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Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

reviewed by Tonya Callaghan & Tanya Surette - November 13, 2015

coverTitle: Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education
Author(s): Jonathan Zimmerman
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691143102, Pages: 216, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

“Only in the area of sex education would modern school systems fail so dramatically—and so universally—to impose themselves upon individuals” (p. 5). This assertion, made by Jonathan Zimmerman in his book “Too Hot To Handle,” conceptualizes the synopsis of his depiction of the “stormy and delicate” (p. 3) relationship between schools and sex education. Too Hot To Handle provides a historical account of the origin and trajectory of sex education in schools internationally. Zimmerman delivers a comprehensive exploration of the influences locally and globally, and the arguments both for and against the inclusion of information about human sexuality into the school curriculum.


In the first chapter, Zimmerman places the origin of sex education in the United States as a response to the outcry surrounding the rapid spread of illnesses passed from one person to another through sexual contact, which were on the rise following America’s entrance into World War I. In the early part of the 20th century, these types of illnesses were referred to as Venereal Diseases (VD) after the Greek god of love, Venus. The polite euphemism, VD, was replaced in the latter half of the 20th century with Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) to emphasize the sexual aspect of the illness. Today, the term Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) is in more widespread use because infections are only called diseases when they cause symptoms, and many STIs do not present any symptoms. We take the time here to explain our terminology in this review because one of the shortcomings of the book is that its author uses antiquated terms such as VD and STD without a nod to their etymology and without acknowledging the implications of using the terms “sex education” and “sex instruction” interchangeably. Nevertheless, Zimmerman does an admirable job of describing how Americans began to view sex as a public health issue and how education was the solution for getting the next generation to think differently about sex. Zimmerman outlines broader influences on international sex education such as the Nazi regime, Communism, Fascism, and the strong opposition to any kind of sex education mounted by Catholic clergy and laypeople.


Zimmerman then describes a similar international circumstance, with World War II bringing familiar demands and resistance toward sex education in schools. There was an ongoing social crisis regarding venereal diseases, and objections came from religious groups, parents, and teachers. Zimmerman highlights America’s robust attempts to influence the sex education curriculum internationally, even though Americans have demonstrated longstanding difficulty in successfully implementing their own formal program in the United States. Despite attempts to mask sex education behind various euphemisms or hide it within sanctioned curriculum courses, such as biology or social studies, the efforts to create an internationally accepted curriculum continued to encounter great resistance. At this time, Zimmerman introduces Sweden as a nation seemingly ahead of the rest of the world, mandating sex education in all public schools in 1956 and taking a more positive approach to sexuality. This was in stark contrast to the sole focus on the biological elements of sex and reproduction or the use of fear tactics attempting to shame and frighten young people to remain abstinent until marriage, which remained the dominant discourse internationally.


In the next chapters, a shift begins to emerge, with growing support for the need of sex education through the decades of the sexual revolution and the AIDS crisis. Zimmerman carefully tracks the progress of sex education through the ’60s and ’70s, which was oddly slow even in the face of the threat of AIDS. While the age of AIDS brought new support from previously averse conservative groups—primarily the Catholic Church—their backing came in the form of advocating for abstinence-only education. Zimmerman argues that the sex education movement took a giant step backwards with the advance of abstinence-only education, with schools facilitating little to no discussion about the social aspects of sexuality, and certainly no discussion of the “big four taboos” (p. 87) of abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.


Interwoven across the chapters is a dialogue around the heavy external influences on the inclusion of a sex education curriculum within schools, particularly from religious groups and predominantly the Catholic Church. Quoting a social scientist and sex education supporter, Zimmerman notes there was “too much bishop and too little physician and pedagogue” (p. 66) in the sex education handbooks that were approved for circulation in public schools. Zimmerman notes that the Catholic Church, as the most “consistent critic of the subject around the world” (p. 36), joined forces with other religious conservatives in the fight against sex education to argue that children are sexually innocent and the inclusion of this explosive topic in schools would disrupt the establishment of the family ideal. Although widespread panic caused by the AIDS crisis brought the Catholic Church and other conservatives on board for some form of sex education in schools, the Church continued to assert that abstinence should be the only sanctioned lessons internationally. Notably, the Catholic Church did not manage to exert this kind of influence on Sweden. The central involvement of the Church in sex education raises some fundamental questions, which have been posed by curriculum scholars for decades around what schools should teach and who should decide (Flinders & Thornton, 2013). It also raises concerns about the ability of schools that claim to be religiously neutral spaces to avoid succumbing to religious influence. In discussing the irony of a “progressive” education movement that emphasizes experience but neglects sex education, Zimmerman identifies the “real” questions as, “Whose experience counted, what information they needed, and who would decide the difference”? (p. 79).


Zimmerman notes that two key groups were left out of the dialogue entirely: teachers and students. With little say in the matter of what should be taught to students and what skills and training they needed to teach it, teachers were left in what curriculum scholar Ted Aoki (2004, p. 161) calls “dwelling in the zone of between.” That is, they were left with the sex education curriculum designed by government officials and/or the local curriculum that the teacher applies to any topic. Given the controversy surrounding sex education and the allegations that teachers were either entirely incompetent to teach such topics or would use the topic as a way to seduce or corrupt students, teachers were left in a state of great tension and, out of fear of reprimand or outright dismissal, teachers across the world learned it was best to avoid topics of sexuality altogether. This practice of leaving the teachers out of discussions involving the sex education curriculum is part of a larger conversation in the field of education that addresses the problem of curriculum being imposed upon teachers and students from external bodies such as ministries of education and even textbook publishers (Montessori, 2013). As Paulo Freire (1970) argues in his foundational text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, students possess valuable knowledge and should be invited to be co-creators of the curriculum that is in use in the classroom.


In describing a movement that proposed sex education was a child’s right, Zimmerman succinctly encapsulates the argument by quoting a Swedish educator who declared, “Schools are for children…not parents” (p. 99). Sweden was an exception, however. As Zimmerman reveals so clearly, the global dialogue around sex education predominantly ignored students entirely. With the sexual revolution, Zimmerman highlights how students themselves began to advocate for their right to have access at school to open and honest information about sex. In 1983, the World Health Organization endorsed the beliefs Sweden had already held for decades that “every person has a right to receive sexual information and to consider accepting sexual relationships for pleasure as well as procreation” (p. 100). Although the dispute about whether or not children should have the right to knowledge about sexuality or the right to remain ostensibly sexually innocent remained unresolved, Zimmerman points out that students were left to learn about sex and sexuality outside of schools, primarily through media and one another. Quoting psychologist Rex Rogers, Zimmerman concludes that rather than educating the next generation to have more healthy sexual attitudes and behaviours, sex education was instead “a mirror, reflecting all the flux and diversity—and confusion and instability—of sex, youth, and our globalized world” (p. 152).


Zimmerman’s Too Hot To Handle is a fine scholarly contribution to the ongoing discussion about the highly controversial topic of sex education in schools by drawing attention to relevant issues and debates within curriculum studies both historically as well as currently. Too Hot To Handle engages the readers in a much larger philosophical inquiry beyond the appropriateness of sex education in schools to questions of what exactly the purpose of education is. Is it to inculcate students with a prescribed set of values and ideas or is it to enable a space for students to co-create curriculum? Zimmerman’s historical account of sex education is an excellent presentation of how the strong opinions of stakeholders outside of the schools have a sizeable influence on what is taught within them, often excluding the fundamental needs of those most impacted by the curriculum—namely, teachers and students. As Zimmerman so aptly points out, sexuality and sexual rights are heavily value-laden, and little progress has been made during the last 100 years that have passed since the birth of modern sex education to resolve the age-old dilemmas, which remain largely the same: “whose values are right for children and adolescents, who would decide, and why?” (p. 143).



Aoki, T. (2004). Teaching as indwelling between two curriculum words. In T. Aoki, W.

Pinar, & R. Irwan (Eds.), Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted. T. Aoki (pp. 159–165). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Flinders, D.J., & Thornton, S.J. (2013). Introduction. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton

(Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (pp. x–xiv). New York, NY: Routledge.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum. (Original work published 1967)


Montessori, M. (2013). A critical consideration of the new pedagogy in its relation to

modern science. In D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (pp. 19–32). New York, NY: Routledge.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 13, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18265, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:59:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Tonya Callaghan
    University of Calgary
    E-mail Author
    TONYA CALLAGHAN is an Assistant Professor in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. She has over ten years teaching experience in national and international, rural and urban, Catholic and non-Catholic environments and is the author of the book Thatís so Gay! Homophobia in Canadian Catholic Schools. Her doctoral thesis Holy Homophobia has been recognized with the following awards: The American Educational Research Queer Studies Dissertation of the Year; The Governor Generalís Academic Gold Medal; and The Canadian Association for the Study of Women and Education Outstanding Dissertation. Holy Homophobia explores curriculum and educational policy implications of religiously-inspired homophobia.
  • Tanya Surette
    University of Calgary
    E-mail Author
    Tanya Surette is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Calgaryís Werklund School of Education in Curriculum and Learning. Her research interest is sexual minorities, with a focus on advocacy and educational institutions, specifically within rural Southern Alberta public schools. Tanya Surette is a Registered Psychologist and Certified Canadian Counsellor, with nearly ten years experience providing psychological services to children, adolescents and adults. She holds a Bachelorís degree from the University of Lethbridge, a Masterís degree from Gonzaga University, and currently works as a private practitioner and as a therapist at the University of Lethbridge.
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