- Controlling Sex:Modern Histories of Sex Education
Interest in the history of sex education has exploded recently, as nearly a dozen important books in the area have been published since 2000. Most of these works focus on educational institutions as sites for sex education, and as such, lie at the juncture of the histories of sexuality and education. Given that school-based sex-education programs have existed for over a century, the emergence of this scholarship should hardly be surprising; why we are only seeing it now?
Perhaps this development was inevitable given the recent outpouring of work on the history of sexuality. With its roots in social history, women’s history, and gay and lesbian history, the history of sexuality gained momentum after the 1988 publication of John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman’s landmark interpretive synthesis of the field, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (1998; 3rd ed. 2013). In the decades that followed its first printing, richly varied scholarship on the history of sexuality has been published by a growing number of journals and university presses, even mainstream media.
Although the history of sexuality has filtered into many realms of historical [End Page 611] scholarship, its presence in the history of education has until recently been strikingly limited, especially in work concerning primary and secondary schools, adolescents, and teachers. To some extent, such scholarship carries risk. It requires understanding young persons as sexual beings—which defies long-standing community assumptions about the sexual innocence of youth. This scholarship also requires acknowledging the sexuality of adults who work with adolescents—which means questioning the presumed asexuality or sexual purity of school workers as a class. Consequently, scholarship on the history of sexuality and school-based education has been slow to surface.
Some recent work emerging from LGBTQ history explores the experiences of educators who have desired others of the same sex or transgressed conventional gender boundaries.1 Those conducting this work, though, have faced difficulties because discussion of nonconforming sexualities and gender identities among school workers—and students—long has been taboo, only rarely hinted at in official documents, news accounts, diaries, and other artifacts. Until recently, teachers could be fired from their positions even for the suspicion of “homosexuality” or gender nonconformity. Students identified as homosexual might be punished, committed to programs designed to reorient their sexuality, or expelled. Education researchers, who typically work with students in professional teacher-licensure programs, have been reluctant to study issues related to sexuality until the past two decades because such work has been regarded as too controversial, carrying a heavy risk of detrimental promotion-and-tenure decisions, not to mention poor prospects for research funding. Within only the past few years, tensions have simmered within the American Educational Research Association, the nation’s largest and most influential organization of education scholars, as activist members have pressured reluctant association leaders to recognize the legitimacy of research on LGBTQ issues in education.2
Despite these challenges, a robust body of work has emerged at one point of intersection between histories of education and sex/sexuality: the history of sex education. First among these is Jeffrey Moran’s influential and groundbreaking Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century (2000). Moran centers his analysis on the development of school-based sex-education programs over the past century, programs designed to change adolescent sexual behavior. Interestingly, even though he describes many heated public struggles over state-sponsored sex education...