Sexual Content in High School Classes

“Since my son has been in high school, he has been upset by the sexual content in the assigned reading and discussions in his English and Social Studies classes. Now the film studies teacher has announced that there might be R-rated content in the course. Is this… usual? Acceptable? Reasonable? I don’t think my son is being too prudish. We have not exposed him to entertainment with sexual content at home, but we have discussed it when it has come up. I am curious if you have anything to say about this as an aspect of education.”

Your question turned out to be a really interesting one – and one that many parents struggle with. It arises most frequently in high school honors and AP classes. I talked with several experienced high school teachers, most extensively with an English teacher on the East Coast who has taught honors and AP for years and a social studies teacher on the West Coast who has also taught honors and AP for many years. Here are their perspectives:

First of all, students who take honors and AP classes are by definition using more challenging materials. AP in particular is supposed to be at the college level. These more challenging, thought-provoking materials often have adult content and themes – particularly the contemporary works. AP classes, and some honors classes, have a list of texts and materials and content that has to be included in the curriculum. It’s not teacher choice. You should be able to get a copy of the syllabus from the teacher.

Many students who are intellectually mature enough to handle challenging material have difficulty because their social and emotional maturity is not at that same level. They get embarrassed, the adult themes are scary, and sometimes boys react physically to sexual content. Teenagers think that everyone is focused on THEM and everyone is looking at THEM – so adult content can be extra embarrassing. More intuitive, sensitive kids often get very upset when the material includes violence or evil. So both teachers and parents need to help teenagers process all this through listening and discussion. This is where all your work on developing a value system comes into play. Values don’t exist in a vacuum.

Your question about the videos/films will require some digging at your school district level. Smart districts have a “reasonable film use” policy, and it would be a good idea for you to find out if your district has one. If not, you might want to suggest it to the superintendent or the school board. Most film use policies state that teachers must have:

  • A written lesson plan that includes the film
  • A connection between the curriculum standards and the film
  • A notice to parents about the film that gives them enough time to opt out
  • A reasonable alternative assignment

Our contemporary culture – especially youth culture – is highly sexualized. I get embarrassed watching TV or films with my grown children! So it’s not unusual for your son to be uncomfortable, especially since you have provided a wholesome, respectful environment for him. (Good for you, BTW!) But he’s entering the world, so it’s in his best interest for you to help him figure out how to put all this in context and come up with an individual perspective based on his individual values. He can understand it without buying into it.

Does that help at all? Good luck!


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