• Joanne Jacobs

50 years of sex ed: From VD to porn

Everyone took Health in ninth grade. We girls — the boys had a separate class — learned that smoking, drinking, drugs (heroin) and sex were bad. Teens did these things because of peer pressure, we were told.


Coach Cutlip taught sex ed to boys in the late ’60s in The Wonder Years.


I remember a movie in which a boy went to the city, was pressured by friends to visit a prostitute, then pressured his girlfriend for sex, infecting her with venereal disease. She considered suicide, which the movie presented as not crazy, but decided on antibiotics instead.

We weren’t told what to do if we wanted to have sex, any more than we were advised on which drugs to try. Oddly enough, there was little about the risk of pregnancy — too hot to handle? — a lot about VD. Homosexuality was not mentioned. I though it was something that happened to a tiny number of people in New York City and perhaps San Francisco.

It was 1966.

Conor Friedersdorf looks back on 50 years of sex education in The Atlantic. He starts with a 1968, The Saturday Evening Post story, Sex Invades the Schoolhouse.

Until 1965, biology students in Chicago schools “might scarcely have imagined, for all the teachers ever told them, that humans had a reproductive system,” it reported. A principal in Miami said that, only recently, a pregnant pet rabbit couldn’t be kept in the classroom. Superintendent Paul W. Cook of Anaheim, California, was quoted as saying, “Not long ago they’d have hanged me from the nearest telephone pole for what I’m doing.” By 1968, all had formal sex-ed programs.

Rising rates of teen marriage (often with a baby less than nine months later), VD and illegal abortion had caused “parental panic,” reported John Kobler. He estimated nearly half of schools had added sex education and predicted “the figure will pass 70 percent within a year.”

While critics feared sex ed would inflame adolescents, writes Friedersdorf. But it was hardly “sex positive.”

In Evanston, Illinois, which boasted a well-known sex-education program, “a junior high school teacher responds to the frequent question ‘Why is premarital sex wrong?’ by handing around a list of horrifying statistics on venereal disease, illegitimacy, abortion, and divorce,” Kobler wrote.

Teaching about birth control was controversial. Many curricula never mentioned The Pill, writes Friedersdorf. Mentioning homosexuality was cutting edge.

Meanwhile, half of 14- to 18-year-olds said they watch pornography in a recent survey, reports The New York Times Magazine in What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn.

And yet, writes Friedersdorf, “alongside porn’s rapid rise, teen pregnancies, abortions, and STDs have fallen simultaneously and precipitously.”

Homosexuality remains controversial, writes Jeanne Sager in an Atlantic story. “Twelve states require discussion of sexual orientation,” according to a Guttmacher Institute review. “Four of those states require public-school teachers to cover gender identity.”

California’s Healthy Youth Act, passed in 2015, mandates teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity and requires lessons on abortion, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, writes Sager.

#sexeducation #birthcontrol #peerpressure #sexuallytransmitteddisease #homosexuality

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