"'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 school; and by the middle of the century, those countries started telling other countries how to teach sex in their schools, too. In Europe and the United States, sex ed began about 1913, at the height of the Progressive movement—a moment, one commentator remarked, when the clock chimed “Sex O’Clock in America.” A century later, it’s sex o’clock all over the world.

There is no end to the hypocrisy of people who tell other people how or whether or when to tell kids about sex.

Not surprisingly, this has proved controversial. Human sexuality and reproduction are matters of biology, but they’re much more than that, too. Sex can be spiritual; many people consider it sacred. It has medical implications and economic consequences. And the forms it takes are regulated both by legal statutes and by religious strictures. Sex, in short, is not easily contained. It’s also hard to talk to kids about it without making judgments and setting rules, which, in any case, is usually the point.

Where, what, and when should kids learn about sex? On this subject, there is a great deal of disagreement, from house to house, from nation to nation, and from one era to another. Disputes about teaching sex in schools have commonly been figured as fights between traditionalists and modernists, like the debate over the teaching of evolution, or as battles over authority in which the family or religion vies against the state or science. Those were once tenable interpretations; they aren’t any longer. Why that is can be seen only from the vantage of history.

BIRDS, BEES, AND ABCS

The rise of sex education a century ago depended on two things: the development of the biological sciences and the rise of public schooling. A mammalian egg was first seen only in 1827, and before the 1840s, no one knew that human females ovulated monthly; the menstrual cycle remained a mystery, as did what determines the sex of a human embryo. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species transformed the study of evolution and genetics. Meanwhile, the development of germ theory and the discovery of antibiotics launched a series of campaigns to eradicate contagious diseases.

These revolutions in the biological sciences happened to coincide with the emergence of the modern public school system in the United States and much of Europe. To reformers, bringing the study of human sexuality and reproduction into those schools seemed not only logical but also inevitable, as Jonathan Zimmerman demonstrates in a rich new study, Too Hot to Handle. The educational argument seemed self-evident (surely biology belongs on the curriculum), and the public health argument seemed clear, too (explaining human reproduction in schools was meant to halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases). A staggering number of soldiers had contracted venereal diseases during World War I. In the United Kingdom, reformers founded the National Council for Combating Venereal Disease, later known as the British Social Hygiene Council. That group had its analog in the United States in the American Federation for Sex Hygiene, later combined with another group to form the American Social Hygiene Association and today called the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). By the 1920s, 40 percent of schools in the United States offered some form of instruction in human reproduction.

There were classes in much of Europe as well. They took many names, from Mothercraft in Denmark to Marriage and Motherhood in Germany. Sex ed was most widespread in Sweden, owing in great part to the leadership of the social activist Elise Ottesen-Jensen, who in 1933 founded the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education. (In 1956, Sweden became the first country to mandate instruction in sex in schools.)

Wherever it is taught, sex ed carries with it a national character and a political slant. (So does a lot of what’s taught in high schools.) In Russia, a 1925 essay titled “Sexual Education in the Context of Marxist Pedagogy” condemned masturbation as counterrevolutionary. In Mexico, sex education in schools was recommended by the socialist government, and protested by the Catholic Church.

Moviegoers outside of a theater showing a sex-education film in Bundaberg, Australia, 1949.
STATE LIBRARY OF QUEENSLAND / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Like much else in the Progressive era, including intelligence testing, the birth control movement, and immigration law, sex education had ties to eugenics. Teaching the science of sex, social hygiene reformers believed, would not only help stop the spread of venereal diseases and end ignorance but also improve the “race.” Mexico’s sex-education program was the product of cooperation between the National Block of Revolutionary Women and the Mexican Eugenics Society. “A carefully devised scheme of biological training could not fail to stimulate a sense of individual responsibility in the exercise of the racial function,” stated a resolution introduced by the British delegation to the League of Nations in 1928. In support of the resolution, ASHA pledged $5,000 to fund a study of “the methods adopted in various countries for the imparting of sex knowledge to young people.” The League of Nations demurred, one Belgian delegate remarking that he didn’t think the matter lent itself to international cooperation. And maybe it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, as Zimmerman demonstrates, Western nations “spread the subject to their overseas colonies and territories.” They met with considerable resistance. In India, Mahatma Gandhi declared sex “too special and sacred a subject” for the classroom.

A FEMINIST CAUSE

Zimmerman’s account is patchy. He pays almost no attention to the calls for sex education sounded by feminists, or to the movement itself as a feminist cause, and although he is interested in venereal diseases (and therefore in condoms), he is much less interested in the relationship between education and other forms of contraception. Beginning in the 1910s, feminists, who quite explicitly linked sex education with birth control (and with the broader need for public education for girls), made some of the strongest and best arguments for introducing the study of human sexuality into the public school curriculum. Zimmerman doesn’t much consider those arguments. Nor does he reckon with the degree to which resistance to sex education, in the United States and around the world, is very often part of a larger rejection of claims for political and economic equality 
for women.

Wherever it is taught, sex ed carries with it a national character and a political slant.

This shortcoming affects Zimmerman’s account of the second half of the twentieth century, too. World War II led to yet another dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases and, with it, new and broader support for education aimed at combating them. After the war, American nongovernmental organizations brought sex education to countries occupied by the United States. In 1947, the International Union against the Venereal Diseases, which was closely allied with ASHA, recommended a curriculum for schools that was later adopted by countries including Finland, France, and Romania. ASHA officials visited dozens of countries and distributed thousands of pieces of literature. In 1954, its director visited 21 countries across Asia and Africa. “The ASHA’s slogan, ‘The American Home, the American Hope,’” one official wrote in 1959, “may soon become ‘The World Home, the World Hope.’” What Zimmerman’s analysis makes no effort to explain, though, is what part of this effort—and the resistance to this effort—had to do with American ideas not about sex but about gender.

Margaret Sanger, an early advocate of birth control and sex education, with a group of unidentified women, circa 1920–1940.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

During the Cold War, “family life education,” the then preferred euphemism, led to a political backlash. Beneath family life education’s rhetoric of internationalism, Zimmerman argues, many commentators found nothing but Americanism. “A seks manual in the Soviet Union is about as hard to find as a Barry Goldwater button in the Kremlin,” one reporter remarked in 1964. In postcolonial and communist countries, in particular, sex ed came to be seen as just another suspicious U.S. import. Its critics pointed out that the very evils that family life education was supposedly meant to combat—promiscuity, sexual abandon, and unwed mothers—were themselves the product of other American imports: rock ’n’ roll and Hollywood films. Emancipated women, of course, posed a problem, too.

In the 1960s, sex education was often called “population education,” animated by new fears about a so-called population bomb. As Zimmerman points out, “By the 1970s, nearly every country in the Western world had instituted some form of sex education.” Exactly what was taught is difficult to say. Zimmerman writes, “Almost all countries continued to avoid discussion of the ‘Big Four’ taboos, as sex educators around the world called them: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.” The global health crisis presented by the outbreak and spread of HIV changed all that. For countries in the developed and the developing world alike, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s “made it impossible to ignore sex entirely in their schools,” Zimmerman writes. This hardly closed the debate.

EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW . . .

Is there such a thing as educated sex? Today, sex for beginners, in one form or another, is taught in schools nearly everywhere. Lately, in European countries with aging populations and low birthrates, the curriculum has taken a turn. “For many, many years, we only talked about safe sex, how to prevent getting pregnant,” Marianne Lomholt, the national director of Sex and Society, a nonprofit group that provides sex education in Denmark, told The New York Times earlier this year. “Suddenly we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant.”

Resistance to sex education is very often part of a larger rejection of claims for political and economic equality for women.

Zimmerman’s argument is that sex education has been, on the whole, a failure. This is more easily asserted than proved, and the book ends up being unpersuasive owing to the author’s lack of interest in particular outcomes. A great many social scientists would argue that sex education, like the availability of contraception, has improved and continues to improve girls’ ability to finish their education and is therefore part of a larger set of gains for women in the pursuit of equal rights. Whether sex education is a failure depends on what counts as success, and on that score, there is no consensus. Is the aim of sex education a reduction in the rate of teenage pregnancy, or disease, or family size, or the rate of divorce, or violence against homosexuals? Or is it an increase in the rate of high school graduation for girls, or the age of first marriage, or the frequency of female orgasm, or the use of contraception, or the birthrate? Zimmerman, a professor of education, never answers these questions; he barely even raises them. He’s not interested in public health outcomes: he’s interested in the history of education. His measure of success is whether, a hundred years after it started, sex education has become uncontroversial. It has not.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman’s international and centurylong vantage is important: it casts new light on old fights. In the United States, controversies over sex ed are rooted in a political realignment that dates to the 1960s. In 1964, Mary Calderone, a director of Planned Parenthood, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States to promote frank and informed conversation in public schools. In 1968, Gordon Drake, the education director of the Christian Crusade, wrote a pamphlet called Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? Almost 50 years later, the American conversation on the subject is more or less still stuck in the same place.

Zimmerman’s main contribution is to set the more familiar dispute in the United States alongside arguments from other times and places in order to make a claim about the rise of a global conservative movement. He suggests that the ideological fight between American progressives and traditionalists has exported itself to other parts of the world. On a now-global stage, organizations dedicated to cosmopolitan internationalism pledge, in the words of UNESCO not to “leave children to find their own way through the clouds of partial information, misinformation and outright exploitation that they will find from media, the Internet, peers and the unscrupulous” and promise to instead provide them with “scientifically-grounded sexuality education based in the universal values of respect and human rights.” Meanwhile, on the opposing side, groups such as the World Congress of Families, a conservative Christian group founded in 1997, condemn the spread of secularism and the power of the administrative state. “Ideologies of statism, individualism and sexual revolution, today challenge the family’s very legitimacy as an institution,” the group proclaims on its website. And: “School curricula should not undermine the right of parents to teach their children moral and spiritual values.”

Zimmerman suggests that the ideological fight between American progressives and traditionalists has exported itself to other parts of the world.

Zimmerman’s effort to trace the origin of these disputes provides critical insights. But his approach also has grave limitations. One problem is that global histories such as Zimmerman’s tend to have only the scantest sense of or appreciation for the force and endurance of the local. Global history often suffers from provincialism. Zimmerman’s research, for instance, is largely confined to English-language sources. Too Hot to Handle gives the false impression that all over the world, both support for and opposition to sex ed come from organizations headed by, founded by, or funded by Americans. Another problem is that Zimmerman is relatively uninterested in the way the history of sex education intersects with the history of the struggles for political equality for women, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Those struggles have been waged on the streets and in the courts—and in classrooms, too.

But there’s a bigger, deeper problem. However tempting it is to see the debate over sex ed as a proxy war between the state and the family or between science and religion, this perspective misses the way a fight once figured as a battle between traditionalists and modernists has come to be figured as a battle over rights: the left invokes the rights of women and children; the right invokes the rights of parents and families. Meanwhile, all over the world, girls are still coerced into sex and forced into marriages, contraception can be hard to come by, homosexuals are beaten and killed, and sexually transmitted diseases rage on. Is that because sex education has failed? No. It’s because the rights revolution has become a counterrevolution.

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  • JILL LEPORE is David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The 
New Yorker.
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