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  • Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s
  • Kelly Schrum
Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s. By Susan K. Freeman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. xvii plus 220 pp. $25).

In the 1988 song, "Come in From the Cold," Joni Mithcell sings "Back in 1957, we had to dance a foot apart / And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines / holding their rulers without a heart / And so with just a touch of our fingers / Oh we could make our circuitry explode / All we ever wanted / Was just to come in from the cold." These lyrics evoke images of strict rules in a prescribed setting, a school event that promoted heterosexual socialization yet strongly discouraged sexual activity. According to Susan Freeman's book Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s, sex education mirrored this contradiction. "Mid-century educators," writes Freeman, "wanted adolescents to be interested—but not too interested—in sex" (xi).

Freeman's well-written, engaging book primarily focuses on sex education in the 1940s and 1950s, briefly discussing its roots in the first decades of the twentieth century and its initial focus on disease prevention. By the time it spread nationally, the emphasis had shifted to "shaping the minds and imaginations of young people, more so than their bodies" (9). This story, however, is national and local, as school districts around the country developed policies, approaches, and curricula with both common themes and distinct characteristics.

By looking at sex education nationally, Freeman finding opposition in isolated, high profile cases, but overall support for teaching about biological and psychological development through the sex education curriculum. Freeman begins with the development of the field and then shifts to look at content, approach, and teaching strategies. She then examines three communities (the state of Oregon, the town of Toms River, New Jersey, and the increasingly urban San Diego, California) that received national attention for their sex education curricula. All three, despite varied approaches, shared an emphasis on student discussion and participation.

Sex Goes to School weaves the words and thoughts of young people into the larger body of material created by and for students, presenting a key (and often overlooked) glimpse at how young people themselves experienced and responded to lessons about puberty, reproduction, and family. Within an emphasis on white, middle class, heterosexual norms, most curricula advocated "cooperative marital partnerships and family units," challenging, however subtly, the notion of an authoritarian, patriarchal family structure. According to Freeman, this, along with an emphasis on dialogue and discussion, "supplied girls with critical tools for questioning exploitation and male dominance, whether in relationships, in family dynamics, or in society" (145).

Listening to the questions students asked through workbooks and as reported by sex education instructors, young people might have danced a foot apart in the school gym, but they were not completely in the dark about sex, sexuality, and other topics not publicly discussed in the mid-century, such as sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, and homosexuality. Students asked questions such as, "How do you get crabs?" "What causes rapists?" "Where is the male organ placed during intercourse?" and "Is a homosexual case over-loaded with hormones of the opposite sex?" (26). These questions represent both a lack of basic knowledge and [End Page 943] a fairly broad introduction to a range of behaviors related to human sexuality. Through a close look at how specific issues were addressed, such as masturbation, menstruation, and sexual reproduction, Freeman notes that the curriculum as a whole offered fairly inconsistent, and sometimes inaccurate, information, ignoring almost completely, for example, sexual pleasure or the physical changes a woman's body experiences during pregnancy. The widely circulated film, The Story of Menstruation, for example, failed to mention sperm in relation to conception, "'Pregnancy occurs,' the narrator explained, 'when a woman is going to have a child'" (93).

Freeman's work is an excellent contribution to the study of mid-century sexual behavior, education, and the experiences of young people. While the book includes several thorough descriptions of images, the book itself offers none of the rich visual material mentioned. A handwritten student worksheet, for example...


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