In 1980, New Jersey became the first state to require sex education in all its public schools. That caught the attention of the Moral Majority, a political organization founded the previous year by fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell to infuse Christian values into public policy.
Converging on a hearing of the state board of education, members of the group denounced sex education for placing “godless ethics” over Biblical absolutes. They especially bridled at the curriculum’s “normalization” of homosexuality, which they called a sin before God, and even claimed sex education would encourage “public acceptance of pedophilia.”
Fast-forward to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, signed into law in March, and similar bills in several other states, all restricting instruction about LGBTQ-related themes. The Florida measure prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and also bars any discussion of these topics “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Like their forbears in the Moral Majority, proponents of these laws warn that schools are “grooming” children for sexual abuse.
But as the larger politics of our culture wars have shifted, so has the focus of opposition to sex education. The most obvious new target is gender identity, which has surpassed sexual orientation as the core concern. Advocates of the measures mostly avoid religious rhetoric, invoking parental rights rather than Scripture. And the laws have also drawn multicultural support, which contrasts to the heavily white demographic of the Moral Majority.
As the nation and world have globalized, so have our cultural conflicts. The more diverse — and the less devout — we become, the less likely we are to agree about the fraught subject of sex in school.
Sex education in the United States has been a contentious issue since its beginning in the early 20th century, when burgeoning cities witnessed large venereal disease outbreaks. In his 2007 book, The Heart of Whiteness, Julian Carter, an associate professor at the California College of the Arts, explains that the possibility of middle-class white men contracting VD from sex workers and infecting their wives triggered eugenic fears of “race suicide”: If white women became infertile because of disease, the argument went, non-whites would overwhelm the nation.
So schools introduced lessons about sex, all designed to warn against it. They focused heavily on plant and animal reproduction, lest students become too interested in the human kind. “First they describe romantically the mating of the calla lilies and the June bugs, then they plunge furiously into their revolting treatises [on] kissing games, necking, and the dance,” H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925, satirizing textbooks used to teach sex education. “There is, on the one hand, the chaste, automatic philandering of the rose and the honeybee, and there is, on the other hand, the appalling pathological fate of sinful Homo sapiens.”
Sex education became slightly more explicit after World War II, when it acquired a new label: family life education. By providing frank and clinical descriptions of human reproduction, educators said, schools would guide sex into its proper channel: heterosexual marriage. That would also help counter lurid sexual images in comic books, which critics blamed for spikes in juvenile delinquency. Finally, by shoring up the family unit, sex education would provide a bulwark against the greatest enemy of all: global communism. Under the logic of the Cold War, the free world required a strong America; a strong America required resilient families; and resilient families required sex education.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s transformed the vocabulary of sex education but reinforced its larger goal of continence within marriage. The key figure in the sex education movement of the time was physician Mary Steichen Calderone, daughter of the avant-garde photographer Edward Steichen. A former executive at Planned Parenthood, where she sought to expand birth control services, Calderone came to believe that the real problem lay in Americans’ sexual reticence and ignorance: If we couldn’t talk and learn about sex, she argued, we would never reduce unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases. So she founded the Sex Education and Information Council of the United States, which remains the leading American organization for the subject.
Calderone was no radical flamethrower; she sought to tame the sexual revolution, not to embrace it. “Let me assure you that I stand squarely for monogamy,” she wrote in 1968, “for the committed relationship in marriage that is life-long.” She denounced casual sex between men and women and gay relations of every sort. But she also favored open and frank lessons about formerly taboo topics such as masturbation, abortion and contraception, which slowly entered sex education curricula during these same years.
That unleashed a massive backlash among conservatives, who made Calderone into Public Enemy No. 1. To these critics, she symbolized the same permissive morality she indicted. Worst of all, they charged, Calderone aimed to implant sexual ideas in otherwise innocent youth. “God Said, about Seducers of Children: You will Wish You Had Never Been Born,” an anonymous correspondent Calderone wrote in 1969. Calderone would be “cast into the Depths of Hell,” the writer added, where she would have molten steel poured into her “from two directions” and would be fed a diet of “Puss, Excretions, Roaches, Maggots, and Spiders.”
In a less heated vein, other critics noted that schools providing sex education were prohibited (under the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling) from conducting prayers. “Why must I as a taxpayer give money to a school system that is not allowed to teach about God,” a Michigan mother asked in 1969, “but is allowed to teach, instruct, show filthy literature and movies on sex, family planning, sensitivity programs, etc.?” The jab at “sensitivity” reflected another widespread fear: that educators were using subtle psychological techniques to indoctrinate students into a loose, anything-goes sexual morality.
Such concerns caught the attention of the Moral Majority, whose vice president — syndicated columnist Cal Thomas — appeared on “60 Minutes” in 1980 to rebut an interview with Calderone. Calderone insisted that sex education would discourage — not promote — premarital intercourse. To Thomas, by contrast, sex education resembled a driving teacher who gave students the keys to a car but told them to “forget the brake” and to avoid the reverse gear. “We are simply and fundamentally — if I may use that word — involved in a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people,” Thomas declared.
As Thomas implied, conservative Christians represented the heart of the opposition against sex education. But they would also experience internal tensions over the subject in the mid-1980s, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop recommended that students as young as third grade receive lessons about condoms to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A pro-life evangelical Christian appointed by Ronald Reagan, Koop made it clear that he believed that sex should be reserved for marriage. But he also believed that children needed information to protect themselves. “You can’t talk about the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes,” Koop told a reporter.
Trying to avoid a rift within his party, Reagan announced that he had neither read Koop’s report on HIV/AIDS nor talked to him about it. Other conservatives weren’t so restrained. Fundraiser Richard Viguerie charged that Koop was “proposing instruction in buggery”; to longtime right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly, meanwhile, Koop’s report seemed to have been “edited by the Gay Task Force.”
Eventually, conservatives who had formerly resisted sex education reached a compromise: They would support the subject, provided that it stressed “abstinence-only.” They promoted new curricula like “Sex Respect,” which made no mention of condoms or other forms of contraception. Instead, abstinence-only education focused on the supposed physical and psychological dangers of all premarital sexual activity. Like most curricular matters, sex ed remained in the hands of state and local officials. But they were incentivized to select abstinence-only programs by the federal government, which designated funds for those programs.
President Barack Obama’s administration scaled back that funding, citing evidence that abstinence-only sex education did not persuade students to abstain from sex. The pendulum swung back with the election of Donald Trump, who tried to cancel federal grants to groups providing lessons about contraception. He was blocked by the courts and the matter cooled down, suggesting that the “sex-ed wars” were ending.
The conflict over gender identity revived them. It appeared initially in state campaigns to require people in public buildings — including schools — to use bathrooms that accorded with their sex at birth. Following boycotts by the NBA and Bruce Springsteen, North Carolina rescinded its bathroom law; a similar bill died in Texas, amid other corporate threats to withdraw business from the state.
Over the past year, however, at least six states have joined Florida in considering measures to restrict teachers from addressing gender identity. Several states have also introduced bills that would require teachers to use the pronouns designated by students’ parents and also to inform parents of any changes in their children’s expressed gender identities. The bathroom issue didn’t grab conservative voters, but classroom instruction does.
Supporters of the new Florida bill and those like it have leveled many bogus claims against its critics. There is no evidence — none — that supporters of gender-themed lessons want to “groom” children for sex. Nor are teachers trying to indoctrinate kids via “social and emotional learning,” which critics say aims to manipulate children’s feelings in the same way that “sensitivity training” supposedly did.
But some schools are teaching a more detailed and explicit version of sex education than ever before. Spurred by the #MeToo movement and wider public discussion of sexual coercion, 10 states and the District of Columbia have required schools to teach about consent as part of sex education. By 2020, 16 states required instruction on condoms or contraception, on top of seven states mandating lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation. The trend was clear: more information and discussion about a growing array of sensitive and controversial topics.
Still, 21 states — including Florida — had no sex education requirements at all. And only 38 percent of high schoolers and 14 percent of middle-school students received so-called comprehensive sex education, which includes instruction about healthy relationships, birth control and abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual orientation and gender roles. And even when these topics were mandated by state laws or regulations, they remained highly contested. California’s revised sex education guidelines — including instruction on gender identity — sparked a one-day statewide strike in 2019. “It’s either you’re a girl or a boy,” explained one ninth grader at a protest with her mother, seeming to address those who do not identify as either female or male. “That’s what I agree with.”
One thing has changed about the sex-ed wars, though: The debate is no longer as religious as it once was. Sure, there are examples of religious rhetoric filtering into the debate. In Nebraska, conservative churches distributed opt-out forms in 2017 so that parents could protect the “souls of children” from “sexual immorality … under the guise of education.” During a highly publicized 2020 referendum on Washington State’s sex education guidelines, which included lessons on gender identity and sexual consent, a Catholic activist used religious language to condemn them: “When you get into the issues of how do you say ‘yes’ or how do you say ‘no,’ that can easily open the door [to], ‘It’s OK to say yes and no,’ and that steps on our teaching that sexual activity is to be reserved for the sacrament of marriage.”
Yet most modern opposition to LGBTQ-related instruction — and to sex education, more broadly — is secular, eschewing the Biblical language that suffused earlier campaigns against sex education. In part, that reflects Americans’ declining rates of religious affiliation and weekly worship over the past two decades. Opponents of sex education understand that the country has become less devout, so they have shifted their tactics accordingly.
That’s why conservatives have resorted to charges of “grooming” and pedophilia, which cater to a wider audience. A North Carolina woman calling herself “Activist Mommy” created a Facebook page attacking “pornographic” sex education, drawing over a half a million followers by 2018. “I personally homeschool my children but felt sorry for the parents who feel helpless to stop … these graphic and dangerous programs in public schools,” she wrote. Charges of child abuse had hounded sex education since the days of Mary Calderone, of course. But they took on fresh prominence as explicitly theological arguments faded from the scene.
Anti-sex education activists have also found allies in the more conservative wings of some minority communities as well, scrambling the politics of the issue further. Some traditionalist Muslim news outlets have published criticism of institutional sex education; during the California strike against sex education, Chinese-American parents held protest signs denouncing schools for “sexualizing our kids.” And in Florida, proponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” law — which was co-sponsored by a Colombian-American legislator — are trying to capitalize on traditional attitudes among the state’s Hispanic voters, with the leader of Donald Trump’s 2020 Hispanic advertising operation saying that Democrats have “waged a dishonest culture war” against the legislation.
Such criticism presents a new challenge for sex educators, who typically embrace the pro-immigrant spirit of liberal America, and don’t have a clear political response when immigrant communities don’t embrace their progressive values.
We’re still just as divided as we were in 1980, when an angry New Jersey resident asked her state school board, denouncing its sex education requirement, “What have you been reading? I don’t understand you. I can’t even hold a conversation with you.”
That conversation promises to become harder — not easier — as our country becomes less devout and more politically polarized. The real question is whether we will be able to talk to each other at all.