‘Sex Invades the Schoolhouse’


Fifty years ago, panicked parents helped spread sex-ed programs to schools across the country, even as panicked critics mobilized to stop them.

By Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine published “What
Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn,” a feature that probed the frontier of sex education: a 10-hour course for high schoolers titled, “The Truth About Pornography.”

The course aims to make teens in this age of ubiquitous porn “savvier, more critical consumers of porn by examining how gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images are portrayed (or, in the case of consent, not portrayed) in porn,” the Times reports. One of its creators, Emily Rothman, explained that the curriculum “is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.”

While the conversation that ensued focused on porn’s place in American life, the story struck me as a useful point of comparison for a look back at sex-ed 50 years ago. In 1968, The Saturday Evening Post ran its own feature on the frontiers of the subject, billed as “The Truth About Sex Education” on the cover and “Sex Invades the Schoolhouse” on the page. The story documented a rapid shift in attitudes.

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.

“America seems to have suddenly discovered an urgent need for universal sex education—from kindergarten through high school, some enthusiasts insist—and is galloping off in all directions to meet it,” the journalist John Kobler reported. “The trend is nationwide. Nearly 50 percent of all schools, including both public and private, parochial and nonsectarian, are already providing it, and at the present rate the figure will pass 70 percent within a year. Clergymen, including many Catholic priests, not only do not oppose sex education, they are often members of the local planning committees.” The impetus behind the change: “parental panic,” he wrote.

Venereal diseases among teenagers: over 80,000 cases reported in 1966, an increase of almost 70 percent since 1956—and unreported cases doubtless dwarf that figure. Unwed teen-age mothers: about 90,000 a year, an increase of 100 percent in two decades. One out of every three brides under 20 goes to the altar pregnant. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions performed on adolescents runs into the hundreds of thousands. One of the findings that decided New York City’s New Lincoln School to adopt sex education was a poll of its 11th-graders on their attitudes toward premarital intercourse: the majority saw nothing wrong with it.

Teen-age marriages have risen 500 percent since World War II, and the divorce rate for such marriages is three times higher than the rate for such marriages contracted after 21. Newspaper reports of dropouts and runaways, drug-taking, sexual precocity and general delinquency  intensify the worries of parents. But these evils are only the grosser symptoms of a widespread social upheaval. Communications between the generations has stalled (“Don’t trust anyone over thirty”), and moral values once accepted by children because Mom and Dad said so have given way to a morality of the relative. In addition, parents’ own emotional conflicts, and reluctance to recognize in their children the same drives they experienced … make it all but impossible for them to talk honestly … about sex.

Giving young people more information suddenly seemed less risky to many than the alternative. And in this telling, many parents preferred to let teachers do the hard part.

In Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, Janice M. Irvine noted that the first calls for in-school sex education came in the early 1900s “from a disparate group of moral reformers including suffragists, clergy, temperance workers, and physicians dedicated to eliminating venereal disease.” They disagreed among themselves about the purpose of sex education, but united against Anthony Comstock and his anti-vice crusaders in arguing that expanding public speech about sex would better advance social purity and retard vice than restricting it.

A similar divide endured as sex-ed began to spread rapidly in the 1960s. Its proponents believed that talking openly about the subject would help cure social ills, as they had since at least 1912, when the National Education Association passed its first resolution calling for the introduction of sex curriculum in public schools.

1960s social conservatives countered that “if we talk to young people about sexuality, it should be restricted so as not to lead to destructive and immoral thoughts and behavior”—and that “controlling or eliminating sexual discussing best allows for the protection of young people and the preservation of sexual morality.”

For them, too much information posed the greater threat.

Some conservatives even saw sex education in schools as a Communist plot, causing local controversies like one in Utica, New York, where a contemporaneous newspaper article reported that “Joseph Smithling of Syracuse, a member of the Movement to Restore Decency, told an Oneida County Patriotic Society meeting that the national sex education movement is part of the ‘International Communist conspiracy.’ He said local teachers are being fooled by a Communist plot to take over this country by getting American children ‘interested in sex, drawing them away from religion and making them superficial and less rugged.’”

The era’s most far-reaching anti-sex-ed pamphlet was published in September 1968. Selling at least 250,000 copies, Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? took aim at the Sex Education Council of the United States, the biggest and most influential group creating sex-ed curricula and spreading them to public schools.

The pamphlet’s first section portrays its opponents as a bunch of sex-positive relativists who can’t even be counted on to declare premarital sex morally wrong. “The public school is intruding into a private family and church responsibility as it frightens and coerces parents to accept the teaching of sex,” its second chapter begins. One can only imagine how these conservatives would regard media that children are exposed to in 2018 when reading their take on teaching materials circa 1968:

Sex education, as a symbol of curricular innovation, is in the classroom with all of its rawness, its tactlessness, its erotic stimulation. The flood of materials for classroom use includes books, charts, and unbelievably clever models which even include multi-colored plastic human figures with interchangeable male and female sex organs––instant transvestism.

The sexologists, who we cannot help but feel are Johnny-come-lately pornographers, are devoting their full creative powers to inventing sexual gimmickry.

Other passages could as easily be critiques of sex education (and especially porn education) today. “The embarrassing frankness of many sex education programs force the sensitive child to suppress his normal, emotion-charged feelings in listening to class discussion,” the pamphlet’s authors fretted. “This may develop into serious anxieties. On the other hand, he may either become coarsely uninhibited in his involvement in sex, or develop a premature secret obsession with sex.”

The pamphlet ended with a rousing call to parents to resist sex education and the notion that only teachers—“the professionals”—are qualified to decide what kids should be taught. In its telling, “the sex educators are in league with sexologists—who represent every shape of muddy gray morality, ministers colored atheistic pink, and camp followers of every persuasion, from off-beat psychiatrists to ruthless publishers of pornography. The enemy is formidable at first glance, but becomes awesomely powerful when we discover the interlocking directorates and working relationship of national organizations which provide havens for these degenerates.”

While the spread of sex education in the late 1960s undoubtedly changed the socialization of young people, giving progressive educators more relative influence and social conservatives less, claims that the curriculums were “sex positive” or grounded in “moral relativism” were very much exaggerated, as scenes from the Saturday Evening Post feature and other contemporaneous accounts illustrate.

The birth-control pill was deliberately excluded from many curricula. 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. San Diego described its goal as promoting “wholesome attitudes toward boy-girl relationships and respect for family life.”

In Miami, a youth counselor answered a common question posed by ninth-grade girls as follows: “Should a girl kiss a boy on their first date? Certainly not. A kiss should be a token of affection, not a favor freely distributed. Going steady? It’s too easy to slip into an overly close relationship.” In a separate classroom, boys were told, “Don’t you and a girl go pairing off in a corner. It’ll only lead to frustration. You’re not prepared for sex except as animals. Don’t start a relationship you’re not ready for.”

Only the most liberal educators were advocating for co-ed sex-education classes, that no position be taken on the morality of premarital sex, and that students be given “full information.” Fifty years later, Americans remain divided on many of these same questions. One change is that “full information” back then meant a curriculum that covered, for instance, birth control and homosexuality; by the 1990s, advocates of “full information” favored teaching students about masturbation, a taboo that cost Joycelyn Elders her job in the Clinton administration when she forthrightly broke it in response to a question.

And today? That New York Times Magazine story on porn noted a survey of 14-to-18-year-olds. Half said they had watched porn. And among them, “one-quarter of the girls and 36 percent of the boys said they had seen videos of men ejaculating on women’s faces (known as ‘facial’)… Almost one-third of both sexes saw B.D.S.M. (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), and 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females watched videos with double penetration, described in the study as one or more penises or objects in a woman’s anus and/or in her vagina. Also, 31 percent of boys said they had seen ‘gang bangs,’ or group sex, and ‘rough oral sex.’”

Put another way, if sex educators today are to cover just the terrain that millions of American teenagers have already been exposed to through the Internet, they will be covering acts that even the most liberal sex-education teachers of 1968 would’ve found unthinkable to teach, and that they had more than likely never seen themselves. Imagine the confusion typical adults of that bygone era would feel if told about the content available to today’s teens—and then told that alongside porn’s rapid rise, teen pregnancies, abortions, and STDs have fallen simultaneously and precipitously.

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