In matters of education, as with many social concerns, there continues to be a disconnect between policy and practice. Sex(uality) education has long suffered from ineffective policies handed down by federal, state, and local agents (i.e. politicians) that don’t bother to critically think through the decisions they are making. I remember a conversation that took place during the 2008 presidential election surrounding the appeal to the “average American” (whatever that actually means) by politicians. They wanted to demonstrate that they could connect with the hearts and “minds” of “every man” (yes, the use of man is very intentional) and in doing so, seemed to limit intellectual discourse. A journalist (I wish I could remember who) responded to this trend in the most logical manner I had heard in quite some time by making it clear that we shouldn’t want an “every man” in the White House. We should want our president to be the smartest person in any room they walk into around the world. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t been the case, and the evidence continues to mount as we suffer from over-simplified justifications for otherwise illogical policy decisions.
Most recently in the ongoing sex(uality) education debate, the Louisiana legislature struck down a bill that would have given the state Department of Education the ability to ask teens about their sexual health. These questions, which are a part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted nationally by the CDC since 1991, ask young people about sexual activity and sexual risk behaviors. The survey is grounded in a solid public health approach, which is in keeping with a majority of mainstream comprehensive sexuality education, and avoids any discussion of morals or values related to sex(uality). However, legislators were concerned that asking about such activities would desensitize them and give them “ideas”. Louisiana law currently reads that
It is the intent of the legislature that, for the purposes of this Section, “sex education” shall mean the dissemination of factual biological or pathological information that is related to the human reproduction system and may include the study of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, childbirth, puberty, menstruation, and menopause, as well as the dissemination of factual information about parental responsibilities under the child support laws of the state. It is the intent of the legislature that “sex education” shall not include religious beliefs, practices in human sexuality, nor the subjective moral and ethical judgments of the instructor or other persons. Students shall not be tested, quizzed, or surveyed about their personal or family beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion.
Sex education is not required in the state, and is even banned in elementary schools. It amazes me that in 2014, when children are born with smartphones in their hands and Netflix accounts embroidered on their baby blankets, that we are still worried that discussing sex(uality) is somehow going to lead to increased rates of sexual activity. I realize that this is the same logic that has led to debates over discussing homosexuality, as if the mere mention of it will “turn kids gay”, but I can’t help but continue to shake my head. How long must we cater to an anti-intellectual fringe minority instead of the educators and researchers who continue to produce sound scientific evidence and pedagogically effective means of providing our young people with a well-rounded education that teaches them to think critically about the world around them. I can only assume that the ultimate threat isn’t that asking kids about sex will make them go have sex, but that it will encourage more critical thinking, which will lead to young people not blindly following outdated beliefs in the first place.
Clearly, those screaming the loudest in Louisiana aren’t presenting a more effective sexuality education curriculum and yet we continue to deny young people access to important health information. This out-of-touch ideology has led to a full 25% of students in the state not having had any education concerning HIV/AIDS, and higher than average pregnancy and birth rates (in a country that already has the highest rates in the industrialized world). Not surprisingly, the rates of HIV and STI infection in Louisiana are also well above the national average. Most recently (May 27), the legislature took the added step of banning any organization the provides abortions from distributing sex education materials in schools (H.B. 305). Planned Parenthood, who no doubt was the main focus of this legislation, is perhaps the largest private provider of sex education in the country.
Now, there are folks in Louisiana, as there are nationally, that are trying to combat these educational mistakes. Legislation has been presented in Louisiana several times over the past five years that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education for young people but it has been defeated each time. Most recently, Rep. Patricia Smith (D), who sponsored the bill, went as far as to say that a lack of sex education “is really a form of child abuse.” These policy debates play out across the country every month, and young people are left twisting in the wind as a result. Until we make it clear to our elected officials that we want them to vote based on educated and informed evidence, they will continue to strike an unwritten bargain with a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the beliefs of most citizens or the scientific evidence as a whole.
I realize that relatively small legislative decisions such as this can get lost in the black hole of larger social and political issues, but each of these decisions are connected to one another. As educators, it is our responsibility not only to provide young people with open-minded, diverse, and critical perspectives on a host of issues. We must also engage in these policy debates and voice our opinions to those elected officials that are responsible for defining the bounds of our discourse. They may not remember any single vote a few years from now, but our young people will be feeling the effects of those votes for years to come. Policy matters.
Part III: Implications
Opponents, however, gathered a great deal of support. Much of the public support was garnered through the Anaheim Bulletin, which clearly supported opponents to sex education. This support was seen in articles, editorials, and additional efforts by Bulletin employees. The California Citizens Committee was also a strong supporter of opponents, having earlier been formed to support Barry Goldwater’s bid for the presidency.
The debate in Anaheim continued to rage on for two years, until the end of 1969. At that time, a California law supporting sex education was repealed by the state legislature, and local elections replaced three school board seats with conservative members who opposed FLSE. These developments, coupled with the retirement of Paul Cook, spelled the end for FLSE in Anaheim. However, the memory and fallout of the controversy continues to be felt in the debate over sex education today.
Although the controversy in Anaheim was not the first such example of objection to sex education, and certainly not the last, it did mark a turning point in the depth and organization of sex education. With the increased funding for abstinence-only education, despite overwhelming evidence of it’s ineffectiveness, Anaheim continues to be relevant because it set a baseline for the expressed need for some form of sex education. Debates continue to pop up all over the country, in places as varied as Montgomery County, Maryland, to Collier County, Florida, to Park County, Wyoming.
In many ways, the struggles in Anaheim demonstrated, for the first time, the power and influence right-wing, conservative Christian groups could have in effecting policy and education. No longer were these groups seen as fringe organizations with minimal power, but they were now taken seriously as a sizable force in the debate over sex education, and beyond.
Further, the curriculum in Anaheim laid the groundwork for sex education curricula to follow, and the precursors to present-day comprehensive sex education. Progress for it’s time, the FLSE curriculum was aided in large part by the support of SIECUS, and the PTA, both organizations which to this day advocate on behalf of comprehensive sex education. Once relegated to a secondary additional subject, sex education was brought to the forefront of American education as a necessary and important part of the curriculum.
According to an NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll, “the debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll…finds that only 7% of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools”(Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004, p.1). As certain as this statement may be, the reality of sex education remains much more of a gray area. Sex education has evolved over the past 40 years, as advocates proposed both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education as the appropriate answer to what both camps have identified as a crisis in American youth. However, despite the barrage of polls, curricula, demonstrations, legislation, and testimonials, the United States seems no closer to resolving the questions of what and how our children should be educated about sex and sexuality. In 1970, Mary Breasted chronicled the Anaheim debate in a brilliant ethnography entitled Oh! Sex Education. Time Magazine (Monday, August 31, 1970) concluded their assessment of Breasted’s work with a statement that, ironically enough, still rings true today. “For better or for worse, Author Breasted suggests, sex is simply no longer what the young think of when they think of morality: ‘They have other things to worry about, like the draft and the people who are ruining our water and air”.
Part II: The Specifics
Following Townsend’s appeal to the school board, numerous conservative groups popped up to oppose FLSE and its supporters. “It wasn’t long before the community members became acronym crazy and started forming their own groups”(Paige C., 2009, p.2). Numerous organizations, such as People Against Unconstitutional Sex Education (PAUSE), Sanity of Sex (SOS), Mothers for Moral Stability (MOMS), Parents Opposed to Sex and Sensitivity Education (POSSE), and the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE) all formed with the same goals for opposing FLSE, Cook, Williams, and SIECUS in their efforts to provide inclusive sex education for Anaheim students. Ultimately these groups banding together, argued based on three premises, insisting that parents should be responsible for teaching children about sex, the courses were too specific and sexually explicit, and that those who taught sex education were evil. Those arguments were wrapped up into the elements of the conflict in Anaheim.
Like many community conflicts, the debate over sex education in Anaheim involved policy, object and leadership. “The policy issues in the Anaheim controversy revolved around the fundamentalist, conservative ideology of the opponents”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p. 75). Ultimately, they viewed sex education as in opposition to the conservative ideology of the purpose of education. “They seemed to sense that sex education was related to an approach centered on a rationalist morality of consequences”(p.75). This was in contradiction with their own absolutist approach, and threatened their notions of morality. This same basis in ideology was held by proponents, such as Paul Cook, and Dr. Mary Calderon, Director of SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Committee of the United States). However, as Hottois and Milner (1975) point out, they failed to grasp the reality that sex education, by its very nature, raised moral issues.
Secondly, an object of focus is required as a focal point for community controversy. In the Anaheim case, these objects were the sex education curriculum itself, and the decision-making authority in the schools. With both objects, opponents characterized them as meaning to focus on a program of “life adjustment”, which was reinforced by the vocal, antagonistic approach Paul Cook at various times. Former school nurse Sally Williams, who designed the curriculum and named the program Family Life and Sex Education (FLSE), originally offered the content to juniors and seniors in the spring of 1965, and it was spread to grades seven through twelve the following fall.
The curriculum itself was basically an upgraded four-and-a-half-week session, which covered topics such as reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and physical changes during puberty. “The difference here is the format. Anaheim’s FLSE was coeducational and based on a discussion format often related to sensitivity training. Students spent a good amount of class time discussion not just on the mechanics of sex, but also gender roles within relationships and male and female stereotypes”(Paige C., 2009, p.1). The overall goal was to foster open, honest, and frank discussion about the topics, which was seen by many as an intrusion into the responsibilities of parents and other community groups.
More specifically, the objects within the curriculum that raised the most concern were the topics of masturbation and homosexuality. Masturbation has brought about the initial conflict, and the objections were amplified by the message being conveyed that it was a healthy sexual expression with no negative consequences. “This was a major issue for the religious members of the community, as was the section devoted to an explanation of homosexuality”(Paige C., 2009, p.1). Although these two issues were held up by the opposition as evidence of the moral decay of the program, proponents hailed them as evidence of the model program that had been created in Anaheim. James Collier, a writer for the Village Voice wrote that Anaheim was giving children “what is unquestionably the most intelligent, realistic, honest, and complete course in sex education anywhere in the United States, if not the entire world”(Collier, 1967).
The last element of conflict in Anaheim was that of leadership. From proponents, Cook attempted to be that leader. “While Cook sought to lead the proponents, he didn’t seem to have a following. It was as if the parents who had said that they favored sex education in the 1962 opinion poll has all moved away; none emerged publicly to support the embattled superintendent”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p.76). However he did receive support from the school board and teachers. Additionally, and perhaps most publicly, was the support of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA). “Through both literature and legislation, the PTA continued to push for a broader sex education program for students of all ages. ‘The Case for Sex Education’, a press release in their national publication, laid out their support of similar programs”(Paige C., 2009, p.3).
To be continued…
I’ve always considered myself a student of history, and found meaning in examining the historical context for present-day conversations. I often encourage my students to reflect on the history of how we have constructed sexuality and gender, along with race, class, and other identity markers. I’ve spent a great deal of time examining the history of sexuality education in this country, as well as other countries around the world. Various people and events have had a considerable impact on our current debate, and yet they end up trivialized or boiled down to quotes or images. Anthony Comstock, Margaret Sanger, and Alfred Kinsey are perfect examples. What results is circular conversation instead of progress. One such significant historical moment for the sexuality education debate occurred in Anaheim, CA in 1968. You aren’t going to find this series of events in your history books, but I would argue it has significantly shaped the nature of the debate, and the way information is communicated and curricula are formed to this day. Over the next few posts, I’ll attempt to share this historical moment.
Part One: Setting the Stage
Cole Porter may have been right when he coolly asserted in 1928 that “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it”. However, talking about “it” is another question entirely, and the debate over the who, what, when, and where of sex education has fueled no shortage of controversy over the past 40 years. That controversy over the administration of sex education has resulted in numerous battles being waged in the court of law, as well as the court of public opinion. Interestingly, despite 40 years of research and evidence being accumulated, the same issues, which fueled such controversy in Anaheim in 1968, are still sparking controversy in school districts across the United States today. Furthermore, those issues continue to call into question the roll of education and how we ultimately decide the scope and definition of morality.
Although a recent development relative to the history of American education, sex education has still managed to find a place within the context of that history. More specifically, historians have identified culture, religion, and ideological management as central themes within American education, and those themes emerge quite directly and prominently within sex education.
From the moment this country was settled, culture and religion have played significant roles in its overall development, and more specifically in the development of the American educational system. From the earliest documented stages of American educational history, culture and religion have impacted the content and delivery of this area of education. More specifically, the majority white, Christian cultural values and religious values have been emphasized as sex education was deemed a taboo subject not to be discussed, and certainly left to the home environment.
However, as American majority cultural and religious values shifted, a growing number of individuals saw the value in sex education within the classroom. Although this marked an ideological shift for some, and many debates, as we shall discuss later, it did not change the cultural and religious perspective that formed the foundation for sex education. As continues to be common in numerous other facets of the American educational system, sex education presented a decidedly biased view of the content, failing to acknowledge the ever-growing multicultural dimensions of our country. Even today, many of the comprehensive sex education programs, regarded as progressive and ideal, fail to address the multicultural differences in language, culture, religion, and values that shape our current student population.
Not surprisingly, ideological management has also played a major role in the history of sex education. The debate ultimately boils down to a question of what information is presented and distributed to children about sex, and whether it is the school’s responsibility to distribute that information. The discussion over sex education has brought to light the apparent hypocrisy of ideology as well, as parents and other conservative leaders believe in the need for sex education, yet want control over what that curriculum looks like and who’s culture and beliefs it represents. They aren’t comfortably doing it themselves, but they have no problem telling others how to do it.
In this respect, the debate over sex education is no different from the various other debates that have given rise to these major themes in American educational history. Thus, the controversy in Anaheim, California over sex education serves as an excellent case study of how these, and other themes emerge in the battle over sex education.
Beginning in 1962, a formal program of family life sex education began in Anaheim, as the school board sought to unify the instruction being provided by nurses and physical education staff. “The first controversy over sex education occurred in 1962, when some Anaheim parents complained about a film, shown by a coach, which discussed masturbation, one of the more sensitive topics in sex education”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p. 73). As was the common procedure at the time, the instruction was halted and a committee of community and civic leaders was formed to explore the question of sex education. It was found that there was overwhelming support from the community, and the program continued and actually developed into a national model for sex education at the time. Support from various pro-sex education organizations, such as SIECUS, encouraged the continued development of the program.
In 1968, James Townsend, a leader of the California Citizens’ Committee, publically demanded at an open board meeting that the authorities look into the sex education program. This marked the effective beginning of the controversy. Townsend and his followers were allowed to present their case openly, and were given amble time to construct a very persuasive argument. Unfortunately, instead of taking the information under advisement, investigating, and issuing a report, the board members in support of sex education went on the defensive. They argued with opponents and became too personally involved in the debate, instead of simply letting the program be reviewed. “Hence, their success in building a sex education program and the national recognition they had received seemed to force them into partisan roles and made them give up the public relations strategy that had served their interests in 1962”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p.77).
Additionally, in 1968, “Paul Cook, who had watched the district grow from its postwar infancy, had resigned as superintendent, and the sex education program was virtually abolished” (Hottois & Milner, 1975, p.74). Although programs in other cities around the country, such as areas of Texas and in Chicago, had experienced controversy as well, the debate was amplified in Anaheim. This was due in large part to the combination of a model program and a largely right-wing political population. Additionally, allowing extremist conservative Christian groups to participate fueled the fire. “The inclusion of these extremist groups into the sex education debate caused attention to be taken away from both legitimate opposition as well as the benefits of the program”(Paige C., 2009, p.1).
Although this was not the first time politics and religion had waded into the sexuality education waters, this debate did mark a turning point in the way curricular decisions were made based on the views of groups with no direct educational connection. Our ideas of “local control” were shifting from local educators to local citizens (with national support).
To be continued…
Marty Klein (2006) describes the current debate surrounding sex(uality) education as “America’s War on Sex“. Issues of government intervention and religious beliefs run rampant. We constantly question whose responsibility it should be to engage young people in conversations about sex(uality) and identity. As with most debates, answers range from anyone and everyone to no one at all. The answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle, with educators, parents/guardians/family members, and community members all playing a role in providing (sex)uality education for young people. Aside from a small percentage of the population that seeks to completely block all sex-related conversation from the eyes and ears of young people (good luck with that), most folks do agree that these conversations should be taking place. However, the “what” and “when” get a bit more complicated. The age-appropriateness of sex(uality) education continues to be a central topic of discussion among all stake-holders in this discussion, which the exception of the young people themselves, who rarely have their voices heard on the matter.
Whether the conversation begins in the classroom, the living room, or the community room, it needs to begin. Moreover, it needs to begin early, and should be continually reinforced and revisited throughout a young person’s development. In a sense, sex(uality) education should be a process of educational scaffolding that begins in kindergarten and progresses through grade 12. The National Sexuality Education Standards offer excellent guidelines for accomplishing this task.
Much of the fear concerning sex(uality) education seems to focus on the misguided notion that talking about sex(uality) will cause young people to more quickly engage in sexual behavior. Apparently, the consistent evidence that clearly indicates this is not the case needs to be more widely disseminated. Furthermore, research consistently indicates that young people receiving more comprehensive sex(uality) education engage in healthier behaviors, and in fact are often older at first intercourse than their peers who do not receive this education. So, we know that receiving sex(uality) education doesn’t cause young people to engage in sexual activity any sooner, and it increases the likelihood that they use contraception when they do choose to become sexually active. We also know that young people are engaging in sexual activity, albeit at relatively low levels, in middle school, and many are sexually active by the time they reach high school. So, why do we think it makes sense to wait until middle school and high school to begin having these conversations? Allowing young people to make informed decisions, after receiving increasing amounts of medically accurate information, seems like a no-brainer.
From here, however, things seem to get more complicated. Language is a powerful tool in communicating values and beliefs, and people are continually questioning the specifics of “age-appropriate”, which has historically been a very vague term. As a middle-school teacher in Kansas recently found out, some words have more power than others to communicate certain ideas to people, depending on their already-established mindset. Often, sex(uality)-related vocabulary is branded as “graphic” or “offensive”, which leads educators, parents, and community members to avoid using the words. As a result, young people are not gaining the appropriate vocabulary at an early age to express their feelings, or discuss the changes taking place to their own bodies as they mature.
I often begin my sex(uality) lectures with college students by engaging them in some sexual calisthenics. It’s amazing to watch as a group of college students are unable to say words like “penis”, “vagina”, and “vulva” without giggling. This is learned discomfort. This is learned alienation from our own bodies. Young people should be able to correctly identify their body parts by the time they leave kindergarten. This language needs to be part of a growing vocabulary, along with the ABC picture books we use to help them develop their language skills. When we teach them to say “penis” instead of “wee-wee”, we aren’t just giving them a vocabulary lesson. We are also communicating the idea that our bodies are our own, that we should respect them (and those of others), and that there is nothing embarrassing about discussing and exploring our bodies.
Sexuality is a part of all of us, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. Delaying discussions about sex(uality) is like giving young people high-powered sports car before teaching them to drive. It just doesn’t make sense. Different medical, parenting, education, and community sources offer suggestions for age-appropriate sex(uality) content. None of these offer a complete picture of the diversity of young people and their needs, based on social and environmental factors. However, embracing the necessity of age-appropriate sex(uality) education will help to reinforce the beauty and responsibility that comes with being a sexual being. These are lessons that can’t wait. Young people aren’t waiting to engage in the behavior, so we can’t wait to talk about it either.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Voltaire