Weird History

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

Genevieve Carlton
Updated May 1, 2019 24.3k views 11 items

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.

In The First Ever Educational Film About STIs, The Main Character Ends His Life After He Gives His Family Syphilis
In The First Ever Educat... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Here's How Sex Education Has Changed Over The Past 100 Years
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 Illega... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Here's How Sex Education Has Changed Over The Past 100 Years
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. 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 S... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Here's How Sex Education Has Changed Over The Past 100 Years
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
The Social Hygiene Movem... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Here's How Sex Education Has Changed Over The Past 100 Years
Photo:  Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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.