Why Do Schools Teach Sex Education?

October 6, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


In 1994 Clinton administration Surgeon General
Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign amidst stinging condemnation of her stance on a major
political issue: sex. In front of an audience, she said that she was in favor of masturbation
being part of children’s sex education curriculum, noting that it was a safer alternative to
high risk sex. Dr. Elders drew ire from conservative officials and members of her own democratic party. Her views on pro-choice policies, the legalization of certain
drugs, and distributing contraceptives in schools to minimize the spread of STIs made
her a lightning rod of controversy during her tenure as Surgeon General. So an aversion
to kids being taught about the more…indelicate parts of sex by school officials turned out
to be an unexpected bipartisan unifier. But we’ve come a long way in our collective
knowledge on sex since pamphlets in the 1830s and before which described masturbation as “self-pollution”
that could lead to blindness and insanity. But the core questions that make school administrators
so darn squeamish about sex ed have remained relatively unchanged. Namely: What (if any) information on sex should school
curriculums include? How much is enough or too much?
And should schools be in the business of doling out info on sexual health at all? Prior to the 20th century, information on
sex and sexuality was largely confined to two spheres: homes and religious institutions.
Students (and children in general) were expected to gain any knowledge of the mysteries of
human sexuality from their parents or their religious leaders. Schools didn’t disseminate
information about sex at all because in the US they were largely privately owned and operated
until the tail end of the 19th century. This was for a variety of reasons, including
the fact that schooling wasn’t mandatory for all children in the US and schools weren’t
usually run by government agencies. Although The Boston Latin School was the first public
school opened in 1635 in what would later become the United States, governments didn’t
have control over things such as admissions and curriculums. This took a huge turn in the late 19th century
when after the Industrial Revolution reformers and educators began to push the concept that
all children SHOULD be educated. And though their definition of “all” often meant
young white boys, ideas about the virtues of education became more widespread. Facilities for
female students, black students, orphaned students, poor students, and students of color
sprung up rapidly, with the common mission to provide some form of education to the masses. But subjects varied dramatically from school
to school. Some elite institutions focused on a “classic” education that centered
around things like Latin, Greek, and the humanities. Others were trade schools that placed higher
importance on teaching skills for the workforce. And others still were religious schools that
coupled moral instruction with education. Then in the early 20th century governments
across the US and Europe began to do two things. First they started to regulate child labor
practices, meaning that kids couldn’t work for untold numbers of hours. In 1938, this
culminated with the passage in the US of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set the minimum
work age at 14, 16 during the school year, 14 for after school jobs, and 18 for dangerous
jobs. And secondly governments started to regulate
how many years students had to stay in school, then raised the age to 16 and later 18. Massachusetts
passed the first mandatory schooling act in the US in 1852 and Mississippi was the final
state to pass one in 1918. So work hours were greatly reduced while school hours saw a sharp
incline. You can learn more about this in our video “Why is 18 considered an adult?” And once students started spending the majority
of their active hours from Monday to Friday in schools, schools began to take on a greater social significance and importance in the lives of their students. So school attendance was mandatory nationwide
by 1918, and the numbers of children being placed in school steadily increased after
that after the laws were enforced. But the first instance of the American government getting in on the sex ed front
didn’t take place in classrooms. Rather it took place in the army. After widespread outbreaks of STIs during
WW1, Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act in 1918. Folded into this law was language
on educating soldiers about the dangers of widespread venereal diseases like syphilis
and gonorrhea. This education largely came in the form of clinics, pamphlets and lectures. There were also waves of government memoranda on health that were released at the same time. They taught new recruits about clean water, proper sanitation, vaccinations, and personal hygiene
(plus a fair amount of discussion about how to properly dispose of poop). The Chamberlain-Kahn Act was especially centered
around keeping military bases and the surrounding areas (identified as “extra-cantonment zones”
in health reports) free from disease. And around this same time police and government
officials were given the authority to arrest and detain anyone they suspected was carrying
an STI in and around army bases. But the prevailing (mis)information at the
time was that the primary carriers of these diseases were only women, civilians, and sex
workers. Thousands of women were arrested and detained in state managed prisons and
hospitals, all under the supposition that they were either infecting soldiers or moving
closer to military bases because they were sex workers. The Chamberlain-Kahn era of sexual education
is widely considered extreme (and a human rights violation) today. But the agenda outlined
in the act in fact demonstrates the long standing relationship between the government, sexual
instruction and overall health of its citizens. So sex has frequently been aligned with the
concepts of overall health, hygiene, and disease prevention. But when did schools get in on
the act? In his book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History
of Sex Education historian Jonathan Zimmerman traces the history of when sex ed entered
schools around the world. He begins his study with an anecdote about a failed measure brought
before the League of Nations in 1928 by the British delegation. Zimmerman notes how the British delegation
proposed that the League should support the worldwide expansion of sexual instruction
in schools under the heading of “biological education.” They used (founded) fears about
the spread of venereal diseases, mixed with coded language about eugenics and racial purity. Although the measure didn’t advance, sex
ed in the postwar period did begin to take root in countries like Japan, the US, and
Great Britain. Governments and health care officials were becoming more aware that reliable
information on sexual health was scarce amongst the general public. And they were also invested
in things like maintaining the health and “purity” of their citizens and soldiers. With the spread of compulsory education, schools
became the one place where health officials had a truly captive audience. Plus, when it
became mandatory, they can guarantee in theory that all children were getting this
vital information. Along with the expansion of state run schools nationwide in the early
20th century came a slew of ideas about what responsibility educators (and governments)
had to the children in their care. At different points in time the agenda of sex education
was taken up, or abandoned based on shifts in the answer to this question of moral responsibility. Early sexual education rolled out piecemeal
during the 1920s-1950s, with Sweden becoming the first country in the world to require
sex ed for all students in 1956. And although the US has often had a contentious and spotty
history with it, the US was also an early adopter of giving students information about
the birds and the bees. But the controversies that erupted around the 1928 push in the League
of Nations to spread sex ed world wide sound pretty much identical to the arguments heard today (minus the stuff about eugenics). And this essentially breaks down into 3 categories: The first is that sex and sexuality is a topic
that should be left up to parents. In fact Zimmerman notes how many early opposers of
teaching sex in school thought that schools were encroaching on the territory of moral
instruction that should be the rightful domain of parents. Some said that sex was best taught
by mothers, without the influence of local governments. Second is that integrating sex into schools
often brings the question “how much is too much?” front and center. While some think
any education on the topic of sex is a bad thing, others disagree and think that students
should learn vital facts and unbiased knowledge. But even among those who think that sex ed
is a good thing, opinions vary about exactly what to teach. Some want an all inclusive
sex ed curriculum that teaches about safe sex, answers students health questions, and
also looks at the wider and more complex spectrum of human sexuality. Others think that sex
ed should be tied to other types of “moral instruction” which has included methods
that centered on “family life education” and traditional family planning in the 1950s
and 60s. At that time hysteria about the rise of teen
pregnancies led to courses where sex was discussed largely using euphemisms and metaphors about
animals and plants. But in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, comprehensive sex ed that taught about disease prevention did experience a boom in the late 1980s until the mid 1990s. On the other hand, around this same time you began getting federal support for abstinence only education, and in the late 90s Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM)
programs exploded nationwide. Returning to the days when only basic facts and abstinence
outside of marriage was the standard method of sex ed, Abstinence only education has been
linked to poorer outcomes for students overall. And the third reason centers not on clueless
kids, anxious administrators, and peeved parents, but rather on the often forgotten middle guy:
that’s right teachers. Because even though mandates and guidelines get handed down from
government officials, and parents may picket the school board meetings if they don’t
get their way, at the end of the day it’s teachers who are left to dole out this information
to waiting pupils. And just like with any subject, essentially what a kid learns or
doesn’t learn is left up to who is holding the chalk at the front of the room. I just
realized that chalk at the front of the room is an outdated metaphor but we’ll go with
it. Zimmerman points out that by 1969 in sex ed
pioneer Sweden, more than ⅓ of Swedish students had never encountered sex ed in the classroom,
even though it had been compulsory since the 1950s. Teachers admitted to being uninformed,
unprepared, and sometimes embarrassed to bring up the topic in front of students, which led
them to skip over it altogether. And in 2006 90% of Swedish teachers still agreed that
they had received “little or no preparation” in teaching sex ed. And in the US similar
problems persist, since the choices made in the classroom are often left up to the discretion of local governments and oversight is extremely localized, leading to mixed results for every student. So early 20th century sex ed was largely about
keeping armies around the world healthy, before it evolved to include topics like pregnancy,
sexuality and relationships. And if the stories from the past sound shockingly like the same
backlash that led to Dr. Elders’ firing in 1994, it’s because attitudes towards
integrating sex into general education haven’t budged much in hundreds of years. So there
you have it, you’ve learned the history of sex ed so hopefully we won’t be doomed
to repeat it because that would be way too awkward. What do you think? Anything else to add to
this story? Did you make it through the entire episode without giggling awkwardly about something
your high school sex ed teacher said in class? Drop all of your questions and adolescent
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