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A Short History of Sex Education in the United States

We've Seen Pushes for Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education


sex education

Sex education has a long history in the United States

Image (c) PPFA

Sex education has been a part of American schools for a lot longer than a lot of people realize. In fact, as long ago as 1912, the National Education Association sought teacher training programs in sexuality education. By the 1940s groups like the U.S. Public Health Service were calling for sex education and by the 1950s national sex education programs had been created by the American School Health Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Education Association.

The next two decades saw a range of responses to sex education. On the one hand, starting in the 1960s, groups - often related to conservative Christian organizations - began to actively oppose sex education in the schools. At the same time sex education was also evolving. Many schools were teaching "life skills" and "family-life" education classes that covered topics beyond sex education.

One of the most progressive sex education programs was actually a religiously founded one called, About Your Sexuality. This was created by the Unitarian Universalists and ran from the 1970s to the 1990s, when it was replaced by a less sexuality focued program called, Our Whole Lives.

As the decades passed, it wasn't only this program that saw changes. In the 1980s sex education was forced to adapt to tackle the emerging AIDS crisis and in 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, released a report stating that education about HIV / AIDS must be included in public school curriculum.

This had a big impact. As an article in Rethinking Schools explains,

"Koop's report helped promote sexuality education [but] it also forced the Religious Right to rethink its opposition strategies. Even the most conservative of sex-ed opponents now found it difficult to justify a total ban on the topic. Instead, the Right responded with a new tactic: fear-based, abstinence-only sexuality education."

Abstinence-only education got even more traction at a surprising time: under Democratic President Bill Clinton. In 1996, Clinton signed something that became known as the welfare-to-work bill, which was designed to cut people off social assistance. Tucked into this bill was funding for abstinence-education!

When the Bush administration came to power a few years later, they increased the amount of money for abstinence-only education and by the early 2000's almost every state (California was always a hold out) had taken federal money to teach a very limited view of human sexuality.

But study after study was finding that abstinence education was flawed on many different levels.

For one thing it wasn't even meet its own goals of preventing teen sex. It turned out that teens who learned to abstain often had sex, but without the benefit of contraception or condoms. There were other problems as well, including the fact that, GLBT issues were either totally left out of the curriculum, or teens were warned of made up dangers related to being gay.

Due to these problems, by the mid-2000s, fewer and fewer states were accepting federal money for abstinence programs. But there were still plenty of holdouts who were gunning for ever more abstinence education.

When the Obama administration took over much of the federal funding for abstinence-only education was cut. Though a significant number of states were still using state money to fund abstinence programs, by the end of 2011, the majority had cut their abstinence programs.

Also at the end of that year, a bill called the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, (introduced back in 2009 as the REAL Act) was introduced. The bill created funding for a national comprehensive sex education program. One of the requirements was that "all funded programs be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual youth and meet the needs of young people who are and are not sexually active."

As of spring of 2012, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act had been read twice by the Senate and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. In the House, it has been referred to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Currently it is still in the subcommittee awaiting a vote.

If it passes, this will be a true turning point on sex education in the United States.

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