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Preserving Abstinence and Preventing Rape: How Sex Education Textbooks Contribute to Rape Culture

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Recent academic and popular conversations regarding #MeToo, sexual violence and harassment, and rape culture have begun to focus on K-12 educational spaces in the U.S., but they rarely examine how educational curricula actually foster or combat these dynamics. In this article, we present a qualitative content analysis of health education textbooks, which explores the following question: What implicit and explicit messages do youth receive about sexual violence, and specifically, sexual violence prevention in health education textbooks? As we explored this question, we analyzed the roles that sex education curricula may play in shaping (e.g., contributing to, intervening upon) rape culture. We found the following messages across textbooks: abstinence is the only way to preserve one’s safety; lack of abstinence increases risks, including the risk of being raped; and girls/women must assume personal responsibility and enact strategies that preserve one’s abstinence and prevent them from being raped. This article concludes by teasing out how curricula can shape interactions, relationships, and culture, and by offering recommendations for improving sex education curricula.

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  1. When we refer to women or girls in this article, we are using the term women broadly. We acknowledge that gender is not binary, and that rape culture affects women, women assigned female at birth, and gender minorities in disproportionate ways.


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Funding was provided by Cleveland State University, Office of Research (Grant No. USRA Grant).

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Correspondence to Katherine Clonan-Roy.

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This was a qualitative content analysis of textbooks, and no human participants were involved. Thus, approval from our Institutional Review Board (IRB) was not needed.

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This was a qualitative content analysis of textbooks; no human participants were involved and informed consent was not needed.

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Clonan-Roy, K., Goncy, E.A., Naser, S.C. et al. Preserving Abstinence and Preventing Rape: How Sex Education Textbooks Contribute to Rape Culture. Arch Sex Behav 50, 231–245 (2021).

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