How the birds and bees have transformed over time.
Sex education in the United States is, to put it simply, complicated. While we’re at a much more progressive point today than we’ve ever been before, it’s been a bumpy path—and that’s still not to say that we have any kind of universal comprehensive education available to students across the country today. Still, progress is progress, and over the past 100 or so years of sex ed spreading through the nation, we’ve come a long way. Here’s how the birds and the bees talk has transformed over time.
The early stages of sex education
The beginning of sex education in schools in America can be traced back to World War I, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), when fear of STIs among soldiers made the government consider investing in educational programs...which stressed abstinence and particularly demonized sex workers. In 1918, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act provided the first federal funding for sex education in high schools. It also allowed for women suspected of prostitution to be physically examined and tested for STIs, detained, and incarcerated.
Sex ed’s mid-century development
Abstinence was the name of the game for sex ed from its inception, and that continued through to the 1940s and 1950s, when “family values” were further instilled with Family Life Education (FLE) programs, according to SIECUS. In some parts of the country, these programs are still the form of sex ed in public schools, though their content can vary. At their core, they stressed traditional gender roles and sex as something that goes on between a husband and wife, and they aimed to discourage any kind of behavior outside of a narrow norm.
Sex ed at the end of the 20th century
Support for sex ed gradually grew from the 1960s, and by the 1980s, larger audiences pushed for more comprehensive sex education in schools in America—that taught students about sex instead of how to avoid it. This was a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, according to Annex Teen Clinic.
In 1991, SIECUS (which was formed in 1964 by Planned Parenthood’s medical director at the time, Mary Calderone) published its guidelines for comprehensive sex education at every grade level, including information on STIs, relationships, and sexual health, all taught to instill a positive view of sexuality in students.
Where we are today with sex education in schools in America
Though by the end of the 20th century, comprehensive sex education became more widespread, abstinence-only education is still fairly common—and this can be traced to funding enacted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
In 2010, under the Obama administration, the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) was created within the Department of Health and Human Services, and it administered programs that focused on evidence-based sex education over abstinence-only options.
Today sex education is mandated in 24 states and Washington, D.C., and 34 mandate HIV education, though what education entails is largely up to school districts, according to Planned Parenthood. Some states have more recently added consent as a key pillar to sex ed. The CDC defines quality sex education as being inclusive to the LGBTQ community, fostering positive relationships between adolescents and important adults, connecting students to sexual health resources, and more. When students are exposed to this kind of education, they’re more likely to increase their use of protection—and to have healthy relationships. Sex ed still has a long way to go in the U.S. But it’s undoubtedly come pretty far.
Sex education in America vs. Europe
It becomes all the more clear how behind the United States is about sex education when you compare its practices with those you can find throughout Europe. For instance, “comprehensive sex education” begins for children as young as four in the Netherlands, according to PBS. That doesn’t mean kindergarteners are learning about the physicality of sex, though—it’s more so an introduction to relationships and sexuality. The thinking here is that it’s never too early to learn about consent and respect concerning intimacy.
It seems to be working, too. The rate of teen pregnancy in the Netherlands is five times lower than it is in the United States, and a majority of Dutch teens and young adults say that their first sexual experience was wanted and fun—while many Americans around the same age say they wish they had waited longer.
In the United Kingdom, sex and relationship education is compulsory for ages 11 onwards; some parts of these courses are compulsory, as they’re considered a part of the national curriculum for science, but parents can choose to omit their children from other components. Once students turn 16, though, they can decide to opt back in. A landmark ruling in 2019, comprehensive LGBTQ+ sex ed is also a required component of sex education courses in the U.K.
In 2016, the sex education curriculum in France made headlines when it was announced that a 3D printed clitoris would be used in sex ed from the primary to secondary level. This development came after a wave of backlash resulted from a report by Haut Conseil à l’Egalité, a government body monitoring gender equality in public life, that showed that sexism permeated sex ed in the country, The Guardian reported. This change was thanks to sociomedical researcher Odile Fillod, who put it simply: “Understanding that they have an erectile system just like men, I think women will start to experiment more. They will understand that pleasure is not some magic that only a partner knows how to give.”
When should parents teach kids about sex?
The birds-and-the-bees talk is far from standardized; in fact, there are plenty of adults in the U.S. who never even had the conversation with their guardians. Still, it’s important; according to Planned Parenthood, kids and teens who regularly talk about sex and relationship with their caregivers are less likely to take risks about their sexual health and safety. That doesn’t mean telling them everything all at once, though. Planned Parenthood recommends teaching children around the age of 5 the proper name for their body parts, and by 9 or 10, you can go into more detail (e.g. instead of saying that a baby grows in its parent’s belly, you can say that it grows in their uterus and comes out their vagina). Taking it step-by-step is helpful, as one big conversation can feel overwhelming to you both.
These early conversations are just a first step, and conversations about sex, relationships, and consent can and should continue into adolescence. A 2014 survey showed that while most parents have talked to their children about sex and relationships, only 60% talked to their kids about birth control and just 74% brought up how to say no to sex. It goes to show: sex ed is an ongoing conversation, and it’s one we shouldn’t neglect to have in detail.