- Talk about Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States
In Talk about Sex, sociologist Janice Irvine poses a central question: "How can we explain the bitter battles over sex education given that, since the sixties, most people have reported to pollsters that they support it?" (201). Her answer is that those who have opposed the inclusion of comprehensive sexuality curricula in the public schools have made this a contentious political issue by skillfully employing discursive politics to arouse public fears about the teaching of sex to America's youth. While identifying all social conservatives as participants in this rhetorical campaign, Irvine argues that the leaders of the new religious Right have been the most outspoken [End Page 107] and successful opponents of comprehensive sex-education programs. These politically active religious figures, she contends, took the lead among the political Right in framing sex education as evil and salacious. In doing this, they were able to accomplish two major goals: they built a movement and mobilized supporters by stirring public passions, and they set the tone of both national and local debates. Given these arguments, it is not surprising that Irvine's book provides both valuable insights into how sex-education debates fostered the ascendancy of the new religious Right and a helpful analysis of how the Right's adroit use of discourse affected public debates about sex education.
Irvine begins her book by describing the initial attempts of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) to reform sex education. Established in 1964 with the goal of moving the discussion of sex in the public schools beyond basic lessons on hygiene, SIECUS and its leading spokesperson, Mary Calderone, set out to convince the public to think of sex as an integral component of the human personality rather than simply as a physical activity. As Irvine correctly states, SIECUS's initial program, though it was far from libertarian by current standards, met immediate resistance. Of its opponents, the leaders of a new right-wing political movement that had been gaining momentum in America since the early 1960s were the most aggressive. To them, SIECUS's attempt to reform sex education threatened the moral health of America's children even as it provided clear evidence that the nation was experiencing a swift cultural decline. There is no doubt, Irvine explains, that the leadership of the new Right was genuinely concerned about the effects of SIECUS's sex-education programs. Still, she correctly assesses that the Right's leadership was also quick to recognize the political benefits of participating in sex-education debates.
According to Irvine, there are two primary reasons why opposition to sex education helped strengthen the new political Right. First, because it concerned the teaching of sex to America's youth, sex education was a potentially volatile issue that the Right could exploit to mobilize its constituency and to convince others to support its social agenda. In one of the strongest sections of her book, Irvine documents how right-wing leaders from groups such as the John Birch Society and the Christian Crusade successfully used political rhetoric to sway public opinion to their side. Of particular importance was their use of anti-Communist rhetoric (the idea that the new sexually charged morality made America's children susceptible to amoral Marxism) and "depravity narratives" (distorted or fabricated tales intended to convince the public that sex educators were perverts who wanted to recruit their children into an immoral lifestyle).
In addition to their rhetorical value, Irvine contends that the new Right benefited from sex-education debates because they helped unite political and religious conservatives in a common cause. Indeed, by framing sex education as one of the major issues in the supposed "cultural wars" of the [End Page 108] late twentieth century, these secular and religious leaders were able to persuade their constituencies that they could stem the tide of America's moral slide only by joining forces. As a result of this new cooperation...