From the perspective of a typical American, sexual education seems to be modern issue, but educating the populace about all things sexual is very old. Sex for pleasure and not just for the intent of procreation also seems like a fairly modern idea. It isn’t.
The Ancient Romans had brothels. Archeologists and historians have unearthed a reference to the aphrodisiac “Spanish Fly” that dates back to 31 B.C. The Kama Sutra, written between the third and fourth centuries A.D., is not only a pedantic sex manual, but also contains a recipe for an aphrodisiac. The Kama Sutra isn’t the oldest sex manual intended to educate married and unmarried individuals about the art of sexual expression. The Ishimpo, a tenth century Japanese medical text, is based upon Chinese writings that date back to the Han Dynasty. The original eight Chinese sex manuals, seven of the volumes contained at least twenty chapters, has been lost to time. Ancient “sex aids” have been discovered in Greece and China and barrier methods of contraception are noted in the Kahun Papyrus which is approximately four thousand years old.
It seems as if there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to sexuality. Yet, in the United States, we have what appears to be an unending debate on sexual education. The debate over sexual education seems to coincide with the shift of where and how people received the education.
At one time, people were educated on matters of sexuality in the home, church, with a private doctor or midwife, or on their own by seeking sex manuals or visiting brothels. In 1913, Chicago held the first “sex ed” class. It was included as a part of high school biology. These early classes focused on the medical aspects of sexuality such as procreation and menstruation and warned the students against syphilis and gonorrhea. Premarital sex was treated as a non-issue. These early classes started the now familiar debate on sexual education in the classroom. One group believed that if students were given appropriate information about sex, they would go on to leave a moral life for they would believe that sex should be linked to procreation. The opposing side believed that any reference to sexuality at such a young age would cause immoral behavior.
The discovery of penicillin in 1928 reduced the public’s fears over syphilis and gonorrhea which by extension altered the content of sexual education and thus changed associated debate. Sexual mores in 1920s started to view sex for pleasure as a necessary element of a healthy marriage. This created what some feminists consider a double standard in regards to sexuality. Young women were taught the importance of chastity while simultaneously being taught the importance of enjoying sex. Young men were often taken to brothels to “become men”. The new “family life” education included everything from household financial management to sex. The debate continued with one side believing the relaxed views of sexuality would create healthier marriages. The other side worried that it would cause a loosening of morality in general. Feminists worried what the conflicting messages about sex would do the psyches of young women.
In the 1950s, Margaret Sanger established family planning clinics inside and outside of schools. She also used her influence and money to help create the first oral contraceptive pill. Many historians and sociologists believe that her efforts served as the sine qua non for the sexual and feminist revolutions in the 60s and 70s. This time era in American history resulted in increases in premarital sex, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancies outside of marriage, and marked the beginning of the still on-going acceptance of homosexuality. On the plus side, these decades also mark when sociologists and psychologist noted individuals as self-reporting more fulfilling sex lives and sexuality could be explored with little fear of societal shunning or externally imposed shame. Many people believe that what comprises of a “healthy attitude” toward sex was birthed in the 60s and 70s. These societal changes reflected changes in the information being taught in “sexuality education” classes. The classes tried to present the information on sexual expression, the prevention of disease, the prevention of pregnancy, and the different types of adult sexuality in a way that was free of moral judgments.
The changes in the 60s and 70s resulted in the politicized debate of “sexual education” in the 1980s and 1990s. This debate is very similar to the debate we still have today (2010). One side believes that the “value-free” education encourages unhealthy and immoral sexual behavior amongst an age group that is neither emotionally, psychological, nor financially fit to handle sexual expression and the ramifications of sex. This side pushes for “abstinence only” sexual education which handles the medical aspects of sex and the prevention STDS by abstaining from sex. It also includes bolstering the self-esteem and self-respect of the students so that they won’t feel pressured to have sex before marriage. There are programs that include written contracts with parents to remain virgins until marriage. The proponents of “abstinence only” programs believe that they are allowing the family and churches to reclaim the responsibility of sexual education.
The proponents of “value-free” sexual education believe that an abstinence only approach doesn’t work. They believe that the primal instinct to have sex will over-power rational thought. They also believe the hedonistic tendencies birthed in the 60s and 70s forever changed our culture and there is no “putting the Genie back in the bottle” when it comes to sexuality. Others in this camp believe that the sexually liberating changes the 60s and 70s were healthy and positive changes and view abstinence only programs as a step backwards. This group believes that the way to curb disease and unwanted pregnancies is to teach and provide access (or at least information on how to get access) to contraception. This group believes that they are allowing individuals to claim their sexuality while diminishing the societal ills that spiked in the 60s and 70s.
Some members of “value-free” sexual education believe that it is no coincidence that “abstinence only” education received a spike of influence and popularity during the 1980s with the emergence of the Christian Coalition and other religious groups getting heavily involved in politics. “Abstinence only” proponents counter this argument by saying that they are a coalition of people from a myriad of religious backgrounds and not any specific religious group. They also believe that there is nothing distinctly religious about their sexual education curriculum as the reason for abstinence is not from a religious document.
A third group has emerged lately. This group sees themselves as a compromise between the two other groups. This group wants to include an all-encompassing curriculum on sexuality in addition to teaching abstinence. Proponents of “abstinence only” policies believe that any presentation of contraception will send mixed messages to the students. Proponents of the “value-free” curriculum believe that a compromise is too risky for society as there may be entire sections of the populace ignorant of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
Sexual education in one form or another has a four thousand year history, but the real controversy started when it moved into the schools. The contemporary debate seems to have the potential to last another four thousand years. It appears as if the parties involved are deadlocked. There is no easy solution to the debate over sexual education. All parties involved believe they are fighting for ideals that are best for individuals, families, and society.