Sex. While we have come a long way in recent years, Sex is still deemed too scandalous for polite conversations. This is in spite of the fact that sex is something almost everyone is exposed to at some point in their lives. With the general reluctance to talk about sex and relationships, Adolescents especially face challenges as they are introduced to these subjects. Our aversion to starting conversations about sex has made its way into education, causing inconsistences about how these subjects are taught in schools. People may argue that we have come a long way, but what were the roots of sex and relationship education in America? And how has this had a role in educational reform and policy surrounding the way that sex and relationship education is taught in schools? And how are these policies affecting modern society? This paper seeks to look into all these questions in order to better understand the nuances of sex and relationship education in the United States.
Sex education in America had humble beginnings. Sex education prior to the 1900s was usually minimal and informal, taught by parents in the home. Usually these lessons were theologically based and focused on basic physiological and moral instruction. Pre-marital sex was unaccepted by society. At the turn of the century people’s attitudes were changing when it came to sex. At this time “sex hygiene” classes were introduced mainly to instruct about the transmission of sexually transmitted illnesses. This provided a medical backing for religious moral attitudes towards sex. You also had those like Maurice Parmelee, arguing that people should be able to enjoy sex and be taught sexual ethics. Margaret Sanger advocating for the use of birth control so that women may enjoy sex without getting pregnant. Sanger also belonged to the eugenics movement, which sought to monitor birthrates and insure that those deemed “unfit” were unable to procreate. The government also played a role in sex education during this time. Soldiers in World War 1 were instructed about STDs and how they could make them ill and hurt their wives and children. As with many social reforms, thee policies and attitude changes were molded in public schools. Hygienists felt that not talking about it wasn’t keeping students abstinent, and so Chicago was set to become one of the very first places that formal sex education was implemented due to strong hygienists support and its high rates of prostitution. However, the lecture series was cancelled after protest from parents. Despit this, this “hygienic” sex education was implemented in 40% of schools by 1920 (Carter, 2001).
From 1920 to around 1960, Sex education as influenced by eugenics, birth control and social hygiene continued in the united states, but there were still changes. The changing morality of the 1920s had a huge impact on the sexual habits of young people. This was the era of rising hemlines, burlesque and sexy scenes being shown in films. Between 1920 and 1950, the percent of women who admitted to premarital sex more than doubled (Tolson, 1999). Alfred Kinsey also had an impact, as his studies on sexual habits blew the doors wide open when it came to sex research. His study, despite being dramatically flawed at points collected some 18,000 sexual histories and was the first of its kind. This allowed people to see for the first time what people actually got up to behind closed doors, including homosexuality, non-monogamy, and kink. Around the same time as Kinsey, in the 40s and 50s, “family life education” curriculums replaced “sex hygiene” classes. This curriculum focused more on character building, relationships, money management, marriage, and childbearing was part of home economics classes,, making it more acceptable to the general public. All of this was drastically impacted by the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The hippie subculture’s values of free love and sexual expression shocked the nation where abstinence and monogamy were still social expectations. Homosexuality, porn, extramarital sex and non-monogamy were on the rise in the American public. Pro-sex organizations were also coming to the forefront of American society. SIECUS was formed by a woman named Mary Calderone. Calderone advocated for values neutral sex education which allowed students to make choices for themselves whether to engage in sex, use contraceptives, and seek abortions. With the introduction of oral contraceptives, the Pill became a symbol for sexual liberation allowing women to engage in sex when the wanted without fear of becoming pregnant. Presidential endorsement of family planning methods, the passing of cases such as Roe v. Wade, as well as the provision of government funds to sexual health organizations. This public endorsement of birth control allowed it to be incorporated into sex education curriculums.
After years of science, culture, and advocacy advancing and expanding the sex education curriculum, counter- sexual revolution groups sought to return to more traditional sex education practices. However, seeing that the fight against sex education was futile, these groups instead proposed abstinence education. This type of education sought to help teens avoid any of the risks of sex by remaining abstinent until marriage. In 1987 the supreme court ruled that abstinence only sex education had valid non-religious cause to be taught in public schools (Bowen v. Kendrick, 1987). By 1989, 17 states and the district of Columbia mandated sex education (Donovan,1989). Regardless, continuity between programs was nonexistent, as local schoolboards resided over what was taught in the curriculums. With all of this private and governmental funding began to rise for abstinence only sex education. Due to the AIDS crisis, by the mid 1990s most states mandated that schools teach HIV/AIDS prevention. This debate between “comprehensive” and “abstinence- only” sex education led to legislation supporting one or the other, with the past Obama administration aligning with “comprehensive” sex education views.
Opposition is still in existence. Abstinence sex education has broken into different types. Abstinence only sex education advocates for abstaining until marriage. Abstinence plus education teaches about sex and STIs while still maintain that sex should only occur after marriage, similar to sex hygiene courses. Abstinence first sex education is similar, heavily push abstinence as the first option but instruction about birth control, STI prevention, and other topics are covered. Abstinence Sex education is a movement held most widely among more conservative Americans. Many people who support this form of sex education also see it as a way to reduce the number of children in poverty by reducing the number of teen pregnancies and unwed births. (Hymowitz, 2003)
Liberal leaning and “comprehensive” sex education advocates argue that abstinence doesn’t adequately prepare kids for sexual relationships should the choose to engage in them. Compehensive sex education has grown a lot since the sexual revolution. Today’s comprehensive sex education curriculum include topics such as physiology, birth control methods, STIs, STI prevention, sexual assault, consent, sexual orientation, and gender identity (Heins, 2001.) Some may even say that this not enough, arguing that sex education should also cover LGBTQ+ sex itself, pleasure, and kink. Anti-comprehensive sex education advocates argue that teaching kids about these topics from a young age will put thoughts in their heads and is causing more kids to have sex at younger ages.
It is true that kids are having sex younger than older generations were. We are in the midst of a cultural shift. Social awareness and the intersection of class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other minoritized identities has made its way into the health classroom as well, causing people to take at the mays that sex education address the individual experiences of these groups.
To demonstrate this reflect on the historical context provided above. As you read, did you envision the topics taking place covering sexual relationships between same sex partners as well? If you look closely it is clear that prior to Kinsey’s study, LGBTQ+ identifying people are left out of the conversation entirely. For most of history LGBTQ+ people were viewed as sexually deviant or perverted. Even after Kinsey’s study sex education practices were centered on heterosexual relationships. This is an example of hetero normativity, a socialization that hold Heterosexual relations as the default or norm. and these practices are still very apparent in sex Education courses today. One study found that heterosexual participants were significantly more confident in their sexual health practices than LGBTQ+ participants because of a lack of information surrounding LGBTQ+ relationships. Many LGBTQ+ youth find that sex education is heterosexually centered, revolves around sex as being dangerous, and is often lacking the most basic health and behavior information (Charest, Kleinplatz, & Lund, 2016). While the topic of identity may be touched on, the logistics of sexual health of minoritized individuals are never covered in as much depth as their heterosexual counterparts, if at all.
Think again about the historical context. Did you envision the topics taking place covering sexual relationships involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities? This is another example of how our society has left people out of the narrative. It is important to recognize that having a disabilities does not negate the desire for romantic and/or sexual relationships. Oftentimes people with disabilities who seek sexual education from their counselors find they are underprepared or their resources are lacking vital information (Wilson & Frawley2016).These people have a right to resources catered to their individualized needs.
It is clear to see that sex education in the United States has profound historical, political, and sociological influences. Taking these influences into consideration in order to move forward is vital to understanding the controversy surrounding sex education in public schools. Moving forward, understanding how far sex education has come when compared to its roots in “socially hygienic” education to the gaps left by the current curriculum help to provide insight into the influences of the argument. Who knows, maybe you can start a polite conversation about it.
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