Sexuality education inspires powerful emotions and a considerable amount of controversy. In fact, it may be one of the most heated topics in the field of sexuality, as different sides debate whether and how sexuality education programs should be implemented in the schools.
Hygiene and Sexuality Education: Then and Now
People have always been curious about sex. However, it was only in the 20th century that the movement to develop formal and effective sexuality education programs began. Public discussion of sexuality was due, in part, to the moral purity movement of the late 19th century and the medicalization of the sex movement in the early 20th century.
Several developments in the United States set the stage for sexuality education. Concern over skyrocketing rates of venereal diseases (what we now refer to as sexually transmitted infections) in the early 1900s resulted in the formation of two groups, the American Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis and the American Federation for Sex Hygiene. Although these groups helped to further the cause of sexuality education, they concentrated their attention on STIs. Their approach was to use sexuality education to explain biology and anatomy and to address adolescents’ natural sexual curiosity. School sexuality education was very scientific and avoided all discussions of interpersonal sexuality.
Starting in the early 1900s, sexuality education was implemented by various national youth groups, including the YMCA, YWCA, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and 4-H Clubs (see the SexByte about the Boy Scouts on page 234). These programs were developed mainly to demonstrate to young people the responsibilities required in parent-
ing and to discourage early childbearing. More controversial, however, has been whether to include sexuality education as part of the public school curriculum.
In the United States, for example, the opposition to sexuality education has often been due to two complementary attitudes: first, that sexuality is private, should be discouraged in children, and is best discussed in the context of a person’s moral and religious beliefs; and second, that public schools are by their nature public, cannot discuss sex without giving children implicit permission to be sexual, and should not promote the moral or religious beliefs of any particular group. The result of these conflicting attitudes was the belief that sexuality education was best performed by parents in the home. However, today we know that the majority of families do not know how to teach adequate sex education to their children (Kakavoulis, 2001).
Attitudes toward sexuality, however, began to change, and people began having sex earlier and more frequently. Sexuality education was seen as more important, due not only to the high teenage pregnancy rate (which shatters the illusion that kids are not actually having sex) but also due to AIDS. Television and other media contributed by being so sex saturated that sexuality was no longer a private topic. Yet, even with all these changes, many still believe that public educational institutions will present a view of sexuality that they object to, and so they still oppose sexuality education in the United States.
Today, the majority of states either recommend or require sexuality education in public schools. However, the content that each state allows often varies. For example, there is little guidance for teachers in North Dakota, yet in South Carolina there are severe restrictions. Contraception cannot be mentioned outside of marriage and homosexuality cannot be taught unless the teaching is about sexually transmitted infections (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2004b).
In the 1950s, sexuality education courses began appearing in colleges and universities in the United States. One of the first sexuality education and counseling programs in the United States was initiated at Yale University. It was very popular, and, as a result, similar programs were implemented at other institutions. Do you know how long the sexuality course you are taking has been taught at your institution? It might be interesting to find out the background and history of the course.