Today, sex education is part of most people's school experience, but it wasn't always that way. In fact, a century ago sex ed 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. Although a lot of sex ed is hilariously bad today, especially given the bizarre sex ed videos shown in schools, it's come a long way since the early 20th century.
Before 1900, sex education was almost nonexistent. But a wave of outrage over America's perceived moral decline fueled the rise of sex ed. For many, the solution was clear: Americans' need for education about the harms caused by sexual promiscuity led to the creation of the Social Hygiene Movement. It funded abstinence-only education in schools and frowned upon masturbation.
If the sex education in the United States has taught us anything, it's that backlash is inevitable. When the free love movement blossomed, parents protested sex ed in school. And with the AIDS crisis raging, the government funded ineffective abstinence-only education programs. Today, schools teach sex ed in a variety of ways, depending on the state.
In The First Ever Sex Ed Film, The Main Character Commits Suicide After He Gives His Family Syphilis
In 1914, audiences around America visited theaters to see the first sex education movie, Damaged Goods. It was so popular that the theater reissued the film several times. The plot focused on a man who slept with a sex worker the night before his wedding. The "loose" woman gave him syphilis, which the groom gave to his wife and their newborn baby.
At the end of the moralizing tale, the main character commits suicide. 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
The message of sex education before the 1960s was clear: don't have sex. But if you do, 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. It wasn't until the Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, that the court ruled married couples could use contraception.
America's First Female Superintendent Lost Her Job For Promoting "Sex Hygiene" Classes
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 had the audacity to advocate for sex education in schools.
Motivated by Chicago's high prostitution rate and the rising number of sexually transmitted diseases, 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 sexual immorality. Instead, the problem was ignorance, and the solution was education. While the movement promoted adult sex ed, it particularly focused on teaching the young. Many groups began teaching "sex hygiene," which was code at the time for avoiding sexually transmitted infections.
In 1913, the American Social Hygiene Association promised to eradicate sex work – 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 extramarital sex.