A Brief History of Sex Ed in American Schools

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Sex education in public schools has a long, arduous history in the United States. Beginning in 1913, public schools used handouts and pamphlets to educate their students on reproduction and pregnancy. Much of the information was vague and extremely limited in its comprehensiveness. That is, until the 1950s, when the American Medical Association (AMA) in collaboration with public health officials began a push for more robust sex education. The AMA created a comprehensive five-part series called the “sex education series” which standardized the curricula taught in all public schools.  

In the 1960s, however, sex education came under fire from conservative and religious groups who argued that teaching teens about sex only encourages risky sexual behavior (even though data has shown that teens who are empowered about sexuality through comprehensive sexual health education are more likely to abstain from or delay sexual activity). Sexual health advocacy groups were able to hold their critics at bay until the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. During this time, religious and fringe groups were able to exploit this public health crisis to convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.” 

The Religious Right and other advocates for abstinence-only sex education were able to further their agenda in 1996 by lobbying for federal financial support. Utilizing $250 million awarded to them by the government, proponents of abstinence-only sex education successfully overhauled the curricula in public schools by focusing strictly on abstinence-only programs. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, advocates of comprehensive sex education continued to call for a reform of abstinence-only curricula and demanded a mature conversation about sex, sexuality, and health, but in 2003 federal funding for the abstinence-only programs was increased by the Bush administration to over $15 million annually.  

By 2004, despite evidence that a balanced approach to sexual health education was more effective in preventing the spread of STIs and lowering teen pregnancy rates, the Bush administration double- and tripled-down by committing another $170 million a year to these highly flawed abstinence-only programs. Although the Bush-era policies on sex education were allowed to expire in 2009, and the Obama administration committed over $75 million to comprehensive sex education, abstinence-only programs are still taught in many schools across the country today. And unfortunately, the socioeconomic status of your community plays a large role in the type of sex education you receive. The more liberal the state, and wealthier the community in which you live, the more likely you are to receive comprehensive education. To the contrary, more conservative and lower-income communities rely on abstinence-only education. That is if they offer any sex education at all. 

Adding confusion to the sex ed battle, according to the Guttmacher Institute, teen pregnancy rates in the US dropped from 1990-2011. Why? Abstinence-only proponents want to claim victory, but the data shows that comprehensive sex education, access, affordability, and use of effective birth control, access to safe and affordable abortion, and an increase in delayed sexual activity in teens ages 15-19 years are the top reasons for the drop. Even so, the United States still ranks highest for teen birth rates among Westernized countries. This is due mainly to the lack of required sexual health curricula in US schools as well as the continued teaching of false and misinformation provided in abstinence-only programs. For decades comprehensive sexual health education advocates have been urging school districts to once again incorporate a standardized education program across districts, but they continue to face mounting resistance. 

In July of 2017, for example, the Trump administration announced that it would ax the Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Program (TPP). TPP is a program that awards funds to over 84 communities to help close the teen pregnancy disparity gap by implementing educational curricula, funding youth-serving organizations, and supporting vigorous program evaluation. The $213.6 million cuts came as a shock to program leaders, many of whom’s programs will abruptly end in the spring of 2018. Planned Parenthood is now suing the Trump administration for cutting TPP funding. 

Adding insult to injury, in the 2019 budget the Trump administration is allocating $75 million dollars to abstinence-only sex education in schools. An about-face to the Obama administration funding that allocated exactly $75 million for comprehensive sex education programs.

Sexual health advocates have traveled some long roads through the decades. And although this information may seem disheartening, there is a large group of hard-working people who dedicate their lives and their careers to making sure you have access to the accurate, inclusive, and comprehensive sex education you deserve. We will keep fighting the good fight for all of those we serve.


amy sutherland - founder

Hey all! My name is Amy Sutherland (she/her), and I have been passionate about sexual health since before I hit puberty. I've spent most of my adult life working as a writer focusing on health and wellness. More particularly, women’s reproductive health. 

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