Despite the fact that the history of the sex education movement in
America started in the late 19th
century, the general public in America
is still rather illiterate on sexual issues. Sexual illiteracy defined as
“either not knowing the facts or being misinformed about a range of sexual
topics, including AIDS, contraception, homosexuality, erection problems,
infidelity, and menopause” (Reinisch, p 1). The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex was published in 1990 in
response to the results of the Kinsey Institute/Roper Organization National Sex
Knowledge Survey which demonstrated that 55% of the 1974 survey participants
received an F grade at the end of the study (ibid., p 2). This book is a 540
page question-and-answer book designed to educate and raise awareness of a
variety of issues pertaining to human sexuality including, but not limited to,
anatomy, attraction, hormones, puberty, disability, parenthood, contraception,
health, SDIs, etc.
Feminist activism can be utilized to add perspective and critical analysis to issues regarding sex education. The current argument that American sex education finds itself in the debate over the nonsensical “abstinence only” approach which the religious right puts forth. I believe that celibacy is a personal decision that neither government nor religion should play a role in. Although one can choose celibacy, that shouldn’t excuse ignorance on issues pertaining to sexuality, therefore, those who choose to be sexually active have even less excuse for being ignorant. “Abstinence only” education only perpetuates ignorance on sexual issues.
“Abstinence only” education came to the fore during the Reagan Administration, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop attempted to get his AIDS report endorsed by the White House staff. Koop continually encountered opposition from Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief advisor on domestic policy. According to Koop, Bauer stated, “the nation was facing the problem of AIDS simply because it had abandoned traditional morality, and it would not get out of the situation until we returned to that morality” (Melody, p 208). This recurring theme of “traditional morality” still continues to play in legislative and governmental policies pertaining to everything from sex education, and abortion/women’s health issues, to gay rights and funding for research in human sexuality.
Sex education in the late 1800s
Although “marriage manuals” (aka “marriage guides”) were available in that era in history, most of them were medically inaccurate, only advocated sex within the context of marriage, and celibacy outside of marriage. Masturbation was viewed as unhealthy, as presented in the Bible pertaining to Onan committing a sin by spilling his seed; seed which should always be used in the act of procreation (Melody, p 235).
An early pioneer of sexual education was John Humphrey Noyes (1811 – 1886), who in 1848 founded the Oneida Community, a utopian settlement in upstate
New York which lasted
until 1881. The Oneida Community, which was briefly mentioned in the Levy
article, is an intriguing case study of an alternative setting and deserves
closer inspection (Levy, p 1). It was a religious commune, an alternative
setting for Noyes and his followers; they practiced open marriage for which he
coined the term “free love.” His wife, Harriet Maria Worden, gave birth five
times, with only one child surviving. John promised her never to put either one
of them through that ordeal again. This was the starting point of his natural male
birth control method which utilized the contraction of the puboccygeus muscle (a.k.a.
pc muscle, the same muscle used for Kegel exercises in women) in order to
experience orgasm without ejaculation: he called this method, “Male
Continence.” Word of his method spread quickly and became so popular, that he
received letters from all over America
asking for information about it. This prompted him to publish the short book,
“Male Continence” in 1872 (Noyes). The fact that Noyes discussed birth control
as the responsibility of the male is groundbreaking even by today’s standards:
modern-day discussions on birth control still circulate around the woman’s
responsibility. Noyes' short book can be found posted at the Syracuse University Library website . Here's the link Male Continence
Noyes’ book utilized consciousness-raising: it was being transported via the postal system and sold throughout the country. This, alas, was short-lived as just one year later, in 1873; the implementation of the Comstock laws took effect, which prohibited the distribution of “obscene” materials via the mail. What was deemed “obscene” was rather vague; artwork, novels, scientific and medical information on birth control were confiscated and those distributing these items were often arrested and sent to jail (Brown, p 2).
Sex education in the early 1900s mainly focused on educating the public regarding “social diseases” (i.e. diseases which would affect family life in society as a whole). This is the time when discussion of venereal diseases first became part of an organized movement of education. This education was to be handled by private agencies as opposed to schools. The “Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis” was founded in 1905 in
New York City
and the “American Federation for Sex Hygiene” as well as the “American
Vigilance Association” was founded in 1912. All three groups addressed
sexuality from hygienic standpoint and were especially concerned with
prostitution as a “social vice.” The “Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis”
declared the aim “to promote the appreciation of the sacredness of human sexual
relations, and thereby to minimize the moral and physical evils resulting from
ignorance and vice” (ibid. p 3).
This emphasis on the betterment of society was part of the larger Progressivism movement which started in the late 1900s and lasted until the 1920s. Progressivism was a grassroots social reaction to the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the industrial elite. The goals of the movement were broad and included, but were not limited to: reforming labor conditions, voting rights, immigration policies, tax issues, women’s voting rights, and to rein in the abuses of big business from the so-called “gilded age.” Under presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the movement initiated far-reaching reforms, and addressed some of the most egregious inequalities and violations of civil protections in American society. The founding of Jane Addam’s Hull House was part of the progressive era, which acted as an alternative setting for meetings and social change, as well as a venue for consciousness-raising within the community covering various issues including birth control and sex education (Link, p 79).
During the early 1900s, sex education wasn’t comprehensive, it was broken down into various different aspects such as, medical (hygiene, disease), marriage manuals (which only covers the bare minimum sex info for young married couples), and birth control information. Under the Comstock laws all of these were deemed obscene and confiscated (Vostral, p 121).
One of the most prominent activists to fight the repressive Comstock laws was Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) who spearheaded the grassroots birth control movement. She was a nurse in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (just across the river from
She had witnessed the spread of preventable diseases due to malnutrition and
poor living conditions, as well as watching women die from self-induced
abortions. She published pamphlets with information on birth control methods in
hopes of raising consciousness and, as a result, was arrested and charged with
violating postal obscenity laws. The media attention to her arrests resulted in
promoting her cause, thus “making the private political”. Sanger coined the
term “birth control” and founded the American Birth Control League (which
became Planned Parenthood in 1942) (Steinem).
The first victory for Margaret Sanger was in 1936, when the court ruled in favor of the right to distribute pamphlets on birth control as well as birth control devices via the postal system. The presiding judge ordered “a sweeping liberalization of federal Comstock laws, ruling that contemporary data on the damages of unplanned pregnancy and the benefits of contraception meant that contraceptive devices and birth control could no longer be classified as obscene” (Planned Parenthood website). Although this applied only to
New York, Vermont,
it wasn’t until the 1960s that the other states caught up and allowed married
couples to obtain birth control through their physicians (Ibid). Connecticut
The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental in early sex research and education. In 1921, it funded the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex, which sponsored studies spanning such diverse topics as illegitimacy, prostitution, abortion, and sexual practice of regular citizens (Cocks, p 48). The foundation also helped Sanger fund the first birth control clinic in
America, as well as funding
research into the chemical composition of spermicides (Bullough, p 135).
Even early cinema played its part in educating the public and raising consciousness. Lois Weber (1881 – 1939), one of the few female directors of that era, directed “Where Are My Children?”, a film which candidly discusses abortion and birth control. Weber was a supporter of Margaret Sanger and birth control; she made this film in order to raise consciousness and open up the discussion for the topics (Weber). Charlie Chaplin’s film, “The Kid” from 1921, made a bold criticism of societal stigmatization of unwed motherhood in its opening scene. Edna Purviance’s character walks out of a charity hospital with her newborn baby as the title card reads “the woman - whose sin was motherhood” (Chaplin). The issue of children born out of wedlock was a taboo subject in society at that time: Chaplin humanized Purviance’s character, and in so doing, he set the standard for consciousness-raising in film form.
Walt Disney produced a short animated film educating young girls about the menstrual cycle entitled, “The Story of Menstruation” which was a 10 minute animated short produced in 1946. It was shown in healthcare classes at schools; it was even awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. A gynecologist was hired to ensure that it was anatomically and medically accurate. The film desexualized menstruation portrayed it in a framework of hygiene: “Bleeding meant an introduction to adulthood, not a participation in it” (Vostral, p 122).
Hull House involvement in Birth Control Movement
I found an intriguing document in the Special Collections of UIC Library: it was a five page text recording the minutes of a meeting of the Birth Control Conference of the Chicago Woman’s Aid. The conference was held Thursday, December 5, 1929. It was found in
folder 135 of Chicago Women’s Aid Records. It mentions Dr. Rachelle Yarros and
Dr. Bacon as prominent activists in the birth control movement. Dr. Yarros was
affiliated with Hull House and was a strong advocate of birth control in Chicago in the early
The following points were made in the document:
The Comstock Law of 1879 categorized the dissemination of information on birth control as an obscenity. Half the states have enacted such obstructive laws, and in so doing, no medical textbook which contained information of birth control could be mailed in
the threat of prosecution. There was only one medical school which they were
aware of that educated to its students on contraception.
Legal, medical, sociological, and ethical paragraphs were given as logical reasons for birth control. A case was made for research in methods of contraception. War, famine, and disease as a result of overpopulation were addressed. There is a paragraph alluding to Eugenics, in which the case was made for the possible compulsory sterilization of “unfit” individuals. “The fact that some of the most unfit class of all – diseased and defective and parasitic – will not use contraceptive information or cannot be taught it, is a grave danger to the race” (p 3). This is a chilling statement which is reminiscent of totalitarian ideology, such as the Nazis.
The statement that “the mother of a growing family is presumably more valuable than one more child and should not be sacrificed for such” (Ibid) is a relevant question which is still being brought up today in political discussions regarding whether a women should get an abortion if it would save her life.
The most striking part of this document was the following quote: “We as men believe that if we had to undergo sickness, disfigurement, limitation of activities, discomfort, pain, danger, and sometimes death for the birth of a child, we would insist that it was our absolute right to choose our own time for the process. Therefore, we believe this an essential and absolute right of women and encourage them to claim such right” (Ibid). This is followed by the signing of the document by eighteen men, many of whom were doctors. To have so many men make such a strong and passionate statement is truly significant. It speaks volumes about how women were simply expected to be mothers and not concern themselves with the health risks involved in pregnancy. It is notable, however, that no females signed this declaration.
This paper is representative of other items in the collection because it addressed how contraception was viewed in its day. The document mentioned that the American Birth Control League received five thousand letters in one year asking for information on birth control. Despite the public outcry for such information, the Comstock Laws still held doctors and patients alike captive for fear of fines and imprisonment.
Ben Reitman was the lover of Emma Goldman and they both worked tirelessly to promote birth control. Reitman was nicknamed “the Hobo Doctor” because of his work with the downtrodden of society; the poor, the immigrants, prostitutes, hobos, etc. In 1916, the couple was arrested for endorsing birth control. Reitman served a six month sentence in jail, after which, the romantic relationship with Goldman ended (Reitman papers, 1).
This document is relevant because it reveals the sad state of institutionalized ignorance on the subject of sex education and birth control in
battle for women’s rights over their own bodies has a long standing tradition
in American history. The struggle wages on in today’s political arena.
Kinsey’s Role in Sex Education and Consciousness-Raising
Alfred Kinsey played a major role in the consciousness-raising of issues pertaining to sexuality. His research in human sexual behavior was groundbreaking not only in the depth and scope of the subjects he covered, but also in the fact that he set the stage educating the public by publishing his research findings.
He didn’t intend to be a sex researcher, but fate called him to task. It all started when the Surgeon General, Thomas Parran, asked for nationwide testing due to a rise in syphilis rates. In response,
University’s student paper, the Daily
Student, published an article on February 15, 1938 calling for “compulsory
Wasserman tests for all Indiana
students” (Jones, p 318). Students started writing to the paper with complaints
about the sorry state of sex education at the university. The
consciousness-raising of the students prompted Kinsey to volunteer in developing
a class on sex and marriage. He taught the non-credit marriage course to
married couples and seniors and it was an instant success (ibid. p 327). Thus,
Kinsey used consciousness-raising in a university setting.
Kinsey offered advice to students who approached him with questions concerning sexuality. He started collecting the sexual histories of his students and found that human sexual behavior exhibited diverse variation, echoing the variation he observed in his studies of the physical characteristics of gall wasps. He continued collecting sexual histories, ranging from that of the faculty to the groundskeepers on campus (American Experience).
Kinsey’s work was not without detractors. Some of the faculty pressured the university president, Herman Wells, to remove Kinsey from the marriage course. Wells, who supported Kinsey’s work, decided to give Kinsey an ultimatum: choose between continuing the research and continuing to teach the course. In 1940, Kinsey chose the research (American Experience).
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
Kinsey continued collecting sexual histories and in 1941, he acquired a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund his sex research. Between 1941 and 1946, he assembled his research staff: Clyde Martin (1918 - ), Wardell Pomeroy (1913 – 2001), and Paul Gebhard (1917 - ). Kinsey and his team constructed a survey containing about 300 questions. The first set of questions were demographic (age, religious background, work, etc), and the remaining questions investigated a wide variety of sexual activity. In the questionnaire, sex was defined as to the point of ejaculation. First the team questioned locals, then they traveled the country and questioned over 5,300 males (Biography). The resulting book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948 and sold about 500,000 copies and was an instant success (American Experience).
The resulting data shattered the way
America perceived itself. Kinsey
reported that more than 90% of American males masturbated, 85% have had
premarital intercourse, 70% had patronized a prostitute at least once in their
lives, almost 60% have had oral sex, and 30% to 45% had engaged in extramarital
intercourse. What was most shocking, however, was that 37% of those interviewed
reported to have engaged in homosexual activity at some point in their lives
(Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin, p 650). The book was a huge success and hit the
best-sellers list, thus propelling Kinsey to the iconic status of being a
household name. This form of consciousness-raising on the subject of sexuality
was unprecedented; the fact that he not only mentioned homosexuality but gave
statistics on it thus kick-starting the gay rights movement (leaping) by
helping individuals understand that they were not alone, (D’Emilio, p 80).
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
Kinsey’s work collecting sexual histories continued and in 1947, he established the Institute for Sex Research at
. In 1953,
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published, coincidentally; the first
issue of Playboy came out that same year. 5,940 women were interviewed. It sold
over 200,000 copies in the first two months and revealed that more than 90% of
females had indulged in sexual petting, 66% had sexual dreams, 62% had
masturbated, 50% have had premarital sex, 19% had engaged in homosexual
activity, 14 % have had multiple orgasms, and 26% had had extramarital sexual
encounters (Kinsey et al 299). Indiana
This data shocked the nation. The image of a wholesome, puritanical society was forever shattered. Churches and religious groups were up in arms. Billy Graham (1918 - ) published a pamphlet stating, "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of
Doctor Kinsey's report shows itself to be completely lopsided and unscientific
when it says that seven out of ten women who had pre-marital affairs had
no regrets. He certainly could not have interviewed any of the millions of
born-again Christian women in this country who put the highest price on virtue,
decency and modesty” (Billy Graham).
Kinsey and the McCarthy Era
It wasn’t long before the media attacked Kinsey’s books as being a threat to American family values, thus, in their eyes, making a Communist takeover of
possible. The Indianapolis Times ran the headline, “‘Kinseyism’ Aids Reds”
(American Experience). Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908 – 1957) from Wisconsin requested the
Carnegie, Rand, and Ford Foundations to appear in front of the House
Investigations Committee in order to justify their grants and ensure that the
Communists hadn’t infiltrated their organizations. The witch-hunt didn’t end
there, the State Department fired hundreds of employees whom they suspected
were gay (Jones 630). J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the F.B.I., (1895 – 1972)
maintained a file on Kinsey. Once the Rockefeller Foundation was called
forward, B. Carroll Reese (1889 – 1961), who lead the Senate Special Committee
on Tax Exempt Foundations, condemned Kinsey’s work. As a result, the
Rockefeller Foundation cut Kinsey’s funding in 1954 (American Experience).
Kinsey had in effect been censored. His dreams of completing his research and collecting 100,000 interviews for further volumes on the study of human sexuality were shattered. He planned on publishing a book on the relationship of arts to sexual behavior, which looked into how sexual history of individuals (i.e. their love maps) translated into their work as artists. This work never got published. Two other books which he was working on were “Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion” published in 1958, and the other entitled “Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types” published in 1967. These books were published by his surviving fellow researchers Paul Gebhard and Wardell Pomeroy (interview, Kinsey Institute). The censoring of Kinsey demonstrates that sex education and research has frequently fallen victim to totalitarian ideologies of the authoritarian political agendas.
Kinsey’s Legacy in Consciousness-Raising and Research lives on
In 1982, The Kinsey Institute officially changed its name to The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. The Kinsey Institute continues to conduct research in various aspects of human sexuality. Alfred Kinsey’s research asked what humans do, the Institute now asks why humans do it. Current questions regarding human sexuality pertain to neurochemistry, hormones, mood, psychology of relationships and pairbonding, what effects partner choices, etc.
KinseyConfidential.org is a site for information on sexual health and contains podcasts, newsblogs, and an on-line Question & Answer section. The Kinsey Institute hosts sexology conferences, lectures, and art exhibits on various aspects of human sexuality, as well as an extensive library (Kinsey Institute website). The vast resources listed on the Kinsey Institute website, including their downloadable broadcasts and question-and-answer sessions work to raise consciousness and educate the public. The Kinsey Institute library is only accessible for research by scholars and students and is not open to the general public (Kinsey Institute website).
Scarleteen: Alternative Consciousness-Raising
Scarleteen is an online sex and blog founded in 1998 by Heather Corinna, a feminist activist and sexuality counselor at the feminist women’s healthcare Center in
The center provides birth control, reproductive health care, and community
education in an alternative setting. The Yakima, Washington health
Center is one of only 14 non-for
profit abortion providing feminist health centers in the country (Feminist
Women’s website). Health Center
Addressing teenage questions and concerns regarding sexuality, Scarleteen provides a wealth of information on a variety of subjects covering teenage sex, birth control, body image, dating, breaking up, sexual orientation, etc. Scarleteen’s motto is “Sex ed for the Real World: Inclusive, Comprehensive and Smart Sexuality Information and Help for Teens and 20s” (Scarleteen website). This utilizes the Internet to create consciousness-raising in education outside of the usual structured environment of schools and parents. This is a good alternative for sex education since most parents themselves are not well educated on the subject and therefore lacked the scientific knowledge to bestow onto their children.
Sex Education in Public Schools in
There are recent developments in the teaching of sex education in
Chicago schools. It has been announced that
sex ed will be taught starting at the kindergarten level with age-appropriate
issues in every subsequent grade. Kindergarten through third grade will learn about inappropriate touching,
fourth-graders about puberty and HIV, fifth-graders about reproduction,
contraception, and prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STI’s. Students will also
be taught about sexual orientation and gender identity although it does not
mention which grades this would start in (Chicago Public Schools website). This
is the result of Chief health officer for Chicago
public schools, Dr. Stephanie Whyte, advocating for more comprehensive sex ed
in schools due to data which demonstrates increased incidence of STI’s in the
population of teens. Teenagers make up about one third of the reported cases of
chlamydia and gonorrhea (Transforming Communities website).
CPS is framing this curriculum in the context of health and hygiene issues, in order to avoid the word “sex” which often times results in an overreaction from religious groups and the conservative movement. This of course hasn’t stopped the medium from being sensationalistic and framing the argument as exposing sex to children. A simple Google search reveals dozens of media sources as framing it in the context of “Sex Ed for Kindergartners?” thus courting controversy from the general public, which is typical of media to do regarding issues of sexuality. I had interviewed a principal a Chicago Public School in Chicago in order to find out more about the upcoming changes in sex education proposed for CPS schools. He stated that he had not heard anything about this before me mentioning it, and said that he would ask Mayor Emanuel on their next meeting together (Principle interview).
I was unable to obtain an interview with a principle or physical education/sex ed teacher at a public school, so I interviewed Miss Bodemueller, who is a high school student at a charter school in
She had taken sex ed classes in ninth and tenth grades (2011 – 2012). The co-ed
class was taught by the physical education teacher and the course went on for
about three weeks, three times a week, 80 minutes each day. The course covered
STI’s, pregnancy, AIDS/HIV, condom use (demonstrated with a banana), tampon
use, sexual orientation, yet did not cover issues regarding intersex. The
teacher did however state that the teens are welcome to come to her in the
future regarding further questions on sexuality (Miss B, interview).
In closing, I would like to state that the public knowledge on sexuality in
is still severely lacking. It never fails to amaze me how full-grown adults who
are even older than me, are blissfully unaware of even the basics of anatomy
and birth control. I should very much like to see a follow-up report on America’s
literacy issues of sexuality conducted with a larger and more demographically
representative sample. My educated guess is that the majority would still fail.
It is rather sad that we live in such a sexualized society, yet few seem to understand the basics of sex, gender, and reproduction; sexual illiteracy still prevails. The recurring theme found throughout the history of sex education in
is the opposition of the religious right and conservative leaders to any
policies/movements which would educate the public on such issues. With
knowledge comes power, and by limiting knowledge the public has less power to
understand and control rights concerning women’s bodies and reproduction. I
plan to go into sex education, preferably in an alternative setting
environment, as well as work in research and advocacy order to address the innumerous
misperceptions and myths that are pervasive within our society.
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