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Here's How Sex Education Has Changed Over The Past 100 Years

Today, sex education is part of most people's school experience, but it wasn't always that way. A century ago, this education was extremely controversial. For example, the first superintendent who promoted "sex hygiene" classes lost her job. Additionally, even mentioning birth control could land you in jail, and there were laws in place that made homosexuality illegal

Before 1900, this education was almost nonexistent. But a wave of outrage over America's perceived moral decline fueled the rise of this education. For many, the solution was clear: Americans' need for education about the harms caused by promiscuity led to the creation of the Social Hygiene Movement. It funded abstinence-only education in schools and frowned upon self stimulation.

If the history of this education in the United States has taught us anything, it's that backlash is inevitable. When the free love movement blossomed, parents protested this educaiton in school. And with the AIDS crisis raging, the government funded ineffective abstinence-only education programs. Today, schools teach about these topics in a variety of ways, depending on the state.

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  • In The First Ever Educational Film About STIs, The Main Character Ends His Life After He Gives His Family Syphilis

    In The First Ever Educational Film About STIs, The Main Character Ends His Life After He Gives His Family Syphilis
    Photo: American Film Manufacturing Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1914, audiences around America visited theaters to see the first movie about STIsDamaged Goods. It was so popular that the theater reissued the film several times. The plot focused on a man who slept with a harlot the night before his wedding. The "loose" woman gave him syphilis, which the groom gave to his wife and their newborn baby. In the end, he ends his life.

    One critic wrote, "American boy(s)... should be made to see it for they are to become the American manhood, and the cleaner physically, the better."

  • Birth Control Was Illegal, And Proponents Risked Jail Time

    Birth Control Was Illegal, And Proponents Risked Jail Time
    Photo: Irvin M. Kline / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The message in education before the 1960s was clear: remain abstinent. But if you choose not to, make sure it's with your husband or wife. The issue of birth control was highly controversial. In the early 20th century, Margaret Sanger, along with a number of women's rights activists, began promoting the oral contraceptive; Sanger faced jail time for publishing a magazine that encouraged women to use the new drug. Her publication violated the Comstock Act of 1873 because the topic was considered "obscene and immoral."

    Dating back to the 1800s, birth control was illegal in some states. It wasn't until the Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, that the court ruled married couples could use contraception.

  • America's First Female Superintendent Lost Her Job For Promoting 'Hygiene' Classes

    America's First Female Superintendent Lost Her Job For Promoting 'Hygiene' Classes
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ella Flagg Young wasn't just the first female superintendent of schools in Chicago: She was the first female superintendent for any major American school system. But she only held the honor for a few years after her promotion in 1909, all because she advocated for hygiene education in schools.

    Motivated by Chicago's high rate of harlots and the rising number of STIs, Young created the first "sex hygiene" class taught in public schools. She claimed the material would help students both medically and morally. But local school board members were so outraged that they not only abolished the class, but they also fired Young.

  • The Social Hygiene Movement Fought Vice With Education

    For reformers in the early 20th century, education was considered the key to solving social issues. The Social Hygiene Movement declared that humans were not inherently evil, and human nature didn't cause America's prudeness. Instead, the problem was ignorance, and the solution was education. While the movement promoted adult education, it particularly focused on teaching the young. Many groups began teaching "hygiene," which was code at the time for avoiding STIs.

    In 1913, the American Social Hygiene Association promised to eradicate the work of harlots — known then as "white slavery" — as well as other perceived societal ills through education. They intentionally highlighted morality and religion, bolstered by medical knowledge. One of the movement's biggest targets was sleeping with someone outside of marriage.

  • WWII Posters Claimed Abstinence Was Patriotic

    WWII Posters Claimed Abstinence Was Patriotic
    Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A lot of education focused on the dangers "loose" women, or working girls, posed for men. But some government posters warned men that "loose women" weren't the only source of venereal diseases. One WWII-era poster read, "She may look clean–but . . ." 

    While the text warns against "pick-ups, good time girls, [and] prostitutes," the wholesome image implies even the girl-next-door wearing a prim shirt buttoned to her neck might spread syphilis and gonorrhea. Instead of emphasizing protection or getting tested, these posters advocated avoiding intimacy completely, even tying abstinence to patriotism. "You can't beat the Axis if you get VD," the poster warned.

  • In The 1920s, A Film Warned Boys That Self Stimulating Would Prevent Them From Becoming Men

    In the early 20th century, Americans began to promote this education. In 1919, the Children's Bureau at the US Department of Labor released a report recommending these classes in school. It concluded, "The worries and doubts and brooding imposed on boys and girls of the adolescent period as a result of lack of simple knowledge is a cruelty on the part of any society that is able to furnish that instruction."

    When more schools began teaching it in the 1920s, however, the focus was still on shaming students. For example, one film produced by the American Social Hygiene Association warned, "[Self stimulation] may seriously hinder a boy's progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit."