- The Joy of Sex Education
“I suggest that in your next film, you show yourself being buggered by a long-haired hippy. That will make them sit up.” Such was the reaction of one correspondent to Martin Cole, a hitherto unknown biology lecturer at an obscure British university, elicited by the storm of controversy generated by the release of Growing Up in 1971. The explicitness with which Cole’s 16mm classroom film portrayed the facts of life has, it seems, actually gained some power to shock since: its inclusion in the BFI’s DVD compilation The Joy of Sex Education is, according to an explanatory note on the sleeve, the sole reason for the entire set carrying an 18-certificate. Ironically, therefore, most of the age group for whom the film was originally intended cannot now, thirty-eight years later, legally buy a copy. [End Page 159]
This sort of temporal anomaly characterizes the entire selection of sex “education” (the noun implies the ideologically neutral communication of knowledge and ideas, something that certainly does not happen in many of the films presented here) films, all but one British, produced between 1917 and 1973. The genre seems to have oscillated between conservative and liberal in approach. At one end of the story, we have Whatsoever a Man Soweth (1917), aptly characterized by Bryony Dixon’s sleeve essay as a “straight sermon” on the consequences of venereal disease (the protagonist of which is aptly named Dick). At the other, ’Ave You Got a Male Assistant Please Miss? (1973) closes with a similarly stark warning about the consequences of unwanted pregnancy. In between, less judgmental approaches can be found in How to Tell (1931), which urges parents to educate their children on the facts of life, and in Learning to Live (1964), which, while still condemning extramarital sex, does not portray sex itself as exclusively negative— hardly (no pun intended—honest!) surprising given that the film was sponsored by a condom manufacturer.
The films fall conveniently into three broad categories: morality tales about venereal disease, morality tales about unwanted pregnancy, and films explaining the biological nuts (oh, drat, another pun) and bolts, with varying degrees of moralistic spin attached thereto. A distinct pattern emerges in the conservative– liberal split: the “prophecy of doom” subgenre is most noticeable at times of conflict and political instability, whereas the films that do not start from the default position that sex per se should be considered undesirable tended to be made at times of comparative prosperity and in the absence of international conflict. Examples from both world wars advising service personnel stationed abroad to refrain from knocking up the natives feature prominently, notably Whatsoever a Man Soweth, Love on Leave (1940), and the gloriously politically incorrect Halas and Bachelor animation Six Little Jungle Boys (1945), which would make Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs look like a training film for equality and diversity officers. The less judgmental strand is represented primarily by How to Tell (released significantly before the effects of the Great Depression were felt among the wider British population), which argues that full-scale sex education, delivered by parents to their children, is essential for them to develop into mature adults capable of sustaining their own marital relationships, and by what possibly remains the most infamous and most controversial classroom film ever made in Britain, Growing Up. Its infamy derives from the inclusion of actual, unsimulated intercourse and masturbation scenes in lieu of visual euphemisms involving farm animals à la The Mystery of Marriage (1932) or the animated diagrams used to convey the bulk of the factual information in Growing Girls (1949). Though the film’s underlying moral message—that sex should ideally take place within a monogamous and committed relationship—is essentially similar to that of its predecessors (it also includes a warning of the consequences of unplanned pregnancy), the explicit scenes unleashed a wave of protest. Growing Up generated extensive media coverage: one city council banned the film from use in its schools citing the Obscene Publications Act, its female “star” was sacked from her job as a teacher, and Cole received...