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  • Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s
  • Megan Seaholm
Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. By Susan K. Freeman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Pp. 240. $62.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper).

Who knew that there was a time when sex education in the public schools was not one of the battle fronts in the culture wars? In Sex Goes to School Susan K. Freeman, assistant professor of women’s studies at Minnesota State University, reveals that by 1947, when Newsweek published an article titled “Shall Our Schools Teach Sex?,” sex education was already part of many schools’ curricula. More surprising, she writes: “By the end of the 1950s, educators had acquired two decades of cumulative support and had collected data and testimony that revealed many of their ideas in practice. Numerous schools had implemented planned programs, parental and public resistance appeared negligible, and a handful of professionals had successfully carved out careers in promoting and teaching sex education” (17).

Freeman tells the story of sex education in the public schools in the 1940s and 1950s to explain why support for sex education grew and how midcentury sex education differed from the social hygiene programs of early twentieth-century sex education: “Whereas early social hygienists had been involved with monitoring sexual behavior and controlling the spread of vice and disease, mid-century sex educators concentrated on shaping the minds and imaginations of young people, more so than their bodies” (9). She analyzes the intellectual and pedagogical basis for the new sex education as background for her close study of three particular sex education programs. Freeman discusses the content of these school programs, but she also acknowledges the informal sex education that midcentury adolescents received from movies, books, magazines, and each other. In her conclusion Freeman briefly recounts the resistance to sex education that developed along with cultural conservatism from the late 1960s on. Thus, Freeman’s well-researched and well-written book contributes to many disciplines and subdisciplines in American history: history of sexuality, women and gender studies, US social and cultural history, and the newer field of “girls’ studies.”1

Schools added sex education to school curricula in a variety of ways. The sex ed program was often added to existing classes—science, home economics, health or physical education, even English—and these programs [End Page 168] were taught by teachers, guidance counselors, or nurses. Some high schools created discrete sex education classes, but none of these classes were called Sex Education. The program in Los Angeles was called Family Life Education; in Kansas City, Human Science. These names were not intended to be euphemisms: they expressed the shared view of midcentury sex educators that sex education was, in the best and broadest sense, education in human relations to prepare students for the fulfillment and responsibilities of marriage and family.

Freeman places repeated importance on three aspects of sex education: (1) the concern shared by midcentury educators, psychologists, social workers, and others for the psychosexual development of youths from puberty to adulthood; (2) the equal concern that boys and girls receive information and guidance that would promote success in gender roles and heterosexual relationships; and (3) the sex educators’ commitment to a discussion-based pedagogy and its implications for girls’ self-perception.

Freeman explains that “mid-twentieth-century sex educators singled out the accelerated growth process known as puberty as a special moment in life” (69). G. Stanley Hall had invented, or identified, adolescence in 1904 with an entire book devoted to the subject; and concern that the teenage years were a vulnerable time for youth, especially young girls, grew in the first decades of the twentieth century. Educators believed that information and discussion could aid in the transition to healthy adulthood. To that end, students needed to know about the anatomy and physiology of male and female reproductive systems and of reproduction. Predictably, texts and films emphasized reproduction and family life rather than sexuality. For example, the widely used film Human Growth begins with a family scene—a white, middle-class family of four—before introducing drawings of bodies and reproductive sex organs. Sexual arousal and...


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pp. 168-171
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