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 on to Pennsylvania…
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a long and not-so-complex history with what is taught to our students about sexual health. Today’s sex education in Pennsylvania schools is currently governed by the Public School Code of 1949 (5). As you can gather from the title, this Act was created in 1949 — over 70 years ago — and little has changed since.
This important Act serves as the governing legislation for most regulation of public school education but does little to lay out specifics on sexual health education (5).
Since a lot has changed in the past seven decades and most modern-day preteens have a wealth of information (or misinformation!) at their fingertips in the form of cell phones, it isn’t surprising that many parents, legislators, and health officials feel these guidelines could use some updating. Making these changes, however, is easier said than done.
Several bills and amendments intended to beef up and clarify what is taught in public schools about sexual health have been introduced in recent years, yet have failed to be enacted.
In 2016, Senate Bill No. 1338, which would have required sex ed to be medically accurate and age-appropriate, discuss consent, and have relevant information on modern issues like sexting, was introduced but did not become law (6).
The Keystone Coalition, a comprehensive sex education advocacy organization, lobbied heavily for The Healthy Youth Act in 2017 after the failure of a similar Act in 2009 (4). The Healthy Youth Act would require a collaborative effort between the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Education to create comprehensive sexuality education requirements for PA public schools (4). This Act has had little movement.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Before we move on, let’s go over comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). CSE is a rights-based, scientifically-accurate, and age-appropriate approach to sexual health education (7).
CSE is taught over several years, adding in segments relevant to the age of the student. While CSE acknowledges that abstaining is the only guaranteed way to prevent STIs and pregnancy, it tells more of the story by incorporating other key factors like anatomy, gender roles and equality, healthy relationships and home life, sexual abuse, and contraception (7).
This type of education has endorsements from most major medical associations and human rights organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization (7). However, CSE initiatives often receive backlash from family organizations and conservative groups over fears of exposing youth to controversial topics (7).
So, is this what PA students are learning? The short answer? It’s inconsistent and unclear.
Sex education is not required to graduate from high school in Pennsylvania (1). Parents must be notified if sex education will be included in the curriculum. They are then allowed to review the materials used and have the right to opt their child out of participation (1).
When students do participate in health education programs laid out by the state, the education provided can vary widely.
The School Code of 1949 requires only that students receive basic information on HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), placing heavy emphasis on abstinence-only education (5). The Pennsylvania State Board then uses those few requirements to create the guidelines for what is included in the PA curriculum required for students in grades 6, 9, and 12 (5).
What the kids are actually learning
The most recent guidelines released by the State Board were last updated in 2002. They include only abstinence-based education tactics and make no specifications on the materials used to teach these topics, leaving it at the discretion of school districts and educators.
So what does that mean? Having few rules about what must be included in sexual education can leave major gaps in knowledge from classroom to classroom.
Possibly more troubling, having no rules about what cannot be included can leave students vulnerable to the opinions and belief systems of decision-makers in their school district.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
In June 2019, Democrats introduced Pennsylvania House Bill 1586 as an amendment to the 1949 Act (3). This Bill would require comprehensive and medically-accurate sexuality education in Pennsylvania public schools.
Educational content would focus on an age-appropriate curriculum, starting with teaching young children the difference between “good” and “bad” touch, and educating older teens with information on contraception options, healthy relationships, and identifying risky behaviors (3).
As of December 2019, House Bill 1586 is currently pending the House Education Committee. Pennsylvanians can support this bill by contacting their State Representatives.
(1) “Academic Standards for Health, Safety and Physical Education.” www.stateboard.education.pa.gov. Pennsylvania Department of Education, July 18, 2002. https://www.stateboard.education.pa.gov/Documents/Regulations and Statements/State Academic Standards/SandyHealth.pdf.
(2) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 12, 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/pdfs/ss6509.pdf.
(3) “Pennsylvania HB1586: 2019-2020: Regular Session.” LegiScan. Accessed December 17, 2019. https://legiscan.com/PA/bill/HB1586/2019.
(4) “Pennsylvania Healthy Youth Act: Keystone CASE.” keystonecase.org. Keystone Coalition for Advancing Sex Education. Accessed December 17, 2019. https://www.keystonecase.org/the-act.
(5) “Public School Code of 1949.” legis.state.pa.us. Pennsylvania General Assembly. Accessed December 17, 2019. https://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/US/HTM/1949/0/0014..HTM.
(6) “Senate Bill No. 1338.” Regular Session 2015-2016 Senate Bill 1338 P.N. 2006. The General Assembly of Pennsylvania, June 29, 2016. https://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/PN/Public/btCheck.cfm?txtType=HTM&sessYr=2015&sessInd=0&billBody=S&billTyp=B&billNbr=1338&pn=2006.
(7) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. Public Policy Office, December 1, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education?gclid=Cj0KCQiArdLvBRCrARIsAGhB_syPI2pt9ntPrKZr5L-Ei75LkdOEVxCkPrXsewe4rDOKQAdDI0Zr_XUaAhdSEALw_wcB.
(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.