Few topics in the history of American schooling have been as fraught with controversy as that of sex education. Since concerned leaders introduced advice manuals into the nineteenth-century landscape to combat social decay and disease, sex education has remained a highly contested site in which conflicting beliefs about adolescence, morality, relationships, and public health have been played out across the twentieth century. Sexuality is simultaneously a personal and profoundly public matter central to human relationships, public health, and the reproduction of citizenry.
From nineteenth-century medical pamphlets to HIV/AIDS prevention today, sex education raises complex questions for American educators: What role should schools play in such private and public terrain? What should constitute the curriculum, and what should be its purpose? When does sexual information shift from acceptable to dangerous? What constitutes healthy, appropriate sexual expression? Who should decide? The contours of sex education have shifted dramatically as concerned citizens, educators, medical professionals, and policy makers have grappled with answers to these questions. Sex education is a topic that continues to incite significant social anxiety even as it symbolizes the promise of social reform for many in American public education.
Sex education has varied in response to shifting social values, public and financial support, and beliefs about “the child” and “the adolescent.” Whether youth are conceptualized as vulnerable children in need of surveillance, potential tax burdens, or future citizens capable of self-governance shapes how their education is envisioned, designed, and delivered. Race, class, and gender inform those conceptions. Unlike many other educational topics, the intent of sex education has often been to effect behavioral changes in those who receive it. This entry provides a historical overview, a brief look at some current issues, and a glimpse of future trends.
Concern about social upheaval led nineteenth century reformers to distribute the first sex education related materials in the United States. As urbanization and immigration increased, and fears about prostitution, masturbation, and disease escalated, leaders produced a flurry of advice manuals for White, middle-class young men. Pamphlets urged young men to maintain self-control and direct their sexual energy for the good of “the race.” Men’s self-control and women’s modesty were championed as ideal characteristics of civilized Americans in contrast to the immoral sexual behavior imagined of other cultures.
A recurring argument in sex education debates is that providing information about sexuality, however conceived, is a matter best left to families. Yet parents and medical experts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed threats such as prostitution and disease as too great and public health as too important for parents to shoulder the full responsibility for transmitting sexual information and moral values. They turned to schools to aid in the battle. The rapidly expanding public school system and its increasingly regulated curriculum seemed an ideal arena to reach large numbers of children and contend with moral and social decay.
Even as professionals felt the urgency of their mission, they struggled with how best to convey information considered sensitive without polluting children’s natural “innocence” or violating federal laws that deemed explicit information “obscene.” Educators perceived a fine line between beneficial and dangerous information. Indeed, an enduring fear woven through sex education debates is that providing information about biology and sex might pique student interest, encourage experimentation, and undermine educators’ intent to instill self-control. Thus, early sex education materials were scientific in tone and focused on the alarming consequences of disease.
Progressive educators (1880–1920s) were vanguards in the effort to institute more comprehensive sex education in American schools and to shift responsibility for its provision away from medical professionals and into the hands of educators. With financial support from prominent business leaders, reformers established the American Social Hygiene Association to promote sex education as a tool to address social problems. In this spirit, progressive educator Ella Flagg Young organized a series of lectures in 1913 on social hygiene and physiology that reached more than 20,000 Chicago children. Although the program was short lived because its direct approach raised public concern, some of its characteristics have endured in contemporary practice: Educators delivered information to sex-segregated groups; lectures were provided to parents before delivery to children; and children of different ages received different information. Young’s approach also reflected budding efforts to educate “the whole child” and to frame sexuality in humanistic terms of love and intimacy rather than solely in medical language of danger, disease, and decay.
Changes in the contours and reach of sex education have reflected shifting national priorities. Funding has been a key element. For example, the perception that increased sexual activity and venereal disease posed a threat to servicemen during World War I led the government to fund sex education for soldiers’ benefit. The passage of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act in 1918 and the establishment of a Venereal Disease division in the public health service helped expand educational initiatives to civilians, including college students and teachers in normal schools. The majority of normal schools in the 1920s provided some sex education preparation to teachers.
Yet “sex education” meant little more than disease containment, teachers were offered little tangible support to integrate sex education amidst other teaching demands, and Congress cut funding when public energy shifted to other fears. Also, as youth left the war years and entered the roaring 1920s with shorter hemlines, motor cars, and dancing shoes, the rhetoric of fear did little to quell their desires to mingle. Framing messages about intimacy in positive terms promised to resonate far more with youth yearning for pleasure and connection in the wake of war.
Funding was equally influential during World War II as leaders initiated aggressive disease-prevention efforts for soldiers that had reverberations for school-based initiatives. During the war, leaders used a range of tactics to detach sexual practice from its associations with morality and reframe it as vital to healthy American manhood. Medical personnel offered explicit lectures, showed detailed films on disease, and advocated condom use. This pragmatic approach to promote national health over abstinence was understandable given the findings from Alfred C. Kinsey’s well-known sexuality research at mid-century. Kinsey, drawing from 12,000 interviews, found that the majority of men and increasing numbers of women were sexually active despite long-standing prohibitions against premarital sex. Preserving the health of soldiers took priority over championing abstinence as the ideal.
The Baby Boom
In the 1950s, when the American middle-class family ideal became paramount to a nation recovering from war, private and government funding was redirected to champion heterosexual unions and to develop family life education. Family life became a salve for the wounds of war. Although courses teaching marital and family skills surfaced during the 1920s and 1930s, they emerged with greater vigor during the baby boom era. Rather than providing sexual information, or proscribing sexual relations, programs primarily used glowing rhetoric to beckon students to the nuclear family ideal. The curriculum included mental hygiene films such as Dating Do’s and Don’ts (1949), Going Steady? (1951), and Marriage Is a Partnership (1951). Lessons emphasized traditional sex roles for men and women, wholesome dating, consumerism, and marital harmony.
A series of explosive social changes in the 1960s reinvigorated efforts to foreground sex education, rather than family life education, in schools. The civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements; changes in gender roles; the approval of the birth control pill in 1960 that placed fertility control more firmly in women’s hands; the rebellion of gays and lesbians at Stonewall; and changes in obscenity laws are among the forces that contributed to the “sexual revolution.” A series of Supreme Court decisions during the 1960s and 1970s upholding the constitutional right of individuals to control their fertility further enabled individuals to separate sexual activity from reproduction.
These social and legal changes prompted widespread efforts to teach pregnancy risks, human anatomy, reproduction, and sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention to youth. In 1963, Dr. Mary Seichen Calderone founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States to advocate for sex education and the reduction of sexual risk among youth. Although Calderone never strayed far from the marriage ideal in her vision of sex education, she argued that all youth needed access to information to make sound decisions and prepare for their adult roles. Schools began to incorporate sex education into the health curriculum and enlisted physical education and biology teachers to offer sex-segregated lessons on reproduction.
While sex education battles continued nationwide, public opinion surveys in the late 1960s found that the majority of Americans supported some form of school-based sex education. Opinions as to the content of that education, however, continued to differ significantly over the next few decades. For instance, the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to distribute millions of dollars to states to instigate AIDS-prevention education. States that did not require sex education courses in their schools nevertheless established policies requiring educators to include HIV/AIDS-information. The depth and duration of such education varied, from programs that included detailed information to those that required educators to address HIV/AIDS a minimum of three times from Grades 5 through 12. By 1990, all fifty states had such recommendations or mandates, shaping and limiting other kinds of sex education available to youth.
Sex education has attracted significant analytic attention from feminists because it is a site in which gendered power is enacted at the national, state, and school level with particular implications for women’s lives. Margaret Sanger’s well-known crusade to circulate birth control information in the early twentieth century despite laws that deemed such information obscene was driven by her conviction that poor women desperately needed tools to protect their health. As a nurse in New York, Sanger witnessed women’s despair from constant cycles of childbearing. Similarly, advocates for reproductive rights and legal birth control during the 1960s and 1970s insisted that inadequate information about sexuality and a lack of access to contraception posed specific threats to women’s lives and well-being. Because women alone bear the physical capacity for childbearing, sex education is imperative to women’s bodily integrity, sexual agency, and economic empowerment.
As sexuality education has been incorporated into public schools, feminist attention has shifted from promoting basic access to reforming the curriculum to better meet women’s needs. In recent years, advocates have argued that programs offering comprehensive information about same-sex relationships, birth control, abortion, and HIV/AIDS are necessary because human beings are entitled to full and accurate information to make wise choices for their lives. In this sense, access to information is foundational to democratic principles. Feminists also emphasize the need for educational programs to consider the gap between accessing and applying information. For example, women socialized in traditional gender roles may recognize contraceptive options and yet be unprepared to insist on condom use, navigate power dynamics in heterosexual relationships, or discuss and pursue equitable sexual practices. Sex education, to be effective for women, must explore how larger social forces shape individual experiences.
Teen Pregnancy And Abstinence Education
Teen sex and teen pregnancy are central issues shaping contemporary sex education. Despite a decline in teen birthrates from the 1960s to the 1980s, concern for teen pregnancy skyrocketed after the 1960s and has recently come to symbolize a decline in American family values. Social reformers once again turned to sex education to address social ills, mobilizing a national effort to promote abstinence-only education programs. In 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act established a series of programs advocating abstinence to teens and young, unwed mothers. In 1996, the Abstinence Education Law was passed as part of welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconstruction Act. This act broadened the reach of abstinence education by funding states that incorporated abstinence programs in schools. To receive funding, sex educators could not promote condom use or refer to the potential benefits of contraception for preventing pregnancy and STDs.
Advocates of abstinence-only education insist that pressing social problems require such strong and focused responses. Sexual images dominate contemporary media culture, rates of unprotected oral sex among teens have increased, and the United States continues to reflect one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the developed world. Supporters argue that abstaining from sex is the only method to ensure teens’ safety. Programs emphasize the risks of failed contraception and the range of benefits associated with delaying sexual initiation. Although some states have refused abstinence-only funding because of its curricular restrictions, the majority of states have relied on it to ensure the support of school-based sex education.
Feminist educators have critiqued a curriculum that emphasizes the dangers of sex and the silencing of women’s desire. For example, researchers point to problematic discourses of heteronormativity, risk, and alarm legible in the 1996 federal guidelines for abstinence education. These guidelines, backed by millions of dollars in federal funding, explicitly endorse marriage as the expected arena for sexual expression and portray nonmarital sexual relations as dangerous. Messages of “personal responsibility” and “accountability” dominate. Critics contend that such a curriculum endangers youth by severely limiting the information schools can provide; targeting low income and minority youth as problems in need of containment; idealizing one type of sexual relationship at the expense of all others; and marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer (LGBTQ) youth. Also, some argue that the religious origins and morality-based undercurrent in abstinence education subtly violate the separation between church and state with little scientific evidence that the programs reduce teen sex, pregnancy rates, or the transmission of STDs.
The topic of sexual identity has also become visible in the sex education curriculum. National organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; anti-bullying campaigns; and gay-straight alliances have worked to create a safer climate for sexual minorities in schools. Some have integrated information about LGBTQ-identified youth into the curriculum and created spaces for youth to discuss sexual identity issues. Educational tools include peer educators, panels of gay speakers, texts with gay characters, and photographic displays of gay families.
Such efforts, despite their emphasis on sexual identity rather than sexual behavior, have often met with fierce opposition. Some critics oppose any portrayal of same-sex relationships as acceptable or healthy. Abstinence-only programs traditionally maintain firm silence on LGBTQ issues. Visible here is a concern that has endured throughout sex education debates: that discussing sexuality issues in the risky spaces of schools might appear as condoning behavior or impelling youth to sexual activity. The backlash against LGBTQ inclusive programs also indicates the rising visibility of sexual minorities as they slowly gain greater social and legal rights.
Does It Work?
Since the inception of formal sex education, educators have often intended their lessons to effect tangible behavioral changes. What remains in question is the degree to which sex education has that power. American sex education efforts have been neither uniform nor universally accepted. They have shifted with the ebb and flow of public opinion and the emergence of new crises that claim citizens’ attention. Teachers expected to instill biological and moral lessons have often been left unprepared for the complexity of the task. Indeed, critics contend that occasional lessons or week-long programs are artificial and impotent structures for effecting change in a society saturated with sexual messages. In addition, treating sexuality as a distraction to student learning and a risky impulse that must be controlled approaches sexuality as a rational, rather than a complex, emotional, and sensual, phenomenon. The diverse racial, ethnic, religious, political, and sexual identities of U.S. citizens render homogeneous programs ineffective and homogeneous responses impossible.
Scholars suggest that fear, risk, and reproductive information have dominated the history of formal sex education at the expense of its powerful role in human identity, connection, and pleasure. Some sex educators have tried to address such perceived limitations by establishing alternatives that shed the moral and medical associations of sex education historically and work to integrate it within a broader humanities curriculum. Others strive to open dialogue about the emotional and power-laden aspects of sex and the decision-making processes that accompany it. Many programs have used peer educators and popular culture, humor, props, and videos to connect with diverse youth or have envisioned sex education as a springboard to critically examine larger social issues.
Some have expanded sex education to younger children. For example, some schools have designed lessons for kindergartners on self-esteem, good touch/bad touch, and peer relationships as an effort to stem rising rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS in their communities. The hope is that providing information earlier and more consistently will not only emphasize sexuality as a foundational aspect of humanity but also offer youth greater tools to contend with complex sexual and social issues across their lifespan. These diverse initiatives will continue to spark debate as educators grapple with the philosophical, practical, and symbolic aspects of sex education in a democracy.
- Ashcraft, C. (2006). “Girl, you better go get you a condom”: Popular culture and teen sexuality as resources for critical multicultural curriculum. Teachers College Record, 108(10), 2145–2186.
- Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard Educational Review, 58(1), 29–53.
- Luker, K. (2006). When sex goes to school: Warring views on sex and sex education since the sixties. New York: Norton.
- Moran, J. (2000). Teaching sex: The shaping of adolescence in the 20th century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Pillow, W. (2004). Unfit subjects: Educational policy and the teen mother. New York: Routledge.
- Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (2004). A portrait of sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the States. New York: SIECUS State Profiles.
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