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…