History of Sex Education

Throughout sex education’s history, particularly in American public schools, the role of politics and pop culture have helped shape today’s outlook on sex.

Most of us have, at one point, experienced some form of sex education in school. My experience was crap. Real crap. Not only was it vague, it was rushed, it was weird and it wasn’t captivating. It was a scare tactic for a bunch of disinterested, immature 10 year olds. That’s sadly echoed around most of the western world, and instead we learn more about sex from our family, our friends and increasingly the media – not to forget porn.

For a bit of backstory, during the late 1800s, a number of publications were released to parents, informing them about basic sex education and how to introduce it to their children. Whilst this was a step in the right direction, the government failed to acknowledge the influence of schools on young people, and thus left sex ed out of the curriculum. The idea that parents would, for the first time in history, sit down and provide in-depth sex education to their children as suggested by the government was flawed, and the results were negligible.

During the early 20th century, older teenaged girls were taught lessons about “true modesty, self-control and self-reverence”, ideologically to maintain a patriarchal, sexually controlled society, whilst teenaged boys were taught about how to “avoid the temptations” given through masculinized working environments – likely a reference to avoiding rape.

How World War II changed everything

As with most things in, well, life, WWII had a huge consequence on the lives of the majority of the European population, and countless countries beyond that. As has been proven throughout history, the mass movement of people (and soldiers) often brought with it a sudden peak in the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (‘STIs). As a result, schools across Europe and notably Great Britain in particular increased their focus on sex education – instead of the previous abstinence-based teachings, or gendered expectations, a focus on preventing Syphilis and Gonorrhoea.

WWII also brought along a few sexual innovations, such as improved condoms, a step in the right direction for gender equality when it comes to sexual intercourse, and global recognition and efforts against key STIs.

The 1950's and 60's

Lots of records accounting what happened during sex ed classes during the 1950s and 60s are missing, but from what we can establish is that reproductive habits of animals and plants were taught, and human encounters were not. On top of this, this was taught through descriptives; no observations, no diagrams. Just word of mouth. Still, nothing really about human sexual reproduction – socially, it was still deemed far too taboo.

However, if you happened to be a male in a boarding school (paying a fee instead of attending a free state school) then you were taught about the perceived dangers of masturbating, you know, those archaic worries of hairy-hands or penile dysfunctions. Handy, huh?

What little was given about human sexual reproduction was actually taught in biology classes, not devoted sex education groups. On the other hand, the emotions of sexual intercourse were not taught, instead focusing almost solely on the biological functions and purposes of sexual intercourse (to reproduce), and these lessons were far more often aimed at girls than boys.

The 1970's and 80's

Sex education in schools changed a lot during these decades, usually attributed to the key social developments made during the 60s and 7o0s. Biology textbooks accessible to the students now features more in-depth accounts of the human reproductive systems of humans, and a new pathway was opened; the teachings of contraception began.

The government during these decades told that the aim was to provide more accurate information and an attempt at complete transparency and progression, and the core aims of sex ed included a decrease in sexual ignorance, guilt, anxiety and embarrassment to inquire more about it. However, relationships and their links to sexuality were still not discussed in conjunction to sex education, namely due to its apparent distancing from biology as a specific subject.

Introduction to modern day sex education

Later in the 1980s, further progressions were made in sex education due to the rise in feminist-thinking and a growing awareness and drive for gendered equality. As a result, a number of programmes were introduced with the aim of realigning pupils perceptions of the roles men and women play in society. It acknowledged the existence of gender inequality, and aimed to reduce that through awareness. Feminist critiques of this new sex ed teaching pointed out how these such programmes actually reinforced gender inequalities; male self-control couldn’t be relied on, and instead women had to regulate their own behaviours to prevent being raped. A gross reality that sadly sometimes still exists in modern day society.

At the same time as this development, sex education made a topic-shift, now focusing heavily on decision-making, personal relationships and coping strategies – however, many pupils didn’t actually see this change as sex was still deemed too taboo for many teachers and tutors to discuss to young people.

Nevertheless, the foundation was laid for modern sex education, with a gradual shift to the importance of healthy relationships, consent, shared responsibility, virginity, safe sex and the ability to be open about all experiences – both positive and negative. This was defined as the “liberalization of school sexual education”, a statement feared by many conservative leaders in control at the time.

The sudden rise in HIV 

Just as major developments were underway during the mid-80s, a new sexually transmitted infection was gripping the world, spreading across almost every country at an alarming rate – HIV.

Governments and health regulators world-wide panicked as the reality that many with HIV would then develop AIDS, and then subsequently pass away. The realisation that HIV was also infectious frightened many and the added fact that it can remain dormant for a long period of time scared anyone who knew about it. There was no treatment for either HIV or AIDS during this era, so the grim acceptance of an ill-fate was often made.

To combat this, the education of HIV and AIDS took control in sex ed – conveniently at the same time as the controversial Gillick case in 1985 over whether parents retain the right to know if their children are receiving contraception under the age of 16. In addition, the gay and lesbian movement was deeply underway, with the need for a newly reformed sex education agenda to be set. Cultural norms were shifting at a great pace, much to the disdain of politicians at a local and national level, in response to a rise in equality within society.

Where are we now?

USA – an abstinence-based program is heavily funded, teaching young people to completely refrain from sexual interactions before marriage.

Some ‘normalized’ programs do exist; however these are not as heavily funded as the abstinence classes and sadly, as a result, are less often heard.

UK – Some sex education programs challenge sexist and homophobic attitudes, pushing for a rejection of patriarchal (male ran) societal structures and encouraging personal choice.

Most Western countries – Government guidelines have typically been released teaching schools themselves to tackle homophobic bullying, sexist ideologies and gendered expectations. Whilst still supporting marriages, schools are now discouraged from suggesting those from a non-marital upbringing are not in a “second-rate family”.

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History of Sex Education