Sex education is an important topic that impacts the lives of American youth, yet it isn’t a subject that is taken as seriously as it should be by both students or faculty. It is an important topic because it plays a vital and active role in the ways youth understand our bodies, sexuality, reproductive health, and STIs.
I chose to write about the history of sex education because I have seen the repercussions of failed sexual education among public school youth. Teenage pregnancies are a regular occurrence in many of our schools, and rumors of students contracting STIs from one another run throughout the hallways. Among high school students surveyed in 2019, 27% had had sexual intercourse in the last three months. Among those students, 46% did not use a condom the last time they had sex, 12% did not use any method to prevent pregnancy, and 21% had drunk alcohol or used drugs before their last sexual intercourse (CDC).
To fix a broken system, we have to know its history. The sex education system in the United States is no different. To understand its history, we have to analyze how the views, government action, and beliefs of sex education have changed over time. With this information, we can make informed decisions on how to improve the systems for the future generations of American youth. Below is an overview of the history of sex ed in the United States.
At the beginning of the 19th century, sexual education was neither spoken about nor formalized within the systems of education in America. Before formal sex education was taught in schools, youth would read pamphlets and books often written by conservative religious leaders. These pamphlets and books focused mainly on discouraging masturbation, even going as far as to imply that it led to corruption (Henshaw). By taking a glance back in time, it’s quite evident that the culture of sexuality in the 1800s was quite conservative as ministers were tasked with “educating” youth about the horrors of masturbation. A reverend from Massachusetts, John Todd, published a Student’s Manual that went as far as to claim that it could lead to memory loss, fatigue, and death (Millstein). Although conservative beliefs about masturbation continue to this day, scientific information can be found on the internet for youth to browse at their leisure.
With World War 1 came the rise of sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also known as STDs) that pushed the federal government to get involved in sexual education. Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act in 1918, which allocated money to provide education about gonorrhea and syphilis to soldiers. By this time, the American perception of sex ed had shifted, and people began to view sexual education as a public health issue. By the 1920s, around 20-40% of schools had implemented sex ed programs that educated students on topics such as social hygiene (the practice was meant to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, regulate sex work, society’s moral standards, and family life) and sexuality (Henshaw). During the 1930s, the U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers, and by the 1940s and ’50s, courses in human sexuality began to appear on college and university campuses across the country (Cornblatt).
1960s – 1990s:
In 1964, Mary Calderone, a physician who had been the previous medical director at Planned Parenthood, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Calderone created SIECUS, in part, to challenge the hegemony of the American Social Hygiene Association, which at the time dominated the development of a sex education curricula (Cornblatt). The Social Hygiene Association was established to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, encourage high moral standards and break down societal stigma (VCU). By the early 1990s, 47 out of the 50 states had mandated sex education for students; this was a huge improvement from just three states in 1980. Sex education and federal funding at this time focused on prevention education, STIs, and the benefits of condoms and contraception (Henshaw).
Early 2000s – now:
Declines in sex education have been noted between the years of 2006–2010 and 2011–2013, when adolescent males’ reported declines in receiving formal instruction about birth control, and adolescent females’ reported declines in receiving formal instruction about birth control, HIV and AIDs, STDs, and saying no to sex (Guttmacher Institute). Today, teens across the United States receive wildly inconsistent sexual education within their schools. Simultaneously, there has been a decline in the push for sex education across the country with only 22 states requiring that sex ed be taught in public schools, a clear decline since the 1990s (Henshaw). Curricula today typically cover the basic mechanics of sex and the reproductive system while providing very limited details if any on topics such as birth control, pregnancy risks, STIs, abortion, consent, porn, minors’ rights, and LGBTQ+ issues. Some states are pushing for more comprehensive curricula that cover the topics above in addition to giving students an idea of how their sexual behaviors impact them emotionally, psychologically, and even economically while helping them to make more informed choices (Henshaw).
Throughout the years, changes and improvements have been made for the sake of America’s youth to create curricula that teach students vital information about sex education. Students not only want but need and deserve comprehensive school-based sexual education to ensure adequate sexual and reproductive health. Although great progress has been made in this field, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done in order to properly educate the next generation of American youth. In order to make the necessary changes, action at some of the highest levels needs to take place, but with the recent politicization of sex education, this seems like an uphill battle.
Comprehensive sex ed in U.S. Schools: A brief history. (2018, June 21). Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://annexteenclinic.org/2018/06/13/comprehensive-sex-ed-in-u-s-schools-a-brief-history/
Cornblatt, J. (2010, March 13). A brief history of sex ed in America. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001#:~:text=In%201920%2C%20an%20English%20teacher,when%20explaining%20sex%20to%20students.
Henshaw, A. (2019, December 13). The history of sex ed in the US. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.nurx.com/blog/history-of-sex-ed/
“Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead to HIV, STDs, & Teen Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 June 2021, http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm.
“American Social Hygiene Association History and a Forecast.” Social Welfare History Project, 6 Mar. 2018, https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/health-nutrition/american-social-hygiene-association-history-and-a-forecast/.
Guttmacher Institute. “American Adolescents’ Sources of Sexual Health Information.” Guttmacher Institute, 3 Jan. 2019, http://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/facts-american-teens-sources-information-about-sex.