Why We Can Still Learn From a ’70s Sex-Ed Comic

Condom_nationIn a recent Fusion article, writer Sam Meier chronicled the fraught history of a newly re-discovered sex-ed comic from the ’70s called Ten Heavy Facts About Sex. According to Meier’s research, back in the groovy year 1971, Sol Gordon, a professor of child and family studies at Syracuse University, used the comic to deliver honest, far-out facts on safe sex, reproductive health and sexuality for teens in the midst of the sexual revolution.

The comic, distributed by universities, youth educators and Planned Parenthood, features several relevant lessons, starting with “All Thoughts Are Normal,” and includes positive information on same-sex relationships, abortion and birth control, all with a flashy, retro art style and bold orange color scheme. The primary goal was to educate and use humor to engage teens in a conversation that has often been riddled with awkward explanations from parents or teachers—if teens get “the talk” at all.

Surprising no one, Ten Heavy Facts came under fire from shocked parents, such as one mother who, apparently aghast at teens learning about their bodies and sexualities, wrote to The Los Angeles Times on the immorality of the comic: “It promotes, yes, promotes, perversion in the form of bestiality, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography and general sexual promiscuity, explicitly advising the reader to engage in any form of sexual practice mentioned, because they are all normal.”

And she was not alone. The majority of the population was concerned that the comic condoned “sodomy…homosexuality and bisexuality” and it continued to receive backlash from government officials, parents and institutions.

What we can learn from Ten Heavy Facts today is that the ongoing challenge to deliver comprehensive sex education to young people—despite reluctant parents, communities, government policies and educational institutions—is not over. According to a 2012 brief from the Guttmacher Institute, 41 percent of teens age 18 to 19 said they knew little to nothing about condoms, while 75 percent knew little to nothing about the contraceptive pill—meaning that information in Ten Heavy Facts would be new to a majority of today’s seemingly sex-savvy young people.

Despite declining rates of teen pregnancy in the past few decades, the United States is still at the top of the developed world. Just 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in schools. And of those, only 18 and D.C. require programs to provide information on contraception; just 13 states require lesson materials to be medically accurate.

Since the 1980s, abstinence-only sex ed programs have received millions of dollars in federal funding, even though they’ve never been shown to effectively delay the start of sex for teens. Instead, they promote factually inaccurate information, use fear tactics and shaming, and include negative messages about sexuality, gender and pleasure. It wasn’t until Obama took office that the federal government changed course, cutting funding for abstinence-only programs by two-thirds and providing nearly $190 million in funding for more comprehensive sex-education initiatives.

Programs that teach sex as a dirty or evil practice inherently silence conversations about body autonomy, sexuality and gender identity, pleasure and healthy relationships. In contrast, the sex-positivity movement believes that consensual sexual expression can be both healthy and beneficial. Sex-positivity initiatives cite comprehensive sexual education as a way to empower individuals to know their bodies and keep them safe.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) defines “comprehensive” sex ed as a program that “[includes] age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, decision-making, abstinence, contraception and disease prevention.” The goal of these types of programs is to provide students with skills and information so they can develop their own values, beliefs and ideas. And research confirms the effectiveness of comprehensive sex-education programs: According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, teens who have received comprehensive sex education are half as likely to experience pregnancy than peers who received other forms of sex ed.

Fortunately, attitudes about sex ed are changing in the U.S. SIECUS published a fact sheet in 2007 that reported 93 percent of parents of junior-high students believe it is very or somewhat important to provide sex education in schools. Additionally, 95 percent of parents of junior-high students said they believe that birth control and other contraceptives are appropriate topics for school sex-ed programs.

While school systems play catch up with public opinion, third-party sources are providing much-needed information to parents, teens and everyone in between about healthy sexuality. Below is a list of fun, humor-based sexual education resources ranging from in-person presentations to online web comics for your pleasure. Shouts out to making learning fun!

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Kat Kucera is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Women’s and Gender Studies and Comparative Literature. She is currently a Ms. editorial intern based in Los Angeles, CA.


Comments

  1. Thank you for your blog post on this topic…it’s hard to believe that 40+ years after the publication of the comic book, Ten Heavy Facts About Sex, we’re still struggling with the controversy of sex education in our classrooms. We hear all the same protests from all the same interested groups. It only goes to show that the personal is political.

    And, even as we develop our educational outreach on sexual and reproductive health in the Philippines, we run up against the same challenges: institutional roadblocks, abstinence only programming, and a staggering lack of information. While it is shocking that 41% of 18-19 year olds in the United States are uneducated about condoms, this is something we would expect to see from developing countries, like the Philippines, not the United States.

    Or maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised. In the process of building our educational program I reached out to a friend who is a teacher in a public school in Pennsylvania for resources on teaching sex ed. Instead of medically and scientifically accurate information, we found ourselves looking at a curriculum based heavily on abstinence advice and absent on modern contraception. Using a condom was not even recommended as a way to prevent HIV, although not sharing needles was listed!

    It is our hope that politicians and policy makers – those in a position to influence public health outcomes in both the United States and the Philippines – will come to their senses and realize that educating teens with medically accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health goes a long way toward preventing unwanted pregnancies and STI’s, while reducing poverty and ending the cycle of children having children.

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