When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—and Sex Education—Since the Sixties

reviewed by Jeffrey P. Moran - November 20, 2006

coverTitle: When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—and Sex Education—Since the Sixties
Author(s): Kristin Luker
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., New York
ISBN: 0393060896 , Pages: 416, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

For most of the last three decades, the battleground of sex education has been confined to a few narrow strips of land: comprehensive sexuality education versus abstinence education; home and church versus the public school system; disaster prevention versus positive sexuality; and a few more binary oppositions that have provided a basis for fights, but not for insight. In an attempt to explain why these recent disputes have been so durable and so static, the sociologist Kristin Luker spent 10 years interviewing participants in three different localities across the United States. The result of her efforts, When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—and Sex Education—Since the Sixties, is part history, part sociology, part research memoir (if there is such a thing), and part philosophy. As the dashes in the subtitle suggest, Luker is less interested in sex education itself than in the ways in which disputes over the subject reveal deeper cleavages in Americans’ approaches to sex, marriage, and moral boundaries. As the author of books on the politics of the teenage pregnancy “crisis” and on the politics of abortion, Luker is well qualified to trace the interpenetration of public controversy and private—or not so private—sexuality.

Sex education, from its beginning, has been shaped by broader transformations in the culture. The formal movement to put sex in the schools began at the dawn of the twentieth century, in response to what Luker calls the first and possibly the most significant sexual revolution. Between 1880 and 1920, the white middle classes, in particular, became characterized by a rising average age at marriage and a shrinking of the average family size. As never before, young people were thrown into mixed-sex gatherings, such as the public schools. Probably in response to all of these changes, the rate of premarital sexual activity also increased, but the birthrate did not. The precursors of the sex educators, the Progressive-Era social hygienists, had once been preoccupied solely with the dangers of venereal diseases and prostitution, but now they turned their attention increasingly to the “problem” that sex and procreation were becoming separated. Marriage, then, needed to be bolstered with a rationale that moved beyond its older justification as the God-given site for making babies.

The sex educators, as many began to call themselves, took up this challenge in earnest in the 1920s. They supplemented their core mission of disease prevention with a positive new message about the benefits of a “companionable” or “companionate” marriage. This new ideal portrayed marriage as an institution for personal satisfactions, including the joys of rearing well-adjusted children, fulfilling the needs of each spouse’s “personality,” and yes, harnessing the power of sex to tighten the marital bond. Influenced by the mental hygiene movement, the educators still taught that sex before marriage was wrong, but it was wrong not only because it crossed moral boundaries and invited infections, but also because the experience would interfere with the positive satisfactions that only heterosexual marriage could provide. In these forms, sex education or its carefully named cousin, “family life education,” proceeded in fits and starts over the next four decades. Although it occasionally ran into local opposition during these years, the subject retained a place in the curriculum because it fitted well with the broader public consensus that sex outside of marriage was wrong.

As many of Luker’s interviewees lament, the sexual revolution of the 1960s shattered this public consensus over the wrongness of extramarital sex. The leading sex educators, for their part, no longer possessed their forebears’ confidence in their own values. Now leading a “value-neutral” classroom, they tended to teach that students should investigate the biological facts about sex and the available ethical options in order to arrive at their own responsible moral positions. To be sure, sex educators stacked the deck in favor of abstinence until marriage, but their public pronouncements—that intimacy was the primary rationale for sexual relations, that “values clarification” had replaced the old “Thou Shalt Nots”—suggested to many that these professionals had defected to the other side of the sexual revolution.

In the wake of this 10-year period of incredibly rapid social change, from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, parents have tended to position themselves into two warring camps: sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. “Liberals” tend to support comprehensive sexuality education because they believe that sex is “natural”; young people, in their view, simply need to be given information and guidance to learn for themselves how to make responsible decisions. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to oppose school sex education altogether, or support “abstinence-only” programs, because sex for them exists more in the realm of the “sacred”; too much information spoils the natural innocence of youth, and dissolves the sense of mystery that should surround the sexual act.

As Luker makes clear, though, these two sides are talking about sex education only partially, or talking about it only as a code for deeper differences between their views of the world. Sexual conservatives, she concludes, hew to an Old Testament view that morality comes from God, and its boundaries and rules are therefore eternal and unchanging. They are most comfortable with social hierarchies and obedience, with the patriarchal family as their social ideal. Sexual liberals take a more forgiving position, in which they accept that a handful of rather bland moral principles do exist, but maintain that the trick lies in learning how to apply these principles to infinitely changing, infinitely complicated daily situations. They are more comfortable with social equality—especially sexual equality—and with fluid moral boundaries.

In the late-1970s, one might have predicted that sexual liberalism and all of its related positions were to be the wave of the future, but as Luker’s analysis suggests, just as many Americans retreated to the moral certainties of an earlier era as those who marched forth into the brave new world of moral flexibility. Sexuality education joined with other elements of sexual liberalism, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and gay rights, to conjure forth a traditionalist opposition, the so-called “pro-family” coalition of conservative evangelicals and Catholics supported by such organizations as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition.

Luker’s work thus complements another recent treatment of sex education, Janice M. Irvine’s (2002) Talk About Sex. Where Irvine focuses more on the strategies by which national conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family “go local” in order to reframe and inflame opinions on sex education, Luker explains why such national rhetoric would find receptive listeners in towns and school districts across the nation. Administrators and educators would do well to ponder Luker’s sympathetic portraits of parents on both sides of the sex education divide, and to consider carefully her analysis of the ways in which their positions are based on differences in class, philosophy, and personal histories. Indeed, at the end of the book, Luker proposes that these differences in outlook could themselves provide a structure for teaching about sex in the schools by giving students the raw information they need, but teaching them that Americans are deeply divided over these questions of sex, morality, and sex education itself. That lesson is likely to be relevant for decades to come.


Irvine, J. (2002). Talk about sex. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 20, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12846, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 9:56:51 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review