The Provision of Reproduction Knowledge: Policy and Politics of Sexuality Education


My dissertation studies the provision of reproduction knowledge as provided in school-based sexuality education in a comparative European perspective, with a specific focus on German-speaking countries. Sexuality education is a key channel through which knowledge is transmitted and remains a primary source of reproduction information for the majority of pupils. What is more, people’s knowledge about reproduction plays a crucial role in shaping their reproductive experiences and trajectories. Not least due to this, discussions surrounding sexuality education persist as a significant cultural battleground where debates revolve around notions of sexuality generally but also around the level of state involvement in the provision of reproduction knowledge. Central to my dissertation is the notion of the “curriculum as policy”, locating school curricula as documents that embody deliberate rationales for knowledge provision, rather than neutral materials. Consequently, I analyse sexuality education curricula from a policy perspective, focusing on expanding research on sexuality education which currently lacks consistent conceptualisations and thorough comparative empirical applications. My research centres on the German-speaking countries of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Their close similarity in education systems and socio-political structures allow for employing a most-similar-systems-design approach. Through this framework, I aim to comprehensively explore three fundamental aspects of sexuality education: a) sexuality education curricula as such, b) differences in curricula between countries and over time, and c) the politics of sexuality education (curricula). I approach these aspects in the three articles of my dissertation and outline them below.

First, I investigate systematic differences in types of knowledge as provided in sexuality education curricula. As a first step, and given a lack of thorough conceptualisations, this article introduces a policy perspective to conceptualize sexuality education curricula, employing two dimensions: prescriptiveness (the level of predefined content) and comprehensiveness (the number of topics covered). This approach quantifies curriculum content and evaluates the degree of state control and teacher discretion, resulting in four ideal-types of reproduction knowledge provision: individualized, selective, broad, and extensive. Empirically, the article applies this framework to current sexuality education curricula in the 16 German federal states. With this, normative implications arising from different levels of state responsibility in the provision of reproduction knowledge are emphasised, offering critical insights into the ongoing discourse on state involvement in reproductive processes and the significance of school curricula in social policy.

The second study broadens this focus by examining changes in sexuality education curricula in German-speaking countries over time. I collect historical curricula from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, building a novel dataset covering the years between 1970 and 2020. This dataset allows me to systematically observe how sexuality education has changed across and within countries during a period marked by significant shifts in the approach to addressing issues related to sexuality. I apply computational text analysis methods – a novel endeavour for the analysis of curricula – thereby providing unique contributions to how large amounts of school curricula can be analysed. The analysis sheds light onto critical junctures when sexuality education underwent significant shifts, enabling a robust basis for the exploration into the factors influencing this “touchy subject”. This also lays the foundation for further investigations into the politics of sexuality education.

In the third paper, I analyse the "quiet politics of sexuality education." The framework is rooted in institutionalist theory on how public opinion, party politics and interest groups shape policymaking. I explore the less visible yet equally influential “quiet” aspects of policy-making of sexuality education, which is strongly influenced by interest groups such as parents, religious institutions, and international organizations. It is posited that in these contexts, the political power of courts and ministries is considerably larger. I argue that historically grown structures of the state-family relationship, church involvement and educational structures lead to differences in actors that are involved in (sexuality) education policy and curriculum development processes. The country-comparison allows me to examine the varying extent of involvement and impact of these actors and to explore how distinct reproductive conceptions manifest in school curricula within different institutional contexts.