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Race, Gender, and Sex Education in 20th-Century Americaunlocked

Race, Gender, and Sex Education in 20th-Century Americaunlocked

  • Courtney Q. ShahCourtney Q. ShahDepartment of History, Lower Columbia College


A concerted movement to promote sex education in America emerged in the early 20th century as part of a larger public health movement that also responded to the previous century’s concerns about venereal disease, prostitution, “seduction,” and “white slavery.” Sex education, therefore, offered a way to protect people (especially privileged women) from sexual activity of all kinds—consensual and coerced. A widespread introduction into public schools did not occur until after World War I. Sex education programs in schools tended to focus on training for heterosexual marriage at a time when high school attendance spiked in urban and suburban areas. Teachers often segregated male and female students.

Beyond teaching boys about male anatomy and girls about female anatomy, reformers and educators often conveyed different messages and used different materials, depending on the race of their students. Erratic desegregation efforts during the Civil Rights movement renewed a crisis in sex education programs. Parents and administrators considered sexuality education even more dangerous in the context of a racially integrated classroom. The backlash against sex education in the schools kept pace with the backlash against integration, with each often used to bolster the other. Opponents of integration and sex education, for example, often used racial language to scare parents about what kids were learning, and with whom.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the political power of the evangelical movement in the United States attracted support for “abstinence-only” curricula that relied on scare tactics and traditional assumptions about gender and sexuality. The ever-expanding acceptance (both legal and social) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity directly challenged the conservative turn of abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs. The politics of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation have consistently shaped and limited sex education.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Women's History

The Roots of Sex Education in the United States

The development of sex education in the United States has consistently tracked contemporary political and scientific ideas about gender and race. Scientists, reformers, and educators have long understood sexuality as a biological function, however profoundly it has been shaped by prevalent stereotypes and cultural understandings about race and sex. Thus, sex education developed in a restrictive, segregated milieu.

The sex education movement in the United States initially developed outside of schools. Aimed at adults, medical home reference books and marriage manuals grew in the 19th century along with the burgeoning publishing industry and rising literacy rates. However, sex education materials were limited by the 1873 Comstock laws, which broadly defined obscenity to include information about contraception and abortion.1 Authors turned to the black market or euphemistic workarounds to communicate, as clearly as possible, medical and marital advice about pregnancy, contraception, and venereal infections.

Commercially available health manuals also taught men and women of all races how to achieve middle-class sexual respectability as well as robust health. Even when these manuals offered the same advice, regardless of race, their marketing tactics revealed assumptions of racial difference. For example, in 1903, two identical sex education books appeared under different titles, one aimed at black and the other at white readers. Titles like Social Purity (aimed at white Americans) hinted at fears about racial purity, birth rates, and even eugenics, while Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation (aimed at African Americans) stressed the importance of respectability politics and family.2 Yet aside from the titles, prefaces, and illustrations, all of the advice was the same. By the turn of the 20th century, fears over declining birth rates among economic and educated elites, combined with a better understanding of the widespread nature and origins of diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, resulted in a demand for greater transparency (at least for privileged men) about sexual health.

American physicians like Prince Morrow, building upon the work of French physician Alfred Fournier, advocated broader sex education for the public. Morrow not only worked to spread medical knowledge about venereal diseases to the public but also organized doctors and philanthropists to build an infrastructure for sex education in the United States. This social hygiene movement, typified by Morrow’s establishment of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA, later the American Social Health Association) in 1914, complemented as well as competed with the burgeoning of Progressive reform.3 Sex education initially took the form of disease prevention aimed at men, since many medical professionals differentiated between the lifestyle of middle-class white women and the supposed danger of nonwhite and working-class women. Doctors wished to protect the first group from disease and threat, while they saw the latter group as a source of disease, seduction, and unbridled sexuality.

The ASHA tended to reach white, middle-class women in their early efforts at sex education. Their work primarily involved vague discussions of menstruation and pregnancy, but mostly stressed the need to be “pure.” In order to maintain female purity, physicians and laypeople alike often advocated that women receive no sexual information whatsoever in order to avoid stirring up inappropriate thoughts. Mainstream women’s rights the early 20th century challenged assumptions about the so-called code of silence on matters of sexuality, as well as about the double standard regarding sexual expectations. Maternalist reformers touted women’s sexual purity as a reason for enhancing female citizenship, claiming that morally superior women would rid America of the vices of prostitution, gambling, drinking, and sexual diseases. These strategies paved the way for greater property, parenting, and voting rights for women.

As women assumed greater roles in the early 20th-century public realm, however, they needed a basic knowledge of sex in order to protect themselves and their families. Purity advocates, active in such legislative campaigns as efforts to raise age-of-consent laws, also argued that society needed to hold men to the same purity ideal imposed on women, thereby challenging the assumption that men needed to exercise their sexual function in order to maintain health. Instead, purity organizations like the White Cross Society argued that both sexes should adhere to the more strict female code of morality. Radical voices like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman argued that women needed frank sex education, as well as contraception, in order to experience true freedom and equality. Reformers like Mary Ware Dennett published sex education materials that not only taught how to protect against disease but also celebrated the pleasure and fulfillment of sexual expression. Dennett, Sanger, and Goldman all came into conflict with obscenity laws for publishing materials discussing contraception.4 Sex radicals, free lovers, and birth-control advocates helped reshape both the legal and social concept of women’s sexual passivity by the onset of World War I.5

These early efforts at sex education were highly stratified on the basis of race as well as gender. The very notion of women’s sexual purity was a construction of white supremacy. Not all women qualified as being pure; a long-standing tradition of assuming nonwhite women’s aggressive or overdeveloped sexuality runs through colonial medical literature. African American and Mexican American women in particular were seen as having “tropical” blood, which made them sexually interested in (and interesting to) white men who demanded their attention. Police used racist assumptions about sexuality when enforcing anti-prostitution laws against African American and Mexican American women, whether or not there was any evidence of commercialized sex. White men crossing the color line for sexual encounters with women of color frequently defended their behavior as a way to protect white female purity and deny nonwhite purity.6 Historian Darlene Clark Hine discusses how African American women denied any evidence of recognized sexual expression as a form of “dissemblance,” a way of distancing themselves from pernicious stereotypes and keeping private and protected their true selves.7 Both in the medical and popular press, advice aimed at African American women stressed the need to protect their race through sexual purity.

The medical community, dominated by white elites, embraced a biological interpretation of white middle-class purity, theorizing that nonwhite, immigrant, and even working-class white women had different biological, as well as cultural, realities. Professional physicians, dominated by white men, described young nonwhite women as “precocious,” both in terms of experiencing early menarche and possessing a stronger sex drive. Of course, these assumptions tended to provide cover for men of all races who sought sexual liaisons with young, nonwhite or lower-class women.8 Sex education, guided by medical professionals and Progressive reformers like ASHA cofounder and president Charles W. Eliot and Indiana State Board of Health Secretary John N. Hurty, publicly linked sex hygiene education to the need to maintain racial purity and encourage eugenic legislation.9 Medical professionals, reformers, and eugenicists were not yet reaching a wide audience, although they often targeted politically powerful voices.

In 1917, the military draft illustrated the vital need for sex education, since approximately one-sixth of prospective soldiers were diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases.10 When the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson and his advisors assumed responsibility for the physical—and moral—preservation of young men from across the nation. The Great War provided the first large-scale sex education program in U.S. history, run by and for the military as part of emergency preparedness. Since the focus was soldiers, the materials were geared almost exclusively to men. Sex education curricula approved by the military included scant information on women’s anatomy or physiology. In order to maintain fighting efficiency, something had to be done. The military launched a multipronged program to encourage soldiers to avoid prostitutes, to treat those who contracted diseases, and to punish those who put themselves at risk.11 However, both the educational aspect and the medical treatment received by white and black soldiers differed greatly; in at least one instance, medical personnel treated African American soldiers with dirty needles, assuming that it was hopeless to try to prevent syphilis among African Americans. Recreational facilities to keep men away from houses of prostitution remained segregated on the basis of race, which diminished equal opportunities for “wholesome fun.”12

On the home front, public panic about sexually active young women led to governmental support for detention homes for girls infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Feminists like Lavinia Dock and Edith Houghton Hooker challenged the basic double standard that offered men prophylaxis and treatment while detaining, forcibly examining, and even incarcerating women. Often racially segregated, the prison-like facilities stressed education and rehabilitation for white women, while focusing on punishment for nonwhite women. Stereotypes about and discrimination on the basis of gender, class, and race all contributed to an uneven distribution of resources, unequal educational opportunities, and discriminatory punishments.13

Sex Education and Postwar Normalcy

With the end of World War I, public interest in sexually transmitted disease prevention dwindled, even as it gave rise to a movement to domesticate military-inspired sex education programs. The first widespread introduction of sex education curricula into schools occurred in the 1920s, in keeping with a broader public acknowledgment of sexual culture in the postwar period. After the war, the federal government and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) assembled their first reliable sexually transmitted disease statistics. They pulled their experience from the wartime efforts aimed at soldiers to launch federal programs like the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918. The Chamberlain-Kahn Act provided limited funds and support for sex education programs, anti-prostitution, disease prevention, and medical treatment for civilians.14

Sex education, in keeping with military standards, had to be efficient and broad based. The U.S. Public Health Service actively developed and distributed sex education materials to schools and community centers in the 1920s. Their pamphlets and curricula continued to stress the differences between male and female sexuality, as well as between races. For example, their “Youth and Life” and “Keeping Fit” posters segregated the messages of sexual health between white and black and between male and female, developing four separate poster sets. This is not surprising, considering how much the medical profession and the lay public attributed sexual immorality to racial stereotypes. Sex education was therefore segregated on the basis not just of gender but also of race. The divide between black and white was the most obvious divide in materials, although evidence suggests that other communities dealing with nonwhite populations directed resources and lessons to audiences based on racial stereotypes. Examining multiracial communities such as San Antonio, Texas, illustrates the ways in which communities of color could posit themselves in opposition to, or in alliance with, the white community to demand medical resources, policing, or educational support.15

Racial segregation for sex education was even more pronounced within schools. Jim Crow dominated the American South, but the North and West practiced racial segregation in less formal ways. So classroom lessons on sexuality were likely to be inflected by assumptions about racial and gender differences, assuming that white girls maintained sexual purity, white boys were aggressive, and nonwhite children were perceived as dangerously promiscuous.16 Within schools, outside professionals delivered lectures to form the backbone of sex education, although integrated sex education programs entered multiple disciplines such as biology and physical education. Often these lessons segregated students on the basis of sex, with girls in one class and boys in another. Boys and girls had little direct communication with one another regarding sex, nor did they learn about communication between the genders.

Unlike their 19th-century predecessors, 1920s marital adjustment classes acknowledged that women experienced sexual desire, but that desire needed to be contained and controlled within a healthy marriage. Repression, the Freudians argued, was destined to fail due to the strength and resilience of the human sex drive. But channeling sexuality into healthy relationships was the ultimate goal of modern marriage in order to prevent disease, disorder, and divorce. Restricting sexual expression to marriage presented a strategy for maintaining racial purity. Marital adjustment classes discussed the problems inherent in marrying someone outside of one’s religion or “values,” hinting at the challenges (both social and legal) of a variety of “mixed” marriages. Most states had anti-miscegenation laws, more or less enforced, prior to World War II. It would not be until the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967 that interracial marriage was recognized as legal throughout the United States.17

In addition to formal marital adjustment classes, informal sexual discussions increasingly found their way into popular culture during what historian Kevin White has called the “first sexual revolution.”18 The split between the so-called Victorians and the emerging “flapper” generation was reflected in popular sex education literature that ridiculed purity culture.19 Instead of treating women as passionless or uninterested in sex outside of procreation, 1920s sex educators tried to sell heterosexual marriage as the ultimate in sexual fulfillment. Of course, in order to have that happy marriage, one was expected to abstain prior to marriage or risk the dreaded “psychological maladjustment.” Building on the growing popular interest in psychology (especially the work of Sigmund Freud), sex education books and courses stressed that achieving a “normal” sex life was necessary in order to have a fulfilling marriage.

Mass-produced published works, fiction, and motion pictures continued the trend toward greater public discussion of sex. The works of F. Scott Fitzgerald popularized the sexually adventurous flapper generation. It can be argued that the war merely sped up changes already in process. Women’s sexual desire could also be directed toward other women, as portrayed in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall’s controversial work, despite efforts in both England and the United States to ban it, introduced the existence of same-sex desire among women to a broader audience than did European sex researchers like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. In other artistic contexts, the growing migration of African Americans into northern cities opened the door for expressions of black culture during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. White audiences could see black jazz clubs artists like Ma Rainey or Gladys “Fatso” Bentley push the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior, playing on themes of same-sex attraction and women’s sexual desire. This both normalized and exoticized sexual alternatives to “respectable” heterosexuality.

The increased commercialization of sex met with resistance from many fronts. As women took on greater public roles in reform and anti-obscenity work, reformers attacked the broadly defined Comstock laws (developed by men to protect supposedly innocent women and children). Changing laws and new media technology made it easier for audiences to access sexual materials than in previous generations. And many women, whether performers, audience members, or sex radicals, stood in opposition to efforts to limit access to “obscene” material. Unlike Anthony Comstock in the 19th century, women obscenity reformers in the 20th century differentiated between sexually explicit materials designed to educate and those designed to titillate.20

The seeming divide between popular culture and sex pedagogy was not nearly as sharp as it appears at first glance; a broad examination of sex education necessarily expands beyond the classroom to the places where young people actually receive messages about sexuality. This includes films and other forms of popular culture. In the 1910s and 1920s, Hollywood produced numerous “white slavery” and “social hygiene” films, using the excuse of education to justify their suggestive material. Reformers, parents, and the press alike warily noted the blending of education and entertainment. New technologies supplemented sex education courses, such as educational films screened in schools and out. The military produced two films during and immediately after World War I: “Fit to Fight” (aimed at soldiers) and “The End of the Road” (aimed at civilian women). Both depicted abstinence as the healthful ideal, but also included frank information about sexually transmitted diseases. Censors, who saw little problem with male soldiers receiving sexual information, balked at allowing audiences (especially mixed audiences) to view the film targeted at women, “The End of the Road.” Some towns went so far as to segregate screenings by race and gender in order to prevent any impropriety. Town censors feared that the young and impressionable could be subject to disturbing or dangerous ideas without proper chaperonage or context—and, even worse, in a darkened theater surrounded by strangers.21 Reformers were ambiguous about the role of film in education; on the positive side, visual learning could reach large, and possibly illiterate, audiences. On the negative side, some reformers feared the salacious attraction of new media.

Movies also provided an informal education, like novels, in romantic relationships and sexuality. Audiences consumed popular culture and emulated what they saw. In the 1935 book Our Movie Made Children, author Henry Foreman sounded an alarm by decrying the sex education provided to young people through movies: One high school student discussed how “it was directly through the movies that I learned to kiss a girl on her ears, neck and cheeks, as well as her mouth.”22 Film both reflected the changing culture and continued to push for greater change. Likewise, reformers—often but not always divided by gender—both pushed for an end to obscenity in films and expressed support for free speech.23

The sexual subtexts of films led to a wave of protests about the content of motion pictures, leading Hollywood to develop the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. Otherwise known as the Hays Code, it forbade films from depicting sexual impropriety, which, according to Hays, included interracial liaisons. Hollywood—and protesters who sought to shape Hollywood—occasionally linked threats to sexual propriety with threats to racial propriety. Hollywood cracked down on any film that presented romantic relations between white and black characters. The Hays Code included “miscegenation” (intermarriage) on the list of “obscene” topics.24

In addition to film and literature, advertising walked a fine line between entertainment and education. In true American fashion, feminine hygiene producer Kotex commercialized sex education in the 1920s by providing instructional materials as a way to encourage sales of their products. The company included sexual health information in its advertisements throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Appearing in prominent women’s magazines, Kotex advertisements included answers to women’s questions that shared the wisdom of experts, including female physicians and World War I military nurses.25

In the 1930s, marital adjustment classes continued to spread across college campuses in a concerted effort to prepare youth for marriage and social accord. Contrary to the ASHA strategy of the early 20th century, these classes stressed the positive, rather than the negative, aspects of sexuality but positioned the positives squarely in the context of heterosexual marriage. Marriage itself was evolving by the 20th century from an economic or procreative institution to one that stressed social and physical satisfaction. The liberalization of birth control and divorce laws changed even as it reflected mainstream assumptions about the purposes of marriage. If people expected marriage to be emotionally fulfilling, they nonetheless believed that young people needed to be taught how to achieve marital fulfillment. In service to this goal, emerging fields of expertise like social work and psychology attempted to link sex education with marital satisfaction and reproduction.

Surprisingly, scholars have found little formal resistance to sex education in the middle decades of the 20th century.26 Of course, this may reflect the sex educators’ success in normalizing (or, in the words of historian Jeffrey Moran, “domesticating”) sex education as part of family life curricula. Rather than limiting themselves to anatomical or physiological aspects, courses in high schools and colleges also focused on dating, marriage, and child rearing.27 Interestingly, as pedagogical methods evolved, classes in marital adjustment frequently included discussions of the problems inherent in “mixed” marriages—raising the possibility that two people from different backgrounds may face challenges in their marriage. Although in schools “mixed” usually referred to religious differences—Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Jewish—it may also have hinted at fears of interracial marriage. Even in integrated schools, administrations shied away from recognizing the possibility of interracial romance. Curricula deliberately avoided the topic of homosexuality, but the question/discussion format opened the door for students to address the topic with or without instructor guidance.28

Prior to World War II, American biology courses often included pseudo-scientific eugenics, which promoted “racial purity” as a desired goal. Building on the questionable science of figures eugenicists like British statistician Francis Galton and American educator Harry Laughlin, eugenic efforts in America included involuntary sterilization laws in thirty-three states and marital blood tests in nine states to check for sexually transmitted diseases.29 The war against the racist and genocidal Nazi Germany pushed many Americans to turn away from supporting eugenics as a governmental policy.

African American communities were particularly aware of the connection between eugenics and sex education efforts. Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, the demand for birth control and accurate sexual information among some African Americans ran counter to the interests of others to discourage birth control use in their communities. Birth control, as well as informed consent about medical procedures like sterilization, were interpreted differently by women desiring to control their fertility and those who had that right taken from them by racist sterilization practices by white medical or governmental authorities. Similar practices occurred in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and Indian reservations in the 1970s, when marginalized women were sterilized without consent or under duress. Communities of color remained suspicious of outside efforts to limit reproductive choices, especially as medical clinics or government agencies often used the argument that their patients did not have the education necessary to make informed decisions. Efforts to create independent, black-run clinics like the Harlem Clinic in the 1920s and 1930s faced resistance from Sanger’s Birth Control Research Bureau, which wished to maintain advisory power over the clinic. The independent effort to provide contraceptive information and devices to the women of Harlem was met with ambivalence, and in the trying economic context of the Great Depression, the clinic closed in 1936.30

World War II, like the preceding world war, increased awareness of sexually transmitted diseases and their threat to soldiers. The military worked with the USPHS to create sex education campaigns to encourage soldiers to avoid prostitutes and practice safe sex, using films, pamphlets, and posters aimed not just at soldiers but at civilians (including women). With the advent of penicillin in 1943, fear of diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea faded as science made strides to cure the most challenging of sexually transmitted diseases. 31 However, even this seemingly obvious medical innovation reveals the operation of racial assumptions and discrimination in the history of sex education. The long-running Tuskegee Syphilis Study, started in the 1930s, denied education or treatment to African American men infected with syphilis, even after the development of penicillin.32 Even when medicine could solve health problems, access to knowledge and treatment was often determined by race.

The postwar “age of consensus” was rocked by the publication of Indiana biologist Alfred Kinsey’s reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). While flawed in their design, especially regarding population selection, the reports carried the authority of science to show the American public that Americans participated in far more diverse sexual practices than the public (or sex educators) realized. Surprisingly high percentages of both men and women reported same-sex attraction and response.33

By the 1950s, the ASHA was raising funds from philanthropic foundations to develop and introduce Family Life Education (FLE) classes at various schools across the country. These did not necessarily address sexual biology, but they discussed such matters as dating and courtship, marriage, and preparation for parenthood. The goal for these courses was to maintain or create idealized middle-class marital bliss. Public outcry over the supposed epidemic of juvenile delinquency, coupled with the shock of the Kinsey reports on American sexual behaviors, emboldened educators to stress that Family Life Education could and would stave off social problems. However, FLE programs struggled to demonstrate that they influenced students’ marital lives.34 The ASHA, which started as an organization primarily interested in spreading scientific ideas about sexual health, had retreated into a more sanitized (and less controversial) approach of social and psychological adjustment. Whatever the approach, the messages about extramarital sexual expression were roughly the same: Don’t do it. But the reasoning changed. With the elevation of psychological expertise, sex outside of marriage became psychological dysfunction rather than sin; rather than sentencing one to hell, illicit sex doomed one to disastrous personal and relationship development.35

Midcentury family life education courses in high schools and colleges also used a pedagogical method that changed the nature of sex education. Group discussion and question and answer sessions stressed a collaborative and shared knowledge, rather than a top-down lecture from an expert. Even when using films, which transmitted information to a passive audience, educators frequently followed up with open-ended discussions. This allowed the students themselves to help shape the messages and lessons. While the “expert” no doubt guided students in developing their attitudes toward sex and relationships, students themselves both challenged and reshaped their teachers’ messages to create lessons that made sense to them.36

In general, course materials used white, middle-class, heterosexual families as the norm. However, documentary films like Palmour Street, featuring a southern African American family, were shown in FLE classes in Oregon to predominantly white audiences. Black churches and other community organizations worked to shape youth programs to provide safe recreation and information for young people, with mixed success.37 Reticence on the part of churches in particular meant that much of the community-organized adolescent programs focused on respectability, rather than on forthright information.38 But dependence on schools as the arbiter of sex education left communities of color at a disadvantage as well. As scholar Laina Bay-Cheng has noted, school-based sex education has throughout its history has failed to address race, gender, and class adequately. The lessons continue to be shaped by sexist, racist, and classist notions.39

The movement of sexual discourse from the private realm of the family to the public realm of the government and the schools was another sign of major changes to come, many of them catalyzed by World War II. The war provided a turning point, challenging conservative standards of sex, gender, and race. Fear of changing gender norms, sexual standards, and sex across the color line motivated (or justified) opposition to the rapid changes in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and gay rights.

Sexual Revolution and Conservative Backlash

Changes in sexual expression in the 1960s created what historians have dubbed the second sexual revolution, marked by such landmarks as the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in 1960. Popular images of the decade focused on an increase in casual sex and greater freedom for women to have sex without fear of pregnancy. The conservative FLE or ASHA curricula in American schools had largely ignored formal discussion of frank sex education in the early 1960s, seeming out of step with the popular culture of the time. As the baby boom generation came of age, many teenagers and college students challenged accepted norms at midcentury as they related to a number of issues, including gender roles, foreign policy, Civil Rights, and sex education.

It was at this time that Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, who had served as Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s medical director since 1953, went out on her own to create the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Founded in 1964, SIECUS presented a clear message of sex positivity, or the idea that sex, so long as it is safe and consensual, can be healthy and pleasurable. Sex, Calderone argued, should be seen as a vital aspect of life, not a “problem” to be feared. Calderone and her colleagues argued that the purpose of sex education should be to disseminate morally neutral information, not to force moral standards onto people, so that they could make their own decisions.40 If the message of the 1960s was to question authority, Calderone positioned her organization as both a voice of medical expertise and a voice celebrating a youth-oriented model of sex education centered on peer groups.

Amid the upheaval of the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement challenged existing models of expertise in sexual education. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, for example, reoriented expertise from physicians (usually male) to the everyday experiences of women themselves. Emerging out of feminist discussion groups, the collective produced a series of essays about women’s health issues, including robust material on topics like birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, lesbianism, menstruation, and menopause. The collective made its essays commercially available as the book Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971), which publishers continued to revise and sell for future generations.41

White protesters tied sex education more to fears of a loss of racial purity than to school desegregation. Throughout the Civil Rights movement, segregationists used the threat of interracial sex as a bludgeon to fight change.42 Jim Crow laws in schools and swimming pools were designed to prevent interracial liaisons and protect racial purity.43

This was not just a southern phenomenon, nor was it restricted to drawing lines between white and black populations. Throughout the 20th century, local school boards and communities restricted school attendance based on race. In 1906, for example, California Senator James D. Phelan had written about the state’s efforts to restrict Japanese students from whites as a way to protect white girls from “predatory” Asian men.44 Fear of social and school desegregation bled into other conservative fears about federal versus local power. A prime example of this is the grassroots conservative movement centered in Anaheim, California. In the 1960s, the Anaheim school district had implemented a sex education curriculum based on the Family Life model. Rumors about the curriculum ran rampant—often delving into salacious untruths or half-truths—prompting parents to see sex education as a radical threat to the family and religious moral authority. Some even linked the program to a communist plot. Between 1969 and 1970, the battle over sex education in the Anaheim school district resulted in massive limitations on the films and texts used, as well as a massive drop in the number of students enrolled in sex education.45 This went hand in hand with other grassroots conservative movements, including Anaheim’s activism against desegregation through busing. The battle over local control of schools emphasized parents’ rights to determine sexuality, morality, and purity (racial and otherwise) as an issue of freedom from government control.

The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s created another motivation for greater sex education efforts, though of course not without major controversy. Political and religious conservatives who had the ear of President Ronald Reagan sometimes packaged AIDS as a “gay plague” or divine retribution for immoral behavior among homosexual men and drug users. However, the U.S. Public Health Service launched one of the largest public education campaigns in American history to combat AIDS. In 1988, Surgeon General C. Everett Coop, a Reagan appointee and evangelical Christian, surprised his supporters by providing accurate and forthright information on AIDS transmission with morally neutral language and scientific findings. Many conservatives criticized this nuanced but medically explicit approach.46 Koop framed the AIDS crisis as a public health problem, despite any moral misgivings. Yet a few years later, in 1994, U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, speaking at a United Nations conference on AIDS, responded to a question about masturbation by theorizing that it could be promoted as a safer alternative to other sexual activity. Public outrage at the notion of the government and schools “teaching” masturbation led to President Bill Clinton distancing himself from his appointee, and to her eventual termination. It may be no surprise that public criticism did not destroy the career of a white, male, medical expert; yet when an African American woman in the same position challenged the conventional wisdom of morality over scientific pragmatism, Elders was forced to resign.

Education efforts in the era of AIDS did not affect all communities equally. The long history of political, social, and economic marginalization led to African American communities being underresourced; segregated medical facilities led to a lack of access to health care and health information. And, understandably, black communities feared governmental and medical efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, remembering all too well the willingness of white government doctors to exploit black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and black women with nonconsensual sterilizations.47 Cathy J. Cohen’s study on black community responses to the AIDS crisis notes numerous factors that influenced black responses to AIDS. Cohen argues that it was far more complicated than moralistic or homophobic responses by socially conservative institutions like black churches; black political communities relied on respectability politics and focused attention on myriad issues that they felt would not further marginalize an already vulnerable population.48

In the 1980s and 1990s, conservative evangelical politicians pushed for federal policy that would guarantee funding for “abstinence-only” programs in American high schools. Advocates of comprehensive sex education have long criticized these programs as insufficient for coping with the problems of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Before the 21st century, abstinence-until-marriage programs inherently discriminated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth by either failing to recognize homosexual contact as legitimate sex or failing to recognize homosexual partnerships as relationships worthy of recognition. Abstinence-only programs have also been criticized for spreading scientifically inaccurate information and lionizing traditional gender and sexual stereotypes as scientific fact.49 The demography of the students affects the ways in which even a standard curriculum has been implemented. Lorena Garcia notes how sex education messages to Latina girls reify long-standing white stereotypes about them as uncontrollably fertile, playing on political narratives opposing immigration and a loss of cultural hegemony.50

Anti-abortion politics, spearheaded by conservative Christian groups, have also resulted in political attacks on one of the foremost providers of sex education information outside of schools: Planned Parenthood (formerly Sanger’s organization, the American Birth Control League). Efforts to defund or limit Planned Parenthood have continued (and intensified) into the 21st century. These attacks especially hurt working-class and minority neighborhoods, which often lack access to private health clinics. Similar to tactics concerning abstinence-only curricula, legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood have often been justified by the use of scientifically inaccurate or misleading information, such as studies purportedly claiming that abortion causes breast cancer. Sex education continues to be sacrificed at the altar of politics.51

By the turn of the 21st century, a new technology was presenting both advantages and dangers regarding access to sexual information: the Internet. SIECUS, the American Social Health Association, and other educational institutions attempt to provide medically accurate and morally neutral information online. But the Internet is flooded with information from an array of sources with a vast variety of purposes. Current research shows that many people “learn” about sexuality through the consumption of pornography, which often presents troubling messages about consent, safety, and power.52 Some of the earliest studies about sex education, including Clelia Duel Mosher’s study of women coming of age in the Victorian era, noted that respondents turned to pornography or erotica to fill in gaps in their knowledge.53 The challenge of sex education in the 21st century is not so much attaining information but evaluating its legitimacy. Scientific and cultural experts have long assumed that masculinity, heterosexuality, and whiteness defined the normal in American sexuality. Challenges to those assumptions, especially through the increased visibility of women’s rights, racial equality, and LGBTQ visibility, have played out repeatedly in the debates over sex education. Whether people are learning their lessons from furtive glances at medical books, lectures in high school health classes, or internet searches, sex education continues to be shaped by our understanding of gender and racial politics.

Discussion of the Literature

Historians have more or less always employed gender as a significant category of analysis in understanding sex education. Recent scholarship has included race as well, which brings to light how sex education developed in the Progressive era, an era of increased segregation and racial fear. Starting with the 1948 desegregation of the military and continuing into the modern Civil Rights movement, resistance to racial integration has often taken the form of sexually charged discussions and behaviors. Danielle McGuire’s work on sexual assault and the Civil Rights movement demonstrates how examining sexuality can tremendously alter our previous understandings of history.54

The field would benefit immensely from greater understanding of the place of race in both the history of medicine and sexuality. In the context of the United States, historians have traditionally viewed race through the lens of black/white relations. It is vital to add in communities of color, including Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American perspectives, to show the diversity of racial hierarchies and challenges, and how the national narrative of segregation and racial discrimination could play out differently in different areas of the country. Scholarship looking at multiracial communities in major cities and the southwestern borderlands continues to promise a deeper understanding of how race has affected sex education.55

In the 21st century, the history of sexuality and sex education includes far more interest in queer studies, bringing to light the experiences of people from the LGBTQ community. Interest in southern queer history by scholars like John Howard and E. Patrick Johnson challenges the urban, white, and northern setting of gay life in America. Considering not only cities like New York and San Francisco but also places like Mississippi and Georgia will open doors to understanding the informal networks of sexual culture and education away from the spotlight.56

Lastly, the role of religion plays a crucial role in how Americans think about sex. From its roots in the sexual purity movement, sex education in the United States has always been affected by warring definitions of morality shaped by religious identity. Early 20th-century definitions of women’s sexuality, contraception, and the erasing of same-sex attraction followed religious strictures. When it didn’t, the Catholic Church and other religious organizations challenged—sometimes successfully—the changing scientific and social findings. The late 20th-century movement for abstinence-only education is a specific product of evangelical Christian political action. The advent of a more supportive LGBTQ-inclusive society challenges traditional understandings of gender, heterosexuality, marriage, and morality.

Primary Sources

The starting point for the study of institutional sex education is the archives of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Military and governmental records, such as the U.S. Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), provide a good starting point for information on the growth, legal framework, and funding of a national sex education movement.

Individual archives of movement leaders, such the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University, have digitized valuable resources from the early period of sex education. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University maintains an archive that includes the papers of sex researchers like Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, Virginia Johnson, and John Money, as well as institutions like the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. Sex education advocacy organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and SIECUS (Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States), allow access to considerable material, often varying tremendously from state to state.

Collections of medical journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrate a changing knowledge of sexual medicine and sexual health. When race in particular is examined, the Southern Medical Association and the Journal of the National Medical Association (a professional organization for African American medical practitioners) can be contrasted.

Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), formerly the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, continues to publish Our Bodies, Ourselves, as well as maintaining a Web site containing information regarding women’s and sexual health.

Further Reading

  • Bay-Cheng, Laina. “The Trouble of Teen Sex: The Construction of Adolescent Sexuality through School-Based Sexuality Education.” Sex Education 3.1 (2003): 61–74.
  • Brandt, Allan M. No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Carter, Julian B. The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Chen, Constance M. The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education. New York: New Press, 1996.
  • DeRogatis, Amy. “What Would Jesus Do? Sexuality and Salvation in Protestant Evangelical Sex Manuals, 1950s to the Present.” Church History 74.1 (2005): 97–137.
  • Eberwein, Robert. Sex Ed: Film, Video and the Framework of Desire. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
  • Fields, Jessica. Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
  • Freman, Susan K. Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
  • Garcia, Lorena. Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Irvine, Janice M. Talk about Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Lord, Alexandra M. Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
  • Melody, Michael Edward, and Linda M. Peterson. Teaching America about Sex: Marriage Guides and Sex Manuals from the Late Victorians to Dr. Ruth. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • Moran, Jeffrey P. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn. “The Importance of Being Orgasmic: Sexuality, Gender, and Marital Sex Manuals in the United States, 1920–1963” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9.4 (2000): 447–473.
  • Pierce, Jennifer Burek. What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early Twentieth-Century America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
  • Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Shah, Courtney Q. Sex Ed, Segregated: The Quest for Sexual Knowledge in Progressive-Era America. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015.
  • Simmons, Christina. “African Americans and Sexual Victorianism in the Social Hygiene Movement, 1910–1940.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 4.1 (1993): 51–75.
  • Wheeler, Leigh Ann. Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004.
  • Wheeler, Leigh Ann. How Sex Became a Civil Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.


  • 1. Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004), 1–8.

  • 2. J. W. Gibson, Mrs. J. W. Gibson, and W. J. Truitt, Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation (Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols, 1903), 258; and J. W. Gibson, Mrs. J. W. Gibson, and W. J. Truitt, Social Purity, or, the Life of the Home and Nation (Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols, 1903).

  • 3. Courtney Q. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated: The Quest for Sexual Knowledge in Progressive-Era America (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015), 1–14.

  • 4. Constance Chen, The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education (New York: New Press, 1996).

  • 5. Nancy F. Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790–1850,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4.2 (1978): 219–236.

  • 6. Shah, Sex Ed Segregated, 105–129.

  • 7. Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14.4 (1988): 912–920.

  • 8. Jose E. Limon, “Tex-Sex-Mex: American Identities, Lone Stars, and the Politics of Racialized Sexuality,” American Literary History 9.3 (1997): 598–616.

  • 9. Jennifer Burek Pierce, What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early Twentieth-Century America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011): 89–119; and Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 11. Indiana was the first state to pass an involuntary sterilization law.

  • 10. Jeffrey P Moran, Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000): 70–72.

  • 11. Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

  • 12. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 78–104.

  • 13. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 105–129.

  • 14. Moran, Teaching Sex, 73–75; Alexandra M. Lord, Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010): 23–67.

  • 15. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 105–129.

  • 16. For more on racial segregation in the North and West, see James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New York: New Press, 2005).

  • 17. Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  • 18. Kevin White, The First Sexual Revolution: The Emergence of Male Heterosexuality in Modern America (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

  • 19. Pierce, What Adolescents Ought to Know, 149–150.

  • 20. Wheeler, Against Obscenity, 115–132.

  • 21. Karl S. Lashley and John B. Watson, “A Psychological Study of Motion Pictures in Relation to Venereal Disease Campaigns,” Social Hygiene 7.2 (1921): 181–219; and Ellis Paxon Oberholtzer, The Morals of the Movie (Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1922).

  • 22. Henry Forman, Our Movie Made Children (New York: Macmillan, 1935).

  • 23. Wheeler, Against Obscenity.

  • 24. Leonard J. Jeff and Jerold Simmons, eds., The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1990), 283–286.

  • 25. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 139.

  • 26. Susan K. Freeman, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 1–18.

  • 27. Moran, Teaching Sex, 118–155.

  • 28. Freeman, Sex Goes to School, 129–130.

  • 29. For more on race and eugenics, see Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

  • 30. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 202–245.

  • 31. Lord, Condom Nation, chapter 4.

  • 32. James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, expanded ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993).

  • 33. James Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

  • 34. Moran, Teaching Sex, 118–155.

  • 35. Moran, Teaching Sex, 158.

  • 36. Freeman, Sex Goes to School, 19–44.

  • 37. Freeman, Sex Goes to School, 132–133.

  • 38. Cathy J. Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

  • 39. Laina Bay-Cheng, “The Trouble of Teen Sex: The Construction of Adolescent Sexuality through School-Based Sexuality Education,” Sex Education 3 (2003): 61–74.

  • 40. Moran, Teaching Sex, 160–162.

  • 41. Wendy Kline, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

  • 42. Jane Dailey, “The Theology of Massive Resistance: Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown.” In Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction, ed. Clive Webb, 151–180 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 43. See, for example, Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

  • 44. Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 17. For more on racial segregation in California schools, see Philippa Strum, Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).

  • 45. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 227–240.

  • 46. Alexandra M. Lord, Condom Nation: The US Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 138–161.

  • 47. Jones, Bad Blood, 220–241; and Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 202–245.

  • 48. Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness.

  • 49. “Abstinence-only Education Policies and Programs: A Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine,” Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (2006): 83–87.

  • 50. Lorena Garcia, Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

  • 51. Molly Redden, “The Unauthorized History of the GOP’s 30-Year War on Planned Parenthood,” Mother Jones, August 21, 2015; and Sarah Primrose, “The Attack on Planned Parenthood: A Historical Analysis,” UCLA Women’s Law Journal 19.2 (2012): 165–211.

  • 52. Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

  • 53. Clelia Duel Mosher, The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women (New York: Arno, 1980); and Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 221.

  • 54. Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Random House, 2010).

  • 55. Garcia, Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself; Shah, Sex Ed, Segregated, 105–129.

  • 56. John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); and E. Patrick Johnson, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).