Sex on the curriculum

A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs projected on a screen in a classroom in a scene from Human Growth, an education film on sex education shown to students in Oregon junior high schools beginning in 1948. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Sex education is a battlefield over morals and young bodies, and has exposed fractures in American life for over a century

Kristy Slominski is the assistant professor of religion, science and health in the Department of Religious Studies and Classics at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Teaching Moral Sex: A History of Religion and Sex Education in the United States (2021).

Edited by Sam Dresser

The state of sex education in the United States is dismal. Shaped by divergent state policies and local school board decisions, programmes are uneven in their content and coverage. There is confusion about what is being taught where. Most programmes are limited in scope, some are even harmful. Proponents of comprehensive sexuality education urge the teaching of reproductive development, contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) but, far from these goals, they have fought and failed to ensure the bare minimum standard in more than half of the states: that lessons in sex education be medically accurate. Meanwhile, comprehensive programmes are attacked as too revealing and immoral by supporters of abstinence-only sex education, recently re-branded as ‘sexual risk avoidance education’, which tends to dissuade students from engaging in any sexual activity at all. Both factions argue that the country will continue to fail its youth unless schools embrace their version of sex education.

At the national level, the debate over sex education has generally followed culture war divides, with liberals supporting comprehensive sexuality education, and conservatives leading calls for sexual risk avoidance education. Long aligned with the latter has been white conservative Protestantism, the religious group most vocal in public debates about sex education since the late 1960s. But it would be wrong to think of the sex education debate as simply ‘religious versus secular’. In fact, religions are not one-sided on this issue, and cannot be separated from these discussions. A look at the history of sex education in the US shows that religions – especially Protestant denominations – have deeply influenced many aspects of sex education, both progressive and conservative. This is not surprising given the symbolic value of sexuality, as well as the transmission of moral values through sex education, both of which make it a key battleground in the culture wars. Sex education is attached to the control of young bodies through lessons about sexual diseases, reproduction and romantic pairings, as well as the control of young minds through the classroom. In formative ways, Christian involvement in the history of sex education laid the groundwork for both sides of the debate today.

Sex education began with 19th-century Protestant anti-prostitution reformers. These reformers led the ‘social purity movement’ (‘social’ was then a euphemism for ‘sexual’). They paired their primary work of stamping out red-light districts with educational lectures about the physical and moral dangers of sex outside marriage. Social purity overlapped with other female-dominated reforms such as the temperance movement; alcohol and prostitutes were twin evils that lured men away from their Christian households. Social purity advocates such as Frances Willard, the leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, preached against the sexual standard that condoned men visiting prostitutes, while those such as John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes, emphasised premarital abstinence and marital monogamy as essential to a healthy Christian lifestyle. Ironically, social purity reformers supported obscenity laws to protect youth against lewd sexual publications, even as they challenged the prevailing ‘conspiracy of silence’ around public discussions of sexuality.

Whereas sex education was secondary to anti-prostitution reforms, it became a primary focus of doctors who began advocating for ‘social hygiene’ (ie, sexual hygiene) in the early 20th century. The father of social hygiene – and the founder of US sex education – was a man named Prince Albert Morrow, a Kentucky-born dermatologist inspired by the advanced studies of venereal diseases in France. In the US, he promoted social hygiene education in order to protect ‘innocent’ wives and offspring from the ravages of syphilis and gonorrhoea introduced into the family by husbands and fathers. He showed a flair for publicity by disseminating stomach-turning images of syphilitic children suffering from blindness and skin deformities. Morrow soon began to organise his campaign among fellow doctors, but progress was slow. Despite some being passionate about fighting venereal disease, many were nervous about treating syphilis and gonorrhoea since these diseases were popularly seen as fit punishments for sexual sins. Easing symptoms supposedly encouraged patients to continue their sinful behaviour – not a position doctors were keen on defending…


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