A Brief History of Sex Ed in America

"To prevent the immense evils of self-pollution, therefore, in our boys and students ... They should always subsist on a plain, simple, unstimulating, vegetable, and water diet; and care should be taken that they do not eat too fast, and are not excessive, in quantity. They should never be kept too long a time in a sitting, confined, or inactive posture. They should never sleep on feathers."
—Sylvester Graham, Lectures on Chastity (1834)

America's recent experience with abstinence-only sex education is merely the latest chapter in our long, sometimes ridiculous (to modern eyes, anyway) history of efforts to control humankind's most basic drive. While the earliest sex-ed pamphlets in the U.S. addressed theology and nutrition, they were also obsessed with the "immense evils" of masturbation. Graham (who used wheat flour to create the cracker that now bears his name) traveled the East Coast in the 1830s warning audiences that "self pollution" was responsible for everything from warts and constipation to insanity and death. Health reformers in 19th-century America associated bodily discipline with ideal manhood, and used sex-ed manuals to propagate that message. The Reverend John Todd's highly popular 1835 Student's Manual encouraged young men to overcome the "secret vice" of masturbation because ejaculation decreased energy and productivity. An article in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal that same year likewise warned that ejaculation "should be made but sparingly," since "sturdy manhood ... loses its energy and bends under too frequent expenditure of this important secretion."

The rapid urbanization of the late 1800s and early 1900s was accompanied by an increased interest in organized sex ed. As Americans moved from farms—where children might politely observe the mating of the family livestock—to cities rife with temptation, public officials began to see a greater need for classroom instruction about the facts of life. The National Education Association first discussed the subject in 1892, passing a resolution that called for "moral education in the schools." In 1913, Chicago became the first major city to implement sex ed for high schools. The program didn't last long, though. The Catholic Church soon launched a campaign against the initiative, helping force Ella Flagg Young, the superintendent of schools, to resign.

It took rampant STDs during WWI to get the federal government involved in sex ed. In 1918, Congress passed The Chamberlain-Kahn Act, which allocated money to educate soldiers about syphilis and gonorrhea. During this time, Americans began to view sex ed as a public-health issue. The American Hygiene Association, founded in 1914 as part of the Progressive-era social purity movement, helped teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. Instructors used a machine called the stereomotorgraph to show soldiers microscopic slides of syphilis and gonorrhea organisms, as well as symptoms of the diseases on the body of an actual soldier.

The earliest sex-education film, Damaged Goods, warned soldiers of the consequences of syphilis. In the film, a man has sex with a prostitute the night before his wedding, gets syphilis, passes the disease on to his newborn baby, and then commits suicide. The film received positive reviews, with one critic writing, "American boy(s)...should be made to see it for they are to become the American manhood, and the cleaner physically, the better." A 1919 report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Children's Bureau likewise suggested that soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school. "The worries and doubts and brooding imposed on boys and girls of the adolescent period as a result of lack of simple knowledge is a cruelty on the part of any society that is able to furnish that instruction," wrote the author of the report.

The military's sex-ed programs inspired similar instruction in secondary schools. During the 1920s, schools began to integrate sex ed into their curriculums. Like the military, the schools experimented with using film to enhance sex ed. The American Social Hygiene Association produced The Gift of Life, which explicitly warned students about the "solitary vice": "Masturbation may seriously hinder a boy's progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit." Schools also tried using older media, like literature, to teach students about the birds and the bees. In 1920, an English teacher named Lucy S. Curtiss wrote an influential article called "Sex Instruction through English Literature" that encouraged teachers to draw on classical literature when explaining sex to students. "Read to them Lancelot's wild, passionate quest for the Holy Grail," she wrote, "and they will enter into the bitter experience of a soul which has rendered itself incapable of receiving the full spiritual blessing through the sin of yielding to impure desire." During the so-called "roaring" decade, between 20 and 40 percent of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality.

Sex ed exploded over the next three decades. In the 1930s, the U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers. In the 1940s and '50s, courses in human sexuality began to appear on college campuses. In 1964, Mary Calderone, a physician who had been the medical director at Planned Parenthood, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). SIECUS was created in part to challenge the hegemony of the American Social Hygiene Association, which then dominated sex-education curriculum development. In 1968, The U.S. Office of Education gave New York University a grant to develop graduate programs for training sex-education teachers.

Oddly enough, some of the greatest resistance to sex ed arose during the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s. Sex ed became a political issue during this time, as religious conservatives built a movement based, in part, on their opposition to sex instruction in the public schools. Groups like the Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society attacked SIECUS and sex education overall for promoting promiscuity and moral depravity. In the widely distributed 1968 pamphlet entitled "Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?" Gordon Drake and James Hargis framed sex ed as communist indoctrination: "[If] the new morality is affirmed, our children will become easy targets for Marxism and other amoral, nihilistic philosophies—as well as V.D.!" Rumors spread that sex instructors were encouraging students to be homosexuals or even stripping and having sex in front of their classes. "Religious conservatives began using sex ed to their political advantage," says Janice M. Irvine, author of Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States. "They had this really scary rhetoric." In school districts across the country, groups of parents started protesting sex-ed programs.

When the AIDS and HIV pandemic began in the 1980s, however, proponents of sex ed found their position strengthened. By the mid-1990s, every state had passed mandates for AIDS education (sometimes tied to general sex ed and sometimes not). But as some form of sex ed became inevitable in the era of HIV and AIDS, conservatives launched a movement to rebrand sex education as "abstinence education." Religious conservatives helped add provisions for abstinence education to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and the Federal government directed tens of millions of dollars to abstinence-education programs for the first time.

Although people stopped referring to it as self pollution, masturbation was still pretty much taboo 160 years after Sylvester Graham railed against it. At the 1994 United Nations conference on AIDS, then surgeon general Jocelyn Elders was asked about promoting masturbation to prevent young people from engaging in riskier sexual behavior. "I think that it is a part of human sexuality," Elders replied. "And perhaps it should be taught." Her answer, and the reaction to it, ultimately forced her to resign. "The U.S. is really paradoxical," Irvine says. "We have this massive sexualization of the media (just think of the movie American Pie), but we're not allowed to talk about masturbation with teenagers."

As for Graham, if he were to suddenly come back from the dead, he would surely be horrified. Nabisco's version of his cracker is now made with the very white flour that he blamed for increasing the "excitability and sensibility" of the genital organs.