The Scandalous History of Sex-Ed Movies
By Lisa Hix
After excusing herself from the dinner table, the 13-year-old girl begins to shout, her excited voice ringing through her family’s Mid-Century Modern home, “I got it! I got it!!” Her mother, in a Donna Reed-type dress, beams, while her 10-year-old brother looks up quizzically and asks, “Got what?” The boy’s father turns to him and says, brusquely, “She got her period, son!”
I saw this film in a middle-school sex-education class in 1988, and even though I’d read, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” the movie seemed embarrassingly old and this scene particularly laughable. How uncool did you have to be to announce the arrival of your period to the whole house? Is it really something you want your dad and brother discussing over potatoes? After all, our school felt girls had to be separated from the boys in our class just to watch this movie.
Today, most American adults can call up some memory of sex ed in their school, whether it was watching corny menstruation movies or seeing their school nurse demonstrate putting a condom on a banana. The movies, in particular, tend to stick in our minds. Screening films at school to teach kids how babies are made has always been a touchy issue, particularly for people who fear such knowledge will steer their children toward sexual behavior. But sex education actually has its roots in moralizing: American sex-ed films emerged from concerns that social morals and the family structure were breaking down.
When the first sex-ed films appeared in 1914, no one wanted to talk about sex, but venereal diseases, like syphilis and gonorrhea, were wreaking so much havoc on the American public, filmmakers took on the burden of educating adults about them. Film proved an ideal instructional medium for topics that made people blush, and over the century, movies were made with a wide range of agendas—to prevent VDs from weakening our military forces, to teach teens how to date, to promote birth control in the developing world, and to ward children away from sexual predators.
After watching more than 500 sex-ed films spanning 100 years, Brenda Goodman produced a documentary this year called “Sex(Ed): The Movie” (not to be confused with the recent raunchy romantic comedy “Sex Ed”) that follows the medium’s trajectory in America through the good, bad, and ridiculous. In the beginning, sex-ed films for teenagers served to reinforce middle-class norms, specifically the belief that sex is only for procreation in the context of a heterosexual marriage. Today, you’d think that we’d have a much more evolved point of view, embracing films that teach youth about safe, healthy, and respectful expression of diverse sexuality. But the most open-minded and detailed classroom sex-ed films were made and screened in the ’70s, and many of those are banned as pornographic now. Even though polls consistently show more than 80 percent of Americans support comprehensive sex education, less than half of all U.S. states require their schools to have sex-ed programs. Many of the films that are shown today focus on advocating chastity and upholding traditional family roles—often eschewing science in the process.
Of course, America has a long tradition of keeping tight-lipped about the facts of life. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the United States was by and large a rural country, and most children learned about sex by observing animals on the farm. Young women, expected to abstain from sex until marriage, often only learned about it the night before their weddings, but young men usually had earlier access to carnal knowledge: Older relatives or co-workers might take an adolescent to a brothel as a coming-of-age initiation. As industrialization and urbanization spread and immigrants flooded into the cities, vices seemed even more accessible and the self-righteous started to rail against all forms of excitement, from male masturbation and to rich, spicy, or processed food.
In the mid-19th century, women, who were considered the moral compasses of their families, started organizing against their husband’s indiscretions, whether that was coming home violently drunk or infected with a venereal disease (VD). Long-suffering wives formed groups to push for temperance, abolition, and women’s suffrage. Such activism led to the social purity movement (“social” being a euphemism for “sexual”), which started out in the late 1860s to prevent the legalization of prostitution. Proponents went on to demand a legal age of consent and sexually segregated prisons. The activists also opposed abortion, contraception, and pornography. Such anxiety about living in an impure society led to the Comstock Obscenity Law of 1873, which made it illegal to send erotica and information about contraceptives and abortifacients through the U.S. mail.
At one point, the Comstock Law even blocked anatomy textbooks; the idea of students learning how their own sex organs function in books was apparently scandalous to Victorians. While social purity leaders urged parents to teach their children proper sexual morals, by the end of the 1800s they were looking to school as the next-best place to teach proper behavior. In 1892, the National Education Association teacher’s union, which was proposing a standard 12-year school curriculum, passed a resolution endorsing “moral education” in schools.
In the early 1900s, groups like the American Social Hygiene Association pushed for sex-ed programs in schools that promoted restricting sex to marital procreation and warned of the dangers of contracting VD from non-marital sex. As conservative as this sounds, it sparked outrage: After Chicago initiated the first sexual education program in its high schools in 1913, the Catholic Church campaigned against it, so fiercely the city quickly discontinued it and ousted superintendent Ella Flagg Young. It would be at least six years before another school system would introduce a sex-ed program.
Not every turn-of-the-century American engaged in such pearl-clutching. In fact, new ideas about sexuality and sex education were brewing in New York City. There, Margaret Sanger, a young nurse working with the immigrant population, encountered the horrific aftermath of self-induced abortion attempts. Moved, Sanger began publishing a frank sex-education column in 1912 in the socialist magazine the “New York Call,” and in 1914, launched a monthly newsletter, “The Woman Rebel,” which declared a woman should be “the absolute mistress of her own body” and made “birth control” a common term. The U.S. postal service prevented five of seven issues from being mailed, and in August of that year, Sanger was indicted for violating the Comstock Law.
Meanwhile, fears of a venereal disease reached a fever pitch, and in 1914, a short silent film called “Damaged Goods” addressed the topic on the silver screen for the first time. Based on a 1913 American play of the same name—which was adapted from Eugéne Brieux’s 1902 French play about syphilis, “Les Avaries”—it told the story of a man who has sex with a prostitute the night before his wedding and gets syphilis. He visits a doctor who takes him on a tour of the hospital filled with patients tormented by the disease and its sores. When his baby is born with syphilis, he commits suicide.
A “Variety” review in 1914 stated, “The ravages of syphilis were shown in patients, their limbs exposed, and to make the impression indelible, book illustrations from medical works were thrown upon the screen.” When the film was re-released in 1915, a “Variety” review asserted that “every American boy … should be made to see it, for they are to become the American manhood, and the cleaner physically, the better.”
“Damaged Goods” effectively shattered the taboo against talking about venereal disease in film, and soon dozens of movies on the topic hit the screen. “In the 1910s, there were a number of narrative films that concerned the issue of sex education, and the thrust of that trend was the issue of venereal disease,” says Robert Eberwein, Distinguished Professor of English at Oakland University in Michigan and the author of Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire. “Both commercial narrative films and other kinds of films, like governmental films, were made at the time to alert people to the dangers of venereal disease, how to avoid it, and how to avoid quacks who foisted useless remedies on infected people.”
Although we have no record of how widespread syphilis and gonorrhea were in the early 20th century, Eberwein says the belief VD was epidemic drove America toward public sex education. Rick Prelinger, the archivist, writer, and filmmaker who co-founded of the Prelinger Archives with his wife, Megan, agrees. “VD was a huge public health issue that exacted a big toll upon the people and upon the public health system,” he says.
The fear of the “other,” or immigrants flooding into the cities, also drove some of the earliest “guidance films,” explains Prelinger, who is interviewed in “Sex(Ed): The Movie.” Movies intended to teach immigrants “American morals” screened at movie theaters, community centers, settlement houses, and adult schools. Some corporations would show these films on the lunch hour.
“Films aimed at immigrants were trying to set examples of what it was like to be an American,” Prelinger says. “Part of that was strengthening family ties, encouraging people to settle down, to work steadily, to learn English. The moral panic over immigration in the ’10s and ’20s, which is similar to the panic over immigration now, was ‘These people aren’t like us. They create revolution, breed disease, and spread bad practices.’”
But progressive activists looked at immigrants with more sympathetic eyes, and saw that they were living in poverty and suffering from poor health. So the films also had an altruistic side, coming from progressives who hoped to alleviate some of the misery. “It’s one of these funny amalgams that you see so often in the history of the United States where there are real concerns to be addressed—and when we address them by enlisting the media, it turns into this public crusade that’s built upon racism, nativism, and fear,” Prelinger says.
The summer of 1914 also marked the beginning of World War I in Europe. According to Prelinger, people like Franklin Lane, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, expressed worry that young American men who could be called on to fight would not be up to the task, thanks to a “high rate of illiteracy, poor nutrition, poor public health, and a high rate of VD.” In fact, nearly a quarter of the men drafted into the military learned they had VD during their physical exam.
Before the war, the Army and Navy presented lectures to soldiers on the dangers of VD, and distributed a pamphlet entitled “Keeping Fit to Fight.” Often, the men would be shown a scientific film about reproduction called “How Life Begins,” and sometimes a movie featuring photos of venereal disease symptoms and animated drawings of the male genital system. Showing penises in such films was considered more acceptable than in other movies because they were filtered through a lust-free “medical gaze,” seeing the body as if through a doctor’s eyes.
When the United States joined the Allied war effort in April 1917, the American Social Hygiene Association—led by New York physician Prince Morrow, religious crusader Anna Garlin Spencer, progressive reformer Katharine Bement Davis, and philanthropist and Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller, Jr.—joined forces with the U.S. government and other organizations to form the Commission on Training Camp Activities to protect soldiers from venereal disease.
The question of what the men should be taught about sex was hotly debated. According to Eberwein’s book, Sex Ed, some people believed that sexually active men made better fighters, while others thought suggesting or encouraging men to have extramarital sex was outrageous. Since 1910, U.S. government had been issuing troops a Dough-Boy Prophylactic kit, which included a chemical disinfectant wash they were instructed to apply to their genitals after sexual contact. When the war started, the public questioned the morality of such kits.
But the Commission on Training Camp Activities decided to include instructions on how to use prophylaxis in its training materials, along with suggestions of sports and social activities meant to distract men from their “primitive instincts,” Eberwein writes. A popular tool for educating soldiers was the stereomotorgraph, an early slide protector. The training-camp slides usually included a mix of photos like images of disfigurement from syphilis and microscopic shots of germs with title cards that said things like, “We can show the disfigurements and sores. We cannot show the suffering, mental agony, divorces, and ruined homes caused by syphilis and gonorrhea.”
According to Eberwein’s book, the first film the CTCA introduced to soldiers followed the tradition of warning them against the siren call of prostitutes. “Fit to Fight,” now a lost film, told the story of five military recruits: the two that pay attention to the sex-education lecture—one abstains from sex and the other uses a prophylactic treatment—go home disease-free heroes, while the other three contract venereal disease. In July, just four months before Armistice Day, Congress passed the Chamberlin-Kahn Act that both funded sex education for the soldiers and also gave the U.S. government the authority to crack down on prostitutes who had set up shop near base camps.
“In World War I, women were singled out as the source of all this venereal disease,” Eberwein says. “The message was, ‘Prostitutes are the threat. They must be avoided.’ It’s a very anti-female tone. Of course, men pass on a lot of VD to women, which is one of the things that turns up in films where children are born blind or dead. During World War I, certainly a major element in the fight against VD is making women take the fall as the carriers.”
After the war, thanks in part to the writings of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 and started the American Birth Control League (which later became Planned Parenthood) in 1921, the idea that sex, especially marital sex, was for pleasure and not just procreation started to catch on. Young men, after facing their own mortality during the war, began to drink and dance at Jazz Age speakeasies, and young women embraced sexual liberation through the flapper movement.
Suddenly, teaching traditional sexual morals in high schools and at universities seemed more urgent, especially with VD still rampant. At the 1919 White House Conference on Child Welfare, the U.S. government came out in support of sex education for adolescents and young adults. According to “Newsweek,” during the 1920s, somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of high schools had sex-education programs.
Made specifically for college and high school classrooms, U.S. government-sponsored films like “The Gift of Life” (1920) and “The Science of Life” (1922), created by Bray Productions, were shown for decades, although no one knows how many schools screened them. Both strongly moralistic films show young people grooming and keeping physically fit, with animated sequences depicting the process of menstruation and fertilization, and warnings about the risk of venereal disease.
“Those films are long, slow, and very difficult to watch,” Prelinger says. “They’re also extremely scientific; they’re the birth of the ‘plumbing film.’ They’re also the earliest schoolroom films to show male genitalia, but they’re not really about intercourse and they’re certainly not about pleasure. I don’t think it’s until the ’60s that you see a sex-ed film that actually mentions why we have sex.”
“The Science of Life” even had separate segments meant for boys and girls. Part of the boy’s section voice-over states, “The sex impulse contributes to those masculine qualities which make men ambitious to strive and achieve. Controlled, the sex impulse, like the horse, may be a source of power and service. The sex impulse is like a fiery horse. Uncontrolled, it may be destructive and dangerous.” “The Gift of Life” warns, “Masturbation may seriously hinder a boy’s progress towards vigorous manhood. It is a selfish, childish, stupid habit.”
“They delineate how sexuality affects men and how it affects women, with a lot about women’s roles as a future mother and men’s role in controlling their sexual impulses,” says Brenda Goodman, the director of “Sex(Ed).” Of course, the notion that women have sexual impulses wasn’t even considered. “That’s the theme that goes in sex-ed films today as well.”
“The Science of Life” also approached physical ugliness as a genetic disease, according to Martin S. Pernick’s The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915. “An attractive appearance goes hand in hand with health,” the film states, promoting a standard of beauty intended to influence teenagers as to whom they would select for mates. The idea was that if young people married and had children with partners who displayed a “fit” ideal of beauty—as opposed to the seductive but dangerous beauty of prostitutes infected with VD—the American gene pool would become more robust. As you might expect, the youth depicted as the ideals of fitness and beauty in the movie were white.
All these ideas derived from the study of eugenics, which deformed Darwin’s theory of evolution into the idea that humans could and should be bred for desirable traits. Birth control was seen as one means of reshaping the human race; another was forced sterilization of prisoners and people held in insane asylums.
While they had very different views on women’s sexuality, Sanger and the American Social Hygiene Association had some common ground: Both opposed abortion, but aligned themselves with eugenicists. Given the times, it’s not surprising that the ideas about what makes person “defective” were usually based on prejudices such as racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism. Eugenics also laid the foundation for the Nazi genocide campaign to build a “perfect Aryan race” in the late 1930s and ’40s Germany. When the Nazis became the enemy—and the epitome of murderous evil—American thinkers and scientists disowned their formerly open beliefs in eugenics.
Once America entered World War II, the question again arose about the morality of teaching venereal disease prevention to young soldiers, many of whom arrived fresh from the farm, inexperienced in both warfare and sex. But the American Social Hygiene Association’s methods from World War I prevailed. This time, the U.S. government got ahead of a potential VD crisis among the troops by issuing condoms and aggressively marketing a prevention campaign.
Big-name Hollywood filmmakers like Darryl Zanuck, Frank Capra, John Huston, and George Stevens all made patriotic use of their talents, serving in a branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps focused on making training films for military and civilian personnel and also documenting battles. “World War II was an important moment in the history of sex education,” Prelinger says. “The Signal Corps made a lot of sex-ed films for the American military because the U.S. government didn’t want the forces to be ravaged with venereal disease.”
To cinephiles, the caliber of the talent makes these dated training-camp films well worth-watching. “In terms of pure cinema—cinematography, production design, and direction—there were some great films,” Goodman says.
The Oscar-winning director John Ford, known for his John Wayne Westerns like “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” made a movie for the U.S. military called “Sex Hygiene,” which may be the most watched sex-ed movie ever, according to Eberwein.
“He actually made it before World War II began,” Eberwein says. “It’s my understanding that everybody in the military, no matter what branch of service, saw this film four times. It’s completely candid about showing the gross-out effects of venereal disease on the genitals. And the ‘Sex Hygiene’ narrative isn’t just warning about a dangerous woman like a prostitute—it’s also the ‘nice girl.’ One of the posters during World War II even says, ‘Just because she’s a nice girl doesn’t mean you can’t get venereal disease.’”
The running theme through World War II sexual education films is that female sexuality is a serious threat to men’s dominance. In Eberwein’s book, he explains how the films gave servicemen—whose numbers reached 12 million in 1945—visions of emasculation and manhood diminished by openly sexual or promiscuous women. Eberwein argues that the message that women who have sex with multiple partners will emasculate men, and by extension, ruin American society, was so hammered into the minds of millions of American men who served in World War II that the fear lives on in our culture today.
Besides warning the men against women’s sexuality, Goodman says World War II training films were also shockingly frank about condom use for VD prevention, even showing how to put them on models of penises. “It was a real surprise to me that those military films were very much supportive of protecting yourself,” Goodman says. "If you’re a smart soldier, you use a condom. There wasn’t a moral spin on that. There wasn’t anything about ‘Condoms may not be effective.’ It was just, ‘Use them.’ Now, we’ve come full circle, and condoms are suspect according to some agendas.”
Condoms figure symbolically in 1944’s “Easy to Get,” the very first sex-ed movie featuring African American protagonists. When a black serviceman hooks up with a “nice girl” over the holidays, he reaches for a condom, but she—being the emasculator—pushes his hand away.
“He comes back to the base camp and discovers some sore on his genitals,” Goodman says. “Then he goes to the white doctor on the base, who tells him that he’s had a ‘dirty woman.’ The young soldier says, ‘She looked so clean. She looked clean all over.’ And the doctor says, ‘Where you touched her, she was filthy and diseased inside,’ and it’s shocking. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe that any person would talk about anybody that way.’ But that was the only film from that period that we saw that was for black servicemen.”
During the war, Pfizer scientists developed a way to mass-produce pharmaceutical-grade penicillin, making syphilis and gonorrhea less dire. But the media was sounding the alarm bells for a new “national scandal”—juvenile delinquency. With fathers away fighting the war and mothers working in factories, adolescents had more freedom than ever before and, according to the December 20, 1943 issue of “LIFE” magazine, these unsupervised youth tended to engage in sexual exploits like orgies and violent crime, including rape. Plus, teenage girls known as “Victory girls” believed that having sex with young soldiers on leave was an act of patriotism.
“I don’t know if that was true or if it was moral panic,” Prelinger says. “A lot of people—educators, the clergy, anthropologists—were worried that the family was dead, that people felt they didn’t need to be married to have sex<. There wasn’t an incentive to be in codified and more easily regulated relationships. After the war, there was the sense of ‘Let’s get this country back on the rails.’”
With the war ended, 16mm film projectors from training camps were deaccessioned and made available to schools and nonprofits, leading to the proliferation of classroom films, most of which were meant to restore social order to a culture disrupted by the war effort. According to “Sex(Ed): The Movie,” by 1949, 84 percent of classrooms had projectors.
“You have this media infrastructure that had been built by the government during World War II that was then handed off to schools,” Prelinger says. “Although there had been many educational films in schools in the ’10s, ’20s, and ’30s, that just totally mainstreamed it.”
In attempt to correct the course of American youth, Coronet Instructional Media Company produced a number of films in the ’40s and ’50s that were intended to re-socialize teenagers and teach them how to engage with one another in traditional, gendered ways that would lead to becoming good workers and respectable married adults with children of their own. Coronet titles include “Going Steady?” “How to Be Well Groomed,” “Developing Friendships,” “Better Use of Leisure Time,” and “Dating: Do’s and Don’ts.” In Canada, B-film maker Budge Crawley put out similar guidance films like “Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence,” “How Much Affection?”, and “Age of Turmoil.”
“These films are less sexual in nature and more about interacting with other kids—like how to conduct oneself in social situations, how to get a date, and how to behave on a date,” Goodman says. “Some of the younger folks that worked on our documentary found them fascinating and said they wished they had something like that growing up.”
In Coronet’s 1947 film “Are You Popular?,” Jenny, the promiscuous high schooler, is shamed and compared unfavorably to proper, virginal Carolyn. The voice-over says, “Jenny thinks she has the keys to popularity, parking in cars with boys at night. When Jerry brags about taking Jenny out, he learns that she dates all the boys, and he feels less important. No, those who park in cars are not really popular, not even with the boys they park with. Not when they meet at school or elsewhere.”
“That was certainly a message in these films, which I think still exists today, that a young woman who is interested in sexual relationships, who maybe initiates sex, is seen as the ‘bad girl’—and that’s the girl nobody wants to sustain a relationship with.” Goodman says. “That was a burdensome message to many young women.”
Other movies dealt with the changes a boy or girl’s body will go through during puberty. Often, the makers of feminine hygiene products such as Johnson & Johnson, which produced Modess, and Kimberly-Clark, which produces Kotex, sponsored the films for girls. After classroom screenings, girls would receive branded pamphlets on menstruation and the process of “becoming a woman,” as well as period journals, with prominent advertising for the company’s sanitary napkins.
“Some of movies produced by feminine hygiene companies were wonderful,” Goodman says. “‘Molly Grows Up’ is a great film, even if the list of what you can do and can’t do on your period—like no fast dancing or horseback riding—seems silly now. Anybody with skin in the game was willing to finance these films. I don’t think there was a thought on the part of the schools to say, ‘Okay, wait a minute, where are these messages coming from?’”
In 1946, for example, Disney, in partnership with Kimberly-Clark, released a classroom film called “The Story of Menstruation” featuring a petite doe-eye redhead, who wouldn’t be out of place among the company’s fairy-tale princesses. While the scenes explaining menstruation are frank and scientific, the male narrator also instructs the young woman on how to cope with PMS without offending anyone with a disheveled, unattractive appearance or improper displays of emotion.
“During this time, you may feel less pep, or a twinge, or a touch of nerves,” he intones, as the pretty girl cries in the mirror. “No matter how you feel, you have to live with people. You have to live with yourself, too. Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself and take those days in your stride,” he says, as she perks up on command, “you’ll find it easier to keep smiling and even-tempered. It’s smart to keep looking smart.”
“Buck up!” Goodman says. “Buck up and look good, that’s the message of that film. We saw several films that asserted women needed to look good and act appropriate. There’s a lot of appropriateness, for everybody, in these films.”
Such films didn’t get much attention, until a sex-ed class was splashed on the pages of “LIFE” magazineon May 24, 1948. Eddie Albert, an American actor and activist, known later for his role in “Green Acres,” had teamed up with the Portland social hygiene organization E.C. Brown Trust, which is affiliated with the University of Oregon, to produce sex education films that would be appropriate to show kids as young as 11 years old. The trust bankrolled the first production called “Human Growth,” UO psychology professor Lester F. Beck wrote the film, director Sy Wexler shot it, and Albert Productions produced it.
“Human Growth,” released in 1947, starts out with a nuclear family in the living room, the son and daughter gawking at the sight of Native Americans in loincloths in a book. This segues to the daughter in a mixed-gender classroom where the teacher is leading a discussion about the change from child to adolescent. When the movie teacher then presents an animated film on “the cycle of human growth,” which takes over the screen. When the animation ends, the movie teacher quizzes the movie kids and fields their polite questions. At the end, she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the real audience directly, “You students who’ve been watching this film, you’ve heard the questions we’re going to discuss. You can discuss these same questions with your teacher, and you can add any others.”
“It dealt with the basic mechanics of conception without graphic photographs or things like that,” Eberwein says. “It was very tastefully done. You have the model family—the boy, girl, mother, and father in the living room—a monument to middle-class normality. There’s nothing sleazy about it. It’s okay, if Mom and Dad and the teacher are there.”
Of course, the trajectory for the boy and girl in the film is a heteronormative path to dating (while staying chaste), getting married, and having children. Homosexuality was never addressed in these movies, and the actors were never people of color. “I grew up in North Carolina, and nothing deviated from that notion of that sex education was really to train you to get together, as a man and a woman, to reproduce—but not before the time that is sanctioned,” Goodman says. Honestly, if you were a gay or trans kid or just someone who saw things a little bit differently, you didn’t get to see yourself represented. Probably you had questions like, ‘Is there something wrong with me?'"
One of the first groups to see “Human Growth” was a class of seventh graders at Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School in Eugene, Oregon. By the time “LIFE” magazine did its big five-page feature on the movie, it had screened for 2,200 Oregon students. It also received a thumbs-up from magazines like “Time” and “Better Homes & Gardens.” Still, it was banned in many parts of the country, including New York State. “People were outraged that such a thing would be shown in the classroom,” Eberwein says.
“It got a lot of media attention because it was a real stretch,” Prelinger says. “First off, it’s for younger kids, and second off, it’s mainstream. The idea was look, ‘We’re going to talk about this in class. It isn’t going to be a regulated curriculum; we’re going to let the kids ask their questions.’ A lot of parents didn’t want their kids engaging in discussions like that. The idea that it wasn’t hierarchical or teachers reading from the script but kids talking about it on their own, I think that was symbolically threatening.”
Despite the objections, “Human Growth” was an extremely popular film. As “Sex(Ed)” explains, the first run distributed 1,200 prints of the film across the United States. “The master film actually wore out,” Eberwein says. “So they remade it using the same actress who played the chief educator in the film, and tried to follow precisely the terms of the original movie. It was shown all over, except where it was banned.”
Because it was such a hit, sex education started to take off in the United States, with films meant to be shown to boys and girls together, like 1947’s “Human Reproduction,” and separately, like 1953’s “Molly Grows Up,” 1957’s “As Boys Grow,” and the 1962 companion films, “Girl to Woman” and “Boy to Man.” Interestingly, sex-ed films for mixed-gender classes tended to use techniques such as scenes of students listening to a lecture and medical graphics to distance the kids from identifying too closely with the movie, whereas movies for specific genders featured characters, like Molly, meant for the children to relate to.
The same year the “LIFE” magazine article on “Human Growth” appeared, the shocking Kinsey Report “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” was published, discussing taboo topics such as oral sex and homosexuality. Among the finding, the report stated that 92 percent of men interviewed had masturbated. In “As Boys Grow,” the coach presenting the lesson on puberty tells the boys, “Sometimes you hear that masturbation affects your mind or your manhood, but for boys your age it’s natural,” which is a long way from the views espoused in “The Gift of Life” from 1920. In “Boy to Man,” the voice-over states, “Many boys are worried by masturbation and nocturnal emissions, yet doctors know that neither causes mental disease nor physical injury, that both are natural outlets in no way harmful.”
Even though the Kinsey Report on “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” in 1953 also found that 62 percent of women interviewed had masturbated, the girls’ films never addressed masturbation or sexual pleasure, “Sex(Ed)” explains. Instead, girls’ films—like the one I watched in sixth grade—centered on menstruation and reproduction, while advertising menstrual pads and tampons.
While films focusing solely on the threat of venereal disease were a staple of military sex ed, the first such movie intended for teenagers didn’t appear until 1959 when the Kansas State Board of Health commissioned “The Innocent Party” (now available thanks to Prelinger’s videos on the Internet Archive) from Centron Corp. The film gives short shrift to the science of how syphilis is transmitted, prevented through condoms, or treated with penicillin. Instead, it draws audiences in with a melodramatic narrative promoting the notion that premarital sex—and women giving it up too easily—can only lead to anguish and shame. In 1961, the Kansas health board and Centron teamed up again to produce “Dance, Little Children.”
“‘The Innocent Party’ is about an upper middle-class boy who goes out with a woman who’s poor or working class,” Prelinger says. “She is desperate to be taken seriously, and so she gives herself to him. But he catches a disease from her and passes it on to his ‘nice girl’ girlfriend. ‘Dance, Little Children’ is about the brassy blonde under the bleachers at the game who gives all these kids VD—and it’s about contact tracing. Again, the woman is the vector.”
But VDs weren’t even parents’ worst fear. In the postwar era, cities grew larger and more hostile, and even new suburbs spread into one another, creating unbroken sprawl. Suddenly, parents felt they no longer knew everyone in town, and their children faced all sorts of risk when they rode out to the ballpark on their bikes.
“In the new urban landscape of the postwar period, Los Angeles was no longer a series of villages where everybody knew each other,” Prelinger says. “It’s endless sprawl filled with all sorts of dangers that lurked in the sunlight. The broad boulevards were filled with sexual predators and dope. Somebody wanted to run your bicycle down, and somebody wanted to steal something from you. There were drunken drivers, too. It was a world filled with all kinds of danger for kids.”
Former child actor Sid Davis became the driving force behind “stranger danger” guidance films. “Sid Davis is very much his own phenomenon,” says Prelinger, who was friends with the director before his death. “He was a chancer himself. He had been a juvenile delinquent and a bit of a gambler, and he’d made fortunes and lost them. Before he died, he told me the story of how he was working as John Wayne’s stand-in on the set of ‘Red River,’ and he was talking with the Duke about a case of kidnapping and child molestation in L.A. And the Duke said, ‘Why don’t you make a film?’ and staked him money to make ‘The Dangerous Stranger’ (1950), which was the first film about abduction and sex crimes—the sex crimes being suggested, if not shown.
“Sid said he sold tens of thousands copies of it, and he realized he was on to something,” Prelinger continues. “So he made similar films over and over again. ‘Girls Beware’ (1958) is about rapists abducting girls. The message is, ‘Don’t go in cars with strange boys. Don’t answer ads tacked up at the supermarket for babysitting unless you know who’s there. Don’t do stupid things.’ Perfectly good advice, actually, for anybody. But he put a real moral spin on it. There are several editions of ‘Girls Beware,’ and the best one is from 1961, where there are two ‘nice girls’ who are sitting at the drive-in, and this punk teenager in a pickup picks one of them up. They develop the kind of relationship where he keeps wanting more and more. There’s that great scene where you see them sitting in the park, the camera pans up to the sky, and it’s clear what’s happening. Then she’s pregnant.”
Davis made a companion film to “Girls Beware” in 1961 called “Boys Beware” in partnership with the Inglewood, California, Police Department and Inglewood Unified School District. In it, boys innocently befriend older men who offer them rides home. The voice-over intones: “Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick, a sickness that isn’t visible like small pox but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual, a person who demands an intimate relationship with persons of their own sex.”
At the time, traditionalists saw homosexuality as a serious threat to the fabric of the American family. But whether Sid Davis himself was homophobic is up for debate. “He made a homophobic film,” Prelinger says. “I’ve never been able to find out how many prints were sold. There were never many films like that. He made it four times. I think the third time, it was called ‘Boys Aware,’ and it became more generalized. We don’t have a print of it anymore, but in it, the knee-jerk equation of gay men with child molestation disappeared. When I talked to Sid about it, I didn’t see him as a deep homophobe. I saw him as a profiteer. I’m not trying to get him off the hook. That film has great force, and it’s offensive.”
Despite all the people who longed for more innocent times, a sexual revolution was underway. The FDA approved oral contraception, or birth control pills, for prescription use in the United States in 1960. Four years later, Mary Calderone, medical director at Planned Parenthood, established the national nonprofit organization Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in New York City to promote comprehensive “sexuality education” based on the idea that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of life and individuals should be educated and trusted to make responsible decisions around sex. SIECUS programs for schools began to include information on birth-control methods, teen pregnancy, masturbation, gender relations, and later, homosexuality. This challenged the more conservative programs promoted by the American Social Hygiene Association (which had become the American Social Health Association in 1960) that still emphasized abstinence until marriage while also teaching disease prevention.
As America got more and more involved in the War in Vietnam, young people faced with their own mortality started to reject the war and the traditional culture they felt brought America into it, experimenting with drugs and “free love.” In San Francisco, the Multimedia Resource Center (MMRC), now known as the Center for Sex and Culture, “distributed a whole bunch of films, many of which were artsy and extremely explicit,” Prelinger says. “They were about gay or lesbian sex, or people who were severely disabled having sex. Anybody could rent them. Some churches even showed these films as part of the general trend to openness.”
Of course, all this brought on a whole new round of panic about young people having sex without consequence. The ultra-conservatives felt that kids were getting too much information about sex at school, thanks to SIECUS—and putting it to use. In 1965, a strangely titillating anti-obscenity propaganda film, “Perversion for Profit,” was released, warning against the “world of lesbians, homosexuals, and other sexual deviants.” Television news reporter George Putnam narrates, “We know that once a person is perverted, it is practically impossible for that person to adjust to normal attitudes in regards to sex.”
“That film was made by Citizens for Decent Literature, a lay Catholic group formed to lend support to local efforts to pass obscenity laws because after the Supreme Court said that the definition of pornography was up to local norms,” Prelinger says. “I think it was shown pretty widely.’”
“Perversion for Profit” was unintentionally ironic, Goodman points out. “This film was about what happens if you have too much access to sexual material,” she says. “Yet it showed these pictures of women who were in some provocative poses—let’s say their breasts were somewhat exposed—and they would put a banner over their eyes. So it just made no sense whatsoever. Just the way they chose to cover things up was titillating. It’s hilarious.”
But, oddly enough, some conservatives—fiscal conservatives—embraced oral contraception and other forms of birth control in the 1960s. As people grew more aware of the dangers of the degrading environment, peak oil, and diminished food supplies, a population-control movement emerged. While it was couched as an altruistic attempt to alleviate strain on limited resources and improve life on earth, campaigns largely targeted the non-white developing world.
That’s how beloved children’s character Donald Duck ended up schilling contraception on the big screen in 1968. The film “Family Planning,” another of the several Disney-produced sex-education animations, focuses on a nuclear family of an unspecified non-white ethnic group who faces disaster if too many children are born. The way these babies are made—sex—is not mentioned, and the wife is so demure, she refuses to speak out loud, instead whispering her questions in her husband’s ear.
As surprising as it may seem in the era of “anti-contraception conservatives,” the financial backers of this pro-birth control film were, in fact, business-minded Republicans—Standard Oil-fortune heir John D. Rockefeller III and his Population Council. Rockefeller’s father had also been a big proponent of eugenics in the original American Social Hygiene Association. In the late ’60s and ’70s, “Family Planning” was translated into 25 languages and distributed throughout Asia and Central and South America to urge population control in developing countries.
As the birth control pill was altering the American landscape, so were ’60s and ’70s activists. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, prompted by a clash between the New York City gay community and police, gave birth to the gay rights movement. Four years later, the feminist movement scored a victory when the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade gave American women the right to abortion.
Thanks to those advances, the ’60s and ’70s sex-education films started to address issues around feminism and homosexuality and began to show people of color and mixed-race couples. “When the ’60s came, we were much more open about sex and sexuality,” Goodman says. “The women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement, all coalesced at the same time.”
New films challenged the traditional notion of marriage and sexuality. In 1979’s “Who Happen to Be Gay,” six professionals discuss frankly the effect their homosexuality has had on their lives, while 1974’s “Early Homosexual Fears” presents different views of homosexuality.
In 1974’s “Self Awareness and Sex Roles,” Maureen McCormick, a.k.a. Marcia Brady, plays a young feminist explaining why she dumped her boyfriend: “He wanted me to do his laundry. Can you believe it?” The 1975 guidance film “Getting Married” describes a range of marriage types from “traditional” (the wife devotes her life to her husband) to “egalitarian” (both husband and wife make money and share household duties).
The makers of 1974’s “Taking Our Bodies Back: The Women’s Health Movement” intended to give women knowledge about their bodies that had been restricted by the male-dominated medical industry. The young woman leading the lecture in the film, at one point, removes her underwear, pulls up her skirt, and demonstrates a speculum self-exam of her vagina. The startlingly open film also addresses home birth, abortion, hysterectomy, and breast cancer. Other films from the women’s movement explored female sexual pleasure and orgasm—the first time any sex-ed films acknowledged that they exist.
Sexual pleasure and communication between partners is explicit in 1974’s “Would You Kiss a Naked Man?”, wherein two young, inexperienced heterosexual lovers get naked and talk about their desires—the first time a sex-ed film meant for teenagers showed full-frontal male nudity. Today, this film is considered obscene and is impossible to show in a public setting. “‘Would You Kiss a Naked Man?’ is great, actually,” Goodman says. “In it, two people who obviously are attracted to each other but haven’t been with anybody work through how and what they communicate with each other.”
Even more peculiar is 1976’s celebration of male masturbation, “Masturbatory Story.” “Some of the ’70s films should have never been made,” Goodman says. “‘Masturbatory Story’ shows this 30-year-old guy in a bathtub while a country song about masturbation plays. I was like, ‘This could not have been shown anywhere!’, but then I looked at the leader on the film, and it said the ‘Los Angeles School System.’”
“There was this brief period of openness where diverse and more explicit films could be shown in schools,” Prelinger says. “Part of that was a shift in authority: Instead of these incredibly hierarchical, often preachy, educational films that tend to propose very specific ways of looking at things, you began to see movements by educators in Cambridge and Berkeley to disrupt ideological hegemony.
“It’s amazing how short that period of openness was,” he continues. “Now, those books with photographs about sexuality for kids are considered child porn, and no bookstore will sell them over the counter. But they’re actually an important part of the history. It seems like these periods of openness and diverse expression are very, very short. And the periods of mystification and anxiety are much longer.”
But even communities that successfully buttressed themselves from the influences of Berkeley and Cambridge in the ’60s and ’70s crumbled under the looming threat of a new epidemic in the early 1980s: a deadly sexually transmitted disease (STD) known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
In September 1986, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop asserted that the United States needed to change its approach to sex education. Instead of just explaining the biology of puberty, schools felt obligated to discuss, in detail, how sexually transmitted diseases were spread (including the formerly taboo subjects of premarital sex, homosexuality, and anal sex) and how transmission (as well as pregnancy) could be prevented through condoms. By 1993, 47 states had mandated sex education in schools. During the late ’70s and ’80s, the proliferation of video technology also made it easier and cheaper to produce and distribute sex-ed movies.
“The impetus for a definite change in and acceleration of warning films came with AIDS,” Eberwein says. “Those movies are quite powerful, actually, and in the context of those, you get a lot of very frank discussions about sexuality and women’s sexual needs are given more foregrounding. You see stuff in these movies that you would never have seen five years before the AIDS crisis.”
Movies promoting condom use like 1981’s campy “Condom Sense” hit the market, but the movement quickly lost steam, Goodman says, as finger-pointing and the fear of otherness emerged once again. Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) that year to create programs intended to prevent teen pregnancy through “chastity and self-discipline.” While many schools embraced expanded sex education that described condoms as effective in preventing AIDS and pregnancy, two new abstinence-only sex-ed curricula called Teen Aid and Sex Respect characterized premarital sex as damaging to everyone, upheld traditional gender roles and sexual orientations, and often gave kids medically inaccurate information about AIDS and other STDs.
“At first, the message was ‘Use condoms,” Goodman says. “In the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there was so much not known and a tremendous amount of fear. It’s like the Ebola virus now. There was a lot of confusion and concern about various populations such as drug users and homosexuals. Right away, one movement said, ‘Look, you can protect yourself. We believe we know how this is spread. And if you protect yourself from fluids —and one way is with a condom—you will be safe.’ On the other hand, a lot of people felt that the ‘undesirables’ in our society were responsible for AIDS. So all that came together and boiled up.”
America has always been prudish about sex, Prelinger says. “The abstinence movement goes so far back. They used to joke that the best contraceptive is an aspirin tablet held closely between the legs. There’s a million ways that has been said. It’s just now there are million more channels by which any idea can be expressed, and people can sell it or put it out for free. That’s how films like ‘The Gay Agenda,’ the homophobic movie about gays trying to take over, find their audience.”
But thanks to video technology, members of communities most affected by the spread of AIDS were able to make their own documentaries on the topic. “Sex, Drugs, and AIDS” (1986), which was shown widely in New York City schools, featured interracial youth discussing AIDS risk and safe sex.
“The one good thing that came out of the AIDS crisis was this great, flowering of community-based video and video made by people who are most at risk,” Prelinger says. “Video collectives like the lesbian organization DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists) in New York were testing the limits of the format. Then in 1991, Ellen Spiro made a really inspirational video called ‘DiAna’s Hair Ego.’ DiAna was a black cosmetician in South Carolina who gave AIDS advice and counseling to her clients. She would give out condoms for safe sex, along with mousse and cosmetics samples.”
“AIDS changed everything and made what had been somewhat political majorly political,” Goodman says. “In her book Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, Janice Irvine’s point is that the whole rise of the American Right happened around people getting on school boards and fighting about sex education. It became a big flashpoint in the 1990s. They argued that we’ve become a sexual society and we’ve got to cut it out.”
In 1996, $50 million in federal funding for abstinence-only education each year was tacked onto Clinton’s welfare reform bill in Title V. Because states wanted this money, the films and programs used in schools in the 1990s were often created by religious organizations as opposed to public health nonprofits. “Under the guise of ‘We’re going to protect young people from AIDS,’ there was a heavy, heavy moral message that came along with it,” Goodman says.
The 1991 sex-ed film “No Second Chance” was produced and distributed by Jeremiah Films, a company that claims to “promote patriotism, traditional values, and the Biblical worldview of [the] founding fathers.” In it, the movie teacher tells her class, “When you use a condom, it’s like you’re playing Russian roulette, there’s less chance when you pull the trigger you’re going to get a bullet in your head, but who wants to play Russian roulette with a condom?” When one blond popular boy asks her, “What happens if I want to have sex before I get married?”, she gets morbid: “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die. And you’ll probably take with you, your spouse and one or more of your children.”
Under President George W. Bush, funding for abstinence-only education skyrocketed. In 2000, Congress created even more funding and more restrictions for abstinence-only education with the passing of Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE). According to “Sex(Ed): The Movie,” in 2000, $60 million was awarded for abstinence-only education; in 2002, $102 million; in 2008, $176 million. Meanwhile, states that required sex education in schools dropped from 47 to 22. The number of states that require sex education be based on scientific evidence is only 19.
“The most funding that’s ever been given by the federal government for sex ed has gone to abstinence-only education,” Goodman says. “A lot of organizations sprung up to take advantage of the millions and millions of dollars that suddenly became available for the purpose of communicating an abstinence message to young people.”
In 2004, Democratic congressman Henry Waxman issued a report called The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs that found the curricula often had scientifically inaccurate information, used tones of fear and shame, mixed religion and science, and perpetuated stereotypes about gender roles. A program called WAIT Training, for example, taught kids that the AIDS virus HIV can be transmitted through tears or sweat, which contradicts facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abstinence-only programs, like films by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, often point to a study that said condoms have only a 69 percent effectiveness rate, even though the study was discounted by the CDC and FDA in 1997.
“Some of the pro-abstinence films argue that condoms do not always offer protection,” Eberwein says. “It’s interesting shift to see the shift from using condoms to prevent venereal disease in some of the military training films to using condoms to prevent conception in schools. But people can get angry about both of them because in either case, you’re saying the kid can use a condom, you’re saying a kid can have sex outside marriage, when the function of marriage is to produce children.”
Starting in 2001, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have been working on bills to offer federal funding for comprehensive sex-education programs. Their current legislation, which has not yet passed Congress, would also block federal funding to programs that “deliberately withhold life-saving information about HIV; are medically inaccurate or have been scientifically shown to be ineffective; promote gender stereotypes; are insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of sexually active youth or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youth; or are inconsistent with the ethical imperatives of medicine and public health.”
But in 2009, Congress did pass a law that eliminated the Bush’s CBAE funding for abstinence-only education programs, and $100 million in funding was reallocated to evidence-based sex education. However, the Affordable Care Act in 2010 made funding available to both evidence-based and abstinence-only sex-education programs. Oregon, one of the most liberal states in the nation, doesn’t mandate abstinence-only education, but its diverse-cast “My Future—My Choice” film still focuses on the dangers of having sex, including teen pregnancy and AIDS. In the film, a teenage girl says, “The only 100 percent sure way to prevent pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease is to say ‘no’ to sexual involvement.” According to Bitch Media, while condoms are not mentioned in the film, they are discussed in the film’s companion classroom material.
It’s worth noting that wealthier kids in private schools are more likely to get comprehensive sex education—and are less likely to get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease—than poor kids in public schools with abstinence-only education. States with the highest pregnancy rates are ones that don’t require sex education. However, Goodman says by far the best sex-ed program she’s encountered, which is taught in some public schools, have come from a religious but not evangelical organization—the Unitarian Universalist’s Our Whole Lives (OWL) program, a sexuality education curricula developed in the 1970s.
“The OWL program, which is being taught in some schools, is the best thing out there because it starts when you’re just a little guy with a few things about ‘This is my body’ and maybe a little bit about where you came from,” she says. “But then it grows up with you and deals with the psychological and the physical aspects of what it means to relate to yourself and to relate to another human being.
“I came up to the San Francisco Bay Area and trained with some OWL folks who were training the teachers,” she continues. “I learned a lot about how sex ed could be done well, and it was an eye-opening experience for me. I remember coming home to L.A., having dinner with some friends, and telling them I am fascinated by the OWL notion that we should teach kids about sexual pleasure. These are all progressive Los Angelenos, and their mouths fell to the table. That’s a really tough concept, I think.”
Today, of course, kids who don’t learn about sex at school or in the home can turn to the Internet. Unfortunately, online, misconceptions about sex abound, although self-produced videos like “The Midwest Teen Sex Show” and Laci Green’s “Sex+” offer helpful, accurate, sex-positive information.
“I don’t think teen videos on YouTube are enough,” Goodman says. “They’re helpful if perhaps your school system or your family is struggling with who you think you are and giving you a message that you’re not okay. It’s great to be able to go online and get an affirming message. But there’s also a lot of damaging stuff out there. That’s why schools are a great place for sex education. If we could keep this in the schools in a neutral fashion where people could be passively watching a film and taking in information but then actively role-playing and working things out with a neutral authority figure, that would be ideal.”
Even though sex education has not progressed as far as we think, time has not stood still, either, which is obvious when we watch the old videos. It’s tempting to laugh at how dated, uptight, or even offensive they seem to us—the same way the recollection of my middle school’s menstruation video sends me into giggles. But Prelinger says we have to remember where those films were coming from.
“A lot of the films that appear ridiculous today have a kernel of truth in them,” he says. “They were made in part for good reasons, in some cases, to try and relieve suffering. They may have been racist and nativist, but they were also trying to make people healthier. We can laugh, but if we take a nuanced look, there’s much more than that going on.”
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