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The controversial history of sex ed around the world

A Canadian sex education workshop in 2014.
A Canadian sex education workshop in 2014.
Colin McConnell/Toronto Star
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Last year, a sex ed poster in a Kansas middle school caused an uproar. It listed ways people could express sexual feelings, ranging from kissing and caressing to oral and anal sex. The poster was so controversial that the state legislature is now considering making it a crime for teachers to show "harmful material" to minors.

These kinds of controversies have been around for more than a century. A new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, by Jonathan Zimmerman, shows that people around the world have been having the same arguments for years about what students should learn about sex, when they should learn it, and who should teach them.

1) Sex education started out to prevent venereal disease

Sex education started in the US around the turn of the 20th century. And this kind of made sense: at the time, the United States was way ahead of the rest of the world on public education. As a country, America was more likely to rely on schools to solve social problems, including sexually transmitted diseases, which became a national panic during World War I. By 1920, 40 percent of American high schools provided some kind of sex education.

The lessons often focused on plant and animal reproduction, as well as disease prevention. And most students didn't learn that much — two decades later, only 8 percent of Americans said school was a major source of information about sex.

2) Teaching sex ed could be dangerous for teachers

Zimmerman portrays teachers as trapped in a particularly difficult situation: talking about sex can be embarrassing, they weren't necessarily trained in the subject, and the expectations from the government and from local parents could differ hugely. In the first half of the 20th century, people worried that older, single female teachers shouldn't teach about sex (people presumed they didn't have enough experience with the subject), but nor should ones who are young (being unmarried, they shouldn't have any experience with sex either). There was an equal amount of worry about gay and lesbian teachers — or people who were rumored to be — teaching sex education, a concern that lasted well into the 1970s.

And teachers who taught about sex were taking a risk. Zimmerman's book is filled with anecdotes about teachers around the world who were driven out of town for talking about premarital sex and contraception in class.

3) Sex education led to riots in Mexico and was controversial in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany

In 1933, Mexico's socialist government proposed compulsory sex education for public school students. Parents accused the plan of being a Communist plot. The next year, Zimmerman writes, "at a crowded Mexico City movie house, three teenage boys stood up and condemned sex education for corrupting their female classmates." The boys were arrested and went on a hunger strike, inspiring students to stay home from school; the situation then escalated to riots, which injured more than 20 people.

Sex education newspaper clipping

(Chicago Tribune)

Mexico's parents might have thought sex education was a Communist plot, but actual Communists weren't fond of the subject. Sex education in Soviet Russia was fairly frank and explicit in the 1920s — one high school charted students' self-reported masturbation habits — but by the 1930s, the government had cracked down, banning sex education in school. Nazi Germany did the same, arguing that sex education was the work of "Marxists" and eliminating all references to sexual activity in students' textbooks.

4) Sweden had sex-positive sex education very early

Most of the world still didn't have sex education by the 1970s. And countries that did tended to focus on corralling sex to within the boundaries of marriage and keeping it disease-free. The exception were the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, where sex education had a reputation for being libertine.

Sweden made sex education in public school compulsory in 1956, and by 1964 had quit warning students about sex outside of marriage, instead saying that sexual norms differed from place to place. This judgment-free sex education was celebrated by advocates in other places, but also was used as a cautionary tale. In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pointed to Sweden's suicide rate as an example of the consequences of a generous welfare state; the country also got a reputation among American conservatives for sexual promiscuity.

5) For all the controversy about sex education, most students still learn about sex somewhere else

One lesson from Zimmerman's book is that the arguments against sex education have been remarkably similar around the country for a century: if kids learn too much about sex, they'll want to try it out themselves. But even in countries with model sex education programs, like Sweden in the second half of the 20th century, school wasn't the primary source of knowledge about sex.

Zimmerman reports that surveys found students who were taught sex ed in Swedish schools didn't know much more than students who were not. In the US, a survey of adolescents found that they were most likely to have learned about sex from friends, not teachers or parents. In the UK, about 40 percent of young adults said they learned about sex primarily at school, meaning more than half of them learned about it somewhere else. Kids around the world still learn about sex from their peers and from the media, not in school.

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