BY JEANETTE LENOIR
The three most consistent sources of sex education come from peers, family and media. That’s according to Historian, Author and Professor Jonathan Zimmerman who teaches Education and History at the University of Pennsylvania. “Everybody gets a sex education; all 7 billion people in the world. And, they get it from the day they’re born,” Zimmerman says, adding that survey’s of young people all over the world not only back up these findings, but they also have consistently shown that school based sex education is a very small part of it. “Only some people get sex education in school.”
When it comes to school-based sex education, America can easily claim credit for shaping a modern and global perspective of Man’s sexual behavior. Despite the different beliefs and cultural norms held across the globe, America pioneered mass schooling during the Progressive Era and introduced school-based sex education. Zimmerman says the reason was pretty simple, “In the early 20th century there were more adolescence going to secondary school in the United States than there were in any other country in the world by far. And, because sex education is—here and around the world—mostly taught to adolescence for obvious reasons, it does make a certain kind of stance; that the United States would be the pioneer of that subject.”
Where did progressive America go wrong in teaching healthy sexual behavior?
Majority of Americans wanted their kids to be taught sex education in schools despite objections from the church. Unquestionably a revolutionary move; but have the lessons been effective in light of the numerous accounts of sexual misconduct being reported? Theologians like, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., assert that America’s Christian origin shaped our moral views. In a May 2016 broadcast of Thinking In Public, Mohler says, “As it turns out, many of the controversies in the beginning of the sex education movement are questions that continue to this day. And I would argue, they’re inevitable because if you’re going to talk about sex education and if you’re going to talk about young people in the schools, you’re going to have to talk about what will be taught and how that will be morally presented or if it’s to be presented morally at all, at least in terms of any traditional morality.” In light of the long list of powerful men—many in the clergy—who stand accused of sexual harassment, assault and even rape, it’s clear our morality alone won’t stop the rampant abuse that’s being exposed. It would make sense for schools to face these controversies and move to include modern lessons on preventing sex abuse and harassment.
Zimmerman says two main reasons stand in the way of teaching sexual standards in America; our diversity and the why behind school-based sex education. “There are 14,000 school districts in the United States and because we’re an incredibly diverse country, obviously there’s going to be enormous variation among the school districts in the messages and the content regarding sex, so it’s dangerous to generalize across them.” He goes on to say that most sex education in America across time has been oriented at preventing negative outcomes. “Specifically, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” he says.
Zimmerman says although the primary focus and motivation of sex education was centered on preventing two negative outcomes—pregnancy and STD’s—a new national consensus is coming to light. “I think it’s fair to say that we’re reaching a new consensus in this country about sexual harassment itself as a negative outcome and it will be interesting to see if schools take that on.” He adds that a fast majority of schools do not use sex education to teach about the dangers of sexual harassment. “I would like them to and I regard that we use these events, starting with Harvey Weinstein as kind of the ultimate teachable moment. And, I would urge schools of every kind to take it on but I would also be a little bit wary about that happening because let’s remember that because sex and sexuality touches on our most fundamental conceptions of ourselves as human beings, there’s going to be enormous descent about it by definition. And creating a consensus around sex, the kind you need to have consistent messages in schools, is a very heavy lift.”
It’s hard to comprehend in 2017 that it’s crucial to teach young people about sexual harassment. But when the phrase “Grab them by the pussy” becomes political fodder used against the President of the United States, it’s not hard to see the need. And rightfully so, because Trump owns these words recklessly spewed on a hot Mic. The hypocrisy of our views and habits on sexuality is not just flagrant, it’s telling. Telling of a historical fact; sexual oppression has operated comfortably on the radar of main stream society. The revelation that Weinstein and those of his ilk were well known sexual predators amongst their peers, friends and family validates the allegation that sex abuse is still a protected and secret form of oppression. And it doesn’t just impact women. Similar to racism, sexual harassment is the other pink elephant in the room no one dares to call out for fear of retribution and shame. It’s an uncomfortable truth, even when a parade of women, and some men, join the #MeToo movement to show solidarity and to call attention to the problem.
Sex Education In The Era Of Eugenics
Race had a profound impact on sex education in the country. The modern eugenics movement out of England at the time, spearheaded by Sir Francis Galton, spread across Europe and many other countries, including the U.S. Eugenics—a principle of selective human breeding now seen as a violation of human rights—was widely accepted as the science to producing better human beings, and validated like Anthropology, Sociology and even Economics. “They were all born at the same time, often created by the same people,” Zimmerman says. Adding that the stronger argument for sex education at the time was a response to outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases in popular cities like Chicago and New York. “Middle class men visiting prostitutes has always been a major conduit of STDs. And, they were going home and infecting their wives. And these were white people. This was a disaster and it created what was called the Race Panic or Race Suicide,” Zimmerman says. Further explaining the rationale he says, “If minorities are infecting each other and reducing their fertility, which is what STDs always threaten, this is not a bad thing…it could even be a good thing. But, if whites are doing it, it’s a form of what Teddy Roosevelt called Race Suicide.” He says the consistent goal of preventing STDs during the birth of sex education was deeply affected by race because the aim was to protect white people from infertility caused by sexually transmitted diseases. “There were already worries that white people were making fewer babies and this could make it worse.”
In Europe the remedy for preventing venereal diseases came through the legal realm like regulating prostitution, while the U.S. created an educational solution. Zimmerman says, “There were international conventions where the Americans were asked to explain the educational remedy because now it was distinct to Americans.” He says the Europeans didn’t get into the game until the mid 20th Century.
Could The U.S. Institute A Singular Form Of Sex Ed?
“It can’t and it won’t,” Zimmerman says. Even though it’s a legitimate goal he adds, “I think the Unites States is frankly too diverse to make that happen. Within that goal there’s a certain set of assumptions not shared by lots of Americans including recent additions to the United States.” First, he explains, Americans would have to accept that young people are sexual beings and allow schools to teach sexual development, individual sexuality, sexual pleasure and sexual harassment. “But I think the United States is too diverse for that. The globe is too diverse for that. There are 7 billion people on earth. How many of them believe that an 11 year old is a sexual being? We have sexual desires and sexual identity. I don’t know the answer to that, but my strong guess is a minority.” He says as more and more people and ideas move around the globe, it becomes hard for a school district that has lots of different voices, including newcomers from other countries, to create a consensus around that idea.
Sex and sexuality is a complicated understanding of humanity itself. For example, we don’t even have consensus on female genital mutilation, (FGM) and child marriages. “If we did, FGM and child marriages would not exist.” Zimmerman says it’s only been a quarter of a century since we’ve had dialogue on the subject of sexual harassment, and created a legal frame work to address it thanks to feminist activists and pioneering women like Catharine MacKinnon and Gloria Steinem.
The silver lining of the Weinstein phenomenon can either exhibit how backwards and sexist America is, or it can show us taking a lead in the world again, similar to pioneering mass schooling and sex education in schools. And that depends on how we remedy the problem across racial and cultural lines, and working towards forming a consensus about the evils of sexual harassment. This opportunity to further change our misogynistic culture may very well spur the next sexual revolution. One that takes a page from Sweden, a country with low STDs and teen pregnancy numbers that, according to Zimmerman, was the first to mandate nation-wide sex education in their schools. He says Sweden’s goals were to help each individual develop and discover their own sexuality. “It was much more individuated, it’s much more positive than the American goals which were about social outcomes and indeed preventing negative social outcomes.”
History, Hollywood And The Mad Men Era
Even with push back from feminists driven movements, Americans still harbor a troubling fascination with sex and sexuality that continues to feed the institution of gender inequality, and exploiting women as inferior members of our society. But it’s not unique to America says Zimmerman, adding, “We see forms of sexual harassment all around the world that replicate the same male dominance, and that makes it difficult to explain what is essentially a global phenomenon by invoking a particular nationalistic history.”
The late historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn does invoke this nationalistic history in A People’s History Of The United States 1492 – Present, writing, “It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status. In this invisibility they were something like black slaves (and thus slave women faced a double oppression).”
American women, albeit mostly black women, have long lived under an oppressive social structure that includes being intimately oppressed. Zinn writes, “The conditions under which white settlers came to America created various situations for women. Where the first settlers consisted almost entirely of men, women were imported as sex slaves, child bearers [and] companions.” Powerful men mistreating women shouldn’t shock our morality. Sexual oppression is part of our history as a people. The roots of it reach all the way back to the Pilgrims and our slave-owning forefathers.
Nevertheless, the most powerful and influential Sex Ed teacher in modernity is the media. During the Progressive Era Zimmerman explains that schools were being tasked to compensate for the negative images spawned by the media and Hollywood. “You had figures like Greta Garbo and Rudy Valentino and they were expressing themselves sexually and all kinds of open ways and basically there was a huge amount of concern and people said this is why we need Sex Ed in schools to create a counter to those kinds of messages. And in some ways it’s always been a fool’s errand because the media message is so much more powerful,” Zimmerman says.
Shows like Mad Men set in the 1960s where misogyny plays an essential part, normalize what we now easily define as sexual oppression and harassment. In a 2010 The Atlantic article; Mad Men’s Very Modern Sexism Problem, Sady Doyle writes, “We see sexist jokes, chronic philandering, and office parties in which executives tackle secretaries in order to see what color their panties are.” Doyle continues, “To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.”
In the era of smart phones young people have greater access to these sexually explicit images and messages, despite an attempt to portray them as outdated. “Kids are in front of screens more than they are in schools. And you can find reasons to begrudge that, but you can’t deny it. It’s a fact. And, it will continue,” Zimmerman says. He adds that the most promising initiatives in Sex Ed are the ones that try to harness the power of technology to reach young people, especially those vulnerable to sexual risks. From the very beginning schools have had to compensate for what families don’t do. All the same, parents are still the primary sex educators.