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Sex Goes to School

Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s_x000B_

Susan K. Freeman

Publication Year: 2008

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. The discussion-based approach emphasized a potentially liberating sense of personal choice and responsibility in young women's relationship decisions, and 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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

As an adolescent in the early 1980s, I had a lot of questions about sexuality that I never dared to voice. I recall not even having the courage to check out the library books by Judy Blume that spoke frankly about sex. A lot has changed in a few decades, and my interest in history and the kinds of feminist questions I ask about sexuality reflect the influence of numerous people. ...

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pp. ix-xvii

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. ...

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1. Momentum and Legitimacy

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pp. 1-18

“Shall Our Schools Teach Sex?” queried Newsweek special 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. ...

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2. Reconstructing Classrooms and Relationships

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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. ...

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3. Experiments in Sex Education

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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 ...

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4. The Facts of Life

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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 ...

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5. Gender and Heterosexual Adjustment

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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 ...

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6. Sexuality Education beyond Classrooms

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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 ...

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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 ...


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pp. 151-192


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pp. 193-212


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pp. 213-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780252091285
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033247

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2008