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Sex Education and the Rise of the New Right

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 31, Number 2, June 2003
pp. 283-289 | 10.1353/rah.2003.0037

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Reviews in American History 31.2 (2003) 283-289

Janice M. Irvine. Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 292 pp. Appendix, notes, and index. $24.95.

If sex, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, is simply power relations with your pants down, then you would expect a book about sex education controversies to be particularly instructive about the role sexuality has played in recent power struggles between liberals and conservatives. In Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, the historical sociologist Janice Irvine focuses more particularly on the conservative opposition to mainstream sex education in the last thirty-five years and she fully develops an argument that only a handful of other scholars have advanced: not only did the rise of the modern Right trigger a series of controversies over sex education, but these battles helped forge a New Right organized around social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and, of course, sex education. Sex sells, it seems, even when the product it is selling is the moralistic condemnation of sex.

The history of sex education makes a particularly good subject for examining changing attitudes toward sexuality at the end of the twentieth century. Almost all young people pass through the public schools, and the question of what to teach them while they are there is, at least intermittently, an opportunity for public discussion about what values and knowledge are worthy to pass on to the next generation. Less charitably, one could argue that activists fight over the public schools because those institutions are susceptible to pressure politics in a way that other arbiters of sexual permissibility, such as the Supreme Court and Hollywood, seldom are. Like the man who looks for his lost contact lens under a distant streetlamp because the light's better there, activists with an interest in sexual morality fight over the public schools because they know that is where they can seem to make an impact on society's sexual standards. Either way, struggles over the schools leave a rich record for historians of sexuality and social movements interested in tracing changes in ideology and social practice. Unfortunately, historians of education have seldom taken the broader approach to their subject, although a model for this endeavor was pioneered some forty years ago in Bernard Bailyn's Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study (1960). Educational historians have instead preferred to focus on more narrowly institutional issues, such as the histories of vocational education, teacher unionization, philosophies of learning, and other subjects whose significance is more clearly confined within the red brick walls of the schoolhouse.

Although sex education evoked intermittent opposition throughout the twentieth century, for most of that bygone era it seemed an unlikely target for controversy. Indeed, the leaders of the movement for sex education generally seemed to be governed more by the fear of controversy than a desire to educate and hedged their curricula with stern condemnations of sexual expression outside of marriage and prohibitions on teaching about birth control, sexual pleasure, and homosexuality. For most of the century, sex educators casually mingled lessons on the dangers of venereal diseases and the immorality of sexual expressiveness to produce the bland, generally unobjectionable stew they called sex education. They thus embodied both the rising importance of "experts" as arbiters of sexual morality and the persistent middle-class uneasiness with sexual expression. Despite a handful of entertaining variations on these themes (eugenics, WWII syphilis films, family life education), sex education continued along this fairly flat trajectory until the 1960s.

Irvine begins her account in 1964, with the founding of the Sex Information Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). That same year, Time magazine announced that America was experiencing a "sexual revolution" based on a devaluation of (women's) virginity and an explosion of open discussion about sexuality. SIECUS represented an attempt by a handful of physicians, academics, and mainstream religious leaders to steer this "revolution" into productive channels without the moralistic condemnation of sexuality that had characterized sex education in the past. Led by Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, a former medical director of...



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