The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century

The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century

Trista - September 21, 2018

Sex education is a controversial topic in the United States even today. The type and scope of school classes vary widely between states, with some providing abstinence-only while others offer a comprehensive knowledge that includes birth control, anal sex, and more. While today’s controversy may seem substantial, it doesn’t hold a candle to the various moral panics over sex education through the last century. The perceived moral decline of the early 20th century led to the rise of an anti-masturbation. However, a sexual hygiene movement was necessary, while the free love movement of the 60s encouraged abstinence-only education. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s led to a further push for abstinence-based education.

Before the 20th century, any knowledge of sexuality or sexual health was considered dangerous and immoral. An 18th century poem opined about “bawdy itch of knowing secret things, and tracing human nature to its springs. Exploring in the site of all the world, the dark receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.” It was published with an engraving showing women looking upon an anatomic figure of human pregnancy and served as a clear warning to women to not search too deeply into the workings of their own bodies. This theme continued throughout the sexual hygiene movement of the early 20th century, which featured shame-based lessons on sexuality.

The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
An engraving of women looking at a figure depicting pregnancy. Wikimedia

Even at the turn of the 20th century, sex education was considered dangerous and wrong. The first female superintendent of Chicago public schools, Ella Flagg Young, saw the rising rate of prostitution and sexually transmitted disease in her city and decided to implement a sex hygiene class in the 1910s. This decision led to the first sex education class in the United States. The Chicago school board was so disgusted by this innovation that she was fired from her position only a few short years after her promotion in 1909.

The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
A photograph of Ella Flagg Young. Wikimedia

The Social Hygiene Movement of the 1910s picked up where Young left off. These educational and societal reformers believed education was the answer to the lack of perceived virtue around sexuality. They felt the problem with society was ignorance, not evil. The movement sought to educate children on “sex hygiene,” which was a polite way at the time to say sexually transmitted disease prevention. In 1913, the American Sexual Hygiene Association launched a crusade to eradicate sex work, which they dubbed “white slavery,” as well as other societal ills through education on sex hygiene. The instruction was similar to today’s abstinence-only education, with a focus on preventing pre- and extra-marital sex.

A side effect of the anti-sex hygiene movement was a focus on stopping masturbation, specifically targeted at young boys. A film produced by the American Sexual Hygiene Association warned “Masturbation may seriously hinder a boy’s progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit.” A common theme of the sexual hygiene lessons of the era was shaming learners about both their bodies and their desires.

The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
A movie poster for Damaged Goods. Wikimedia

Sex Education Between in the World War I Era

The very first sex education film appeared in 1914. Damaged Goods starred Richard Bennett as a man who slept with a sex worker on the eve of his wedding. The sex worker, in a profoundly negative portrayal, gave the man syphilis. He then passes syphilis on to his unsuspecting wife and newborn child, which is possible through placental transmission or contact with a sore during birth. The culmination of the film is Bennett’s character committing suicide. The film was quite popular and reissued several times. A critic positively reviewed it and noted, “American boy(s)… should be made to see it for they are to become the American manhood, and the cleaner physically, the better.”

In the early 1900s, birth control was illegal in the United States and deeply frowned upon culturally. Merely discussing birth control could lead to jail time due to the Comstock Act, which outlawed obscene literature. Margaret Sanger, the founder of organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood, spent time in jail due to publishing a pamphlet encouraging the use of contraceptives such as vaginal suppositories, douches, and diaphragms.

In 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. It was the first of its kind in the United States. Sanger was arrested within nine days of the clinic’s opening. She and her sister were guilty under a New York law that banned the distribution of contraceptives. In 1917, Sanger began publishing the monthly journal Birth Control Review. While Sanger is revered by many for fighting for women’s right to birth control, she is a deeply controversial figure due to her support of negative genetics. She believed that eugenics should be used to eliminate the “unfit” from humanity.


The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
A photograph of Margaret Sanger. Wikimedia

In 1922, the US government officially recognized the need for sex education by issuing guidance to schools for the creation of sex ed programs. The recommendations included separating girls from boys and ensuring students had a same-sex teacher for lessons. The US Public Health Service also advocated teaching students about sex in the adolescent years, believing the students were most receptive to the messages during that time.

A great deal of sex education at the time was aimed exclusively at men and boys, as theirs were the only impulses seen as virtuous and worth recognizing and refining. A 1925 Canadian public health poser referred to the male sex drive as “a noble gift of Nature if properly guided and controlled by Man’s higher powers. Only when it is allowed to run wild does it become a base passion and a dangerous thing.” If female sexuality was discussed at all, it was to warn boys of loose women, those failures of morality that spread disease.


The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
A poster of the “Juke Joint Sniper,” a woman with STIs. Wikimedia

Sex Education from World War II to the Present

The theme of loose women being dangerous to US men and boys continued in World War II and even featured heavily in the propaganda of the era. A 1942 propaganda poster features the “Juke Joint Sniper,” a smoking woman who is meant to represent “loose” women who frequently had sex with soldiers and spread disease among the ranks. The US National Library of Medicine reported that women were almost invariably depicted as the cause of sexually transmitted infection outbreaks.

Other posters of the era spelled the message out even more explicit. Another World War II era flyer stated “She may look clean – but” followed by a warning that “pick-ups, good time girls, and prostitutes” spread syphilis and gonorrhea, two of the most serious sexually transmitted infections of the era. It goes on to say that you “can’t fight the Axis if you get VD.” VD, or venereal disease, was the contemporary term for sexually transmitted infections. This message posited “loose” women as a threat to the very war effort itself and warned soldiers to be careful about the women whose company they kept.

The Dramatic Changes of Sex Education in the Last Century
A World War II era poster warning about “loose” women. Wikimedia

It was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that brought about the most significant changes in sex education in the United States. The first oral contraceptive was approved in 1960. The Supreme Court decision of Griswold vs. Connecticut of 1965 decriminalized the use of contraceptives in marriage through the argument of the right to marital privacy. In addition to changes in the legal landscape, the free love movement of the hippies began to erode the shame associated with sex in the United States.

The AIDS epidemic and moral panic of the 1980s had a divisive impact on the curriculum of sex education in the United States. Progressive educators and public health workers saw AIDS and its associated deaths as a mandate for comprehensive sex education to encourage condom use and safe sex. Religious and conservative reformers and educators, on the other hand, saw AIDS as a moral scourge and a call to increase messages of abstinence. President Ronald Reagan encouraged abstinence-only education and was very slow to approve funding for AIDS-related research and education.

The debate between abstinence-only education and comprehensive sex education continues to rage today. In 2000, President George W. Bush committed funding to abstinence-only education at the expense of comprehensive programs, despite research showing that abstinence-only educated students are just as sexually active as their peers and less likely to use protection. President Barack Obama repealed many of these efforts and encouraged comprehensive education whereas President Donald Trump has returned to encouraging abstinence-only education. The constant shift from administration to administration implies that the research has little bearing on policy, and we will likely continue to see drastic changes depending on the political party in power. Given our long history of controversy and the current debate, it may well be a long time before we see a consistent encouraged standard of sex education in the United States.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Here’s How Sex Education Has Changed Over the Past 100 Years” Genevieve Carlton, Ranker. N.d.

“What Margaret Sanger Really Said About Eugenics and Race” Jennifer Latson, Time. October 2016.

“Reagan’s AIDS Legacy/Silence Equals Death” Allen White, SF Gate. June 2004.