Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

Jonathan Zimmerman

Although sex education is important, sex can never be reduced to a matter of health, science, or even knowledge.

Excerpted from Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education by Jonathan Zimmerman (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The Century of School, and the Century of Sex

In 1900, the Swedish schoolteacher and author Ellen Key published a best-selling book with an auspicious title: The Century of the Child. Translated into several languages, Key’s book, and its title, would become rallying cries for reform-minded critics, scholars, and educators around the world. Children were the hope of the future, Key wrote, but everywhere they were enchained by adults’ rigid rules and stern rebukes. Here she took special aim at the West’s signature child-rearing institution, the public school, which prescribed irrelevant “doses of knowledge” and pretended to measure the same with terrifying tests and examinations. But children learned best on their own and with their own parents, who had surrendered too much influence and authority to schools. Whereas gymnastics and art were formerly taught at home, for example, children increasingly learned them in the classroom. In the twentieth century, Key hoped, children would be “emancipated” from the sterile curricula and harsh pedagogy of the school. And parents would regain rightful control over the child, who could best develop “individuality” -- including conscience, judgment, and free will -- at home.

In many ways, however, the world was moving in the opposite direction. The ensuing century witnessed a dramatic explosion of state-run schools, which became ubiquitous across the West and -- eventually -- around the globe. Between 1950 and 1970, the percentage of children who attended primary school rose from 58 to 83 percent; by 1985, 90 percent of the world’s children had spent at least some part of their lives at school. Secondary schools increased at an even faster rate, roughly tripling in number and size over the same span. Official policies and curricula proclaimed that these institutions would cultivate the freedom and agency of each individual, much as Ellen Key had wished. In practice, though, they frequently diverged from her ideal. In the developed world, child-centered classrooms were often distributed by social class: wealthier children received personalized attention and instruction, while poorer ones were more likely to experience the lockstep lessons and dry drills that Key detested. So did the vast majority of students in the so-called Third World, where skyrocketing class sizes and dwindling resources made “individuated instruction” impossible. How could a teacher with fifty or a hundred students -- and without much formal preparation herself -- do anything other than force-feed selected facts, which the children would dutifully regurgitate on their end-of-year exams? The twentieth century would not be the Century of the Child, at least not in the manner that Ellen Key had hoped. It was, instead, the Century of the School.

It was also the Century of Sex, which Key more presciently forecasted. “People have commenced already to experiment with unions outside marriage,” she wrote. “The whole problem is being made the subject of debate.” An avowed enemy of Christianity, particularly in its denigration of bodily pleasures, Key looked forward to the day when more and more individuals could determine their own sexual destinies. And so they did. Especially in the second half of the century -- and especially in the West -- human beings would attain a level of sexual freedom beyond anything Ellen Key could envision. A new model of companionate marriage promised sexual pleasure for men and women alike, aided by birth control technologies that separated lovemaking from reproduction; homosexuals gained increased visibility and rights, including -- most recently -- the right to get married; and formerly tabooed sexual themes became commonplace in literature and mass media, as censorship laws and regulations fell away. Many of these trends occurred earlier -- and more forcefully -- in the developed than in the developing world, where older traditions and restrictions held sway. Nor was it clear that the “liberalization” of sexual mores was always liberating; for women, especially, the heightened public discourse around sex could feel more like a new set of expectations than a new license for freedom. Surely, though, a greater number of people experienced a greater degree of sexual autonomy than ever before.

But how would they learn to exercise that freedom? The modern answer was sex education, where the Century of the School met the Century of Sex. Starting in Europe and the United States, and then spreading around the globe, nation-states looked to their burgeoning educational systems to describe, explain, and especially control sex. But the marriage between school and sex proved to be both stormy and delicate, spawning heated controversy outside of the schools and surprisingly little instruction inside of them. Part of the reason lay in deep popular unease and disagreement about childhood sexuality; whereas advocates saw sex education as a check upon youth sexual activity, critics worried that it would corrupt otherwise innocent minds. Another factor was the organizational structure of the schools, which were never the bloodlessly efficient behemoths that Ellen Key imagined; even in highly oppressive and totalitarian societies, nervous principals or shy teachers could evade national sex education directives if they wished. Most of all, many people around the world continued to insist that the family -- not the classroom -- was the proper locus of sexual instruction. Even Ellen Key, an early tribune of sexual liberation, balked at the first attempts to teach about sex in schools. “I objected at that time to this plan, showing that the school was not the place for such knowledge,” she wrote in 1900. “It should be slowly and carefully communicated by the mother herself.” Across the globe, just as Key feared, the state-sponsored school would come to dominate nearly every aspect of children’s lives. But it rarely -- and then only gingerly -- touched on sex, which proved too divisive and unstable for schools to accommodate. In the Century of the School, and the Century of Sex, the school struggled to master sex. And, for the most part, the school failed.

To be sure, sex education varied across space and time. In the early twentieth century, when strong taboos on public sexual discussion remained in place, sex education mostly assumed the form of plant and animal analogies; by studying roses or rabbits, the argument went, children could learn about human reproduction without prematurely igniting their interest in practicing the sexual act. After World War II, as the United States assumed new power and prominence on the global stage, Americans refashioned sex education as “family life education”; emphasizing gender roles and proper child rearing, it made sexual continence a key to world peace as well as to national survival. In Europe, meanwhile, Swedes took the lead in promoting new curricula aimed at liberating individuals to discover and develop their own sexual selves, much as Ellen Key had wanted (but via her bête noire, the state-sponsored school). International aid and educational associations took up that ideal in the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn triggered a right-wing reaction in the United States, Great Britain, and other parts of the West. These conservatives would join hands with like-minded critics in the developing world in the 1980s and 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis lent a renewed global urgency to sex education. But the terms of the battle remained much the same, even as the battlefield changed. Around the world, liberal educators sought to empower individuals to assert their sexual “rights” -- including the right to sexual pleasure -- while conservatives emphasized abstinence outside marriage. One side stressed “the right of young human beings to have sexual feelings,” as a Dutch educator wrote in 2000, while the other urged the young “to say NO to sex.”

Yet even countries that officially embraced “liberal” sexual philosophies often struggled to provide much real sexual instruction in their schools. Consider Ellen Key’s homeland of Sweden, the first nation to require sex education and a symbol of sexual freedom (or, depending on one’s perspective, sexual excess) around the world. In 1969, more than a decade after the subject became compulsory, one third of Swedish students had still not encountered it in school. Moreover, half of Swedish teachers admitted that they avoided or ignored sex education in their classrooms. Many teachers confessed to being “embarrassed” by the subject, while others complained that they lacked sufficient education in it themselves; as late as 2006, more than 90 percent of teachers reported receiving “little or no preparation” for delivering sex education. But the limited instruction in Swedish schools dwarfed most other countries, where the subject resembled the small town of American cliché: blink twice and you might miss it. In Hong Kong, the average high school student received two hours of sex education per year in 2001; students in France averaged exactly the same amount, belying their country’s libertine image; in Chile, half of students received sex education no more than twice per year; and so on. In the United States, where local authorities mostly controlled education, the average school provided 6.5 hours per year of sex education in 1989; in the United Kingdom, which was similarly decentralized, half of local districts did not bother to record what -- if anything -- their schools were teaching about it. Significantly, however, even countries with highly nationalized education systems often ceded sex education to local officials and teachers. In most of the world, “every course other than sex education is centrally programmed,” a 1976 international survey concluded. “Only in the area of sex education is the initiative and responsibility left to individuals.”

Indeed, only in the area of sex education would modern school systems fail so dramatically -- and so universally -- to impose themselves upon individuals. It was not for want of trying. By the 1970s, nearly every country in the Western world had instituted some form of sex education; most nations in the developing world would do the same during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, which made it impossible to ignore sex entirely in their schools. But from the dawn of the twentieth century into the present, and from one corner of the world to another, the reach of sex education radically exceeded its grasp. “The child growing up in the midst of civilization receives from its parents and teachers something of the accumulated experience of the world on all other subjects save upon that of sex,” the prominent American reformer Jane Addams complained in 1912. “On this one subject alone each generation learns little from its predecessors.” Similar jeremiads mark the reports and memoirs of sex education advocates from Addams’s day into our own, when -- as one African educator observed -- children “learn complicated mathematics they will never use in their lifetimes” but “nothing about their sexual organs, which they will be using every day of their lives.” In the Century of the School, as Ellen Key feared, children’s lives came to revolve around formal educational institutions. But in the Century of Sex, Key would be relieved to know, schools were never able to bring sex fully into their orbit. This book tries to explain why.

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