Childhood is often represented as a time of presumed sexual innocence. However, both sexuality and innocence are highly gendered concepts. Many writers have shown that our current gender system only makes sense in the context of an assumed heterosexuality.  Adrienne Rich coined the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to capture this, while Judith Butler has talked about the ‘heterosexual matrix’ to show how gender and sexuality are intimately linked.

Research in the early years, primary years (elementary school) and secondary years (high school) all point to the gendering of sexuality and the sexualisation of gender across a range of contexts and social relations, from heterosexual and homophobic harassment to institutionalised heterosexuality (e.g. invisibility of LGBTQI issues in the curriculum). Non-heterosexualities are largely understood to be ‘other’ and ‘heterosexuality’ is naturalised and left as an unexamined social norm. Queer theorists have explored these patternings of the social world through the notion of heteronormativity.

Research has shown how the everyday social practices inside schools and universities actively connect gender to sexuality.   In other words the discursive practices such as gendered play (e.g. kiss chase), language (e.g. “boys don’t cry”) and behaviour (e.g. masculinity is only appropriate for males) act to construct a particular type of male and female that is dualistic, hegemonic and heterosexual. Such practices are also experienced differently when locality, age, ethnicity, religion, social class, learning difficulties and physical dis/abilities are taken into account. There are also specific issues that relate to the educational identities and experiences of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI).

Because ‘education’ is a huge social arena encompassing children, adults, paid employees, volunteers, formal and informal spaces and compulsory and voluntary participation, there are many areas to be considered when thinking about the place, role, understandings and experiences of sexuality within education. The further reading and resources below go some way to exploring each area and their relationship to each other (e.g. informal school spaces and sexual bullying).

The picture above shows the cover of a book for primary school age children that depicts gay parenting amongst penguins. It is vital that sexuality education in schools address children and young people’s engagements with their own sexuality and sexual cultures as well as challenging homophobia, sexual conflict and harassment and the ‘sexualisation of culture’ more widely in schools. This is particularly important in an enduring socio-political climate in which children’s sexual cultures and social relations are framed predominantly through moralising and pathologising sex panics.


Further Reading

Attwood, F. and Smith, C. (2011) Investigating Young People’s Sexual Cultures, Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning Vol. 11 (3)

Berlant, L. & Warner, M. (1998) Sex in Public. Critical Inquiry, 24 ( 2):  547-566.

Blaise, M. (2005). Playing it straight!: Uncovering gender discourses in the early childhood classroom. NY: Routledge Press.Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. London, Routledge.

DePalma, R. and Atkinson, E. (2008) Invisible Boundaries: Addressing Sexualities Equality in Children’s Worlds. Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham.

Egan, D. and Hawkes, G. (2010) Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity. Palgrave MacMillan.

Epstein, D. and Johnson, R. (1998) Schooling sexualities. Buckingham, Open University Press.

Kehily, M. J. (2002) Sexuality, gender and schooling: shifting agendas in social learning. London, Routledge Falmer.

Meyer, E. (2010) Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools. Springer: New York, NY.

Phoenix, A. (2011) Review of recent literature for the Bailey Review of commercialization and sexualisation of childhood London.

Renold, E. (2005) Girls, Boys & Junior Sexualities: Exploring children’s gender & sexual relations in the primary school. London & New York, Routledge.

Renold, E., Kehily, M.J. and Epstein, D. (2012) Special Issue: Making sense of the sexualisation debates: schools and beyond, Gender and Education, 24 (3): 249-254

Ringrose, J. (2012) Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling. London: Routledge.

Landreau, J. and Rodriguez, N. (ed) Queer Masculinities: A Critical Reader in Education. Springer: New York.

Robinson, K. (2012) Innocence, Knowledge and the Construction of Childhood: The contradictory nature of sexuality and censorship in children’s contemporary lives. London: Routledge.

Rich, A. (1984). Compulsory Heterosexuality & Lesbian Existence. London, Only women Press.

Steinberg, D. L., Epstein, D. and  Johnson, R. (Eds) (1997) Border patrols: Policing the boundaries of heterosexuality. London, Cassell.


Useful LGBTQI Links

Australian-based support materials to assist teachers and school staff in designing and developing a school’s sexuality education program.

Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council (AGMC) aims to represent the interests of Australian gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer individuals/groups from a multicultural background.

The Classroom aims to be an accessible space for teachers to locate a range of resources to make Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans people visible in education.

Courage Campaign: California-based campaign group.

Del LaGrace Volcano: a gender variant artist who explores gender identity within his work

Genderqueer Australia provides support for those identifying as gender-questioning or gender queer.

Hey Hetero: Australia and NZ-based public art project run by Deborah Kelly and Tina Fiveash

Imaan is a social support group for Muslim lesbian, gays, bisexuals, transgender, those questioning their sexuality or gender identity and their friends and supporters.

Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group provides an atmosphere of friendship and support for Jewish gays, lesbians, bisexuals and their partners.

LGBTI Health Alliance: Australian-based campaign group

February is LGBT History Month, this website provides resources and assembly ideas

Mermaids is a support group for gender variant children and teenagers. They also seek to: offer support to parents, families, carers, and others; raise awareness about gender issues amongst professionals (e.g. teachers, doctors, social services, etc.) and the general public; campaign for the recognition of this issue and the increase in professional services.

Press for Change: UK based campaign group for transgender people

The Queer Youth Network is a national non-profit making organisation that is run by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) and Queer Young People and is based in the United Kingdom.

QMs is a Yahoo Group based in Australia for LGBTIQ Muslims

Rural Media’s Sticks and Stones Project brings together isolated young gay men and women in a project that actively challenges homophobic prejudice and bullying.

Safe Schools Coalition Victoria is based in Melbourne, Australia and is an organization dedicated to supporting gender and sexual diversity in schools. It is sponsored by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Department of Health.

Schools Out provides both a formal and informal support network for all people who want to raise the issue of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in education.

Stonewall Cymru is the all-Wales Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual (LGB) Charity who aim is to achieve equality for LGB people at home, at school and at work. Established in 2003 with support from the Welsh Government and Stonewall GB, their work is tailored to the needs of LGB people across Wales and draws upon a wealth of research from Stonewall across Britain.

UK Black Out is a site for black LGBT people and their friends.

Young LGBT Christians (YLGC) provides a place for young LGBT Christians to meet, socialise, hear from each other and support each other.


Young Sexualities Education and Well Being Links

The Albert Kennedy Trust: providing support for homeless LGBT young people.

The ‘Are You Getting it Right?’ toolkit provides a selection of activities to help secondary schools in Wales involve young people when reviewing and auditing their sex and relationships education (SRE).

Brook provides free and confidential sexual health advice for young people, and has an array of sex education resources, training manuals, leaflets and brochures.

Drug Rehab have dedicated educational guide for the LGBTQ+ community about substance abuse featuring ways to help someone with addiction and additional resources

Education Action Challenging Homophobia: UK based organisation that provides consultancy and training.

Exclaim! Young People’s Guide to Sexual Rights show how sexual rights relate to young people in a way that is accessible and relevant

Family Planning Association (FPA) works to improve the sexual health of all people throughout the UK. They have a variety of resources available on SRE and Sexual Health.

Gay Straight Alliance Network: providing information on how to set up a gay/straight alliance within your school

It Gets Better Project: US-based project set up in response to teen suicides precipitated by homophobic bullying.

Me and Us Ltd produce educational resources and provide advice about training on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), including material for young people with SEN.

No Outsiders: Researching sexualities equality education in primary schools.

OnScenity research network brings together international experts in order to respond to the new visibility or ‘onscenity’ of sex in commerce, culture and everyday life.

The Red Knob provides resources, consultancy and guidance for work with young men around sexual health issues.

Sex Education Forum is the national authority on sex and relationships education (SRE). It believes that good quality SRE is an entitlement for all children and young people.

Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), a curriculum resource to help primary schools develop children’s social, emotional and behavioural skills. It includes assemblies and follow-up ideas for work in class.

SREresources provide high quality learning resources and information about sex for young people with disabilities.

Stonewall: UK campaigning group’s education resources.

True Tube is aimed at 12-25 year olds and provides a platform for debate on moral and ethical issues, including love and sex. Free teaching resources are available.

Young Sexualities is a newly formed Cardiff University based research network that brings together a range of resources and information for academics working in the field of children, young people, gender and sexualities.

YouthHealthTalk features videos of interviews with young people about their experiences of sex and sexual health. All interviews are by Oxford University Researchers who aim to capture the full range of experiences including starting periods, having sex for the first time, relationships, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, sexuality, pregnancy and abortion.


Page Author: Emma Renold and Emily Gray

Updated: 15th January 2013

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