Review Essay

The Facts of Life

Sex Ed Around the World

In This Review

Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education
Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education
By Jonathan Zimmerman
Princeton University Press, 2015, 216 pp. $29.95 Purchase

"'Where do little children come from?’ This is an embarrassing question,” admitted Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Best, he thought, was to hope your kid doesn’t ask it. But if the question does come up, Rousseau advised in 1762, answer it “with the greatest plainness, without mystery or confusion.” The important thing is to avoid having this conversation with your kid during the impossible years. Wrote Rousseau: “If you are not sure of keeping him in ignorance of the difference between the sexes till he is sixteen, take care you teach him before he is ten.”

It’s not the worst advice I’ve ever heard, but honestly, what on earth did Rousseau know about it? He had five illegitimate children and, at birth, deposited all of them in a foundling hospital in Paris, l’Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés. Every year, it seems, his mistress got pregnant: “There came the same inconvenience and the same expedient,” as he put it in his Confessions, a book of remorse. Rousseau’s children almost certainly died as infants—at the time, seven out of ten newborns left at the hospital died in their first year—and in any case, he never saw any of them ever again.

It might be that Rousseau is an extreme case, but suffice it to say, there is no end to the hypocrisy of people who tell other people how or whether or when to tell kids about sex. Much the same, in fact, can be said of people who tell other people how to run their countries. That’s because teaching sex in schools, as educational policy, has rather a lot in common with foreign policy, not least in the way that arrogance, suspicion, and self-interest override generosity, cooperation, and amity. In the eighteenth century, Rousseau told other parents how to talk to their children about sex; at the start of the twentieth century, in some countries, the task of explaining sex began to move from the home to the

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