The 1960s brought sexual education to U.S schools. However, in the 1980s, progression stunted with the Reagan Administration enforcing a primarily abstinence-based sex-ed curriculum. Many conservative-minded folks thought that this practice would lead to less risky behavior (though this was far from the case) (7). Sex-ed diverged into those who pushed an abstinence forward agenda vs. those who supported comprehensive education rooted in informative programs.
Since its heyday, abstinence-based programs have proven to be ineffective in their cause (11). The United States still leads the developed world when it comes to high rates of teen pregnancy, births, abortions, and STIs. And, a study done in 1998 determined that the root of the difference between Europe and the U.S when it comes to those rates is the way sexual health is promoted to adolescents (5).
Since that study, rates in the U.S. have minimally changed, and neither have our policies on sexual education.
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. (14)
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. (14)
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. (14)
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. (14)
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 now on to Massachusetts…
Though Massachusetts tends to have a more progressive lean, they are among the U.S. States do not mandate sex-ed be taught in schools (10).
However, in 1990, a policy was put forth that urges districts to make AIDS/HIV education available for students at every grade level. These programs “should be developed in a manner which respects local control over education and involves parents and representatives of the community.”(4). The state believes that AIDS & HIV prevention is most effective when it is integrated into a “comprehensive health education and human services program.”(4).What’s enigmatic about Massachusetts is that most seem to agree that comprehensive education is effective and necessary, yet the state lacks the structure to require it.
In 1999, a 105-page framework was adopted for Massachusetts school programs to follow that has not been updated since. (2,4)
When looking specifically at Massachusetts, its rates of teen pregnancy and birth are extremely low, comparatively (4,12). However, this may be more based on the access and funding Massachusetts provides to institutions, such as Planned Parenthood, as opposed to the effectiveness of education in schools. Three major, public insurance companies cover abortion under their plans in MA. Additionally in April of 2019, Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker, approved funds to close the potential gap of funding to women’s reproductive health organizations that could be compromised by the Trump Administration.
Currently enacted Massachusetts legislation, in Title XII, specifies that parental/guardian notification is essential, as well as making curriculum materials reasonably accessible. This was passed in 1997 and is still active today (9). Currently, there are two bills pending that could benefit students’ access to comprehensive sex-ed (see legislation in the works below).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Presently, sex or HIV education is not mandated in Massachusetts. Parents in Massachusetts are afforded a notification if their child’s school chooses to partake in sexual education, and are allowed to opt-out (10). Additionally, they must provide a copy of the curriculum to parents and be willing to meet with families who have questions, or qualms with what is being taught. It is also required that these programs be culturally appropriate and unbiased if they exist.
As far as LGBTQ+ recognition goes, the framework does state that sexual orientation “using the correct terminology (such as heterosexual and gay and lesbian)” (4). What seems to be the case in Massachusetts is that sex-ed is based on “urges” and “suggestions” instead of actual state regulations. Unfortunately, this can lead to the majority of kids not getting the tools they need to know their bodies or be responsible for and protect themselves.
What the kids are actually learning...
As stated above, what Massachusetts does have is a framework from 1999. There is no standard curriculum for sex-ed. According to this framework, any curricula born from it should include information about abstinence and postponing sexual intercourse, as well as approach reproduction and sexuality “in an appropriate and factual fashion”(4).
Since a framework is simply a set of rough guidelines and intended results, educators are left to try and fill the gaps, with little to no education themselves on how to best do so. Without standardization, it remains difficult to ensure kids are receiving the preparation they need and deserve.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Get Real, Planned Parenthood
Get Real is a comprehensive sex-ed program designed for both middle schools and high schools rooted in teaching social and emotional skills to strengthen decision making and healthy relationships. It is medically accurate, age-appropriate and has had success in delaying sex among middle schoolers, empower parents by involving them in the curriculum, reinforce communication in the family and as a skill for developing new healthy relationships. (13)
Comprehensive Interdisciplinary Health Education and Human Service Discretionary Grant Program:
This program is instituted to provide/appropriate funds for activities and curriculum development relative to general adolescent health, including programs on sex education. It’s pertinent areas of focus also include, “the prevention of substance abuse, tobacco use, family violence, child abuse and neglect, teenage pregnancy and eating disorders, AIDS and suicide, and promote sound health practices including nutritional health and emotional development” (8).
In the Works:
Healthy Youth Act
The Healthy Youth Act aims to ensure the education of students in Massachusetts public schools on comprehensive curricula of sex-ed in order to prevent non-consensual sexual acts, unintended pregnancies, contraction/ spreading of STIs and build an understanding of how to create respectful, healthy relationships. This act would use proven methods of comprehensive education to help students lead healthy lives with the information they need, should they choose abstinence or become sexually active. So far, this bill has been passed by the MA senate and just needs to be pushed through both chambers this upcoming session (3,6).
Let’s Talk About Consent, Bill HD 827
Representatives Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, and Jim O’Day, D-West Boylston, asked for support for the bill designed to teach students about consent and healthy relationships. The bill would require cities and towns, along with regional, vocational and charter schools that offer sexual education programs, to offer students “a research-informed curriculum.” The curriculum would need to be “medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive,” according to State House News. This is the sixth try at renewing the sex education curriculum. As of April 2019, the bill has 40 sponsors (2).
Written by: Catherine Twomey
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “About the Massachusetts Adolescent Sexuality Education (ASE).” Mass.gov. Accessed November 7, 2019. https://www.mass.gov/service-details/about-the-massachusetts-adolescent-sexuality-education-ase.
(2) Hosford, Joy, and Joy Richard. “SPECIAL REPORT: As the State’s Sex-Ed Frameworks Turn 20 the Littleton Independent Looks at How Local Districts Teach Reproductive Health.” Littleton Independent. Littleton Independent, March 5, 2019. https://littleton.wickedlocal.com/news/20190305/special-report-as-states-sex-ed-frameworks-turn-20-littleton-independent-looks-at-how-local-districts-teach-reproductive-health.
(3) Lannan, Katie, and State House News Service. “Majority of Lawmakers Back Sex Education Bill.” Salem News, June 3, 2019. https://www.salemnews.com/news/state_news/majority-of-lawmakers-back-sex-education-bill/article_6f85fb40-0e1e-5954-bfba-7d08ff1f4e1e.html.
(4) “Massachusetts FY18 State Profile.” SIECUS. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://siecus.org/state_profile/massachusetts-fy18-state-profile/.
(5) Mcgee, M. “Comparing European and U.S. Approaches to Adolescent Sexual Health.” Educator’s update. U.S. National Library of Medicine, December 1998. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12322060/.
(6) Parenthood, Planned. “The Healthy Youth Act.” Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, Inc. Accessed November 7, 2019. https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/planned-parenthood-advocacy-fund-massachusetts-inc/issues/healthy-youth-act.
(7) Saul, Rebekah. “Whatever Happened to the Adolescent Family Life Act?” Guttmacher Institute, December 6, 2016. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/1998/04/whatever-happened-adolescent-family-life-act.
(8) “Section 1L.” General Law – Part I, Title XII, Chapter 69, Section 1L. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXII/Chapter69/Section1L.
(9) “Section 32A.” General Law – Part I, Title XII, Chapter 71, Section 32A. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleXII/Chapter71/Section32A.
(10) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, November 1, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(11) Stanger-Hall, Kathrin F, and David W Hall. “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.” PloS one. Public Library of Science, 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/.
(12) “STD Statistics 2019: States with the Highest Rates.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases by State – 2019 | National Council For Home Safety and Security. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.alarms.org/std-statistics/.
(13) “WHY Get Real?” WHY Get Real? | Get Real. Accessed November 8, 2019. https://www.getrealeducation.org/
(14) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.