Sex education has been a controversial topic for decades, possibly forever. While some parents, educators, and political leaders lean toward more in-depth sex ed in schools, others push for limits on what teachers are able to share with students in a classroom setting. These controversies over what’s taught in sex ed programs mean that students often miss out on the information they need to prevent pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Read on to learn the story of sex ed in the U.S., from the masturbation-curbing crackers of the 1800s to the vast disparities between how different US schools teach educate about sex today.
1800s: Worries About Corruption
At the beginning of the 19th century, sex education wasn’t yet formalized in any way, and school itself varied a lot depending on where you lived. Many families lived on farms in quiet, rural communities and received information about sex was via pamphlets that addressed sex from a religious perspective and were distributed by people with a moral agenda.
Some such pamphlets warned about the potential corruption of masturbation. Many people believed that a stricter lifestyle and bland diet could help deter boys and men from masturbating. Some of the leaders in this movement actually created foods with this intent in mind, including Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes.
1900s: Sex Ed Goes to School
By the late 1800s, many people began moving to cities as industrialization changed America. With this transition came increased fears about the temptations of urban life. The subject was discussed by the National Education Association, and in 1892, the group passed a resolution calling for “moral education” in schools.
Chicago was the first city to formalize sex ed in its public schools in 1913. Unfortunately, it was met with quite a bit of resistance. In fact, the superintendent was forced to resign after the Catholic Church campaigned against the new education initiative, which was eventually dropped.
Some began to see sex ed as a public health issue once sexually transmitted diseases spread during WWI. Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act in 1918 to provide education about gonorrhea and syphilis to soldiers. By the 1920s, about 20% to 40% of schools had sex ed programs.
Mid-1900s: Bigger, Better Sex Ed
By the 1950s, support for sex ed really began to catch on. Public health officials pushed for more in-depth sex education along with formalized training for sex ed teachers. The American Medical Association developed a five-part sex education series in order to create a standardized curriculum for schools.
The pushback against sex ed that we’re familiar with today started in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the period of sexual revolution, and it was also a time when religious conservatives began to fight hard against the inclusion of sex education in schools. It quickly became a political talking point, with many of those opposed to sex ed claiming that learning about sex would lead children toward an immoral lifestyle. Parent protests further complicated the situation for school districts all over the U.S.
Late 1900s: AIDS Influences Sex Ed
Squabbles over sex ed continued for years, but in the 1980s, AIDS changed everything. The rapid spread of HIV and AIDS alarmed Americans, especially at the time when there weren’t yet effective medical treatments, and led to a renewed interest in robust sexual education programs. In 1986, Harvey Fineberg of Harvard’s School of Public Health told Time magazine that sex ed had become “a matter of life and death.”
By 1993, 47 states had mandated sex ed for students — a monumental shift from just three states in 1980. As sex ed programs expanded all over the country, teens had less sex and teen birth rates decreased significantly.
2000s: Sex Ed Falls Short
Today, there are concerns that some sex ed programs are lacking in the information that children and teens really need. While the curriculum usually covers the basic mechanics of sex and the reproductive system, many educators and parents say modern sex ed provides very limited details about or fails to cover topics like birth control, pregnancy risks, STIs, abortion, consent, porn, and LGBTQ issues.
There has also been a decline in the push for sex ed in schools. Only 22 states require sex ed to be taught in public schools, and many schools are teaching an abstinence-only curriculum that most public health experts criticize as unrealistic and ineffective. The current administration hasn’t shown support for comprehensive sex ed in schools: In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services cut more than $200 million in federal funds for teen pregnancy prevention programs, while proposing an increased budget for abstinence-only education.
Meanwhile, some states have pushed for more comprehensive sex ed that goes beyond the physical basics to include information about relationships, STI prevention, contraception, consent, sexual orientation, and gender identity. These programs aim to give students an idea of how their sexual behaviors can impact them emotionally, psychologically, and even economically, helping them to make more informed choices in their adolescent years and beyond. While comprehensive sex ed presents a major step forward, it also highlights the disparity between schools using a progressive curriculum and those that are still teaching abstinence-only sex ed.
Fortunately, today’s online sources can help teens and adults alike get the information they need. Nurx™ offers reliable resources about birth control pills, patches, and other forms of contraception. Plus, it makes it easier to access emergency contraception like Plan B One-Step and affordable birth control pills like Lutera.
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