Sex Education: Representations and Norms Regarding Reproduction, Birth Control and Social Relations in French Junior High School Biology Textbooks

Marie Mengotti, Université Paris Nanterre

This communication will question a tool which plays an important role as part of sex education in French junior high schools : biology textbooks. Chapters dedicated to the transmission of human life have the distinctive feature of mixing reproductive anatomy and physiology lessons with lessons about preventative measures related to sexuality. Thus, they combine scientific knowledge with information which explicitly aims to « educate the students for responsibility » regarding sexual and reproductive health. However, they are not free from biases, stereotypes, and implicit norms with regard to bodies and social relations, showing a gap between textbook contents, curriculum goals (which include « giving access to updated scientific knowledge »; « distinguishing between facts and opinions »; and developing a « critical mind ») and democratic values (particularly equality).

We will study a corpus composed of all the textbooks that are currently used in French Junior High Schools. They were published between 2007 and 2017 by 7 different publishing houses (16 textbooks in all). We will take into account all the contents (texts and images) linked to reproduction (puberty, procreation and sexual and reproductive risks). We will seek to pinpoint the representations and norms linked to bodies (looks, pleasure, fertility, health risks) and social relations (couple, family, sex, class, and race relations). We will show that these textbooks, which are supposed to reconcile scientific neutrality, promotion of critical minds and respect of the democratic value of equality, do not convey emancipation, but rather perpetuate and legitimate various kinds of dominations : domination of male over female, heterosexuality over LGBTsexualities, white people over racialized people but also of a vision according to which sexuality is only a matter of physiology and health, over a vision in which social relations and pleasure take part in sexuality.


This communication will question a tool which plays an important role as part of sex education in French junior high schools : biology textbooks. Indeed, these textbooks combine two notions implanted in 1973 by the Fontanet circular : “sex information” and “sex education”. Back in those days, “sex information” was conceived as mandatory, focused on reproductive anatomy and physiology and taught in biology classes. Whereas “sex education” was optional, taught during extracurricular time, with the participation of the students'' parents. Since then, in 2003, sex education became mandatory.

However, a careful examination of the biology textbooks published since 1973 shows the “porosity” that exists between the two distinct notions that are “sex information” and “sex education”. Indeed, chapters dedicated to the transmission of human life have the distinctive feature of mixing reproductive anatomy and physiology lessons with lessons about preventative measures related to sexuality. Thus, they combine scientific knowledge with information which explicitly aims to « educate the students for responsibility » regarding sexual and reproductive health. However, they are not free from biases, stereotypes, and implicit norms with regard to bodies and social relations, showing a gap between textbook contents, curriculum goals (which include « giving access to updated scientific knowledge »; « distinguishing between facts and opinions »; and developing a « critical mind ») and democratic values (particularly equality).

That is why we chose to take over and expand Sandie Bernard''s work, who studied French Junior High School biology textbooks published by three different publishing houses between 1979 and 2007 (11 textbooks in all). She showed that, over time, the anatomy drawings were naming less and less body parts, excluding the ones which are the most excitable (e.g. the clitoris, the glans penis). She also showed that the description of the sexual intercourse progressively became very concise and technical, getting rid of any mention of social interactions and pleasure.

In our case, we will study all the textbooks that are currently used in French Junior High Schools. They were published between 2007 and 2017 by 7 different publishing houses (16 textbooks in all). We will take into account all the contents (texts and images) linked to reproduction (puberty, procreation and sexual and reproductive risks). Our goal is to analyse the way these textbooks reproduce norms regarding sexuality, which are carried by institutions and the main social groups.

We will show that, in these textbooks, all the matters linked to reproduction are presented in a very technical way, focusing on the health risks (birth planning and sexually transmitted infections) and eliminating the topics of social relations and pleasure. We will also display the androcentric and sexist biases which allow the role of men to be systematically highlighted and the topic of sexual violence to disappear completely (in spite of the fact that it is a major health risk, in which the victims are mainly girls and women). Additionally, we will reveal the racist biases which occur in these textbooks, the vast majority of the human beings depicted being white. Last but not least, we will expose the fact that, sexuality being addressed only for its reproductive dimension, only heterosexuality is mentioned.

Thus, these textbooks, which are supposed to reconcile scientific neutrality, promotion of critical minds and respect of the democratic value of equality, do not convey emancipation, but rather perpetuate and legitimate various kinds of dominations : domination of male over female, heterosexuality over LGBTsexualities, white people over racialized people but also of a vision according to which sexuality is only a matter of physiology and health, over a vision in which social relations and pleasure take part in sexuality.

Presented in Session 1227: Sexual and Reproductive Behaviour