Sex education has, and continues to be, an issue of much debate. The moral implications that sexual intercourse carries are numerous. Should one be married before committing to sex? What about unintended pregnancy? Sexually transmitted diseases? These are a few of the many concerns parents, teachers, friends, and lovers have when faced with human sexuality. The belief that sex education provides an impetus for premarital sex has largely dictated public sex education. Thusly, educators can be pressured to avoid culturally “taboo” topics. This has stifled objective, scientific discussion of human sexuality, which restricts broader cultural sexual beliefs and practices. Through examination of previous sex education policy that arose from public health concerns, debunking conservative and liberal beliefs regarding sex education, and understanding the strong and broader influence that education has on culture, one sees that the American sex education system is inefficient.
Despite the constitutional notion of a separation between church and state, the United States has been largely built around traditional Judeo-Christian ethics and morals. The union of marriage between one man and one woman is one of the highest attainments under God. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers” (Heb. 13:04). In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians) there is an entire chapter (eighteen in the book of Leviticus) devoted to improper sexuality. These divine instructions include forebidance of various arrangements of incestuous sex.
What is most interesting is that there is no mention in Leviticus, or any other book in the bible, that specifically addresses premarital sex. Instead, one usually finds broad phrases such as “sexual immorality” or the specific mention of adultery, which Jesus does in chapter five of Matthew. Much of the focus on sexual purity arises from the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke that write of Jesus’ mother, Mary, being a virgin. The reverence that Mary had among followers—and still does in the Catholic and Orthodox churches—in the early Church articulated an unwritten moral goal for young women. By remaining a virgin, one could ascribe to the notions of purity held by the Virgin Birth narratives. Any disruption of this ideal became antithetical to the desire of God.
In his book Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Jeffrey P. Morgan writes of the impact that the underlying religious views towards sex affecting sexual education:
…most Americans persisted in viewing adolescent sexuality—when they considered it at all—as an aberration and a moral failure…[sex educator’s] message focused on preventing disease and immorality rather than on preparing for sexual maturity. (99)
If the cultural ideal was for individuals to avoid sex before marriage, it made no sense to approach sexual education in an open, objective format. To the pious Christian, who was also a “sex educator,” why would they encourage immoral behavior? The way sex education was introduced into the country was through the need to alleviate social health concerns.
In the book Sexuality Education Across Cultures: Working with Differences, Janice M. Irvine writes:
Sexuality education has its roots in the social hygiene movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These initiatives were organized around specific problems that included the eradication of what were then called venereal diseases. Early hygiene education was largely didactic, and practitioners focused on giving information about diseases and how to prevent them. (125)
Irvine is correct in her appraisal. The Surgeon General under the Franklin Roosevelt administration, Thomas Parran, had to contend with a syphilis problem in the United States. Through a provision in the Social Security Act and the 1938 National Venereal Disease Control Act, Parran’s Public Health Service funneled millions of dollars to state boards of health to aid in syphilis prevention (Moran 115). Parran was not pleased with governmental timidity and excessive moralism (Moran 115). In fact, Parran was more open to approaching the problem of syphilis through education. Moran continues in Teaching Sex: “Parran…called for medical experts in public health to commence a new crusade against syphilis that would frankly confront the disease as a medical matter and not a moral failure” (115). Such change in policy motivation would still not cause an immediate change.
AVERT, an international AIDS charity, lists that syphilis diagnosis was at its highest point in 1946, a few years after the Federal Government began keeping track of such numbers. In 1946, there was 70.9 cases per 100,000 of the population. It would lower to 2.1 per 100,000 in 2000 (AVERT). Although Parran provided an impetus for medical objectivity at the federal level, it would take years of organization, education, and medical advancements to decrease the number of Americans diagnosed with syphilis. However, the lack of government-sponsored health education programs was perhaps most deadliest in the 1980’s.
The election of Ronald Reagan, a social conservative, in 1980 heralded an opportunity for other conservatives to trump the liberal sexuality that they disagreed with. Jeffrey P. Moran writes of the affect the conservative movement had on the “morality” of the country:
In 1981 Congressed passed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), which quickly came to be known as the Chastity Act…AFLA denied funds to most programs or projects that provided abortions or abortion counseling, and AFLA mandated abstinence education and units promoting “self-discipline and responsibility in human sexuality” in the sex education programs it did fund. (204)
The social conservative tone during the Reagan years was not responsive to the AIDS epidemic in the United States. This is one of the principle and most vigorous criticisms of Reagan and his social policy. Dan Gilgoff’s article, “Why Critics are Still Mad as Hell,” which appeared in the June 16th issue of U.S. News & World Report, just after President Reagan’s death, writes:
AIDS activists were among Reagan's most outspoken critics, printing posters that featured the president's mug shot and the tag line "AIDSGATE." His detractors say he didn't spend nearly enough on AIDS research; Reagan didn't publicly utter the term "AIDS" until his second term, even as the disease killed thousands of Americans in the early '80s. (“Why Critics are Still Mad as Hell”)
Scathing criticism comes within the article from an AIDS activist: "It's incomprehensible that such hideous inaction hasn't put him in any disrepute," says AIDS activist Larry Kramer. "He's being buried as a saint when in fact he was a gigantic sinner." Hitchens notes that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a massive AIDS public- education campaign in 1987, "making Reagan's inaction triply disgraceful and obviously deliberate. It wasn't that he wasn't paying attention; it was that he didn't want to go there" (“Why Critics are Still Mad as Hell”)
Kramer seems to have a valid point. President Reagan consistently cut the funds allocated by Congress for the fight against AIDS, and in 1991 the Bush administration [George Bush was Reagan’s Vice President] cancelled the government-sponsored American Teenage Study, which was seeking to gather information about teenage sexual behavior and possible approaches to preventing STD’s (Moran 208).
Social conservatives argue that sex education inspire immoral desires that clash with local community codes of morality. Alexander McKay writes in Sexual Ideology and Schooling: Towards Democratic Sexuality Education, that many conservative notions of democracy “…view that the values and traditions of a particular community can be rightly be promoted to contrast to the values or social traditions of the larger society” (115). A government mandate superceding local norms and mores creates tension among the local communities.
Another issue that conservatives have toward sex education is that it promoted the immoral aspect of sexuality, a belief derived from biblical texts and corresponding religious beliefs. Many of these conservatives saw the liberal sexual behavior that began with the female contraceptive pill in the 1950’s, then the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, and into the Roe v. Wade decision in the 1970’s as evidence that American sexual morals were dramatically off-course. The dominant image remained of a sex education course that encouraged students to engage in sexual behavior (Moran 218).
Liberal sex educators hold the opposite belief. To them, sex education does not go far enough. In Teaching Sex, Moran cites a statistic that iterates the concern that liberal educations had about the education system. From the 1970’s onward, fewer than 10 percent of high school students received comprehensive, value-neutral sexuality education (Moran 218). Liberal thinkers thought that if education could be strengthened and increased, it would have likely minimized the mal-effects of the country’s growing openness to sex. In addition, many modern liberals want the fear from religious-based morality to be removed, enabling a more open and objective discussion of human sexuality. Alan Harris writes in the article “What does ‘Sex Education’ Mean?” that, “…it is high time we adopted a wholly positive approach to sex education, instead of grudgingly throwing a few titbits of information in an atmosphere of moral gloom” (22).
Conservatives and liberals, in a broad generalization of sex education outlooks, could not be further apart. Each side feels that they possess true “common sense” in dictating the sex education policy of the United States. However, it appears that the conservative and liberal camps are neither completely correct.
A 1967 study aimed to address the opinion that sex education increases one’s likelihood to participate in sex. The college-aged participants were asked about any previous sex education. Furthermore, they were questioned about their sexual behavior. The authors of the article “Sex Education and Premarital Petting and Coital Behavior,” Gerald H. Weichman and Altis L. Ellis, summarize the results of the experiment:
Those college students in the sample exposed to “sex education” content prior to college were found no more likely or less likely to have experienced premarital petting or premarital coitus than those without such exposure…Therefore, any promotional or inhibitory effect “sex education” content exposure may have had upon premarital petting or coital experience did not become apparent in the data analyzed. (268)
This study infers that sex education, per se, is not a factor which operates in a significant way to influence premarital sex (Weichman and Ellis 268). These results are not uncommon.
Jeffrey P. Moran writes of the numerous studies done to examine both conservative and liberal claims regarding sex education in Teaching Sex:
Various studies from the 1950’s onward have determined that students who complete a sex education course invariably know more sexual facts than students who have not…But none of the dozens of studies by sociologists, psychologists, and educators has discovered that sex education has a significant effect in either direction on adolescent rates of intercourse, use of contraception, and rates of unwanted pregnancies and births. (219)
Sex education is only a small aspect in determining sexual behavior. The first, and most notable, surveyor of sexuality was Alfred Kinsey.
In the 1950’s, Kinsey both shocked and intrigued the country with his scientific analysis of American sex and sexuality. Kinsey found at mid-century that American sexual patterns differed according to gender, class status, race, educational attainment, religion, decade of birth, age at puberty, and geographical location (Moran 222). Education matters only slightly when compared to the many other determinates of one’s sexuality. How can time spent in limited sexual education curriculum make a “dent,” so to speak, in these numerous determinants of one’s sexual identity?
To penetrate these many social and psychological determinates would require a much more broadened experience in sexual education. The minimal education does not do enough to significantly alter sexual behavior. Janice M. Irvine writes in Sexuality Education Across Cultures, “Comprehensive sexuality education addresses the broadest realm of sexuality, including intimacy, relationships, body image, personal values, and self-esteem” (126). A narrow conception of sexual education does little to impact the many determinates that make up one’s sexuality.
Implementing such change, even if such change was willing to be made at present, would not have immediate affects. Michael Schofield has a diagnosis of what is needed in his article “The Sexual Behavior of Young People.” He states that, “The best hope…is to help the generation now at school to become the kind of parents who can speak simply and sensibly about sex to their children” (170).
Extensive sexual education has been used with success in Sweden. Thomas K. Grose writes of the Swedish sex education system in his article for U.S. News & World Report, “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees”:
The curriculum starts out clinically at around age 6, when children learn about anatomy, eggs, and sperm. From age 12 on, the topics lean more toward disease and contraception. The classes have a moral dimension, as well: Sex within loving relationships is stressed, as is gender equality (56).
The public education system in Sweden, as in the United States, is one of the best ways to impact the respective culture. Although modern U.S. sex education is deficient in its impacting affects of sexual behavior, a more rigorous, insightful, and objective approach within the sex-related ciruculum will have positive influences for the country, as it has for Sweden. Grose writes that, “The rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in Sweden are among the world’s lowest” (56). In addition, the teenage birthrate is 7 per 1,000 births, compared with 49 in the U.S. (Grose 56). The percentage of teenage girls having sex before 15 is also less in Sweden than it is among the U.S. population (Grose 56). Grose debunks a possible conception that certain conservatives may have that such open sexual discussion may encourage teenagers to engage in sex before their emotional readiness. In fact, Swedish classes urge students to wait until they feel mature (Grose 56).
The enlightened education policy of Sweden is too drastic to be accepted by Americans and their legislators. However, the Sweden-model shows that comprehensive sex education does not have to focus on premarital sex, a largely conservative concern, but can treat human sexuality without the fear and taboo that usually comes with such discussions. If the U.S. were to implement a more enlightened approach to sex, many of the mal-affects of insufficient education would be eliminated. The sexual factors that contributed to such problems in the country’s past, and possible future health issues, would otherwise be already addressed under a comprehensive sex education-model. Yet, the varying cultural norms and mores regarding human sexuality presents conflict to monolithic implementation of sex education. Only by finding common ground among the many participants can the American education system finally move toward an objective, non-religious examination of human sexuality.
Gilgoff, Dan. “Why Critics are Still Mad as Hell.” U.S. News & World Report 13 June. 2004. 13 Apr. 2007
Grose, Thomas K. “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees.” U.S. News & World Report Mar 26: 56.
Harris, Alan. “What does ‘Sex Education’ Mean?” Sex Education: Rationale and Reaction. Ed. Rex S. Rogers. New York: Cambridge UP, 1974. 18-23.
Holy Bible: The New American. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1970.
Irvine, Janice M. Sexuality Education Across Cultures: Working with Differences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.
McKay, Alexander. Sexual Ideology and Schooling: Towards Democratic Sexuality Education. Albany, NY: New York UP, 1998.
Moran, Jeffrey P. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
Schofield, Michael. “The Sexual Behavior of Young People” Sex Education: Rationale and Reaction. Ed. Rex S. Rogers. New York: Cambridge UP, 1974. 168-80
“United States STD Statistics.” AVERT. 28 Mar. 2007. 13 Apr. 2007
Weichman, Gerald H. and Altis L. Ellis. “A Study of the Effects of ‘Sex Education’ on Premarital Petting and Coital Behavior.” Sex Education: Rationale and Reaction. Ed. Rex S. Rogers. New York: Cambridge UP, 1974. 265-70.