Two approaches have been the focus of sex ed since the 1960s. One is Abstinence-Only Sex Education (ASOE) programs that tend to teach “chastity” and “self-discipline.” ASOE is based on the (not statistically accurate) hopes that students will learn to keep it in their pants (2).
The other is the Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) programs. CSE programs tend to be medically accurate and teach about contraception and work based on the (statistically accurate) assumption that education will decrease risk-taking behavior in young people (2). Once again, significant evidence exists to support CSE efforts, while there is no supporting evidence to prove that abstinence-only education has the same effect (2).
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. (5)
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 New Jersey…
1981: New Jersey became one of the first states to require comprehensive sex education in schools.
1999: The Stress Abstinence Law aka Aids Prevention Act of 1999 requires school-based programs to emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is the only reliable way to prevent STI’s & AIDS/HIV and to prevent pregnancy.
Read on below to bring us up to date…
New Jersey does continue to be in the front lines of furthering inclusive and comprehensive education in schools when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. In February 2019, a law was passed that requires boards of education to include instruction, and adopt instructional materials that accurately portray political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (1).
New Jersey is the second state to mandate an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. It requires schools to teach middle- and high-schoolers about the political, economic, and social contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, starting in 2020 (1).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
It is mandated in the state of New Jersey that sex and HIV education must be provided (3). It must be medically accurate, age & culturally appropriate as well as be unbiased to personal beliefs. The content must cover contraception, stress abstinence, be inclusive of sexual orientation and cover the negative outcomes of teen sex. The sex-ed curriculum also includes learning about healthy relationships, sexual consent, learning refusal skills & personal boundaries, and dating & sexual violence prevention (3).
New Jersey has an opt-out policy, meaning parents are notified before any sex-ed lessons and are able to remove their child from the class (3). Whereas an opt-in policy means a student’s guardian has to sign them into the class, an opt-out policy allows the child to be automatically enrolled. Opt-out policies have less of a barrier to entry to sex education than opt-in policies. If a parent is opting out, they can submit a signed statement that the sex education provided is conflicting with their child’s conscience & moral or religious beliefs and they can be excused from the sex-ed portion of health class. The student is, however, required to supplement sex-ed with something like P.E. or a Nutrition/Food class (4).
What the kids are actually learning
So what are the students learning? While it’s difficult to gauge actual practice in the classrooms from the state’s requirements, here is a breakdown by ages of requirements to at least give you a sense (4):
Children learn about different types of families, different roles & responsibilities, that families share love, give emotional support, teach and set boundaries & limitations (4).
Learn about healthy relationships, the roles different family members play in meeting different needs and the historical role of marriage and family in society (4).
By the end of 8th grade, it is required that students learn about sexual orientation, gender identity, and are taught to have tolerance and sensitivity to all sexual orientations. Also things like harassment, and name-calling are covered (4).
Students learn about the ways that different family structures, including same-sex families, single-parent families, multiracial, blended and traditional families can be structured. They learn that values, rituals, and traditions help to meet human needs. Even further, they discuss things to consider when choosing a life partner and how to maintain mature, loving & respectful relationships. Though abstinence is still mentioned as the only way to 100% avoid pregnancy and STDs/STIs, students also learn other ways to prevent STIs, HIV, and pregnancy (4).
While sex education in New Jersey certainly has some pluses- particularly compared to other states– it is disappointing to see that promoting religion within sex-ed is still supported. It should also be noted that when learning life skills in regards to sexual consent, relationships & prevention of violence, it is not required to cover one’s own sexual decision making. However, educators are given the option to not say you should only have sex when you’re married (4). So, there’s that!
Written by: Chantel Porter
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “PDF.” New Jersey, 2018. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2018/Bills/S2000/1569_R2.PDF
(2) Planned Parenthood. “PDF.” New York, NY, 2017. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/uploads/filer_public/da/67/da67fd5d-631d-438a-85e8-a446d90fd1e3/20170209_sexed_d04_1.pdf
(3) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute, December 3, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(4) NJ Department of Education. “New Jersey Department of Education.” Comprehensive Health And Physical Education – Frequently Asked Questions. State of New Jersey, 2019. https://www.state.nj.us/education/genfo/faq/faq_hfle.htm.
(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.