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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Managing Controversy

This edition of ReCAPP focuses on Managing Controversy related to teen sexuality and preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following:


Controversy is often defined as a "clash of opposing views." Most would agree that there is more than enough controversy in sexuality education. Strong feelings come from all sides, especially when human sexuality and how it should, or should not, be taught to young people are involved.

An Overview of the Issues

Many of the issues probably sound familiar:

  • What age is appropriate for sexuality education?

  • Does teaching about contraception imply permission to have sex?

  • Is teaching about contraception and promoting abstinence giving a double message?

  • Does sexuality education belong at home, in the schools, or both?

  • What should we be telling youth about sex outside of marriage?

  • Is taking an abstinence-only approach realistic?

  • Do "virginity pledges" work?

  • What should we teach youth about abortion?

  • Does informing youth about emergency contraception promote unprotected sex?

  • How should differences in sexual orientation be acknowledged?

  • What rights should adolescents have to confidentiality?

  • Is it possible to teach teens about all possible negative consequences of sexual intercourse and still encourage an appreciation of their own natural, healthy sexuality?

Educators often face controversy from at least two different sources: the concerned individual and the so-called "organized opposition." The concerned individual may be a parent, administrator or teacher who has questions about the information being shared with youth.

On the other hand, the issues may be very different when dealing with an organized group defined by its specific values and beliefs, (See A Right Wing and A Prayer, under Recommended Books in More Information/Resources.) In many cases, the mission of the "organized opposition" is to resist or oppose a program seen as representing different values.

However the issues arise, there can be value in controversy, especially when we can prepare for and manage the process constructively. A dialog can be informative for both sides, and the potential for mutual understanding is worth the effort.


What Educators Can Do

Most importantly, educators should be prepared by planning programs carefully. It may be unrealistic to avoid all controversy, but communities with the most successful sexuality education programs have prudently planned for their programs. They have also learned to accept a difference of opinions within their communities and work within those boundaries.

Some principles to remember when planning your program:
  • Being proactive is better than being reactive. Address potential issues up front instead of waiting to see if they surface.

  • Know your programs, materials and staff well.

  • The best response to criticism is openness to it. Standing up to criticism by respectfully laying out facts as you know them is usually the most credible response. An angry or dismissive response to criticism can often make matters worse.

  • Irrational arguments always have an underlying reasonable concern. Remember that concerned individuals often have rational doubts or feelings that they find difficult to express.

  • Never "argue" with the Bible.

  • Opposition's strength is in raising moral doubts. Be prepared to have your morality questioned, and don't get caught up in arguments about morality which can't be resolved.

The following principles are useful while building and maintaining your program:

  • Involve parents and the community.

  • Become politically active and build coalitions to support your programming.

  • Understand your opponents' views and know how to respond to their arguments.

  • Know the current literature and statistics on adolescent health.

  • Allow for adequate program planning time:
  • Use small community committees.

  • Establish realistic goals and objectives.

  • Assess community readiness for your program, (e.g. survey the community).

  • Obtain endorsements from key public figures.

  • Adopt written policies.

  • Include abstinence in programming.

  • Provide adequate, ongoing staff training.

  • Adopt policies for handling complaints and giving support to staff.

Adapted from The Front Lines of Sexuality Education (ETR Associates, 1984)


More Information/Resources

National organizations with additional information on managing controversy include:

  • Sexuality Information and Education Council of U.S. (SIECUS)
    130 W. 42nd Street, Suite 350
    New York, NY 10036-7802
    (212) 819-9770 (New York office)
    (202) 265-2405 (Washington, DC office)

  • Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI)
    120 Wall Street
    New York, NY 10005
    (212) 248-1111

  • Mothers' Voices
    165 W. 46th Street, Suite 701
    New York, NY 10036

  • American School Health Association (ASHA)
    7263 State Route 43
    P.O. Box 708
    Kent, Ohio 44240
    (330) 678-1601

  • Kaiser Family Foundation
    2400 Sand Hill Road
    Menlo Park, CA 94025
    (650) 854-9400

  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America
    810 Seventh Ave.
    New York, NY 10019
    (212) 541-7800

A few recommended books:

  • A Right Wing and A Prayer
    People for the American Way, 1997
    Web site:

  • Taking Sides .. Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Sexuality Education
    (5th Ed), 1996
    By Robert T. Francoeur,
    Dushkin Publishing, Guilford, CT

  • Safer Sex .. The New Morality
    By Evelyn Lerman
    Buena Park, CA