History + Timeline
1800s- pamphlets about venereal diseases, overall good hygiene, and the evils of prostitution and masturbation were widely distributed outside of schools.
1913- Chicago attempts to formally introduce sex-ed into their school systems. The Catholic Church helps shut it down. (8)
1914– The American Hygiene Association was founded to teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. They would later be involved in creating school curriculums.
1916– Planned Parenthood is founded in New York.
1919– A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau was released that suggested soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school. (8)
1920s– resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. (8)
1930s– The U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers.
1964– The medical director at Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in part to challenge the American Social Hygiene Association.
1968– A pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” is widely distributed by Gordon Drake and James Hargis framing sex ed as a way to indoctrinate children into communism. Thus began the scary rhetoric that sex-ed was teaching students to be homosexuals and that teachers were having sex in front of students. (8)
1980s– The AIDS epidemic takes hold. Religious groups use this public health crisis to push their own agenda and convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.”
1981– President Regan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (aka the “Chastity Law” –yikes!). This law allowed federal funding to go to abstinence-only programming. And abstinence-only sexuality education (AOSE) and abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programming became the norm in the US.
2004: Study is published showing the harms of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs and the importance of investing in comprehensive sexuality education. There are plenty more studies that have been published since reaffirming the same results. (It’s possible there were studies earlier than this, but this was the earliest one we could find. Know of an earlier one? Please get in touch!)
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (1). More federal funding goes towards pushing these programs.
And in Washington D.C…
2016: DC standards were updated to ensure students learn LGBTQ inclusive content 🙌 (6)
2018: D.C. chose not to apply for Title V SRAE funds. There were no SRAE grantees in the District of Columbia (6).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Today, the District of Columbia’s education regulations require DC schools to provide instruction on sexuality and reproductive health, including information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections, abortion, HIV and homosexuality (3).
The information must be presented in all grades, K-12, at an age-appropriate level for each grade. The law also allows for guardians to review the textbooks and materials for sex education classes and to opt their children out of sex education (3).
DC’s Education standards are interpreted in the Health Education Standards upheld and promoted by the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Health Education Standards guide the curriculum development and lesson plans of DC’s schools, without mandating particular textbooks or providing specific requirements for delivery methods (4).
What the kids are actually learning
Health education in elementary and middle school focuses on understanding decision making, the benefits of abstinence, and understanding differences in sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexuality and reproduction instruction begins in high-school and is focused on communication, health promotion and disease prevention. DC High school students are expected to learn how culture influences identity and contributes to attitudes about sex (4).
Following the Human Education Standards mentioned above, D.C. breaks up its learning outcomes into two parts: six learning strands for pre-kindergarten – grade 8 and six strands for high school students. The strands are the same for each group (6):
- Strand 1: Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
- Strand 2: Access to and Evaluation of Health Information. This strand is described as teaching students to “demonstrate the ability to access and evaluate health information, products, and services.”
- Strand 3: Self-Management Skills (to advance personal health and safety)
- Strand 4: Analyzing Influences. This strand covers the influence of family, culture, media, and technology on health and health behaviors.
- Strand 5: Interpersonal Communication
- Strand 6: Decision-making and Goal-Setting
However, the high school course adds to what students previously learn by having students research and analyze. For instance, in strand one during pre-k to grade 8, students learn about the different kinds of drugs and the ways they are taken. In high school, students learn about theories surrounding dependency, genetic predisposition, and the role of policy in substance usage (6). STDs, HIV, unintended pregnancy, abstinence, and contraception are discussed within these strands as well (6)l.
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US, D.C. updated its standards to make sure students learned to “differentiate between gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and sex assigned at birth/biological sex,” and understand that “as people grow and develop, they may begin to feel romantically and/or sexually attracted to people of a different gender and/or to people of the same gender (6).” Go D.C!
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
In DC, Whitman-Walker Youth Services, also known as RealTalk DC, supports young people in accessing sexual health and prevention information. Upon request from local middle schools and high schools, RealTalk DC offers workshops focusing on HIV/STI 101.
The RealTalk DC program has initiated a multi-program approach with both in-school and out-of-school opportunities for engagement and connection with young people. For instance, RealTalk DC is an active partner in DC Health’s School-Based Screening Program — operating under the Youth STD Screening Program. As an active partner, RealTalk DC goes out to several high schools per year to do multi-day screening events offering HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea testing along with sexual health education, risk reduction counseling and linkage to services like post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Monique Campbell, Peer Education Center and Youth Testing Coordinator at Whitman-Walker Health says,
“I am a huge supporter of school-based sex ed training. I believe that trainings like these allow for a couple of things to happen. It allows for longer reach [out] to students across wards in DC and specifically for those who may be struggling with the act of sex itself or their sexuality...“We are able to provide a safe space within a safe space for young people to be themselves and ask the questions that they are afraid to ask other adults.”
Whitman-Walker Youth Services also provides other programming such as Leaders in Training DC (LIT DC), where they learn career development as well as sexual health and prevention so they can become a sexual health resource for their peers. Whitman-Walker is preparing to move LIT DC into DC schools. This model aims to be inclusive and active, and will teach young people to be their own sexual health advocates. Programs like LIT DC also teach young people how to connect with their peers on sexual health topics, and wraps building those sexual health conversation skills into other skill-building activities that they find attractive (e.g. workforce skills, money, and community service hours to meet graduation requirements).
More resources for ya...
Learn more about the services available for youth and families at Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, DC.
Written by: Jewel Addy
Edited by: Teri Bradford
(1) “The State of Sex Education in the United States,” US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health, accessed December 11, 2019 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5426905/
(2) “40 Stories: Gerard Tyler, Disco and Getting Friends Tested,” recorded November 19, 2017 at WeWork Manhattan Laundry, Washington, DC, audio,1:33:45, https://soundcloud.com/whitman-walker/40-stories-gerard-tyler.
(3) “5 Education, Section: 5-E2305,” District of Columbia Municipal Regulations and District of Columbia Register, accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.dcregs.dc.gov/Common/DCMR/SectionList.aspx?SectionNumber=5-E2305
(5) “Health Education Standards,” DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, accessed December 5, 2019, https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/health9-10.pdf
(6) “Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/clinicians/prevention/prep-and-pep.html
(7) SIECUS. “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2018. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/District-of-Columbia-FY18-Final-1.pdf
(8) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.