Sex Education

The idea that schools and the state have a responsibility to teach young people about sex is a peculiarly modern one. The rise of sex education to a regular place in the school curriculum in the United States and Western Europe is not, however, simply a story of modern enlightenment breaking through a heritage of repression and ignorance. Rather, the movements for sex education can be understood from several related angles: as part of larger struggles in the modern era over who determines the sexual morality of the coming generation; as part of the persistent tendency to view ADOLESCENCE–especially adolescent SEXUALITY–as uniquely dangerous; and as part of the broader historical tendency for more and more realms of personal life to come under rational control. Sex education has always been shaped by its historical context.

It is worth noting that formal sex education has never held a monopoly on sexual information. Much to the distress of sex educators, young people do not simply memorize their school lessons and apply them perfectly. They have always cobbled together their own understanding of their (and others') bodies out of their personal experiences and an accidental agglomeration of "official" sex education, parental teaching, playground mythology, popular culture, and even pornography.

Early History

Prior to the twentieth century, sex education was even more haphazard. Most Americans and Europeans lived in the countryside, where chance observation of animal behavior provided young people with at least a measure of information about reproductive sexuality. Beyond that, education was mixed. Given the expectation that girls would remain chaste until their wedding night, sex education for them did not seem pressing until the eve of matrimony, when their mothers were supposed to sit them down and explain sex and reproduction; contrary expectations for boys often meant that a young man's male relatives or co-workers would take him to a brothel to initiate him into the mysteries of sex.

In the 1830s, however, various health reformers and ministers in the United States and in England began to publish a flood of pamphlets and books to inform and fortify the young man who left home for school or a job. These works were typically great stews of theological, nutritional, and philosophical information, but all aimed to help readers control their sexual urges until they could be safely expressed in marriage. More particularly, these early sex educators tended to be obsessed with the dangers of MASTURBATION. For example, the health reformer Sylvester Graham's 1834 Lecture to Young Men and the Reverend John Todd's 1845 The Young Man. Hints Addressed to the Young Men of the United States followed works by the English physician William Acton in warning that the "solitary vice" (i.e., masturbation) could and probably would lead to a physical and mental breakdown–even death. The literature seldom addressed women, as society generally considered them to be at all times under the protection of their parents and then their husbands, while young men were more mobile. In France, the sex education literature that began appearing in the 1880s, was usually addressed to bourgeois mothers, and focused chiefly on their duty to instruct their daughters on the dual need to be chaste until marriage but prepared for sexual contact after matrimony. Despite these small steps toward education, later reformers complained that a "conspiracy of silence" about sexual matters existed into the early years of the twentieth century.

Origins of a Movement

The formal movement for sex education commenced in the early twentieth century. Oddly, early reformers seldom said anything about needing to compensate for the loss of barnyard knowledge when families grew up in the city rather than on a farm. In other societies undergoing rapid urbanization, such as China at the dawn of the twenty-first century, newspapers regularly reported on young city couples who wanted children for years but never picked up the essential information on animal breeding that would have suggested how to become pregnant. American reformers, like their counterparts in England at roughly the same time, were more focused on the related dangers of medical and moral decline. First, physicians were growing alarmed about the impact of syphilis and gonorrhea–the "venereal diseases"–among all classes of citizens, and among women as well as men. Investigators had come to recognize that these sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) annually caused thousands of cases of pelvic inflammation, sterility, infant blindness, and even insanity. Second, physicians and their allies associated this "epidemic" with what many Americans considered the immorality of life in the city. Native-born Americans in particular believed that a moral crisis loomed in cities such as Chicago and New York as immigrants and migrants from the countryside crowded together in dismal tenements and children grew up without the "ennobling influence" of life on the farm. Equally alarming, in an era in which prostitution was a fairly open secret in the red light districts of most urban areas, doctors became convinced that the majority of STDs were transmitted through men visiting prostitutes. This meshing together of moral and medical concepts was to remain characteristic of American and, to a lesser extent, European sex education.

Sex education became a significant part of the response to these twin anxieties. Founded in 1914 by the New York physician Prince Morrow and the religious crusader Anna Garlin Spencer, the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) quickly took the lead in recommending reforms to accomplish the twin goals of medical and moral improvement. After leading police crackdowns on prostitution and presenting a series of sex education lectures to adults, ASHA and related societies proposed a program in "sex instruction" for high-school-age youth. ASHA's leaders hoped they could reach young people with proper "scientific" facts about sex before they were "corrupted" by harmful misinformation, such as the widely held belief that young men suffered from a "medical necessity" to have sex. If citizens only knew the medical dangers of sexual immorality, reformers believed, then they would rationally decide not to experiment with prostitution or promiscuity.

Although the English movement for sex education grew out of similar anxieties, and was led by a similar combination of medical and moral authorities, the French movement differed in certain essential respects. France officially tolerated and regulated prostitution, for example, so it never became a focus of educators' efforts. Instead, French sex educators were more concerned about preparing young middle-class women for the sexual aspects of marriage and reproduction. They generally ignored working-class females, believing they were already immoral by nature. French authorities occasionally supported sex education for men to combat the scourges of STDs, but after the carnage of World War I, French educators also linked sex education to the need for French families to bear more children to repopulate the state.

Moving into the Schools

Sex educators in the United States sometimes experimented with working through parents, churches, and public lectures, but they quickly turned to the public schools. In the early twentieth century, public school attendance was exploding as compulsory education laws and the changing structure of the economy pressured more students into the classroom and kept them there longer. At the same time, observers were becoming more conscious of youth as a period of life separate from adulthood, with its own particular needs and dangers, and this new conception of the adolescent was widely popularized by the publication of G. STANLEY HALL' sessential Adolescence in 1904. Trapped between the sexual awakening of PUBERTY and the "legitimate" sexual outlet of marriage, adolescents seemed particularly to need careful guidance, and the public schools could step in to give it to them where parents seemed to be failing. Not coincidentally, moving their mission to the classroom promised to give sex educators a captive audience.

Reflecting their own uneasiness with sexuality, the early sex educators constructed a program whose central mission was to quash curiosity about sex. Initially, the sex education program consisted of an outside physician delivering a short series of lectures outlining the fundamentals of the reproductive system, the destructive power of syphilis and gonorrhea, and the moral and medical dangers caused by sex before or outside of marriage. Boys and girls sat in separate classrooms, and their lessons reflected a strong sense of difference between the sexes. Besides hearing the medical warnings about sexually transmitted diseases, boys learned that they had a moral responsibility to their mothers and future wives to remain chaste. Girls were instructed much more deliberately in raw fear–especially in the high likelihood of contracting syphilis from a male. So vivid were the warnings that some instructors in the first decades of the twentieth century actually worried that their female students might never marry. Because they sought to ennoble sexuality by making it synonymous with reproduction, early sex educators seldom dwelled on the threat of TEEN PREGNANCY.

Despite the educators' moralistic tone, sex education met immediate opposition. When Chicago became the first major city to implement sex education for high schools in 1913, the Catholic Church in particular led a powerful attack on the program and helped secure the resignation of its sponsor, Ella Flagg Young, the famous superintendent of schools.

The Chicago controversy, as it was called, laid out the themes that were to characterize the politics of sex education in the United States over the next century. Both supporters and opponents agreed that youthful sexuality was a problem. But where supporters felt that "scientific" knowledge about sexuality (or at least reproduction) would lead young people down the path to moral behavior, opponents argued that any suggestion of sexuality, no matter how well intended, would corrupt students' minds.

The federal government first became involved in sex education during World War I, when the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 first earmarked money to educate soldiers about syphilis and gonorrhea. Over half a million young men had their first experience with sex instruction in the war. ASHA later took many of the materials its consultants had developed for the military, such as the film Fit to Fight, and adapted them for public school use by editing out the segments on prophylaxis. Until the 1950s, the federal government remained involved in sex education, mainly through the U.S. Public Health Service, emphasizing the medical and moral dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.

More than Hygiene

In the Jazz Age of the 1920s, sex education made progress into the curriculum both in the United States and in France. American sex education typically took place in high school biology classes, but leaders in the movement also faced for the first time a clear divergence between adult sexual ideals and society's expectations for youth. Up to the early twentieth century, when sexual fulfillment was not considered a public or respectable ideal even for married adults, it was easy for educators to condemn sex in their lessons. But in the 1920s, as more Americans came to believe that sexual fulfillment was a crucial part of marriage, educators faced the dilemma of recognizing that sex was a positive force in marriage while at the same time needing to condemn its expression among the unmarried. Sex educators responded partly by reemphasizing the health dangers of sex outside of marriage, but also by incorporating the new ideals. Greatly concerned over the sexual freedom of the "new youth" in the 1920s and 1930s, sex educators appealed to psychology and sociology for evidence that sexual experimentation before marriage endangered a youth's chances for a fulfilling wedded life.

After the discovery of penicillin's uses in World War II lessened the danger of syphilis, ASHA and its allies focused more directly on the social aspects of sexuality and married life. Known by a variety of names, the new "family life education" represented an expansion of the educators' mission. Instead of teaching mostly about sexual prohibitions, family life educators attempted to instruct students in the positive satisfactions to be gained from a properly ordered family life. Lessons on child rearing, money management, wedding planning, DATING, and a wide variety of other daily tasks were intended to bring a new generation of American youth into conformity with white, middle-class norms.

In response particularly to the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, in which rates of premarital sexual activity, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases climbed steeply, sex educators developed what they called "sexuality education," to distinguish their approach from the overt moralizing and narrow heterosexual focus of its predecessors. The leaders in sexuality education, such as the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States (SIECUS, founded in 1964), believed that teaching about sexuality in a value-neutral manner would allow students to reach their own conclusions about sexual behavior and sexual morality. Sexuality education was intended to include information on BIRTH CONTROL methods, teenage pregnancy, masturbation, gender relations, and, eventually, HOMOSEXUALITY. Although value-neutral sexuality education generally avoided the overt moralizing of its predecessors, it nevertheless stacked the deck in favor of traditional morality–abstinence until heterosexual marriage.

Despite its generally traditional message, sexuality education quickly aroused a firestorm of opposition. Beginning in 1968, conservative groups and previously apolitical religious activists mobilized to attack what one pamphlet called "raw sex" in the schoolhouse. Opponents were offended not only by sexuality education's greater explicitness, but by its refusal to drill students in "proper" sexual morality. Sexuality education seemed to represent a wide variety of liberal attitudes that were beginning to appear in American society, and the struggles over sexuality education helped motivate a new generation of religious conservatives to enter American politics in the 1970s. It was at this point that the American experience began to diverge from the European approach, which had aroused occasional Catholic disapproval but never faced a highly political campaign of opposition.


In the United States, the debate between opponents and supporters continued to follow the same lines until the pandemic of Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) began in the 1980s. As the magnitude and deadliness of this sexually transmitted illness became known (and as the public became aware that heterosexuals as well as homosexuals were at risk), sex educators found their position bolstered. By the mid-1990s almost every western European nation sponsored fairly explicit educational programs in "safe sex"; in the United States, every state had passed mandates for AIDS education, sometimes combined with sexuality education, sometimes as a stand-alone program. AIDS provided crucial justification for the more liberal sexuality educators' inclusion of information on contraception, homosexuality, and premarital sex. At universities and many high schools, students also started "peereducation" groups to offer students a sex education message that was even less hierarchical and judgmental (and sometimes much more explicit). Despite a renewed conservative attack on these programs, sexuality education's place seemed to have become secure.

As conservative opponents in the United States came to recognize that some form of sex education was going to be almost inevitable, they launched their own movement to replace sexuality education with "abstinence education." Religious conservatives, in particular, helped add provisions for abstinence education to the 1996 WELFARE REFORM ACT, and the federal government for the first time began to direct tens of millions of dollars to abstinence education programs, most of which were tied to religious groups rather than the more traditional public health organizations. Unlike sexuality education's value neutrality, abstinence education was directly moralistic and explicitly supported traditional gender and sexual relations. Abstinence education also harked back to the early years of sex education in its strong emphasis on the dangers of sexual activity. Many curricula intentionally omitted or distorted information about protective measures such as condoms or birth-control pills. Again, this contrasted with the European experience, in which sexuality education was firmly under the control of secular medical authorities and faced little religious or political challenge.

International Context

Outside of Western Europe and the United States, sex education remained largely informal until concerns over a population explosion and the AIDS crisis prompted international organizations such as the United Nations to become involved in educating residents in Africa and South Asia particularly about contraception and prophylaxis. Although the religious opposition there has been muted, educators have often met with resistance from governments unwilling to admit that their populations were experiencing problems with AIDS, and from male traditionalists reluctant to allow women greater control over their own sexuality. Political battles in the United States, too, have affected the shape of sex education in the less-developed regions of the world, as American conservatives at the dawn of the twenty-first century attempted to use U.S. funding to shift the content of international sex education programs away from contraception and towards abstinence and a more moralistic approach to sexual relations.


The response to the AIDS crisis once again underlined the general tendency to justify sex education as disaster prevention in response to diseases or other "epidemics," such as teenage pregnancy. Throughout the history of sex education, adults in the West have generally treated adolescent sexuality as existing in a different world from its grown-up version, blaming hormones or the youth culture for recurring crises in adolescent sexual behavior. But youthful sexual behavior has almost always been closely tied to adult patterns of behavior: rising rates of extramarital intercourse among adolescents, for example, only followed the same phenomenon among adults; the same held true for the "epidemic" of pregnancy outside of marriage in the 1970s, as pregnant teenage females followed their adult counterparts in having more children outside of wedlock.

Although it has undoubtedly dispelled much ignorance and anxiety among students, sex education in the United States, at least, has generally failed to deliver on its promise to change adolescent sexual behavior. Sexual behavior is a complex phenomenon, and hours in the classroom have seldom managed to counteract the influence of class, race, family, region, and popular culture. Nevertheless, the history of sex education reveals a great deal about modern conceptions of sexuality, adolescence, and authority.

See also: AIDS; Hygiene; Venereal Disease.


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Chen, Constance M. 1996. "The Sex Side of Life": Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education. New York: Free Press.

Hall, G. Stanley. 1904. Adolescence: Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. New York: D. Appleton.

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Stewart, Mary Lynn. 1997. "'Science is Always Chaste': Sex Education and Sexual Initiation in France, 1880s–1930s." Journal of Contemporary History 32: 381–395.