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The Sex Education of Our Nation’s Children: The First Formal Sex Ed

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The Sex Education of Our Nation’s Children (full series)
The First Formal Sex Ed | Since the Sexual Revolution
What’s Best for the Kids | Are There Any Solutions?

Summary: Since its inception, sex education classes in our public schools have been a source of controversy. This fight over the sex education of our children has become more intense than ever since some states, such as New Jersey have introduced comprehensive sex education in K–12, which expands well beyond the two-week unit taught only in high school. It is important to examine history of sex education and ask questions. How did we get where we are now, and who is behind the changes to sex education in our schools? When did it become standard for parents to hand over the birds and bees talk to teachers? Just because society has become more sexually explicit, should sex education keep up?

Since its inception, sex education in our public schools have been a source of controversy. A standoff between sexual health advocates and nonprofit organizations that want children receive the most comprehensive sex education possible, whether the child has had sex or not, versus those who want it out of our schools or limited to a more conservative abstinence-centered approach. The latter group usually includes angry parents and religious organizations who fear that children are being corrupted at school and being taught to reject the moral teachings of their parents.

This fight over the sex education of our children has become more intense than ever since some states, such as New Jersey have introduced comprehensive sex education in K–12, and most sex education programs embracing the teaching of a plethora of gender identities outside of what the program creators deem the archaic gender binary. Furthermore, sex ed has greatly expanded. What used to be relegated to a two-week unit taught only in high school is now being given to students in much lower grades. Also, most states have lowered the age when a student receives sex education. In my former district, it was taught to every 7th grader with the option for the parent to opt their child out. It was then repeated in 9th grade more extensively.

No matter where you stand on the sex education debate, it is important to examine its history and ask questions. When did it become standard for parents to hand over the birds and bees talk to teachers? Who is behind the changes to sex education in our schools? Should sex education continue to keep up with a more sexually permissive society? Or should we protect our children and censor what they are exposed to? Just because society has accepted more sexually explicit content in general does not mean that it should be discussed with children. Or should it? So-called progressive organizations argue that children are going to be exposed to these various sexual experiences anyway, so you might as well teach them to do it properly and with less risk. But is this the best approach for children?

The First Formal Sex Ed

One hundred years ago, sex education for our nation’s children was exclusively the family’s responsibility. There were no formal sex education classes in our public schools, let alone for the public in general. Sex education consisted of private conversations in the family circle, religious practices that guided morality, and perhaps some guidance from family doctors if asked. This began to change when venereal diseases began to spread rapidly at the turn of the century, particularly gonorrhea and syphilis. Swift changes in sex education are often centered around outbreaks of venereal disease. Some of the earliest sex education organizations were formed to address these issues.

These include the more prominent American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). With the goal of spreading awareness about venereal disease and, more importantly, providing moral guidance, ASHA received generous financial support from John D Rockefeller. They were endorsed by the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the Children’s Bureau, and many more groups that could be considered conservative organizations today.

We can thank World War I for the immediate and urgent need for more sex education in America. Soldiers overseas were contracting venereal diseases at such an alarming rate that it was one of the most common causes for soldiers to be absent from duty. They were contracting these diseases at prostitution sites near the military bases that catered to bored and lonely soldiers. It was during this time when, for the first time, the government united with an outside agency to bring sex education to U.S. soldiers. The secretary of war asked ASHA to create a program to combat venereal disease for our troops.

ASHA was tasked with educating the soldiers on venereal diseases and prevention. They also eliminated the prostitution sites around the bases and replaced them with more wholesome recreational activities for the soldiers to enjoy. The program was a huge success, by the end of WWII the venereal disease rate had fallen to the lowest point the United States had ever seen.

ASHA was again asked to work with the soldiers during World War II, and they were given even more resources to help them avoid contracting venereal disease. ASHA took a moral focus in all their work. They preached the importance of being an honorable and wholesome man, along with being a good husband. They emphasized the importance of marriage and keeping sex within the confines of a monogamous married relationship. Pretty soon, this style of sex education, known as “Family Life Education,” began to be taught in high schools nationwide.

By the 1950s, Family Life Education was a standard curriculum in most of high schools. Again, it was built around the idea of waiting to have sex until married and keeping sex within a marriage relationship. It taught more than just the basics of the birds and the bees and diseases surrounding sex; it also emphasized how to be a good spouse and encouraged marriage.

In the next installment, the Sexual Revolution ushered in changes in education, with sex ed becoming common by the 1980s.


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