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The history of California's sexual education

The People Speak!
Creative Commons, used under CC BY-NC 2.0
California recently updated its guide for teaching sex ed in accordance with the state's Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in 2016. The law mandates all information be medically accurate and inclusive.

According to a Harvard study, more than 40 percent of parents didn’t have “the sex talk” with their kids. But California — especially San Francisco — is leading the way in making sure kids get the sex education they need. Things weren’t always this way.

Kendra Twenter, originally from Missouri, moved here to earn a master’s degree in sexuality studies at San Francisco State University. She scrunches her eyebrows remembering in disbelief car rides with her mom when they’d both sing Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy.”

“I sang it the other day in my car,” Twenter says. “I called her, and I was like, why did we sing this together?”

Twenter’s mom was a “cool” mom. But she never had the sex talk with her daughter. Despite Twenter’s appreciation for sexy music, as a teen she wasn’t all that interested in having actual sex. What did interest her — was learning about STIs.

“I had notebooks and notebooks of, like, what an STI was, and broke down each one by myself, just for fun, just because there was no real education,” she says.

Twenter, like many Americans, didn’t get much of a sex education growing up. The latest data compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group, shows that only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. Only thirteen states require that information to be medically accurate.

Why has sex ed failed to perform in some parts of the U.S.?

Why has sex ed in the United States historically been so ineffective? Let’s rewind back about 100 years.

During and after World War I, many soldiers returned home with STIs. In those days, more than 50 percent of men had an STI in their lifetime. That’s just a conservative estimate. Other sources note up to 90 percent of men were infected.

Understandably, the U.S. government saw this as a national security threat that would leave men unfit to fight the war. It launched campaigns like, “Fight the enemy at home,” to educate soldiers on the hazards of STIs, such as endangering the lives of their wives and children. Films like Sex Hygiene from 1942, also made the rounds.

The campaigns worked. Venereal diseases dropped drastically, to about 3 percent of those infected.

Sex education wasn’t considered controversial during this health crisis, but more as a public health measure. Supporters of having sex ed in school, like the National Education Association, felt it was better to prevent, rather than wait to treat maladies. Decades later, people’s views changed.

Phyllida Burlingame, the reproductive justice & gender equity director for the ACLU of Northern California, explains.

“Opposition to it really started about in the 1950s and sort of grew during the '60s and '70s in this push against gender equality. It was kind of seen as a threat to traditional family roles,” Burlingame says.

When the HIV epidemic in the '80s hit, schools had no other choice. California and other states mandated that HIV prevention education be taught in schools. The government also funded some abstinence-until-marriage programs. Then in the '90s, there was a national pivot to abstinence-only curriculums.

“OK teach it — but, teach only that you should abstain from sexual activity until marriage. And that was just wrapped up in a lot of really problematic messaging,” Burlingame says.

For one, the instruction assumed all students were straight. And, that all could marry. Remember,—same-sex marriage didn’t become legal across the country until 2015. Abstinence sex ed also relied heavily on fear and shame strategies, especially for girls.

“I was just horrified to see some of the messages that were being taught,” Burlingame says. “Boys were basically being told, ‘You have these raging hormones. You’re a rapist in waiting. It’s up to the girl to say ‘no’ to you.’”

California is on top in providing progressive sexual education

Funding for abstinence-only programs soared. Between 1996 and 2018 the U.S. spent $2.1 billion dollars, but California took a stand.

“From the very inception of the federal abstinence-only until marriage program, California has refused to take that money, instead saying we’d rather invest our state funds in comprehensive approaches,” Burlingame says.

Still, it’s taken time for California to get to where it is today.

“Sometimes people look at California and think, ‘Oh, California is so different ... we could never be like that.’ But California hasn’t always been in this place,” Burlingame says.

How did California get here? With the state’s groundbreaking Healthy Youth Act.

The ACLU, along with other organizations, were instrumental in passing it in 2015. The law requires both HIV prevention and sexuality education to be taught in one curriculum in middle and high school. And, all information must be medically accurate and inclusive. Teachers are mandated to teach about consent, healthy relationships, and sexuality as a normal part of human development.

Christopher Pepper, who teaches sex ed for San Francisco Unified School District, explained more.

“When we’re talking about healthy relationships, we make sure to include discussions about same-sex relationships,” Pepper says.

The act also prohibits only teaching abstinence education. Instead, it’s more comprehensive.

“Comprehensive sexuality education can mean lessons around safe touch. That they shouldn’t be touched when they don’t want to and they can go to adults for support and help,” Pepper says. “And increasingly we’ve been trying to emphasize, the yes means yes standard, this idea of affirmative consent.”

What difference has that made? Turns out, a lot.

Burlingame compares California to Texas, which adopted abstinence-only sex ed. Texas’ teen birth rate in 2017 was 27.6 percent — nearly double California’s, according to the CDC. More Texan teens also reported more sexual partners, having sex earlier, and not using contraceptives or birth controlwhen having sex.

“We’ve seen in California that, not only has the rate of unintended pregnancy among young people gone down significantly, but that young people are feeling more empowered,” Burlingame says. “And in Texas, there just hasn’t been the same health outcomes.”

Burlingame says comprehensive sex ed is especially important for low-income students and students of color.“We know, for example, that there are significant health disparities already for communities of color — and lack of access to sex education just exacerbates those.”

Burlingame cares about these issues because, she’s also a parent. She’s on the SFUSD’s task force which evaluates the district’s sex ed curriculum every year. It’s made up of parents and other health experts.

“My son, who’s 15, kind of rolls his eyes and pulls his jacket up over his ears. He goes, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to hear whatever you have to say!’”

When parents are turned off to sex ed in schools

With so many health upsides, why are some parents against sex ed? And, why do they prefer abstinence-only education?

“Sometimes adults are afraid that young people are going to have sex more often and there’s lots of evidence that that’s not the case,” Pepper says. “What is true is that they’re more likely to take steps to avoid sexually transmitted infections and they’re more equipped to speak to a doctor about sexual concerns.”

What can be done to ease parents’ fears? Pepper says, partner with them and show them the curriculum. This is why SFUSD created the task force.

As the next generation of sex ed educators emerges, sex education may also look differently. Remember Twenter, the Ludacris-loving grad student studying sex ed? Here’s how she envisions the future of teaching sex ed.

“What I hope to do in the future, is to be able to travel to places and do things face-to-face, but also record them. That way individuals who either don’t have the access to come to where you are, or don’t feel comfortable to, then have that means also,” Twenter says.

The more access to information, the more informed and healthy these kids will be now, and as adults.