A Brief History of Sex-Ed


The following is a transcript of a four-minute video produced by AJ+.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that in the 70’s, high school sex education was arguably more progressive than it is today.


Sex-ed is so limited in today’s schools, in fact, that 28 states don’t even require it to be taught (Hawaii, Washington, Idaho, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) and only 13 states require that sex-ed instruction be medically accurate (Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Hawaii) – mostly meaning it should be accurate about the effectiveness of condoms.

With teen pregnancy (Teen pregnancy: 26.5 births to 1,000 teen girls) and STI rates (Sexually transmitted infection: 1 in 4 teen girls has an STI) in the U.S. substantially higher than in other developed countries, maybe it’s time for a sex-ed revolution. (Source: CDC).

But just how did sex ed in the U.S. get so bad in the first place?

Well, the first sex-ed curriculum, called “Sex Hygiene” classes, was introduced in 1913 in Chicago by a woman named Ella Flagg Young, who was also the first female superintendent of schools in the city. Unfortunately for Young and her students, the Catholic Church didn’t like this very much and put an end to her program after only one year. It wasn’t until the U.S. entered World War I that the government realized it had a major problem, or rather its troops did. The Army lost a total of 7 million working days from soldiers suffering from STIs, which back then was called “VD” or venereal disease and a total of 10,000 soldiers were discharged for having them. The White House concluded that so many American soldiers wouldn’t have contracted STIs had they been better educated about sex.

In the ‘20s, upwards of 40 percent of American public schools started teaching sex ed, which coincidentally developed just as the film industry was taking off. As Hollywood boomed, so did sex-ed films. Then in the ‘30s, the U.S. Office of Education began publishing materials and training teachers on how to teach sex ed. Then in 1944, at the height of World War II, came the mass production of penicillin, saving troops everywhere suffering from STIs. Fast forward 16 years, when the FDA approved “the pill” in 1960 for widespread use; it was the beginning of the Sexual Revolution.

Of course, Americans’ newfound sexuality didn’t come without backlash. In 1968, a pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” started appearing in public schools. 1970s curriculum featured some of the most explicit films found in sex-ed classes, ones they wouldn’t likely show in today’s classrooms. But by the late ‘70s, the Conservative Right started influencing some parents to protest the curriculum. And then in 1981, the Reagan administration introduced the “Adolescent Family Life Act.” This law, which put a ton of funding sex-ed programs that promoted abstinence ($1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars from 1981-2010), was the single biggest influencer on modern-day sex-ed curriculum. But research showed that abstinence-only programs that gained popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t work. Teens still had just as much sex, and states with abstinence-only education had the highest rates of teen pregnancies (Source: National Vital Statistics Reports, “Most Teen Pregnancies, 1990”). In fact, a 2008 study reported that teens who received comprehensive sex-education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than those who received abstinence-only education (Source: Journal of Adolescent Health). So in 2010, Obama cut funding for abstinence-only programs by two-thirds (2/3) and for the first time ever, the government began funding comprehensive sex-ed programs – you now, ones that actually talked about contraception.

Today, both abstinence-only sex-ed and more comprehensive sex-ed are equally funded by the government. But with only 18 states and the District of Columbia those kind of comprehensive classes, is it time to teach all students what they really need to know about sex?

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