The Interview: A history of sex ed

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman on why teachers hate sex ed and democracy is terrible for it, and how a history of the subject is like Seinfeld



It’s not just the recent changes to Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum. Name the place. Name the decade. Sex education has always stirred up heated arguments, New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman makes clear in his new book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which examines a hundred years of teaching the birds and the bees around the world, and the resulting complications. In the end, Zimmerman even disagrees with his own mother, who worked her entire career in family planning.

So while Ontario’s disagreement over what kind of sex-ed curriculum is best for children is nothing new, there is still a lot to learn from looking at our sex-ed past.

Q: Your mom spent her career in sex education. What was her model for teaching?

A: She wasn’t a school-based sex educator. She began in India doing family planning and sex ed for mothers who couldn’t read or write, working with illustrators to design pictures. Her real specialty was family-planning outreach for illiterate or pre-illiterate populations. In a lot of places, the term “family planning” is less threatening than “sex education” because it implies that you’re already married and this is already taking place within a marital union.

Q: Has sex ed always been controversial?

A: It absolutely has been controversial, always and everywhere. The reason is not that complicated. Human beings have such different approaches and orientations toward questions of sex and sexuality. In some ways, that fact has become even more prominent in the modern era of globalization because with the movement of people and ideas very rapidly across borders, there’s even more of a cacophony of opinion surrounding it.

Q: In your book, there are two broad types of sex education, an American model and a European model. Can you elaborate a bit on the differences between the two?

A: [In] the United States, which started sex ed, the goal was to limit negative consequences to the society at large. Middle-class men were patronizing prostitutes, who were a major conduit for STDs. So to stop the spread of venereal diseases and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, we have a sex-ed curriculum.

Especially after the Second World War, starting in places like Sweden and Holland, the European devised a model that was less focused on these collective consequences than it was on promoting the well-being, health and dignity of the individual. So the goal isn’t necessarily to stop teen pregnancy. The goal is to help each young man and woman develop and determine their sexual destiny.

I was in the archives in Sweden of the RFSU, the Swedish sex-ed association, and there’s a note from an educator in Ireland who had a very conservative approach to sex ed—much like my mother would have written to the Swedes—that’s basically, Why do you rock so much? Why are your STD rates so low? Why are teen pregnancy rates so low? The guy writes back a nice letter and says, “Thank you very much, but I think you got us wrong. It’s true that our teen pregnancy and STD rates are lower than yours, but we don’t know if that’s because of sex ed. And besides, that isn’t the point. Nobody wants a kid to get an STD, but the goal is not to bring down these rates. The goal is to help each individual develop their sexuality.”

My mom taught me what a lot of liberal people in the West are taught, which is that Europe is ahead of us. And of course, what that implies is that there’s a single goal; in any race, everyone is going to the same finish line. That’s actually wrong. There are different goals.

Q: Is there any scientific base or research for saying one model of sex ed is more effective?

A: I just don’t think there is. One of the really annoying things that people like my mom often say is, “John, why are you writing about these people who don’t want sex ed? They’re like climate-change deniers or anti-evolutionists.” I don’t think that’s a fair comparison and here’s why. With climate change, there’s a huge scientific consensus. With respect to evolution, it is the basis of biological science. With sex ed, we just don’t have that knowledge base. And the reason is because there’s been so little of it! If there were more sex ed, we could make more confident statements and comments about its “scientific effect.” Of course, to be clear, we should keep looking for it. We found little things, but it’s fair to say the science is very much in its infancy.

My friends on the left, they’re often very happy to forward me the latest study saying abstinence-only education doesn’t have real evidence that it makes people abstain. That’s true. But here’s the part they often leave out: We don’t have much evidence the comprehensive kind does what it’s supposed to do, either.

Q: I know you live in the U.S., but from what you do know about what’s happening with sex ed in Ontario, do you have any thoughts on the situation?

A: It seems to me that, especially with the move to address things like sexting, what you see is the school trying catch up with mass media. For the last 100 years, one of the major concerns of sex educators is that mass media has been spreading troubling messages about sex that might be promoting some kind of vice in different ways. Sex ed was an effort—and is an effort—to try to challenge those images, compensate for them, control them, but it’s always behind. Kids have been sexting for a very long time. Now what you see the school trying to do is address that, perhaps control that. Just to be clear, I don’t begrudge them trying to do that—sexting is a real problem—but I would say history suggests that it’s going to be a long and uphill slog. Kids get their sexual messages from screens and from each other. They don’t get them from schools.

Q: With the Ontario curriculum, it seems to be focusing more on the individual-focused models. Is the shift from a communal model the reason for the tension?

A: I think there is a little more accent on that, but there’s always a mix. I think it’s worth asking, “Why are they trying to alter the curriculum?” What’s the larger goal? My strong guess would be the larger goal is closer to the traditional one of limiting negative consequences than it is of promoting individual happiness and pleasure. Of course, they’re addressing the individual. At some level, every education does, but I’m talking less about the pitch than I am about the goal. What’s the objective? My guess is that this is much more motivated by a fear of some sort of bad outcome for all of us than it is by a goal of helping each individual lead a satisfying sexual life.

Q: Can schools ever catch up with pop culture?

A: I really don’t think they can. Just to be clear, I don’t want anyone to think I don’t think they should try. I think, frankly, the best argument for sex ed is kind of like Pascal’s argument for God: You might as well bet in that direction. If you’re wrong, no harm. And if you’re right, something good will come of it.

The problem is there are so many different populations that don’t think school is an appropriate place to do that. Those populations are now joining hands across different political configurations, especially in Western Europe, who have newcomers with very traditional ideas of sex and sexuality [who] become strange bedfellows with white conservatives, with whom they agree about nothing—including immigration itself—except for sex ed. I think globalization in the past 20 to 30 years has been a real inhibitor on sex education.

Q: How do multicultural communities navigate this sex-ed question?

A: It’s incredibly difficult. The more multicultural a community becomes, in some ways the more difficult it is to find consensus. There is this facile assumption that the more diversity you have, the more liberal your curriculum is going to be. It’s actually quite the opposite. There are such fundamentally different assumptions that different populations are bringing to this that it creates more controversy rather than less. I think it’s ever more difficult for school to address sex.

Q: And what about parents who never had a robust sex education or any sex education themselves?

A: It’s a vicious circle. Parents don’t get sex ed, so they give all sorts of awful ideas to their kids. And then those kids don’t want their kids to get sex ed when they grow up. George Bernard Shaw said the real problem for sex educators—and he was a supporter—is democracy. “You think if there’s more democracy, there’s going to be more sex ed,” [Shaw] said. “I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong.”

Q: You mentioned in your book a Canadian educator [from before the Second World War] quoted as saying that abstaining from sex until marriage was “the most heroic, most patriotic and God-like work a boy can ever aim at.” What role did organized religion play in public schools?

A: In the early 20th century, it was mostly an inhibitor. The Catholic Church, especially in North American and Europe, was a very strong check on sex ed. The Pope actually released an encyclical because it was thought to be—ironically—too scientific. This issue of sex, it should be one about faith, not about science. After the Second World War, there were big changes [with] religious communities becoming much more liberal on sexual matters.

Freud said in the early 1900s that there’s never going to be sex ed in school so long as religious communities control religion because a priest will never admit that human beings have an animal nature. The irony is in the early 20th century, sex ed stressed plants and animals to avoid the question of human sexuality in order to—they hoped—teach about sex without getting the kids too interested in it.

Q: The birds and the bees.

A: Exactly.

Q: How did the pill and the sexual revolution change sex ed?

A: There’s no question in the ’60s and ’70s there was a more explicit discussion of many sexual topics in schools, both in the U.S. and Canada, but the part of that story that we leave out is the sexual revolution was accompanied by a sexual counterrevolution. I think it’s fair to say in North American, and also the U.K. and Ireland, the sexual counterrevolution is quite successful in stalemating the sexual revolution. The ’60s and ’70s are the beginning of a sharp polarization of these issues.

[Then] AIDS changed everything. Before AIDS, some people were for sex ed and others were against it. After AIDS, everybody is for sex ed. They’re just for different kinds of it.

Q: What’s it like for teachers today?

A: What a burden sex ed is to teachers. It’s a burden because nobody thinks they’re doing it well and, most of all, it addresses their own sexuality. Teachers are sexual beings and so inevitably somebody’s going to say, “Look, you’re too sexy,” or “You’re not sexy enough.” “You’re too into this sex-ed thing and we think that’s kind of seductive,” or “You’re an old maid and you haven’t had sex ever, so why are you teaching this?” That makes it incredibly difficult, and I think helps explain why so many teachers just don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Q: Was there something you found particularly surprising in your research?

A: The biggest surprise—and in some ways the most disappointing for a historian—has been frankly how little sex ed there’s been. That was the real challenge in writing the book. It was like Seinfeld: How do you make a show about nothing? How do you tell the story about something that largely didn’t happen?


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