The History of Sex Ed: From Awkward and Exclusionary, to Affirmative and Empowering

SIECUS’s History of Sex Education narrates the trajectory of sex ed over the last several decades, revealing how mainstream curricula responded to specific economic and political objectives.

SIECUS and the History of Sex Ed: From Awkward and Exclusionary to Affirmative and Empowering
SIECUS advocates worked closely with policymakers to expose the ineffective and exclusionary effects of “abstinence-only” programming throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Raychel Mendez / Flickr)

Many of us remember where we were when we first heard the dreaded words “sex education.” Whether it was in an elementary or middle school classroom, a doctor’s office, a church basement, or our own homes, we recall how it felt to learn about s-e-x.

For some of us, our experience with sex ed curriculum put embarrassing and taboo feelings about our bodies and desires front and center in a public forum. For others, the experience may have provoked past traumas related to sexual violence. And many sex education programs alienated and invalidated generations of youngsters whose identities and sexual orientations fell outside the rigid “norms” presented in mainstream learning materials.

I still vividly remember a “petting” progression graph our 6th grade gym teacher presented on the overhead projector. As we sat silently in the dark, she warned “heavy petting” would inevitably escalate into penetrative sex—and, by extension, STIs or unwanted pregnancy. I’ll admit that lesson’s takeaway had a profound impact on my sexuality, particularly my sexual agency as a young woman: Without accompanying messages about consent and sexual rights, I interpreted the graph as a mandate obliging me to “go all the way” once I passed the point of no return. Such harmful teachings taught generations of women that their bodies and sexual power were subordinate to male desire. I can scarcely imagine how this heteropatriarchal schema resonated with my LGBTQ+ peers.

SIECUS Outlines the History of Sex Education

As tweens and teens, most of us had little awareness of the ideologies and imperatives shaping what we learned in the sex ed classroom. Even as adults we may not fully grasp how the social and political agendas of the day permeate sex education. Recently, the nonprofit organization, SIECUS: Sex Ed For Social Change, issued a report detailing the evolution of sex ed curricula in the United States. Launched in March in honor of Women’s History Month, the report surveys the history of sex education from the early 20th century to the present.

Founded by Dr. Mary S. Calderone in 1964, SIECUS has worked to transform sex education into a critical tool for social justice. Their mission acknowledges “sex ed sits as the nexus of many social justice movements—from LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive justice to the #MeToo movement and the urgent conversations around consent and healthy relationships.”

Their newest resource, History of Sex Education, provides an accessible overview of the field’s evolution, as well as its future directions. As the report narrates the trajectory of sex ed over the last several decades, it reveals how mainstream curricula responded to specific economic and political objectives. For much of the early 20th century, sex education served to maintain social order and reinforce the interlocking systems of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. For example, the earliest sex educators used moralistic and “social hygiene” teachings to combat what they saw as the “social ills” that threatened public health, reproduction and traditional marriage.

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Strikingly, all of these teachings presumed that women had no sexual desires beyond what was necessary for procreation. Educational campaigns and propaganda convinced young women to focus on marriage and motherhood, not sexual pleasure.

At the same time, sex ed proponents blamed communities of color, particularly African Americans, for spreading disease and sexual “vice.” Citing historian Courtney Q. Shah, the report demonstrates how early sex education efforts “normalized white male (middle class) sexuality and pathologized any departures from the white male norm.”

To be sure, these teachings also rejected all forms of non-heteronormative sex and even warned that female friendships might lead to lesbianism. Generations of U.S. public school students learned that homosexuality was a mental disorder and antithetical to the ‘American dream.’ For much of the 20th century, homosexual sex remained criminalized under “sodomy laws.” While most U.S. states repealed these laws in the 1970s, it would take two more decades for the World Health Organization to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

SIECUS Seeks to Redefine Sex as a Social Good

SIECUS’s founding in the early ’60s began transforming the landscape of sexual education in the United States. The organization’s founders, mostly medical professionals, aimed to free sex from the Victorian-influenced sensibilities of the early 20th century.

Perhaps ahead of its time, SIECUS sought to redefine sex as a social good and a natural “creative and recreative” part of human life. Unfolding amidst the ‘sexual revolution,’ SIECUS’s curriculum moved beyond earlier models of teaching that emphasized behavior control and the suppression of sexuality. Serendipitously, as sex moved into mainstream popular culture in the ’60s, parents and school systems saw a distinct need for sex education.

Yet, with each step forward, sex education attracted vociferous opponents. The rise of second-wave feminism and the civil rights movement, shifting gender roles, and the introduction of the birth control pill stoked fears among conservative factions. Far-right political and religious groups like the John Birch Society and the Christian Crusade began vilifying sex education. They argued that informing youngsters about sex would dismantle traditional marriage and secularize society. SIECUS and its founder, Dr. Mary Calderone, became favored targets for conservative stalwarts who, like their predecessors, wanted to maintain white Christian heteronormativity and patriarchy. These “moral crusaders” ignited what would become a decades-long culture war over sex education.

SIECUS continued promoting accessible and comprehensive sex education in the face of the AIDS epidemic and the rise of the Christian-right’s “abstinence-only” legislation. Part of their work in the 1990s included the introduction of flexible curricula that local educators could adapt to the needs of their communities. This effort also resulted in the release of Spanish-language learning materials.

SIECUS advocates worked closely with policymakers to expose the ineffective and exclusionary effects of “abstinence-only” programming throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. They argued the implementation of these curricula were “nothing more than a social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy and STI prevention.” A cascade of data soon emerged proving the correlation between “abstinence-only” programs and higher rates of teen pregnancy and STI.

Today, SIECUS continues to champion more inclusive and sex-positive education for all. Their advocates argue that sex education acts as one among many “vehicles for social change.” In recent years, SIECUS has integrated more intersectional perspectives to create more justice-oriented, transformative sex education curricula. With this lens, SIECUS advocates hope to empower the next generation with knowledge about their bodies, desires and identities.

The Future of Sex Ed

The field of sex education owes much to SIECUS’s advocacy over the last half century. Though we’ve moved away from “petting” graphs of yesteryear, sex ed proponents still face daunting challenges for advancing towards more empowering and inclusive outreach. Perhaps most urgently, the field must counter the onslaught of harmful legislation aimed at denying LGBTQ+ adolescents access and rights to health care and other opportunities, such as athletics. For decades SIECUS has led the charge to give voice and make space for the most marginalized groups and will no doubt rise to the challenge again.

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Cari Maes is assistant professor of history at Oregon State University.