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Patrick Grzanka


Increasing Support for Comprehensive Sex Education in East Tennessee:  A Deep Values Canvassing Project

Patrick R. Grzanka, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Pamela Rosecrance, M.A., Doctoral Student at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Elena Schuch, M.A., Doctoral Student at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Research consistently documents the detrimental effects of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) curriculum education on youth (Fox et al., 2019), including higher teen pregnancy and STI rates compared to youth receiving comprehensive sexuality education. As of 2018, 37 states applied for and were awarded Title V AOUM program funding, including Tennessee (SIECUS, 2019). Moreover, in 2012, Tennessee began prohibiting educators from teaching students anything that could promote “gateway sexual activity”—defined as sexual contact that could precipitate engagement in a non-abstinent behavior (Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1301)—as a further restriction within the already abstinence-centered curriculum.  

While public health experts advocate for comprehensive sex education (e.g., ACOG, 2016) and have expressed concern that AOUM programs include stigmatizing and medically inaccurate information (Santelli et al., 2017), public understanding of what comprehensive sex education actually entails is limited and politically fraught, based in part on stigma surrounding adolescent sexuality (Elliott, 2010). Psychology, in particular, has lagged behind other disciplinary efforts to critically examine reproductive justice issues, including the effects of access (or lack thereof) to comprehensive sex education (Fahs & McClelland, 2016; Grzanka & Frantell, 2017). It is imperative that critical psychologists work to reduce stigma surrounding sex education and address misinformation about sex education in the community.  

With funding from SPSSI, our research team has partnered with Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood (TAPP) to promote support for comprehensive sex education and better understand if and how a new approach to door-to-door canvassing may help such efforts to change public opinion. “Deep values canvassing” is a novel intervention method that has been shown to be effective in shifting voters’ opinions and reducing prejudice. Canvassers engage with voters door-to-door in one-on-one conversations exploring each other’s values surrounding stigmatized issues (e.g., abortion, marriage equality, trans rights) and focus on each other’s lived experiences with the issue at hand. Essentially, canvassers work to change voters’ hearts and minds on a polarizing issue through active listening, open dialogue, and the encouragement of empathy through the use of personal stories.  

In one highly publicized study, Broockman and Kalla (2016) used deep values canvassing to effectively reduce transphobia. The effect was observed immediately after contact with voters and, moreover, the effects were shown to have persisted at the 3-month follow up. Broockman and Kalla’s (2016) work is especially notable for the persistence of their observed effects on improving transphobic attitudes over time. Further, these results contrast with the vast majority of voter contact research that suggests voters’ attitudes are extremely reluctant to change (Kalla & Broockman, 2018).  

These and other early studies on deep values canvassing and community interaction (e.g., Peyton et al., 2019) represent an important opportunity for partial replication and extension across other contentious social issues that often reflect voters’ deeply held principles, including beliefs about abortion, policing, race, and, of course, sexuality. Does deep values canvassing work in other political contexts and can it be used as an effective (i.e., systematically measured) advocacy tool for social justice and community-based issues? 

Accordingly, we are using SPSSI’s local/state-level policy grant to pay canvasser recruiters and canvassers as part of a large deep values canvassing project on sex education that will systematically measure the effect to which deep values canvassing can shift East Tennessee voters’ attitudes in favor of comprehensive sex education. Originally planned for spring 2020, we will launch the canvassing project later this year or in 2021 once it is safe again to interact with voters face-to-face. 


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2016). ACOG opinion no. 678: Comprehensive sexuality education. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 128, e227-30. 

Broockman, D., & Kalla, J. (2016). Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing. Science, 352(6282), 220-224. doi:10.1126/science.aad9713 

Broockman, D., Kalla, J., & Sekhon, J. S. (2017). The design of field experiments with survey outcomes: A framework for selecting more efficient, robust, and ethical designs. Political Analysis, 25(4), 435-464. doi:10.1017/pan.2017.272017.27 

Elliott, S. (2010). Parents’ constructions of teen sexuality: Sex panics, contradictory discourses, and social inequality. Symbolic Interaction, 33(2), 191-212. doi:10.1525/si.2010.33.2.191 

Fahs, B., & McClelland, S. I. (2016). When sex and power collide: An argument for critical sexuality studies. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-6), 392-416. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1152454 

Fine, M., & McClelland, S. I. (2006). Sexuality education and desire: Still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review, 76(3), 297-338.  

Fox, A. M., Himmelstein, G., Khalid, H., & Howell, E. A. (2019). Funding for abstinence-only education and adolescent pregnancy prevention: Does state ideology affect outcomes? American Journal of Public Health, 109(3), 497-504. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304896 

Grzanka, P. R., & Frantell, K. A. (2017). Counseling psychology and reproductive justice: A call to action. The Counseling Psychologist, 45, 326-352. doi:10.1177/0011000017699871  

Kalla, J., & Broockman, D. (2018). The minimal persuasive effects of campaign contact in general elections: Evidence from 49 field experiments. American Political Science Review, 112(1), 148-166. doi:10.1017/S0003055417000363 

Peyton, K., Sierra-Arévalo, M., & Rand, D. G. (2019). A field experiment on community policing and police legitimacy. PNAS, 116(40), 19894-19898. doi:10.1073/pnas.1910157116 

Santelli, J. S., Kantor, L. M., Grilo, S. A., Speizer, I. S., Lindberg, L. D., Heitel, J.,…Ott, M. A. (2017). Abstinence-only-until-marriage: An updated review of U.S. policies and programs and their impact. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(3), 273-280. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.05.031 

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (2019). Retrieved from 

Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1301 (2012). 

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