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
The beginning of sex ed in the United States 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.
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.
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—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
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.