It reads like fiction: an estimated 50 to 75 percent of American men were infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD); in thousands of families, an STD killed one, two, even five of their children; and an incredible 30 percent of all blindness was attributed to STDs. The transmission of STDs was an urgent concern of national health and security—so serious, in fact, that soldiers were court-martialed if they were found to be infected.
These statistics are not from a third-world country in the midst of the AIDs pandemic. These are estimates of syphilis and gonorrhea prevalence in 1904, during the Progressive Era of American history. This surprising STD epidemic is one indication that the “good old days” weren’t so good after all.
As American soldiers headed across the sea to fight World War I, they found themselves far away from the watchful eyes of family and free to enjoy what many thought was a male “sexual necessity.” Few know that the federal government first became interested in what happened in the bedroom, in part, as a matter of national security. Estimates suggest that half of all servicemen had an STD. These men could not dependably protect their fellow soldiers if they were stuck in a foxhole with advanced-stage syphilis.
Simply put, America was in the midst of a public health crisis in the early 1900s. And it was this crisis that sparked the birth of public sex education in America.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Given this history, it’s clear that the acrimony surrounding what kind of sex education our children should receive is nothing new. In fact, many of the same arguments that headline the issue today were present from the very start: the sexual double standard, sexual freedom vs. sexual restraint, and the choice between treating the consequences of sex and exhorting the elimination of sexual risk. And while the voices and players have changed, the rancor has been consistent for more than 100 years.
In 1915, communities were not yet ready to teach sex education in the schools, but the Public Health Service widely distributed leaflets and posters advocating abstinence until marriage and faithfulness within marriage. And a diverse group of advocates assembled to address the moral decline in American culture. Physicians, clergy, suffragists, public health workers, academe, and the average citizen all clamored for an end to the “sexual double standard” that admonished young women to remain chaste, but acknowledged that young men had a “sexual necessity” that could not be contained by the marriage vow.
And here begins the first contentious issue in the modern sex education wars: how to eliminate the double standard. At the time, there was general consensus that if women were expected to remain abstinent until—and faithful within—marriage, then men should be expected to do the same. Advocates argued that a uniform standard of nonmarital sexual restraint was a reasonable expectation. It was, in fact, a social necessity for a thriving society, providing the only protection against harm to “innocents.” The Public Health Service distributed posters that depicted children born with serious birth defects from syphilis, and women who were infected by husbands who visited the local brothel before returning home. Sexual restraint, advocates argued, could have a ripple effect on a host of other social evils, including prostitution, drunkenness, and family instability.
While most called for the end to the double standard by advocating uniform sexual restraint, a few subcultural voices submitted a different solution. They suggested that sexual expression should not be constrained by a formal marriage agreement. If men could enjoy sex whenever and however they pleased, then women should be afforded that same freedom.
These voices advocated birth control for women so they could enjoy sex without the concern of pregnancy. They ignored the effects of casual sex on the “innocents” and did not consider the possible consequences of this sexual freedom on the stability of the family or the health of society. A significant member of this coalition, Margaret Sanger, made a radical statement for the early 1900s: “A man and woman [should be permitted to] give expression to their love or to perpetuate the race without the necessity of a public declaration of marriage.” To put it delicately, Sanger practiced what she preached.
This call for the elimination of the sexual double standard through uniform sexual liberation was extreme at the time. But today, the view is mainstream. A century ago, feminists called for uniform sexual restraint, but today radical feminists berate those who call for restraint as “slut shamers.”
From the Roaring Twenties to the Kinsey Report
The 1920’s marked the first “sexual revolution.” Popular songs, like Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals, revealed the sexual permissiveness of the flapper generation:
She isn’t like her mother, and yet she might have been,
If it hadn’t been for petting parties, cigarettes and gin.
The carefree lifestyle of the ’20s ushered in a conservative backlash against habits that were deemed harmful to the family and society. And the expectation that sex was reserved for marriage persisted.
But when an unknown zoology professor at Indiana University wrote Sexual Behavior & the Human Male in 1948, his spurious research up-ended the conventional understanding of sex. Alfred Kinsey argued that most men and women are not monogamous, that humans are sexual (and sexually responsive) from birth, that 10 percent of men are homosexual, that bestiality is fairly common behavior, and that “celibacy, delayed marriage and asceticism” are “cultural perversions.” His colleague, Paul Gebhard, summarized Kinsey’s view of sex in this way: “It didn’t much matter what you did sexually as long as it didn’t hurt anyone else and it made you and your partner happy.”
The Kinsey report became a bestseller. Although most still held the traditional view that sex belonged within marriage, Kinsey’s views slowly worked to erode cultural expectations surrounding sex.
The Sexual Revolution and the Growth of Sex Ed
The second “sexual revolution” during the 1960s and 1970s accelerated the acceptability of premarital sex. The availability of the Pill and abortion to cover the obvious effects of sex offered men and women sexual freedom without consequences—or so they thought. Nonmarital births doubled between 1960 and 1970, and STDs among young people jumped 165 percent between 1967 and 1971.
Sex education in the schools received a boost as President Johnson granted extremist organizations like SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) monies to develop teacher-training programs that promoted sexually permissive risk reduction education for youth. Rather than counseling young people not to have sex, these programs drew heavily on the concepts of Alfred Kinsey and condoned sexual experimentation by schoolchildren as normal, expected, and healthy.
By contrast, programs designed to teach sexual risk avoidance (SRA) through abstinence did not begin to receive federal funding until the 1980s AIDS crisis. Even then, funding for this approach paled in comparison to condom-centered risk reduction programs. The general public was learning about this terrifying new disease at almost the same time as was the medical community. While there was an abundance of misinformation about the disease, this one thing was certain: the consequences of casual sex were much more costly than previously thought.
Sex education in the schools exploded, as funding for AIDS education sent highly explicit curricula to middle and high school students, complete with condom distribution and demonstrations. The argument that “kids are going to have sex, so they need to protect themselves,” was a rallying cry for this form of sex education. The same argument is used today. Many of the curricula originally developed in the 1980s with AIDS prevention money are supported by the US Department of Health and Human Services today and are still being used in public schools across the country.
Risk Avoidance vs. Risk Reduction: Where Do We Go From Here?
President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush helped to promote SRA abstinence education in schools, but funding for condom-centered programs has always received at least 75 percent of all the funding for sex education in federal policy. Though the majority of teens have not had sex, and those numbers are trending in a positive direction—and most of those who have had sex wish they had waited—President Obama perennially calls for the elimination of all federally funded SRA abstinence education programs.
Groups that tout sexual freedom as an unalienable right are overjoyed. They call themselves “progressive” and demand the sexual rights of youth, yet their arguments are virtually identical to the mantra of the countercultural radicals of the early 1900s. The arguments against sexual restraint are untrue relics of the past. Untrue and unhealthy.
But advocates of sexual risk avoidance/abstinence education would do well to remember one key point. The reason the countercultural voices of the past are now the dominant voices is that they never gave up, amplifying their voices by expanding their base of support.
When the federal government first involved itself in sex education at the turn of the twentieth century, parents wanted their children to wait for sex until marriage. Most parents want the same today. A century ago, health leaders, thought leaders, and the general public believed that eliminating the sexual double standard through uniform sexual restraint was best for healthy family formation and societal stability.
Today, a growing body of abundant social science research documents the veracity of their assertion. Public health models prioritize risk avoidance as the best way to promote optimal health outcomes, and the SRA approach is consistent with this paradigm. And this message may be making a difference, as the most recent report by the federal government notes that almost 75 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have never had sex, and the majority have had no sexual contact at all. Proponents of sexual restraint could be on the cusp of rewriting the social norms surrounding teen sex.
In order to be an integral part of the future of sex education, we must have a nuanced understanding of the past. This is not only necessary for the sake of finally winning the sex education war, but for the sake of the millions of youth who deserve something better than the historic lie of sexual “freedom.”