Sex Education that Goes Beyond Sex


By Grace Tatter
Published on Usable Knowledge by Harvard Graduate School of Education
Nov 28, 2018

Giving students a foundation in relationship-building and centering the notion of care for others can enhance wellbeing and pave the way for healthy intimacy in the future, experts say. It can prevent or counter gender stereotyping and bias. And it could minimize instances of sexual harassment and assault in middle and high school — instances that may range from cyberbullying and stalking to unwanted touching and nonconsensual sex. A recent study from Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that comprehensive sex education protects students from sexual assault even after high school.

If students become more well-practiced in thinking about caring for one another, they’ll be less likely to commit — and be less vulnerable to — sexual violence, according to this new approach to sex ed. And they’ll be better prepared to engage in and support one another in relationships, romantic and otherwise, going forward. 

Simply teaching students how to ask for consent isn’t enough, says Lamb, a professor of counseling psychology at UMass Boston, who has been researching the intersection between caring relationships, sex, and education for decades. Students also to have understand why consent is important and think about consent in a variety of contexts. At the heart of that understanding are questions about human morality, how we relate to one another, and what we owe to one another. In other words, ethics.

“When I looked at what sex ed was doing, it wasn’t only a problem that kids weren’t getting the right facts,” Lamb says. “It was a problem that they weren’t getting the sex education that would make them treat others in a caring and just way.”

She became aware that when schools were talking about consent — if they were at all — it was in terms of self-protection. The message was: Get consent so you don’t get in trouble.

But there’s more at play, Lamb insists. Students should also understand the concept of mutuality — making decisions with a partner and understanding and addressing other people’s concerns or wishes — and spend time developing their own sense of right and wrong. 

Most sexual assault and violence in schools is committed by people who know their victims — they’re either dating, friends, or classmates. Regardless, they have a relationship of some sort, which is why a focus on relationships and empathy is crucial to reducing violence and preparing students for more meaningful lives.

And while it might seem uncomfortable to move beyond the cut-and-dried facts of contraception into the murkier waters of relationships, students are hungry for it. A survey by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common initiative found that 65 percent of young-adult respondents wished they had talked about relationships at school.

Nicole Daley works with OneLove, a nonprofit focused on teen violence prevention. She previously worked extensively with Boston Public Schools on violence prevention. She echoes Lamb and Weissbourd: A focus on relationships is key to keeping students safe.

“If a young person is not in a healthy relationship, they can’t negotiate sex in a meaningful way,” she says. “Really discussing healthy relationships and building that foundation is important. Even if they’re not having sex yet, they’re grappling with the idea of what healthy relationship is.”


Comment: Sex Education should not only teach students the information about their body but also introduce the way of building healthy relationships. It is important for the students to be able to recognize toxic behaviors in the relationship to protect themselves. And it is also important for the teenagers to be able to have meaningful conversations between their friends and partners. Establishing healthy relationships also requires the teenagers to have the ability of distinguish what is right and wrong.


  1. Hi Sherry, I think you bring up a great point about relationship building being included in Sex Ed. It is particularly important, because this article notes how sexual assault and violence in schools is typically committed by someone who knows the victim. Empowering teens to identify good and bad relationships in our future work will be remarkably important.

  2. I agree with Blaine, healthy relationships is a vital part of sex education. I also wonder if there are innovative ways to combine the two. So could socio-emotional learning be taught while explaining how sex works, etc.?


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