Sexual Literacy: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century



8th-9th July 2020

Ghent University – Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 9000 Ghent, Belgium

A two-day conference organised by INSEP – International Network for Sexual Ethics and Politics


Keynote Speaker: Gilbert Herdt

Professor Emeritus Departments of Sexuality Studies and Sociology,
San Francisco State University and Director Emeritus, National Sexuality Resource Center


“We define sexual literacy as the knowledge necessary to promote and protect sexual wellness and the rights of oneself and intimate others.”
T.S. Stein and G. Herdt, “Editorial: Welcome to SRSP 2005!”
Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2005, 2(1): 1

General Conference Theme: Sexual Literacy – Challenges and Opportunities

Sexual literacy was a concept that emerged with Gilbert Herdt’s Directorship of the US National Sexuality Resource Center (NSRC). Seeking to supersede the formal entrenchment of sex and sexuality education, knowledge production and dissemination beyond moral, health and developmental paradigms, the NSRC identified sexual literacy as “a new model for sexual health, sexuality education, and sexuality research (…) to equip advocates, academics, and researchers with the knowledge, skills and resources to improve lifelong sexual literacy and sexual well-being [using a] positive, integrated, and holistic view of sexuality from a social justice perspective.” ( – accessed 15th March 2010)

The NSRC framed sexual literacy thus: At NSRC, we focus on a positive, integrated and holistic view of sexuality from a social justice perspective. We believe that every person should have the knowledge, skills and resources to support healthy and pleasurable sexuality—and that these resources should be based on accurate research and facts. We examine how race, gender, culture, ability, faith and age intersect with and shape our sexual beliefs. We know that sexuality education and learning should be lifelong. We call this sexual literacy. (ibid.)

At the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, this ‘manifesto’ seems far away. In the US, the sex wars persist, xenophobia has risen with tribal nationalism, sexuality education remains poorly funded or not at all, with abstinence and morally persecutory positions attacking sexual diversity and the debasement of sexuality, gender and reproductive rights. In Europe, the limitations of sex education and battles over ‘age appropriateness’, the status of sex education beyond reproductive, health and legal constructs is contested and limited, particularly where sexual play or non-heterosexual sex are concerned. The persistence of heteronormative (and homonormative) values and understandings continue to challenge sexual difference and cultural peculiarities, private secrets or commodified productions (cf. ‘Fifty Shades’, etc), all of which deceptively reproduce mainstream morals and condemn the spectrum of true diversity. Globally, comprehensive sexuality education tilts toward health and is criticised for somewhat regulatory and ‘colonial’ approaches to propagating morally infused development programmes based on health imperatives. The political economy of such programmes is often that they must comply with the conservative moral orthodoxies of sponsoring countries. This in the context of the 70 countries that still criminalise same sex relationships at the end of 2019.

Whilst health issues are extremely important, having them drive the agenda of pedagogy surrounding sexual skill sets, knowledge and educational goals is too limiting. It has depoliticised and constrained wider debates around questions of sexual pleasure, happiness, freedom, relationship-formation, family formation, and diversity. Whilst there is some evidence of creative sex education initiatives within these paradigmatic constraints in certain countries, these programmes often lack sustainable funding and do not have longevity, are precarious in social and political support, and thus open to mainstream challenge. Furthermore, their incremental and localised development does not build into a stronger sustainable set of strategies, skills and policies that enable lifelong sexual learning, understanding, knowledge production and the achievement of action and dissemination.

This conference is designed to address these challenges and seeks to bring together interdisciplinary scholars, advocates, educators and policy-makers in order to consider sexual literacy in the current state of scholarship, educational initiatives, lifelong learning, and cultural opportunities and challenges in the emergence of sexual life. Papers and panels are invited on any aspect of sexual literacy, education and knowledge, with the following themes particularly welcome:

  • Sexual literacy as concept and strategy
  • Sexual Literacy in the North and the Global South
  • Sexual literacy and the pedagogies of sex and gender
  • Sexual literacy and sexual diversity
  • Sexual literacy as a human right
  • Sexual literacy and transgender community formation
  • Sexual literacy: difference or perversity and moral judgements?
  • Sexual literacy and intersectional differences – gender, ethnicity/race, migration/citizenship, disability, and other socio-cultural differences
  • Sexual literacy beyond sex education in communities
  • Sexual Literacy and sustainable reproductive health and rights
  • Sex knowledge production – educational, cultural and policy forms
  • Critical studies of sex education and comprehensive sexuality education
  • Resourcing and facilitating sustainable sexual literacy
  • Sexual literacy, social media and the online world

This list of possible themes is by no means exhaustive.

Submissions and Timeline

Expressions of interest should be presented via abstracts for papers (200 words) or panels of up to three speakers (please submit a 200-word overview and a set of abstracts) which should reach us by Friday 27 March 2020. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by Friday 3rd April 2020.

Those who require earlier acceptances in order to acquire funds can specify this and we will enact a rolling acceptance process for those people as their proposals are submitted.

Please send abstracts to: Paul Reynolds (, and Tom Claes (

The conference fee for the two-day conference is 150 Euros (100 Euros for Postgraduates) and includes conference packs and refreshments for both days. Registration will open at the end of March 2020 and will close at the beginning of July 2020.

People intending to present at or attend this conference might also be interested in an event immediately following it at Ghent University: Compulsory Sexual Education: Philosophy, Policy, Issues and Problems, a one day event on Friday 10th July 2020, organised in collaboration with ANSER, an international Academic Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Policy (

Organising Committee
Tom Claes (Ghent University)
Gilbert Herdt
Allison Moore (Edge Hill University, UK)
Paul Reynolds (INSEP)