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The topsy-turvy history of sex education in the U.S., from purity pledges to LGBTQ inclusion

This history of sex ed in the U.S. is one that's always been mired in controversy. (Collage: Getty Images/Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
This history of sex ed in the U.S. is one that’s always been mired in controversy. (Photo illustration: Getty Images/Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

Most kids and teens will inevitably acquire some knowledge of “the birds and the bees” as they trudge their way through puberty; but just how comprehensive that information should be — and where it comes from — has been a controversial topic since the inception of sex education in the U.S.

“I think that struggle of whose responsibility is it, the parents’ or the schools’, has been part of the conversation all along,” Kristy Slominski, an assistant professor of religion, science and health at the University of Arizona and author of Teaching Moral Sex: A History of Religion and Sex Education in the United States, tells Yahoo Life.

“Most early sex educators said, ‘Well, ideally the family would be also teaching them.’ But there has been a huge acknowledgement at every point of sex ed history that parents would not or could not — because they either did not receive the education themselves or chose not to tell their children.”

Late 19th century: ‘Any talk about sex was seen as progressive’

Slominski explains that a big motive that early sex educators shared was the need to tackle misinformation about sexuality that kids and adults alike were picking up on in lieu of any formal lessons.

“[Children] were basically getting their information from the streets, from the gutters, from wherever,” she says. “So there was the idea that they should be getting it within a more wholesome environment.”

The seed for contemporary sex ed in the U.S. was planted by what’s known as the social purity movement. Mostly led by progressive Protestants, the movement comprised a variety of organizations with different motives all united by, Slominski says, the desire to break “the conspiracy of silence around sexuality.”

“Any talk about sex was seen as progressive at that time — even though they were talking about things like sexual abstinence and staying away from prostitution and trying to raise the age of sexual consent,” she explains. “Sex education was being promoted in a Christian framework, but at that time it was quite progressive to even talk about sexuality.”

Organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) soon began hosting purity lectures, and “purity pledges” became en vogue; and the education of children began to enter the conversation too. Moral education societies led by female doctors began encouraging mothers to be educated on sexuality so that they could then teach it to their children from home.

Early 20th century: Sex ed gets a wartime boost

Around this same time, some dermatologists and other doctors, professors of biology and public health officials were also spearheading the social hygiene movement in an effort to educate the public on the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These so-called “men of science” and the moral reformers of the social purity movement formed an unlikely alliance and together created the American Social Hygiene Association, now known as the American Sexual Health Association, in 1914 — which Slominski says most scholars point to as the first national organization to have sex ed as a primary goal.

“They were all still breaking new ground, [as] so many doctors were not a part of this,” Slominski says. “They were having to find these unique partnerships across religion and medicine and there were some interesting tensions there, but they found a way to work together because of their common interests in raising attention to sexuality issues.”

Drafted men arrive at Camp Meade in Maryland in 1917.
During World War I, the federal government prompted sex education for soldiers in an effort to steer them away from prostitution and inform them about sexually transmitted infections. (GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

Many early sex educators believed it was best to integrate sexuality into different parts of the school curriculum rather than creating one isolated lesson; biology teachers, for example, would incorporate lessons on reproduction in plants and animals — though usually they stopped short of lessons in human sexuality.

Home economics classes also began to materialize as social purity reformers pushed forward the idea of so-called family-life education — a way of teaching sexuality as something appropriate within the context of a heteronormative Christian family. But that effort also exposed a darker motive held by some early sex educators.

“There were starting to be racial motivations as well,” Slominski says. “The eugenics movement also entailed many of the ‘men of science’ and even liberal Protestant views at the time. So within family-life education, there was some background of some of these eugenic motivations of how to create a strong Christian family — and depicting that as marrying within your race, marrying within your religion.”

Still, while sex ed advocates continued to push for lessons in schools, they ended up having their biggest early success in the military. During World War I, the federal government asked the American Social Hygiene Association and YMCA to create sex education for soldiers in an effort to steer them away from prostitution and inform them about the spread of venereal diseases — which Slominski says was taught in conjunction with “the family-life education of ‘Save sexuality for your Christian wives back home and think about the consequences of your actions.’”

1960s: Start of ‘the sex ed controversies’

Family-life education continued to thrive after World War I and became the go-to way of packaging sex education in the 1930s through the 1950s. But by the 1960s, a new form of sex ed began to develop.

“Out of the family-life education discussions emerged comprehensive sex education by those who were influenced by family life, but wanted to make sexuality kind of more health-related rather than just a family issue,” Slominski says.

Driven by the belief that public knowledge of sexual health and anatomy was sorely lacking, former medical director of Planned Parenthood Mary Calderone, along with other progressive Protestants, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in 1964 as a way to bring comprehensive sexuality education out from under the family-life education umbrella.

Dr. Mary Calderone.
Dr. Mary Calderone, pictured in 1979, is often referred to as the "mother of sex education" and was the former medical director of Planned Parenthood and founder of SIECUS. (Getty Images)

Some schools continued to teach family-life education, while others began to adopt a comprehensive approach to sex ed — and as it started to gain steam, pushback, known as ‘the sex ed controversies,’ erupted in the late 1960s. A conservative group known as the Christian Crusade helped lead the charge against sex ed in schools, publishing a pamphlet in 1968 called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?”

“They kind of combine all these accusations against sex ed, saying it was communist, saying it would lead to the downfall of society, saying it was pornography — all of these fears they were pulling together to speak against comprehensive sex education in the schools,” Slominski says, adding that this was also part of a larger battle at that time over the role of religion in schools, with conservative Christians up in arms over decisions such as the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale, which outlawed school-sponsored prayer in public schools.

“They started to become very defensive over who was controlling what our children are learning in the schools,” she says, “feeling as if ‘our religion is being taken out of the schools.’”

1980s: The AIDS crisis and abstinence-only

By the 1980s, the conservative Christian right had became a force to be reckoned with in American politics and began advocating not only for the removal of comprehensive sex ed, but also for the replacement of it with its own version — known as abstinence-only education.

In many classrooms, Slominski says, abstinence-only classes likely looked a lot like the family-life education classes that had been popular decades earlier; only now they had found an enemy to define itself against in comprehensive sex ed, and conservative advocates were able to double down on restricting any talk of sexuality to abstinence before marriage.

Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
In the 1980s, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became a major advocate for HIV and AIDS education. (Getty Images)

In 1996, abstinence-only was handed a huge victory when it gained $50 million in annual federal funding under the welfare reform act.

“It really funded abstinence-only at a level never before seen,” Slominski says. “Many states could not pass up that funding because education funding is sparse all around; and it came with a price tag, of course, of a very limited definition of what could be taught in the classroom regarding sex.”

While the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s made the need for timely and accurate information about sexual health even more urgent, Slominski points out that “most people probably weren’t talking about it — which was part of the story of that era too, that there was so much silence until very late in the AIDS crisis.”

Then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became a major advocate for HIV and AIDS education, despite being appointed by President Ronald Reagan as part of the Christian right anti-abortion faction, and tried to destigmatize some of the antigay rhetoric around the disease.

“He kind of broke some of the silences around HIV education by sending this pamphlet that he helped create called ‘Understanding AIDS’ across the country as really the biggest sex ed campaign ever,” Slominski says. “They sent it to every household. And he gained a lot of enemies for that within some of his peers of conservative Christian groups.”

2000s: Evidence-based funding emerges, and abstinence-only gets a rebrand

Abstinence-only programs have continued to receive federal funding; but in the 2000s another cash stream for sex ed became available when the Obama administration allocated money for so-called evidence-based sex education. The federal government devoted over $114 million in 2010 to programs that took a more comprehensive approach to sex ed, with scientifically accurate information on reproduction, anatomy, contraception and STIs.

A giant puppet depicting President George W. Bush as Pinnochio at a 2004 protest holds a sign that reads: Youth need the truth: Condoms save lives. Bush: get real!
A giant puppet depicting then-President George W. Bush as Pinnochio is shown at a 2004 protest criticizing the president's plan to expand abstinence-only education. (Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)

Around this same time, a number of studies began to come out about the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs in preventing pregnancies, STIs and sexual activity among adolescents. There was also criticism of damaging rhetoric used in some abstinence-only programs, including shaming teens who engaged in sexual behavior and isolating LGBTQ youth by framing conversations about sex in a heteronormative manner.

Slominski says this likely contributed to the decision in the last decade or so to rebrand abstinence-only education as “sexual risk avoidance education.”

“But essentially, as far as I understand, a lot of the core components of abstinence-only have remained the same, and a lot of the same promoters of abstinence-only are now the promoters of sexual risk avoidance education,” she says.

Today sex ed in the U.S. is a patchwork of different approaches decided at the state and local level. Only 18 states have laws requiring information taught in sex ed to be medically accurate, while six states either prohibit sex educators from discussing LGBTQ identities and relationships or require sex educators to frame them negatively, according to Planned Parenthood.

But while comprehensive sex ed and abstinence-only programs have continued to be pitted against each other by parents and politicians alike, Slominski says at their core, sex ed programs in the U.S. share a common message for teens.

“Even if they’re talking about other things, abstinence has still been the major theme throughout all versions of sex ed,” Slominski says. “No sex educator has ever said, ‘Abstinence is not important.’ They just want to also teach about other things and recognize that abstinence is not the whole story.”

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