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A brief history of sex education

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
Michael Reiss looks at sex education, and how it has changed from the second world war to the modern day

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There is still a great deal we don’t know about the history of sex education. The research that has been done is largely about school sex education during the 20th century. School sex education is important, yet most of us learn little of what we know about sex from our schooling. We learn it from friends, from family and, increasingly, from the media.

In England from the late 19th century, a number of sex education publications were produced, mainly aimed at helping parents to enlighten their children. However, in school, little formal school sex education took place before the Second World War. What there was often took place in the context of ‘hygiene’. There are references from the 1920s to senior girls being provided with instruction on such topics as ‘self-reverence, self control and true modesty’, and to boys, on leaving schools, being given talks on the ‘temptation of factory and workshop life’, with special reference to sex.

The significance of the Second World War
The Second World War had, of course, huge consequences for the lives of most of the population of Europe and a considerable number of countries beyond. It is often the case that the mass movement of people, particularly soldiers, results in an increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted infections. As one might expect, then, the outbreak of the war seems to have resulted in an increase in school sex education and a shift, in one of the aims of sex education, towards the prevention of syphilis and gonorrhoea.

The 1950s and 1960s
Anecdotal accounts of lessons on the reproductive systems of rabbits, or the pollination of flowering plants, suggest that much school sex education in the UK in the 1950s and ‘60s, was carried out through the descriptions, though not the observations, of the reproductive habits of plants and non-human animals. It seems likely that boys, especially if educated in the public school (i.e. fee-paying) boarding system, may still have sometimes received warnings about the dangers believed to follow from masturbation.

At the same time, teaching about the human reproductive system became much more typical than it had previously been. Sex education was largely seen as teaching about reproduction and so undertaken in biology lessons. Biology was widely perceived as a more suitable subject for girls than for boys, and girls were more likely than boys to receive school sex education.

The 1970s and 1980s
By the start of the 1970s, school sex education was beginning to change significantly, no doubt largely in response to the great social changes of the 1960s and ‘70s. Biology textbooks started to provide fuller accounts of the human reproductive systems, while methods of contraception began to be taught more widely. The emphasis was mostly on the provision of accurate information, and aims of sex education programmes included a decrease in ignorance, guilt, embarrassment and anxiety. Issues to do with relationships were probably more often discussed in programmes of personal and social education, or their equivalents, rather than in biology lessons.

The 1980s continued to see an increase in the aims of sex education. The growing acceptance of feminist-thinking led to an increase in the number of programmes that encouraged pupils to examine the roles played by women and men in society. The aim was typically for students to realise the existence and extent of gender inequality. Feminist critiques of sex education programmes pointed out how such programmes sometimes actually reinforced gender inequalities. It began more widely to be appreciated just how often the discourse of sex education served to perpetuate the belief that male self-control, though possible, could not be relied on, and that women, by their behaviours, should help men to act responsibly.

At the same time, sex education programmes increasingly began to have such aims as the acquisition of skills for decision-making, communicating, personal relationships, parenting and coping strategies. However, it is probably the case that most pupils continued to receive little school sex education, and that what they did receive was a rather brief and narrow education, in biology lessons, about puberty and human reproduction. It is clear that few pupils were given much opportunity to discuss anything about sexual feelings and relationships.

Nevertheless, as the importance of skills became acknowledged, so sex education programmes increasingly talked about enabling young people to think for themselves and make their own informed decisions about issues that concerned their sexuality. It was this sort of language that so alarmed many conservative commentators and legislators, on account of what was perceived as the increasing liberalisation of school sex education.

The post-Second World War advent of antibiotics meant that for several decades a fear of sexually transmitted infections played only a minor role in the thinking behind most school sex education programmes. This situation changed suddenly, in the mid-1980s, when it was realised that a new sexually transmitted agent - HIV was rapidly spreading in many countries of the world. Near panic set in, in some quarters, as it became appreciated that many, perhaps most, people infected with HIV would go on to develop AIDS and subsequently die. Also that a person could be infected with HIV, and thus infectious, for many years without realising it or having any symptoms of infection, and that there was no treatment either for HIV infection or for AIDS itself.

HIV and AIDS became a health issue in the UK at just the time that sex education became a political football. A number of circumstances, including the controversy over the 1985 Gillick case, which focused on whether parents always have the right to know if their children are being issued with contraceptives when under the age of 16, and the growing strength of the lesbian and gay movement, led to a polarisation of views on sex education, among politicians at local and national level. A flurry of legislation and government education circulars, which continues to this day, resulted, and it increasingly became acknowledged that a values-less sex education programme cannot exist.

Politics and sex education
There are interesting differences between countries in the extent to which national politics have affected school sex education. In both the UK and the USA, national politics have been extremely influential with a small but powerful lobby believing that much school sex education is corruptive. As Baroness Strange, speaking in a parliamentary debate about school sex education in 2000, put it “Yesterday, when I was kneeling in the snowdrops, in the woods at home, picking fresh white blossoms with their sharp, sweet scent, they made me think of the innocence, purity and loveliness of children”.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, sex education has remained remarkably non-political. It has been argued that this has led, in the Netherlands, to a much more coherent programme of school sex education, in which teachers are not worried that they may be blamed for teaching something that they shouldn’t be. Whether this is partly responsible for the fact that a teenage girl in the UK or USA is about 10 times as likely to become pregnant than in the Netherlands is controversial.

Recent and current school sex education
Recent school sex education programmes have varied considerably in their aims. At one extreme (rarely found in the UK but well-funded and widespread in the USA), abstinence education aims to ensure that young people do not engage in heavy petting or sexual intercourse before marriage. At the other end of the spectrum, some sex education programmes challenge sexist and homophobic attitudes, try to help young people make their own decisions about their sexual behaviour and discuss issues of sexual pleasure.

Indeed, the present UK government has been much more positive than its conservative predecessors about attempting to introduce a more inclusive approach to sex education. It has begun to issue guidance to schools on how to tackle homophobic bullying and, while still supporting marriage, has tried to distance itself from the position that children brought up in homes where parents are not married, as is, of course, increasingly the case, are living in second-rate families.


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