A trip down sex education's memory lane

The documentary Sex(Ed) shows us how much — and how little — has changed


If you went to high school in America, chances are your school offered a curriculum that looked more or less like the ones taken by your peers across the country – give or take a lesson on evolution, anyway. But there’s one essential topic that’s anything but standardized: sex education. While some students receive thoughtful, comprehensive, and science-based sex education; others learn only to abstain from the evils of intercourse until marriage – if they learn anything at all. At present, just 22 states require sex education in schools; only 19 require that sex education is medically, technically, or factually accurate.

So how did we get here? Sex(Ed): The Movie, directed by USC film professor Brenda Goodman, takes a look at the history of sex education in America, with clips of sex ed films throughout the ages – and commentary from numerous people about how they, personally, learned about sex.

Goodman isn’t a sex educator, but she hopes that her film will spur better cultural conversation about sexual health. "I’m hoping that anyone who looks at the film will be encouraged to discuss either sex and policy or have a more open discussion about sex with their children, or parents, or partners, or spouses," she says. And if viewers are inspired to advocate for better sex education, so much the better. "Sex ed should not be limited to just one or two sessions," Goodman says. "It really needs to start when you’re young." And, ideally, it should be a lifelong process of learning.

Though the first American sex education class (titled Moral Education) was in 1893, sexual health films didn’t take off until the 1940s, according to Sex (Ed). Then, during World War II, the broader adoption of film strip technology dovetailed with a rise in STI rates among offshore soldiers. From this marriage of videography and public health crisis, a whole new industry was born.

The introduction of penicillin in the 1940s turned bacteria-based STIs from a death sentence into a treatable annoyance. So the message of sex education films began to change. Their audience changed as well, as the films moved from the barracks to the classroom. With assistance from the USC film archive, Sex (Ed) tracks the evolution of sex education over decades. While 1950s-era films were designed to model proper dating and relationship behavior and promote chastity among teenagers, a more liberal, open-minded attitude about sex allowed the films of the 1970s to tackle topics like masturbation and contraception. And then, with the rise of HIV in the 1980s, films began to move back towards abstinence-only education.

"Sex is the quintessential reality of the human species," says USC’s film archivist Valerie Schwan, one of Sex (Ed)’s featured commentators. That’s why sexual education films are so important to look at how the culture has changed through time."

Through the decades, the film Sex (Ed)'s features mirror the ethos of their respective eras. In the mid-20th century, the movies seek to indoctrinate youth into healthy suburban adulthood, communicating the importance of chastity (as with How Much Affection?, a 1957 film that never once mentions the word sex) and warning against the menaces of homosexuality. Then, with FDA approval of the birth control pill for contraceptive use in 1960 and the subsequent sexual revolution, sexual education movies began to dramatically liberalize.

Some of the most explicit films featured in Sex (Ed) come from the 1970s, when a more sexually relaxed culture allowed filmmakers to take on topics considered incredibly taboo even today, such as masturbation and sexual pleasure – Would You Kiss a Naked Man? features nudity and frank discussion of female pleasure, neither of which would be considered acceptable in today’s sex education environment.

As HIV became a major threat in the early 1980s, sex education films changed once more, with condoms – and, later, abstinence – moving back into focus as important strategies for avoiding infection. It’s this era that many of us are most familiar with: if you grew up in the 1990s, scare films like Herpes! probably aren’t that different from what you were shown in school.

Sex (Ed) zeroes in on a few different factors that might change what students learn about intercourse, regardless of the era. First and foremost is the body that students are born in: while girls are raised with messages about reproduction and physical safety, boys are more likely to be taught about sex as a source of pleasure. Two mid-century films discussed by Sex (Ed) show how stark the difference is. While Boys to Men and Girls to Women were produced by the same company for the same age group, only one touches on the topic of sexual pleasure and masturbation: the boys’ version.

That’s not all. Throughout the decades, income levels have affected sex education, too. "What we found, across the board, is if you are in the lower income or low income public schools, the information was just less," Goodman says. Not only do private schools provide their students with more frequent sex education classes and broader access to information, they dealt with an under-appreciated aspect of sex education: feelings. "There was a greater chance [for students] to talk about their own feelings and who they were and work things out," says Goodman — transforming sex education from a biology lesson to a more holistic conversation about wellness.

doomed syphilis

No 90-minute documentary is able to give a complete accounting of its subject matter, and Sex (Ed) does have its gaps. The aforementioned analysis of sex education as a class issue neglects to mention comprehensive sex education programs that target low income, "at risk" populations, such as The Children’s Aid Society’s Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Program, which has provided teens in low income communities with a comprehensive, holistic understanding of human sexuality for the past 30 years (Full disclosure: I used to work there). Similarly, films designed by and for non-white populations, like those put out by companies like Select Media, are all but missing from the narrative. But overall, the film is an excellent reminder that how we talk about sex says a great deal about who we are. As a former sex educator who now collects and screens vintage sex ed films for comedy purposes, I loved the rich overview of American sex education provided by Sex (Ed) – especially since the movie included clips from some of my favorite films.

how we talk about sex says a great deal about who we are

Though Sex (Ed) offers a somewhat bleak view of the state of sex education in America today, the film does end on a somewhat hopeful note. A final thought is offered by film archivist Rick Prelinger, who says that vintage films aren’t about a vanished past. "Pendulums swing," he says. "I always like to think of [vintage films] as potentially predictors of the way people will be thinking in the future." As Truvada offers a convenient way to reduce risk of HIV infection, the specter that relaunched fear-based sex education becomes less and less a threat – not unlike the way penicillin and the birth control pill relaxed fears around gonorrhea and unplanned pregnancy. It’s not that farfetched to think we might be headed towards a more relaxed era of education, with thoughtful, informative films like those that debuted in the 1970s – though hopefully we’ll get some better production values this time around.

Film stills from Sex(Ed)