mandates and Policies in New Jersey: a Qualitative Retrospective Study of Student Experiences

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Introduction: Historically in the USA, divergent views about sex education have led to inconsistency in implementation. While state standards and mandates convey the wishes of legislatures and voters, understanding the impact of these state policies on the actual delivery of sex education is critical to planning, implementing, and evaluating the effectiveness of school-based sex education efforts. Methods: This retrospective investigation used in-depth focus groups, as part of a broader study focused on first sex experiences conducted between 2011 and 2014. Researchers explored high school sex education experiences of seventy-four first- and second-year college students at a state University in New Jersey, a state with a sex education mandate, and strong comprehensive sex education state learning standards. Results: Despite being educated in a state which, through its policies and learning standards, is better than most at promoting comprehensive sex education, participants reported largely negative experiences of school-based sex education, characterized as too little too late and with a fear-based, abstinence, sex-negative, and heterocentric focus. Results describe a missed opportunity to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to grow into sexually healthy adults. Conclusions: Strong policies and solid public support for a comprehensive approach to sex education are vitally important, but without accountability and enforcement mechanisms, may not be enough. Policy Implications: This study suggests that in addition to a requirement that sex education be medically accurate, state legislatures and boards of education must adopt and strengthen provisions to make sure that high-quality sex education is actually being delivered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1968-1978
Number of pages11
JournalSexuality Research and Social Policy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Adolescent
  • Comprehensive sex education
  • Schools
  • Sex education
  • Sexuality
  • Sexuality education
  • State mandates


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