Curriculum Changes of Sex Education Through The Years

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The topic of sex education in school has always brought up heated debates since the early 1900’s. There has been much controversy over time on what to teach, who should teach, the moral of sex education in the classroom and the religions aspects and beliefs of the families that attend the school. Throughout time we have seen a change in the way sex education is taught in pubic schools. The focus of this paper is to shed light on the content shift in sex education classes to determine why the change occurred. How have the views of sex education in schools created a shift in the learning content from teaching about marriage and family life to pregnancy and STD prevention?

Around the 1950s and 1960s the focus of sex education was towards the marriage and family life style, the anatomy of the human bodies and the roles of family members. As we progress over time towards the 1990’s and today we can see that the focus of sex education has taken a shift in a different direction. In today’s public school system sex education classes now focus more on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. (Finkel, M. L., & Finkel, S. 1985) We see the shift from marriage and family focus to a focus on the individual and their personal preventive health. Prior to the education curriculum of the 1980’s there was a deeper religious impact on the sex education curriculum in school systems in the United States. (Lamb, S. 2013)

In the early 1900’s to the 1940’s the curriculum of sex education focused on the scientific facts of the sexual reproduction system. In the curriculum they put a focus of sex in the natural world. They used animals to portray sex as a powerful interaction between two living creatures and that it deserves respect. When sex education was being taught there were no human depictions being used as examples. They taught sex in this way so the students were still able to learn but they were not intimidated by the possible picture contents of having to see a picture of actual people engaging in intercourse. This curriculum soon changed around 1947 to help the students learn more about moral laws and the customs of society, and to better connect sex to their own lives instead of the animals in nature. The new draft of the curriculum would be focused on educating the students for personal growth and family living. This new change in the curriculum wanted to also help students to focus more on “wholesome decisions.”(Lamb, S. 2013) The moral laws that the students learned about in their sex education class consisted of making an informed decision. The teachers would present the students with questions such as, should young girls be learning about sex? Should they be able to make the decision as to whether or not to have sex or to remain in celibacy? (Lamb, S. 2013). In the mid 1960’s Sex education changed yet again, this time it was named “family life and sex education” and when implemented into high school curriculums it included a portion about ethics and was more student-centered focusing on their discussion. This new curriculum that was more “student-centered” would allow the students to have discussion about topics of sex education and also debates about the issues that came along with it. At this point in time the teachers were not allowed to express their personal opinions about sex and marital status. The teachers had to remain “morally neutral” and they were not allowed to make any comments or take a stand on any issues about sex. The focus was on the students and some topics that arose were homosexuality, contraception, and heterosexual intercourse (Lamb, S. 2013).

According to Finkel and Finkel (1985) the main topics of sex education is the prevention of pregnancies and venereal diseases. Other items on the agenda include teaching high school students responsibility for their actions, how to handle peer pressure, gender roles, personal hygiene, birth control, human reproduction and lastly knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases. (Finkel et al. 1985) In their study they discuss The Family Living/Sex Education curriculum that was established in 1967 for the school system of New York City, which would include all students in kindergarten through the 12th grade. Finkel writes, “Since the first publication of this curriculum, there have been rapid social changes in society.” (Finkel et al. 1985) The social changes in society that can be mentioned from the 1940’s to this point in time are the dynamics of families that have changed, the opening of a Planned Parenthood organization and changes in a person’s sexual orientation and status. In his quote we see that there was a needed change in the curriculum to adjust it to the developing society. The curriculum mentioned above targeted high school students that were in the New York City public school system in the 1980’s.

In the 1980’s according to Peter Scales, the focus of sex education was to make people sexually literate. This process would happen in sex education programs across the nation. Scales states, “To be sexually literate…is to possess the basic sexual information and skills to thrive in a modern world; a comprehensive knowledge of sex and sexuality; the ability to understand alternative sides of a sexual issue; tolerance for ambiguity and paradox…”(Scales, P. C.1989). In this quote we can see that the views in sex are changing in society and there is a greater acceptance for sex education. Society is coming to terms that the role of sex in their lives is changing and that people need to be educated on the new views and perspectives on sex education. If society is more open to accepting sex, then schools should be more open to teaching about it.

As we move to the 1990’s the focus of sex education takes a drastic change. We see this change because of the HIV/AIDS that has surfaced. The sex education programs are now focusing more on prevention education rather than the moral feelings and marital status for engaging in sex. According to Schalet, in 1998 federal funding shifted to focus more on prevention education, sexually transmitted diseases, the benefits of condoms and contraception, and shifted away from the abstinence only movement. (Schalet et al. 2014)

The changes that we see occurring in the curriculum of sex education are results of an ever-changing society. We moved away from the notion of teaching kids that the only way that it was proper to engage in sexual activities was to be married. According to Susan Rose there have been findings that state, just because schools are not teaching students about sex, does not meant that they would not engage and experiment with it. By educating the students there is a better chance that they will not become another statistic of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.


Works Cited

Carter, J. B. (2001). Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 10(2), 213.

Finkel, M. L., & Finkel, S. (1985). Sex Education in High School. Society, 23(1), 48–52.

Groen, M. (2009). A Right Turn on the Left Coast. American Educational History Journal, 36(1/2), 23–35.

Lamb, S. (2013). Just the Facts? The Separation of Sex Education from Moral Education. Educational Theory, 63(5), 443–460.

Mehlman, N. (2007). Sex Ed… and the Reds? Reconsidering the Anaheim Battle over Sex Education, 1962–1969. History of Education Quarterly, 47(2), 203–232.

Mucher, S. S. (2001). School Reform, the First Amendment, and Civility in the 1990s: The Construction of A Statement of Principles for Religion and Public Education. Journal of Church & State, 43(2), 319.

Rose, S. (2005). Going Too Far? Sex, Sin and Social Policy. Social Forces (University of North Carolina Press), 84(2), 1207–1232.

Scales, P. C. (1989). Overcoming future barriers to sexuality education. Theory Into Practice, 28, 172–176.

Schalet, A., Santelli, J., Russell, S., Halpern, C., Miller, S., Pickering, S., … Hoenig, J. (2014, October). Invited Commentary: Broadening the Evidence for Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Education in the United States. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, pp. 1595–1610.

Seaholm, M. (2013). Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 22(1), 168–171.

Stover, D. (2007). Should We Be Teaching Sex Education or Sexual Abstinence? Education Digest, 72(5), 41–48.


One thought on “Curriculum Changes of Sex Education Through The Years”

  1. Cristina, this essay raises a thoughtful question about how the content of sex education classes have changed over time. But the time period of your essay is unclear: the first sentence suggests from 1990s to the present, while the second paragraph suggests it’s from the 1950s to the present, and the third paragraph goes all the way back to the early 1900s. Also, the wording of your research question mistakenly attempts to insert the answer inside the question. An alternative way to write your question might have been: “How has the content of sex education in US schools changed from decade X to today?”

    The thesis paragraph argues that sex education in the 1950s/60s focused on marriage, family roles, and human anatomy, while sex education today concentrates on preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. That’s a reasonable argument, though only a descriptive one. A richer thesis also would interpret why this shift happened. Religion is briefly mentioned here, but not as part of a causal argument.

    The body paragraphs have potential, but need a stronger organization and more depth to support the thesis. For example, the long third paragraph should have been divided into two parts (pre vs post-1960s). Also, to convince us that the 1960s focused on family life, you could have included more direct evidence beyond Lamb 2013, such as the 1967 sex education curriculum materials we analyzed in class. The section on sex education “today” was not persuasive, because it relied primarily on Finkel and Finkel, a source written in 1985, which was over 30 years ago.

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