What do Americans want their children to learn about sex? Throughout history, two conservative authors recently argued,[*] most Americans have wanted children to learn the values of abstinence and purity. Only the 1960s sexual revolution turned perversion and license into mainstream public-school how-to lessons.
The essay, by National Abstinence Education Association President Valerie Huber and Cedarville University psychology professor Michael Firmin, appeared in the recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal International Journal of Educational Reform. For those of us who are interested in understanding conservatism in education, this article offers a chance to see conservative thinking in action.
There are a few odd copy errors. Prominent education historian Milton Gaither, for example, is called “Milton Caither.” But far more interesting than these flaws are the interpretative implications of the authors’ historical vision.
Before I describe them, though, I should point out my own biases. I have a difficult time understanding conservative opposition to comprehensive sex education. In my upcoming book about the twentieth-century career of educational conservatism, I describe such opposition, especially in my chapter about the 1970s. But I still have a hard time understanding it. To me, it seems like simple common sense that schools should provide thorough, accurate information about sex to young people. Public schools should not moralize about sex, but whether or not students choose to have sex, they should know about the facts of life. With the huge public-health implications of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, it seems to me a simple matter of common sense that schools should teach everyone about sex.
However, as I’ve struggled to understand conservative opposition to comprehensive sex ed in public schools, I feel I’ve gained some insight. Though I want public schools to teach kids all the facts and let the kids and their families determine the morality involved, I can sympathize with conservatives who feel that such an approach tips the discussion too far in the “pro-sex” direction. I consider the following analogy: if your spouse were traveling on business, would you make sure he or she had condoms along in case s/he decided to have sex while s/he was gone? That doesn’t make much sense. Or this one: could a teacher tell students, “If you’re planning on robbing a bank, here are some ways to do it safely?” In other words, if a behavior is obviously morally unacceptable, we shouldn’t teach young people how to do it safely. We shouldn’t imply that we condone such immorality by helping children (or spouses) do it without consequence. Some conservatives think that pre-marital sex is precisely this sort of immoral behavior. Such conservatives insist that by telling young people about sex in a morally neutral fashion, we suggest that premarital sex is okay.
Huber’s and Firmin’s history of sex ed portrays an American people deeply convinced that sex is best saved for marriage. Only perverts and revolutionaries challenged that notion.
For instance, the first prominent “pro-sex” campaigner Huber and Firmin describe is Margaret Sanger. In the 1920s, the authors note, Sanger advocated birth control as a way to empower women and to limit the numbers of undesirable births. Sanger’s recreational approach to sex was “radical,” the authors contend, but it became an “early influence” on sex ed in schools.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Alfred Kinsey took the study of sex to new extremes, according to Huber and Firmin. Kinsey studied the sexual practices of a “nonrepresentative proportion of sex offenders and participants in the homosexual bathhouse community,” the authors contend. Kinsey proffered his witches’ brew of demented sexual proclivity as unbiased research, including outlandish claims that infants had orgasms. As did Margaret Sanger, Kinsey laid the foundations for a morality of “sexual experimentation,” according to Huber and Firmin.
It was not until the 1960s, however, that such radical notions about sex and sex education became mainstream. The sexual revolution of that decade, Huber and Firmin argue, “turned America’s moral sensibility on its head.” During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new culture of sex education took America by storm, midwived by the “[l]ong hair, open-air sexual orgies, drugs, student rebellions, Vietnam, and racial tensions” of the period.
By the 1980s, luckily, “innovative organizations” had organized a sensible and effective “counterrevolution.” These groups promoted the American tradition of sex education as abstinence-only education. Only such education combined information about sex with the moral underpinnings that young people need.
Today, according to Huber and Firmin, most Americans agree with an abstinence-only approach to sex-ed in public schools. Though the “public relations” efforts of “pro-sex” groups such as Planned Parenthood have had some success, the authors note that “the majority of parents, regardless of race or political party, strongly endors[e] all the major themes presented in an abstinence education class.” As evidence, they cite a 2012 survey from the National Abstinence Education Foundation.
As I’ve argued in the pages of Teachers College Record, conservative activists have an intense interest in educational history. It makes sense. Whoever controls the history can make policy recommendations that claim to be in synch with American tradition. In this case, Valerie Huber and Michael Firmin give us a history in which Americans want their children to learn the values of abstinence and purity. Throughout the generations, some radicals such as Sanger and Kinsey have strummed a minor chord of recreational sex and gleeful perversion. Only with the irresponsible sexual revolution of the 1960s, though, did such attitudes enter public schools in any significant number. Thanks to the work of earnest abstinence-only “counterrevolutionaries,” however, America’s schools have hope. Today’s schoolchildren, these conservative authors argue, can learn the real tradition of American sex ed.
[*] The article does not seem to be available without a subscription. For those with access to a decent library, here’s the citation to help you find the full article: Huber, Valerie J., and Michael W. Firmin. “A history of sex education in the United States since 1900.” International Journal of Educational Reform 23.1 (2014): 25+.