History / Timeline / Notable Legislation
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. (5)
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.
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. (5)
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. (5)
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 Nebraska…
Back in 2005, Nebraska received $1,555,301 in federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs to be taught in its schools (1). Established in 1986, the Human Growth and Development standards in Nebraska made it thirty years without any updates at all (2).
Things got a little more progressive (and a lot more interesting) in January 2016, when the Omaha Public School Board voted to adopt an updated version of these standards. This new set of standards meant essential topics like abortion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and emergency contraception would be added to Omaha’s curriculum for the first time in… well, ever (2).
These changes were met with largely misinformed, at times straight-up frantic resistance from some parents in the district. Take, for example, #puritymom, who shouted in a public forum about the new curriculum,
“I have five daughters! Five daughters! Who’s going to keep them pure? Nobody! I am! Not OPS! Not OPS (3)!”
Christian groups like The Nebraskans for Founders’ Values claimed the curriculum should put more emphasis on abstinence until marriage. You know, that thing the government already spent over one million dollars on, in Nebraska alone.) (3).
Dr. Jawed-Wessel, a sex research, activist, and Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, affirms that the new standards, along with the new curriculum, have students’ safety in mind as its main goal. She shares,
“Much of what we want to teach is not inconsistent with [parents & decision-makers’] values.... we all want our youth to be safe,”
Safety is a valid concern when it comes to teen sexual health in Nebraska. As recently as 2015, gonorrhea and chlamydia rates in Nebraska were higher than the national average. 61% of these cases affected 15-24-year-olds. In the same survey, 41.2% of high schoolers reported having had sex at least once (4). So much until waiting until marraige.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Even with the updated curriculum, sex education in Nebraska is still not legally mandatory. Parents can opt middle schoolers grade 6-10th out of sex-ed, and parents must grant their approval to opt-in their 4th & 5th graders, in order for these students to even step into the classroom in the first place (3).
When asked which topic parents and other opposers to these reforms tend to push up against the most, Dr. Jawed-Wessel says, It’s almost always abortion. Much of this pushback is due to a lack of understanding (perhaps even… a lack of comprehensive sex education??) amongst parents about what it actually means to be pro-choice. Says Dr. Jawed-Wessel,
“People go into conversations with such firm beliefs about abortion...I have spoken to so many folks who think they are anti-abortion, but when I ask them what that means, it turns out they’re pro-choice.”
What the kids are actually learning...
Although Omaha’s curriculum still encourages abstinence, it acknowledges the previously taboo idea that some high school kids will have sex. Many of the materials in the curriculum use social media and technology to illustrate current and relevant role-play scenarios for teens.
This video, titled “Big Status Update,” is shown to 10th graders. It uses Facebook, Vine, Instagram, texting and more to illustrate life as a teen mom (4).
The curriculum for 10th graders also includes this attention-grabbing, tastefully silly video by Get Checked Omaha, titled “STD Zombie” (4):
Contrary to the beliefs of some parents in the district who were under the (very) mistaken impression that the new curriculum would teach sex-ed to kindergarteners and demonstrate different sex positions, 7th & 8th graders in the district are still shown a 13-minute-long video about the benefits of choosing abstinence (3,4).
Although abstinence is no longer treated as the only option, it is still very much on the table. But this increasingly progressive curriculum has made new strides in protecting the safety, well-being, and happiness of Nebraskan teens.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
As for the future of sex education in Nebraska, Dr. Jawed-Wessel imagines ways for us to go further. She advocates for a,
“pleasure-centered curriculum...in which we do not divorce sex from pleasure…[in which] we are honest with youth that for most people, they engage in sex because it feels good, and not for reproductive reasons.”
She goes on to say that,
“Abuse, STIs, unwanted pregnancy…this is how sex is presented to our students...Including pleasure in the conversation is protective and sets the tone for egalitarian views of sexuality where all genders are deserving of pleasure equally...ignorance is never protective.”
Written by: Erika Walsh
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) SIECUS Public Policy Office. “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2015.
(2) Duffy, Erin. “OPS Board Votes to Adopt New Health and Sex Education Standards.” Live Well Nebraska. Omaha World-Herald, January 21, 2016. https://www.omaha.com/livewellnebraska/health/ops-board-votes-to-adopt-new-health-and-sex-education/article_98c37f1c-b93a-5bc8-9a73-5a8848661bb8.html.
(3) Hoffman, Sarah. “’Purity’ Panic Over Omaha Sex Ed Curriculum.” NCAC. National Coalition Against Censorship, November 5, 2015. https://ncac.org/news/blog/purity-panic-over-omaha-sex-ed-curriculum.
(4) Dejka, Joe, and Erin Duffy. “After Controversial Update, This Is How They’re Teaching Sex Ed at OPS.” Data Omaha. Omaha World Herald, February 12, 2017. https://dataomaha.com/bigstory/news/after-controversial-update-this-is-how-theyre-teaching-sex-ed-at-ops.
(5) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.