History of Sex Education
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sex education in the United States was strongly informed by Victorian values. For instance, sex education of the time taught that sexually transmitted diseases were the result of punishment for immoral behavior.
Discussion on a national level over what to teach children about sex in schools existed as early as 1912, when the National Education Association recommended that teachers be trained to provide education about sexuality.
By 1940, the U.S. Public Health Service had made a strong statement about the importance of sex education in schools. This statement was partly the result of concern over the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers and sailors during the first and second world wars. In the 1950s, the American Medical Association worked with the National Education Association to publish a series of pamphlets that became the basis of most school-based sex education programs. However, the range and depth of information conveyed in the classroom varied widely, and there was no national policy on what to teach and how to teach sexual education. At the time, contraceptives were still illegal in some states, and as a result this topic was often neglected in sex education curricula.
In the 1960s, opponents of sex education in schools began to organize their dissent, in response to a changing social and legal climate: the first birth control pill was developed in 1960. In 1965 contraceptives were made legal for married couples. Seven years later, contraceptives were permitted for unmarried people as well. There was some resistance to these transformations in American sexual values, and many saw attempts to broaden sex education in schools as attacks on traditional morals. Despite this opposition, however, the majority of schools in major cities began including some form of sex education in high school health or human development classes.
In the 1980s, the sex education debate underwent a rapid change as a result of nationwide concern over the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Surgeon General during this time, C. Everett Koop, published a report in 1986 calling for sex education, including information on preventing the transmission of the HIV virus through safe sex, to be instituted in public schools starting at the elementary level.
By 1988, over 90 percent of all U.S. schools offered some sex education programming. The current debates over sex education focus mainly on the relative merits of abstinence-only curricula and comprehensive sex education programs.
Those who are in favor abstinence-only programs and against comprehensive sex education typically argue that teaching young people about safe sex is tantamount to encouraging them to have sex. Supporters of abstinence-only programs therefore worry that instituting comprehensive sex education in schools will increase the level of sexual activity among teenagers, thus increasing the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies. Opponents of comprehensive sex education also claim that such programs undermine traditional family values and condone abortion and homosexuality. Abstinence, they say, is the only appropriate choice when educating young people about sexuality. Supporters of abstinence-only programs point to such evidence as a 1997 study which concluded that young people who pledged to remain virgins until marriage were more likely to start having sex at a later age than those who did not take such a pledge.
Those who favor comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only programs counter with the argument that many, if not most, young people will not wait until marriage to have sex. Therefore, young people should be taught about safe sex. In particular, supporters of comprehensive sex education believe that young people must learn how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Comprehensive sex education works, in partnership with parents and teachers, to promote the development of relevant personal and interpersonal skills. Supporters of comprehensive education also point to studies showing that giving teenagers more information about sex does not in fact increase their levels of sexual activity or lower the age at which teens first start having sex. In addition, advocates of comprehensive sex education point to a body of research finding that abstinence-only programs do not effectively lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Finally, critics of abstinence-only programs charge that some abstinence-only lesson plans contain medically inaccurate information such as false statistics about the effectiveness of condom use in preventing pregnancy.