Submitter and Co-author information

Katie StandishFollow
Devon PaoliniFollow

Type of Proposal

Oral presentation

Streaming Media


Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Pauline Phipps

Start Date

24-3-2015 11:00 AM

End Date

24-3-2015 11:50 AM

Importance of the Project

We are providing a new interpretation on the little material that makes up the area of sex education and women’s sexual empowerment. Our research is one of the first to combine literature on sex education and young women’s sexuality and sexual empowerment. Our qualitative method of collecting data is new to the area. We feel that this research is especially important given the social climate in Ontario. Currently, the Ontario government is rewriting the province’s sex education curriculum. It has sparked great debate among young adults, students, parents, and educators. Furthermore, we see a connection between the current sex education curriculum and the presence of rape culture and sexual violence on university and college campuses. Both the interviews and analysis will explore how women are oppressed by the gendered sexual roles they face. We believe that adequate sex education can empower women sexually and end the long-standing toxic environment for women’s sexuality.

Existing State of Knowledge

Sexual Education and sexual empowerment is a challenging subject, especially when it comes to females and young women. With the current situation in Ontario it is necessary to look at the impacts that sexual education has on the young female population. Within the patriarchy women are taught many different concepts and are shown many different and contradictory images that are solely based on the male gaze. These suggest how young women should act. However, with a properly thorough, accurate, and relevant sexual education program there is potential to give women agency and allow them to be empowered sexually within a society that does not value them.

The women in Gavey’s study, “Technologies and Effects of Heterosexual Coercion” (1993) were adults at the time of the interviews, and some spoke about adolescent experiences of sex. There were common themes among the women who spoke about their sexual experiences during their teenaged years. First, the idea that engagements with men – whether committed and long-term or hours-long – should culminate in penetrative sex (Gavey, 1993). This notion was conceptualized by a woman who considered sex paying her “dues” for a few hours of flirting with a young man. A participant in Gavey’s study (1993), Ann, admitted that, while flirting, sex was not her goal but when sex was initiated by her male partner, it was never denied. Another woman in a relationship with a male peer felt expectations from her role as girlfriend, as well as from friends and what was considered normal (Gavey, 1993). This suggests that women should be compliant and therefore rejecting their own sexuality.

Cathrine Cook conducted a qualitative study entitled “Nice Girls Don’t’: Women and the Condom Conundrum” (2011) which was comprised of women who had been diagnosed with HPV or HSV also revealed women’s feeling of a lack of sexual agency. For all the women, bringing up safer sex to their male partners was “difficult”, and for fifteen of the twenty-three women in the study, was too difficult to bring safer sex up at all (Cook, 2011). One participant in Cook’s study (2011) explained her apprehension to discussing safer sex with a partner in terms of what was normative for women in sexual relationships: “I grew up believing that ‘nice girls don’t’ and if you are talking about it, clearly you are intending to [have sex]. Therefore, you are not a nice girl… Requesting the use of a condom implies planning to be sexual”. Here, the idea that women are supposed to assume the passive role while responding to what her partner does to her aligns with the themes from the above narratives. If this woman, and those like her in the study, felt sexually empowered, it is likely that they would feel the right to participate in the decision-making process of the sexual encounter.

According to Susan K. Pastor in her chapter “Education for Sexual Intimacy” (2008) from the book Women’s Health: Readings on Social, Economic, and Political Issues, adolescent women’s lack of sexual agency begins in how sex and sexuality is taught to young people – in particular, the gap in education on women’s sexual pleasure. What is primarily emphasized to young women in the course of their sexual education is sex for reproduction, from when their parents tell them how babies are made to schools teaching them about periods and pregnancy (Pastor, 2008). While there is little to no mention of women’s sexual arousal in school, adolescent men are taught about erections and ejaculations – ultimately teaching adolescents a concept that Pastor (2008) would call “a normal girl would not be interested in sex for its own sake and a normal boy always would”. This statement clearly suggests that there is a double standard and that youth are learning mixed messages.

A qualitative study of women aged fourteen to seventeen was done by Jennifer Livingston et. al (2012) to uncover teenage women’s views and experiences regarding sex and alcohol discovered that the gap of knowledge Pastor finds in formal sexual education leaves young women vulnerable to falling into media and their peers’ expectations of sexual behaviour, like traditional sexual scripts and gender stereotypes. These expectations become confusing as young women are influenced by competing manifestations of women’s sexuality. First, the article outlines the pressure on young women to repress their sexual urges in order to guard their sexuality from men who are unable to control themselves. If they are successful in this, they are considered ‘good girls’ with social worth and moral fortitude (Livingston et. al, 2012). On the other hand, Livingston et. al (2012) speaks about the emergence of “raunch culture” has presented teenage women with a model of a woman who is sexually ready and knowledgeable and, supposedly, liberated. The authors suggest that this model only functions to objectify and idealize women’s bodies. Between these two bodies of expectations for adolescent women is what the authors describes as a “complex knot of multiple, seemingly opposed normative injunctions: to abstain, to resist, to comply, to seduce, to express, to arouse, and to perform”(Livingston et. al, 2012). Because of the neglected topic of women’s sexuality in formal sexual education, young women are left impressionable to culture’s mixed messages of women’s sexuality, leaving them little to no agency to find their own sexuality for themselves which can, in turn, affect their well-being.

According to the quantitative study “Young women’s adolescent experiences of oral sex: Relation of age of initiation to sexual motivation, sexual coercion, and psychological functioning” (2012) authored by Fava and Bay-Cheng, there is a difference in the overall well-being of young women dependent on the origin of their motives to engage in sex: intrinsic and extrinsic. When young women explore their sexuality on their own terms, driven by their intrinsic desires, they are more likely to have greater well-being, higher self-esteem, and low instances of depression and poor physical health. Intrinsic motivation, characterized as seeking individual and shared pleasure, is likely uncommon in teenage women because, as the articles above details, the concept of women’s sexual pleasure is missing from young women’s body of knowledge of sex (Fava and Bay-Cheng, 2012). Extrinsic motivations, such as those listed above from culture, as well as peer pressure, coping with negative emotions, and avoiding relationship conflict, are found to lead to poor mental and sexual health and higher- risk sexual behaviour. The authors suggest that extrinsic motivations behind engaging in sexual acts may carry extra weight for young women, who face “considerable social and relational pressure regarding sex”. How young women are taught about their bodies and what they are taught about them can greatly impact their future sexuality and therefore determine if they are empowered sexually. This is where sexual education comes into play.

Another Qualitative Research study is “Beyond Plumbing and Prevention: A Feminist Approach to Sex Education” (1990) by Lenskyj, who criticizes the “plumbing and prevention” for girls’ sex education approach suggests that there needs to be positivity when it comes to female sexuality in order for girls to make well-informed decisions. However, the feminist approach includes the sexuality of males and boys also. Girls speak about their desire for the boys so learn about reproduction and prevention; however, the boys dismissed this and declared it “girl stuff” and began focusing on their own pleasure in the classes (Lenskyj, 1990). With this, Lenskyj then goes on to speak about that in most sex education programs that speak most about penile penetration, which for many females does not end with orgasm. This leads to the lack of information given to young females about their sexual satisfaction and pressures them into doing what really only pleasures the males. As with Oliver et al., Lenskyj agrees that the education given is gendered and it appears that from 1990 to 2013 it has not changed much.

A more statistical study done on the sexual education of youth was done in 2009, “Satisfaction With School-Based Sexual Health Education in a Sample of University Students Recently Graduated From Ontario High Schools” a study by Meany, Rye, Wood, and Solovieva of first year university students across Ontario. The back ground of this Quantitative Study is that in high school there is a large amount of time being focused on the negative outcomes of sex and it is agreed if there was a specific curriculum for sex ed. the overall basis of the education would be more positive. Meaney et al. (2009), found that there was a difference in satisfaction of the school’s sexual education for girls and boys. It is suggested that girls have more pressure to control their sexuality than boys and that if they do not have said control they will become pregnant (Meaney et al., 2009). With 161 graduates asked about 20 different sexual health topics (ten mandated by the Ontario curriculum and with only one of those ten being declared of high importance to these graduates) the graduates identified the topics that they wanted to be taught, however, most of them were outside of the mandated ten. Overall, the graduates would prefer to learn about biology and anatomy as early as grade one and two, personal pleasure topics around grade six and eight, then sex topics in the upper levels such as grade 10 and 11 (Meaney et al., 2009). Suggesting that what the youth find important is not being taught and what is being taught is gendered and further reinforcing stereotypes of males and females.

Overall, it can be suggested that there is something to be said about sexual education and how it can impact a young woman’s sexual empowerment, especially later on in life. How today’s society is shaping women is detrimental – with the sexual images on billboards and magazines, to the commercials played on television- however, sexual education has potential to correct these ideas, thus aiding in the empowerment of young women. Although, there is little information and studies that combines these two topics, this literature review covers both areas accurately and this is why we chose to further the information on the topic of sex education and the sexual empowerment of young women.


Cook, C. (n.d.). Nice Girls Don't: Women and the Condom Conundrum. Journal of Clinical

Nursing, 21, 535-543.

Fava, N., & Bay-Cheng, L. (n.d.). Young Women's Adolescent Experiences of Oral Sex:

Relation of Age of Initiation to Sexual Motivation, Sexual Coercion and Psychological Functioning. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1191-1201.

Lenskyj, H. (1990). Beyond Plumbing and Prevention: A Feminist Approach to Sex Education.

Gender and Education, 2(2), 217-231. Retrieved October 16, 2014, from

Livingston, J., Bay-Cheng, L., Hequembourg, A., Testa, M., & Downs, J. (n.d.). Mixed Drinks

and Mix Messages: Adolescent Girls' Perspectives on Alcohol and Sexuality. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(1), 38-50.

Meaney, G., Rye, B., Wood, E., & Solovieva, E. (2009). Satisfaction With School-Based Sexual

Health Education in a Sample of University Students Recently Graduated From Ontario High Schools. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 18(3), 107-125.

Pastor, S. (2008). Education for Sexual Intimacy and Agency. In Women's Health: Readings on

Social, Economic, and Political Issues (5th ed., pp. 440-447). Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Wilkinson, S. (1993). Technologies and Effects of Heterosexual Coercion. In Heterosexuality: A

Feminism & Psychology Reader (pp. 101-107). London: Sage publications.

Research Question

How does sex education impact young women’s sexual empowerment?


Last semester, for the class Frameworks for Feminist Research, we conducted studies individually, including interviews with participants. This required the ethical review and approval of the Women’s Studies Research Ethics Committee. For this research, we are combining the already approved topics we worked on extensively last semester. The committee confirmed for us that the approval of our topic continues to be valid. Because of this, we will adhere to the Women’s Studies Research Ethics Committee guidelines. We will conduct one two-hour-long focus group with two participants. We held three individual interviews and two qualitative surveys. Both the focus group and interview will take place in a private, controlled environment – in a booked classroom on the University of Windsor campus. We will engage in active listening, so that each participant feels comfortable and respected. This is especially important given the presence of multiple participants at once, in order to avoid any participants feeling too uncomfortable to speak. The interviews will be semi-structured, with a set of questions that will be used as points of interest, as opposed to structure. A conversational flow will be encouraged to avoid a question- answer experience. We feel that this will result in honest responses that the participants feel comfortable sharing. We will engage in some self-disclosure. This is planned to connect with participants who does not share in the experience being discussed by other participants. Also, due to the sensitive, personal, and sometimes stigmatized nature of the content of our study, self-disclosure will be used to break barriers and create trust. Furthermore, we hope to disrupt the dynamic of the researchers having power over those being researched by creating mutuality and reciprocity. Audio-recording was used during the focus group and interviews. We feel that this is the best method for retaining as much information that was expressed in the interviews as possible.These recordings have been sent to the Women's Studies office to be destroyed. The survey responses were emailed from a private account to another private account, printed, and the emails deleted. It will be made explicitly clear that if a participant no longer wanted to participate at any time, they are free to leave the room and end their involvement in the study.

Feminist Methodology

This study incorporates feminism into its methodology because of its many advantages in a study like this. First of all, a feminist semi-structured interview can be an empowering process for women in particular, but especially for a topic such as this that women have been silenced from speaking on, by themselves and others. Empowerment in the sharing of lived experience and personal knowledge is innate in these interviews, where the women will shatter the power struggle of created knowledge and taboo. Second, the inherent orientation of social action and change will direct analysis of the interview findings towards a proposed solution for sex education’s negative impact on women’s sexual empowerment. A feminist ideology applied to this research promotes the breaking down of the intrinsic power dynamic between researchers and participant.


Analysis of the interviews will be done from Dorothy Smith’s feminist standpoint theory Sociology vs. Everyday Life. In particular, her conceptualization of the ‘relations of ruling’ were used to unpack the experiences, thoughts, and impressions uncovered in the interviews to find the fault line at the discrepancy between the ‘relations of ruling’ and participants’ lived experiences. According to her article “Relations of Ruling: A Feminist Inquiry”, ‘relations of ruling’ “are the organizers and regulators of our contemporary world, beyond locality and particular people and relationships”. ‘Relations of ruling’ are the social constructs and roles that individuals feel forced to fulfill. People engage in conscientious activity in order to sustain these “conventional abstractions”. Sex education imposes conventional abstractions on adolescents, norms that they are expected to comply with. It was acknowledged in the process of analysis that there are different relations of ruling based on the intersectional identities of participants and the contexts of their lives.

Your Findings

The definition and journey of sexual empowerment is influenced by external sources (i.e. peer group, religion, and sex education). When women do not feel empowered they have internalized negative messages about women, sex, and sexuality from these sources. Their definitions of sexual empowerment are constructed in opposition to these messages, and their feelings of sexual empowerment come when they reject these messages. Sex education was one of the negative sources for our participants. Given the trust students are encouraged and expected to place in the education system, it is time for sex education to do right by them. Therefore, to help young women find sexual empowerment, sex education must be a source for positive messages about women, sex, and sexuality.

The topics of further concern would be the effects of sexual disempowerment; the male perspective of sex education, women, sex, and sexuality; the ways in which young people today enact social constructions of gender; and the inclusion of those with trans identities and further racial diversity. With more time and resources, it would be valuable to expand the scope of this study beyond Ontario.


Mar 24th, 11:00 AM Mar 24th, 11:50 AM

Sex Education and Young Women's Sexual Empowerment