Nevertheless, the history of sex education reveals a great deal about modern conceptions of sexuality, adolescence, and authority

International Context

Outside of Western Europe and the United States, sex education remained largely informal until concerns over a population explosion and the AIDS crisis prompted international organizations such as the United Nations to become involved in educating residents in Africa and South Asia particularly about contraception and prophylaxis. Although the religious opposition there has been muted, educators have often met with resistance from governments unwilling to admit that their populations were experiencing problems with AIDS, and from male traditionalists reluctant to allow women greater control over their own sexuality. Political battles in the United States, too, have affected the shape of sex education in the less-developed regions of the world, as American conservatives at the dawn of the twenty-first century attempted to use U.S. funding to shift the content of international sex education programs away from contraception and towards abstinence and a more moralistic approach to sexual relations.


The response to the AIDS crisis once again underlined the general tendency to justify sex education as disaster prevention in response to diseases or other “epidemics,” such as teenage pregnancy. Throughout the history of sex education, adults in the West have generally treated adolescent sexuality as existing in a different world from its grown-up version, blaming hormones or the youth culture for recurring crises in adolescent sexual behavior. But youthful sexual behavior has almost always been closely tied to adult patterns of behavior: rising rates of extraple, only followed the same phenomenon among adults; the same held true for the “epidemic” of pregnancy outside of marriage in the 1970s, as pregnant teenage females followed their adult counterparts in having more children outside of wedlock.

Although it has undoubtedly dispelled much ignorance and anxiety among students, sex education in the United States, at least, has generally failed to deliver on its promise to change adolescent sexual behavior. Sexual behavior is a complex phenomenon, and hours in the classroom have seldom managed to counteract the influence of class, race, family, region, and popular culture.


Bigelow, Maurice A. 1916. Sex-Education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Sex in Its Relation to Human Life. New York: Macmillan.

Chen, Constance M. 1996. “The Sex Side of Life”: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education. New York: Free Press.

Hall, G. Stanley. 1904. Adolescence: Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. New York: D. Appleton.

Stewart, Mary Lynn. 1997. “‘Science is Always Chaste’: Sex Education and Sexual Initiation in France, 1880sā€“1930s.” Journal of Contemporary History 32: 381ā€“395.

Sex education became a significant part of the response to these twin anxieties. Founded in 1914 by the New York physician Prince Morrow and the religious crusader Anna Garlin Spencer, the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) quickly took the lead in recommending reforms to accomplish the twin goals of medical and moral improvement. After leading police crackdowns on prostitution and presenting a series of sex education lectures to adults, ASHA and related societies proposed a program in “sex instruction” for high-school-age youth. ASHA’s leaders hoped they could reach young people with proper “scientific” facts about sex before they were “corrupted” by harmful misinformation, such as the widely held belief that young men suffered from a “medical necessity” to have sex. If citizens only knew the medical dangers of sexual immorality, reformers believed, then they would rationally decide not to experiment with prostitution or promiscuity.

More than Hygiene

As conservative opponents in the United States came to recognize that some form of sex education was going to be almost inevitable, they launched their own movement to replace sexuality education with “abstinence education.” Religious conservatives, in particular, helped add provisions for abstinence education to the 1996 WELFARE REFORM ACT, and the federal government for the first time began to direct tens of millions of dollars to abstinence education programs, most of which were tied to religious groups rather than the more traditional public health organizations. Unlike sexuality education’s value neutrality, abstinence education was directly moralistic and explicitly supported traditional gender and sexual relations. Abstinence education also harked back to the early years of sex education in its strong emphasis on the dangers of sexual activity. Many curricula intentionally omitted or distorted information about protective measures such as condoms or birth-control pills. Again, this contrasted with the European experience, in which sexuality education was firmly under the control of secular medical authorities and faced little religious or political challenge.

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