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Sex Goes to School

Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Sex Goes to School
    Book Description:

    When seeking approaches for sex education, few look to the past for guidance. But Susan K. Freeman's investigation of the classrooms of the 1940s and 1950s offers numerous insights into the potential for sex education to address adolescent challenges, particularly for girls. From rural Toms River, New Jersey, to urban San Diego and many places in between, the use of discussion-based classes fostered an environment that focused less on strictly biological matters of human reproduction and more on the social dimensions of the gendered and sexual worlds that the students inhabited. _x000B__x000B_Although the classes reinforced normative heterosexual gender roles that could prove repressive, the discussion-based approach also emphasized a potentially liberating sense of personal choice and responsibility in young women's relationship decisions. In addition to the biological and psychological underpinnings of normative sexuality, teachers presented girls' sex lives and gendered behavior as critical to the success of American families and, by extension, the entire way of life of American democracy. The approaches of teachers and students were sometimes predictable and other times surprising, yet almost wholly without controversy in the two decades before the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. Sex Goes to School illuminates the tensions between and among adults and youth attempting to make sense of sex in a society that was then, as much as today, both sex-phobic and sex-saturated.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09128-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Education, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    In 1956, Toms River (New Jersey) High School senior Barbara Newman enrolled in an elective family relationships course. In carefully scripted handwriting, her homework earned her high marks and bountiful praise from teacher Elizabeth Force. “High quality work! Much appreciated,” she noted on Newman’s first assignment in the course workbook,Ten Topics toward Happier Homes.Although the historical record does not reveal why Newman took the course or whether she was especially interested in sexuality, the completed workbook nevertheless provides a window into sex education in mid-twentieth-century public schools. The ideas central to the Toms River course—“family relationships” and...

  5. 1 Momentum and Legitimacy
    (pp. 1-18)

    “Shall Our Schools Teach Sex?” queriedNewsweekspecial projects editor Harold Isaacs in the May 19, 1947 issue.¹ For decades, numerous educators had answered that question in the affirmative, but the American public was probably unaware of this fact. The popular press before the 1940s had rarely commented on sex education in schools, but at the dawn of the 1940s, surveys began reporting significant public support for sex instruction. Increasingly, these statistics circulated in the popular media and in resources for educators.² By the late 1940s, when popular magazines questioned whether sex education should occur in schools, most gave the...

  6. 2 Reconstructing Classrooms and Relationships
    (pp. 19-44)

    Moral and medical aims—encouraging sexual purity and preventing venereal disease—shaped the emergence of sex education for young people in the early twentieth century. Such concerns pervaded curricula throughout the century, articulated in different ways over time. Sex education terminology, for example, shifted from chivalry and chastity in the early 1900s to respect and abstinence at the century’s end. But the fundamental idea at the core of much sex education—refraining from sexual activity during adolescence—remained the same. Young people have learned through sex education to associate sexuality with transgression and adverse outcomes such as adolescent pregnancy and...

  7. 3 Experiments in Sex Education
    (pp. 45-68)

    By the mid-1930s, teachers were beginning to introduce sexuality in classrooms from a human behavior and relationships standpoint. Professional journals between 1935 and 1939 publicized that schools in Michigan, Oklahoma, Colorado, Illinois, and the District of Columbia were newly conducting programs in sex education.¹ Most, however, faded from the professional literature as quickly as they appeared, and none came to the attention of the broader public. In the late 1930s, newspapers and magazines publicized a debate in New York City concerning a board of education member’s unsuccessful campaign for sex education in the city’s high schools.² Accounts in subsequent years...

  8. 4 The Facts of Life
    (pp. 69-99)

    Physical changes occur constantly as individuals develop from infancy into adulthood, and mid-twentieth-century sex educators singled out the accelerated growth process known as puberty as a special moment in life. “It is the biological changes that set the adolescent period apart for special consideration,” explained education professor Ruth Strang in her text on the psychology of adolescence, adding that sexual maturity was “of central importance.”¹ Puberty referred to the acquisition of physical, sexual maturity during the early teenaged years, a period of rapid growth thought to bring emotional adjustments supposedly unique to adolescence. Educators understood adolescence as the phase accompanying...

  9. 5 Gender and Heterosexual Adjustment
    (pp. 100-123)

    “The emotional and social factors involved [in sex education] are of equal if not greater importance than the child’s acquisition of information on the physiology of sex and reproduction,” explained the authors of “The School’s Responsibility in Social Hygiene Education” in 1940. “So conceived,” they argued, “sex education is an inseparable part of the education of the total personality of the child.”¹ In fact, teachers devoted a large proportion of the time spent in sex education and family living classes to matters that were only remotely connected to the physical body. As was especially apparent in teaching about menstruation, lessons...

  10. 6 Sexuality Education beyond Classrooms
    (pp. 124-140)

    When educators talked about sex education in the 1940s and 1950s they typically meant formal sex education conducted by adults. They thought about sex talks by teachers, parents, and the clergy; books and pamphlets; and visual aids such as anatomical charts and movies. Their conception of sex education also included instructor-supervised classroom discussions about puberty, dating and engagement, and marriage and the family. Although teachers and administrators were quick to acknowledge that young people derived misinformation from a variety of unreliable sources, incidental learning about sexuality did not, for them, “count” as sex education. Yet young people in the mid-twentieth...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 141-150)

    “What a relief to learn that all my worries and my problems are normal!” Commenting on Elizabeth S. Force’s family relationships class in Toms River, New Jersey, one teen girl wrote in the 1940s, “The course made me realize that all girls go through the same things.”¹ Family relationships and similar courses gave students an opportunity to learn about customs and norms as well as a chance to hear from their peers. In an informal classroom setting they could gather on couches and comfortable chairs and collectively discuss the challenges of being a teenager, gaining independence from parents, dating and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 151-192)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-212)
  14. Index
    (pp. 213-220)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-222)