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by Kristin Luker
W.W. Norton, 2006
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Mar 18th 2008

When Sex Goes to School

When Sex Goes to School is a book about America's sex education imbroglio.  The author, Dr. Kristin Luker, is a professor of sociology, at the University of California, Berkeley; a professor in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law; and an inveterate sex researcher.  An important theme permeating the book's pages is that Americans of all ages have great difficulty dealing with sex.  Exhibiting great intellectual diligence, Luker strive assiduously to unravel and instructively examine knottily tied strands enmeshing sex education, sex, marriage, and gender in America.  The determined efforts of Luker are a great boon to all persons with an interest in the raging controversy which erupts when sex goes to school in America.

The substance of the book is derived in very substantial part from interviews conducted by Luker in the course of her fieldwork in four places.  As explained in Chapter One, Luker spent over four years in a place she describes as a once rural town on the West Coast; a year in a place she describes as a small rural community in the South; almost two years in a place she describes as an affluent community in the Rust Belt East; and large chunks of five years in a West Coast community.  Anecdotal interview data culled from Luker's fieldwork (importantly encompassing fragments of real life comments, and parts of actual conversations) are sewed artfully into the textual fabric.  The book's anecdotally derived substantive bulk is adroitly hewed in instructive fashion by Luker's sharply cutting instrument of keen erudition.

Critics may caution, however, that sex education in America is a quite challenging terrain replete with nettlesome questions.  And that, from an academic perspective, attempts to gingerly traverse this thorny realm by means of carefully discerning scrutiny of anecdotal data gleaned from field interviews is a research path weakened by sizable fissures.  Particularly, the anecdotal nature of the data weakens the book's academic power.  Moreover, the sample population of persons interviewed by Luker is relatively small; and the views of these persons may not reflect accurately the views of all Americans regarding sex education.

Possible criticisms notwithstanding, it cannot sensibly be gainsaid that an intellectually nurturing fount of information and insights, tethered to America's sex education controversy, flows copiously through the pages of the book.  And, at the least, Luker's highly instructive study of sex education in America may very helpfully contribute to further debate, of a better informed nature, regarding this contentious area.

The book's substantive contents structurally encompass nine chapters.  There is, additionally, a "prologue" as well as three appendices, "Notes" and a Bibliography adjoining the far end of the text.  Working within these structural parameters, Luker expounds expertly on the sex education debate which has long inflamed Americans' sentiment.

The birth of sex education in America raptly engages Luker's interest, in Chapter Two.  As explicated by Luker, a "sexual revolution" unfolded at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Americans of that time era, as explained by Luker, were in the grip of a historic social shift in which the meaning of "sex" was transitioning away from an earlier emphasis on reproduction and instead towards intimacy.  The later "sexual revolution" of the 1960s garners the close attention of Luker, in Chapter Three.  The thought provoking discourse of Luker explains that the cataclysmic Sixties were "revolutionary" in the sense that extant social ideas regarding gender and sexuality were questioned openly in America.  Indeed, attitudes and behaviors of Americans concerning sex and gender changed radically.  Sex for pure pleasure became an option for women; and optional motherhood became a part of the culture.

Perspicacious examination of sexual liberals and conservatives occupies the substantive space of Chapter Four.  The view advanced by Luker is that there is a widening chasm in America separating persons with "liberal" sexual values from those with "conservative" ones.  The complexly nuanced meanings of such values are broached carefully.  The crux of Chapter Five is sorting out the sundry forces driving persons into the respective camps of sexual liberals and conservatives.

The sense conveyed strongly by Luker is that liberals and conservatives on opposite sides of the sex fence view the world through very different lenses.  For instance, Luker muses, in Chapter Six, that sexual conservatives fondly romanticize the past, whereas sexual liberals are relatively sanguine regarding prospects for a better future.  In another vein, Luker, in Chapter Seven, opines that sexual conservatives tend to adhere to the idea of a divinely inspired, timeless moral code, whereas sexual liberals are more likely to embrace a relatively dynamic view of morality which accepts the periodic adapting of rules of moral conduct so as to conform sensibly to evolving circumstances.

In Chapter Eight, Luker absorbingly draws to readers' attention the relatively uncontroversial nature of sex education in Sweden and France, in stark contradistinction to the heated flames of controversy sparked by sex education programs in America.  Luker insightfully ponders this dichotomy.  In concluding Chapter Nine, Luker studies the respective views of comprehensive sex education proponents and abstinence advocates.

In one of the appendices  (Appendix I) following the text, Luker comments about research methods she used to gather the materials comprising the book's essence; and in another (Appendix III), Luker explains how she edited the raw interview data she collected.  Further structural appendages in the form of annotated research "Notes", and a Bibliography consisting of an expansive listing of research materials, importantly augment the book's research value.

Luker's excellently written book may not douse the volatile flames of social divisiveness engulfing sex education programs in America, but it does very helpfully examine the fiery controversy from its seeds and roots to its many socially contentious branches.  Sex educators, school teachers, school principals, sociologists, historians, social scientists, political scientists, policy makers, politicians, and theologians are among the many groups of persons who may be benefitted greatly by the educationally illumining contents of this splendid book.

© 2008 Leo Uzych

Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.

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