In 1948, in a seventh grade classroom in Eugene, Oregon, a teacher dimmed the lights and flipped on 16mm projector. A film called Human Growth began to play and for 20 minutes, a fictional teacher explained the human reproductive system while animated sperm and ovum flickered on-screen.
The presentation of these simple facts of life was so momentous that national magazines Time, Newsweek, and Life all covered the event—this was the first time a sex-ed film was ever shown in an American public school.
Since that 1948 screening, private companies, political organizations, individuals, and government agencies have made thousands of sex-ed films and videos targeting elementary, middle school, and high school students. Sex education is arguably more closely tied to film than any other subject in public school. Whether students recall sex-ed class VHS tapes, filmstrips, or YouTube clips as being painfully corny discussions of dating or sincerely educational forays into the sticky bits of our biology, sex-ed films color our understanding of sexuality.
Although sex-ed films are a major part of our sexual and educational culture, there has been little critical analysis of their content or creation from a pop-culture standpoint. Throughout the decades, these films are constantly scrutinized by people engaged in political debates about the validity of sex education, but they are not often analyzed as an important part of film history. An excellent and comprehensive book on the subject, Robert Eberwein’s Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire came out 15 years ago and an engaging documentary about American sex-ed films is due out this fall. In the interim, discussion of this crucial part of our cultural understanding of sexuality and relationships has been relegated pretty much to the offices of health educators and the conferences of right-wing political groups.
Maybe it feels old fashioned to analyze sex-ed films shown in schools when so much of young peoples’ education about sex comes from media that would never wind up on a teacher’s desk. Certainly I learned more about sex from Seinfeld than I did from my one-semester health class in the 1990s. With Google and Girls at our fingertips, the messages in sex-ed class videos are just a sliver of the sexual information students today are able to take in. But education gained in school comes with a certain significance, an elevated authority because it’s coming from an institution we imbue with trust. Teens may learn whatever they want from TV, but sex-ed videos shown in school represent an “official” attitude toward sex. In most sex-ed films shown in schools, the authoritative voice of a trusted narrator guides students through the confusing terrain of puberty and the tough moral choices around sexuality.
From the outset, films helped lend an air of authority and importance to sex education, which has always been on the defensive in America. Even now, when polls show that more than 80 percent of Americans support teaching comprehensive sex education, filmmakers creating material for public schools are extremely aware that their every scene will be dissected by political opponents. This century-long fight over the validity of teaching the birds and the bees has shaped the way sex-ed videos are framed, with an overwhelming focus on venereal disease and the benefits of abstinence rather than a more positive approach to sexuality. And, perhaps predictably, they have had a specific tendency to ignore both pleasure and women’s sexuality.
Instead of becoming steadily better in quality over time, the content, messages, and accuracy of sex-ed films have fluctuated with the moral and political forces of each era. What’s especially surprising in looking at the history of sex-ed films is how the medium has changed in its approach to contraception. Condoms, over time, have gone from being framed as a straightforward way to prevent disease to a failure-prone and risky option.
As Robert Eberwein put it in his 1999 book, which details the first showing of Human Growth, “One of the first discoveries one makes when examining sex education film and videos is that the historical progression from the earliest sex education films to the most recent videos doesn’t necessarily represent a clear ‘advance’ in the treatment of the issues. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Some of the most recent educational videos specifically reject the advice that was given 20 years ago about birth control and masturbation.”
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If our country were inclined to celebrate such holidays, 2014 should be a grand centennial for sex-ed films. In 1914, the nation’s first sex-ed movie debuted in theatrical release: Damaged Goods. This film about the dangers of syphilis is rather grim: On the eve of his wedding to a “virtuous woman,” a man sleeps with a prostitute and contracts syphilis. The movie ends with the him about to commit suicide. Damaged Goods was originally made as rather educational entertainment and screened to the public, but soon the U.S. Army began to screen the film in training camps.
“There were films used to portray pornographic situations since the beginning of film,” says Eberwein, in a recent interview. “But what legitimized the use of film to discuss sexual topics was the fear of diseases.”
Sex-ed and “hygiene” films were widely shown in public lecture halls as an educational experience for adults. Progressive Era reformers supported the public showings of films as a way to teach diverse, immigrant-heavy urban audiences about what they considered proper health and morals. The first sex-ed films were geared toward male audiences and centered on characters who were white men, with messages about how preventing venereal disease and limiting sexual desire was an important part of protecting one’s manhood. In 1922’s Science of Life, male sexual desire is depicted as a stallion that can lead “masculine qualities which make men ambitious to strive and achieve” but which must be reined in. Women’s sexual urges are not mentioned; instead, the focus of the film is on women’s reproductive capacity.
A central message of these early films to their presumed male audience is that men who have sex without protection or with many women could unknowingly infect “nice girls” with venereal disease. In this framework, women who desire sex are painted as disease-carrying harlots. In 1961’s Dance Little Children, for example, a male authority figure tracks down the source of a syphilis outbreak in a small town: the culprit is “a tall, aggressive blonde” who picks up guys at the ballpark. She’s wearing a cardigan and has an empowered look about her. “Is this your town?” asks a chilling male narrator. “Is this your daughter? Is this your son?”
Although sex-ed films are meant to resonate with American students from all walks of life, they have tended, over time, to omit key details. In his research, Eberwein found that mentions of the clitoris as a part of female anatomy were relatively rare in the canon of sex-ed films. No film mentioned how the clitoris relates to female pleasure until the 1980s. Films have been far more likely to discuss male masturbation than to consider that women masturbate and have sexual needs. While educational films that discuss hormone changes in boys often made reference to “nocturnal emissions,” the exploration of girls’ hormone changes focus on menstruation and the emergence of child-bearing hips, rather than on desire.
In addition to erasing female sexual agency, sex-ed films for a long time represented only white children. In early films, people of color were used as “others” whom the presumed white audience would observe. In that significant first film, Human Growth, the main, white teens’ curiosity about how humans develop is piqued by looking at a picture book that featured Native American children wearing loincloths. African-Americans are almost entirely absent from sex-ed films shown in schools until the 1960s, when more films begin including some African-American, Asian, and Latino characters.
Same-sex relationships and happy premarital sex apparently remain taboo topics in sex-ed films—with only a few exceptions, LGBT relationships are absent from sex-ed films and consensual sex among teens is discouraged.
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Perhaps no one has watched more sex-ed films than Brenda Goodman, a Southern California School of Cinematic Arts professor who is the producer and director of Sex(Ed): The Movie, a history of American sex-ed films that will have a limited theatrical release this fall. Her analysis of more than 500 American sex-ed films is surprising. “I had thought going in that I would see this progression, that as time goes on we would do better, for lack of a better phrase. But it’s not that simple,” says Goodman.
During World War II, the Army financed numerous films warning male soldiers about venereal disease. People who attended public school sex-ed class in the 1990s might be surprised to find how frankly and stridently these army films discuss condoms. Films show how to put on a condom and recommend them as an effective way to prevent disease while having sex. In more recent years, the message of government-produced sex-ed films has clearly shifted.
“The military films said get a condom, wear a condom, be smart, protect yourself,” says Goodman. “As time goes on, the message has become: condoms fail. That message has been taken over by people who have a particular agenda. The condom itself has become controversial.”
After the war, the people who had been making sex-ed films for soldiers turned their attention to teenagers. The movie that made waves after being shown in Oregon schools in 1948 was made possible by a physician and educator who deemed sex education important enough to leave $500,000 in his will to the cause, and was produced by the University of Oregon and Hollywood actor Eddie Albert—hardly fringe activists.
The power of sex-ed films is clear. “It substitutes an authoritative force,” says Eberwein. The idea of someone in 1948 walking into a classroom in Eugene, Oregon and delivering a lecture about human reproduction would be hard to imagine, says Eberwein. “But a film brings authority and brings a visual element to talking about forbidden topics.”
Over the years, thanks to a combination of need, effectiveness, and economics, sex-ed films have endured. The research team of Sex (Ed): The Movie estimates that there have been a whopping 100,000 sex-ed films and videos made over the past century, including everything from government-produced “hygiene” filmstrips in the 1910s to teen-made internet videos.
Film has become woven into the sex-ed curriculum in part because the people who teach sex-ed often have little training on the topic. There are no nationally required standards on what constitutes quality sex-ed. Though there are thorough voluntary guidelines on the current best practices for comprehensive sex education, only 22 states require that sex-ed be taught at all—and only 19 states require that the curriculum be medically accurate.
When it’s taught at all, sex-ed is often part of a health class taught by a gym teacher. Many teachers, of course, take on the role of sex educator with more enthusiasm than the coach from The Wonder Years who begrudgingly scrawls female anatomy on a chalkboard, but when sex education research center Advocates for Youth surveyed 100 universities that train gym and health teachers, they found that fewer than 40 percent of them required any course on sexuality.
Teachers who feel awkward about discussing sex or are simplyuntrained on the subject rely heavily on videos. But it’s good to recognize that movies aren’t always a cop-out: Teachers can effectively use videos to start a conversation or to show scenarios that students can mull over and discuss.
“The ones who are uncomfortable are throwing a video up and that’s the end of it,” says Advocates for Youth Executive Director Debra Hauser. “But good sex ed is much more of an interaction.”
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While they started with a focus on venereal disease, sex-ed videos began to branch out in the 1960s and ’70s. Conversations about venereal disease were still front and center, but the films from the era make reference to the changing times. Some police departments made sex-ed videos to teach kids about “stranger danger” and issues police agencies deemed to be public safety threats. The Inglewood, California police department, for example, created Boys Beware, a 1961 anti-gay film that warns boys away from interacting with homosexuals and deploys every bigoted gay stereotype in the book.
As teachers looked for relevant sex-ed material to show in their classes, private companies did an excellent job ingratiating themselves into the public sex-ed curriculum. People who view sex-ed as a taboo topic might be surprised to learn that Disney made several sex-ed films, most famously partnering with menstrual product company Kotex to produce the 1948 animated short The Story of Menstruation. In it, a chipper narrator tells girls that their period is natural and to try and stay upbeat despite the monthly discomfort. “Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself and take those days in your stride, you’ll find it easier to keep smiling and even-tempered. It’s smart to keep looking smart,” she intones, as a pretty girl applies a fresh coat of makeup. The film was meant to be screened in conjunction with a Kotex workbook called Very Personally Yours, in which girls could write about their periods.
In 1967—seven years after the Pill was approved for widespread use—none other than Donald Duck hosted a film called Family Planning that argues that humankind will be better off if married couples ask their doctors about “pills or simple devices” that enable family planning. It’s important to note that Disney’s Family Planning, like many other sex-ed films, keep vague about the specifics of how contraceptive options work and frame the discussion as one that should occur between a husband, wife, and doctor.
Meanwhile, private companies continue to create educational health films for students today, though the delivery methods have changed. Kotex, for example, is no longer working with Disney to make animated film reels. Instead, they make online videos about how menstruation works, coupled with nicely branded period starter packs that schools distribute for free to girls.
Films from the 1970s are distinctly more open-minded and free-form than in other eras. There’s full-frontal nudity as couples romp in tall grass. In one film shown in Sex(Ed): The Movie, 1976’s Masturbatory Story, a country song about masturbation plays while a white guy plays with himself in the tub. “My eyes rolled round, my toes curled under, flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder,” sings the narrator. A girl appears and seems delighted at the situation, but doesn’t touch herself in any way. There is ample use of kazoo throughout.
In the early 1980s, contraception was joyfully involved in sex-ed videos. In 1981’s Condom Sense, some kind of magician is enrobed in a giant condom.
During the mid-1980s, the AIDS epidemic had a profound effect on the content on sex-ed videos, with a return to a direct emphasis on the importance of condoms to prevent disease. The 1986 film Sex, Drugs, and AIDS was shown widely in the New York public school system. In it, a multiracial group of teen girls discusses wanting to have sex, but most admit that they find it very awkward to talk to their boyfriends about contraceptive options. A wise friend intones, “If you can’t talk to your boyfriend about birth control and condoms, you shouldn’t be having sex.”
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Advocates for Youth Executive Director Debra Hauser taught sex education in New Jersey public schools during the 1990s, during a time when American sex education funding went through a major change. Under pressure from social conservatives, the federal government began funding primarily abstinence-only sex education—between 1996 and 2010, the government spent $1.5 billion on abstinence-only programs.
“There were these industries that grew up around this money,” says Hauser. “Schools would contract with ‘educators’ to come in and give lessons. These people would really use a lot of shame and fear, ignoring LGBTQ issues, demonizing condoms and contraception.”
When Robert Eberwein looked at sex-ed films made by religious groups, specifically Focus on the Family, he found a stark difference between them and other films used in schools. The premise of 1993’s The Myth of Safe Sex, narrated by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, is clear. It includes a lot of dubious information, including the claim that using condoms results in pregnancy 25 percent of the time and that Planned Parenthood exists to promote a rise in pregnancies and abortions. “The ideological agenda of the film is simple: to discredit any federal or social organizations and programs promoting sex education outside the kind of religious framework and values represented by Dobson.”
Another Focus on the Family film voices similarly terrifying claims: that condoms have a 31 percent failure rate and that teens who are sexually active have higher rates of suicide. Eberwein notes that these films echo the ominous tone of the military’s training films from the 1940s. “But in contrast the training films at least offered the possibility of protection through use of condoms and prophylaxis, these videos present sex and condoms as joint threats.”
Sex(Ed): The Movie includes a chilling clip from a 1991 video intended to be shown to students, No Second Chance. In the video, a woman extolls students to be abstinent while imagery of a kid playing with a gun rolls onscreen.
“When you use a condom, it’s like playing Russian Roulette. There’s less chance that when you pull the trigger, you’re going to get a bullet in your head,” she tells a class of students. One teen boy pipes up.
“What if I want to have sex before I get married?” he asks.
“Well, I guess you just have to be prepared to die,” she responds.
In at least one school district, community members urged schools to add No Second Chance to their curriculum directly as a reaction to a video that they felt “emphasized condom use at the expense of promoting abstinence as the only sure way to avoid HIV infection.” A 1991 review of the movie in a Canadian pro-life newspaper stressed that the film was far better than “government-funded” sex ed-films: “What an exhilarating breath of fresh air! No condoms, no foam, no ‘meaningful relationships, or ‘responsible sexuality’ – just plain truth.”
A “public school version” of the No Second Chance is still being sold today on Amazon by Jeremiah Films, which also markets films on topics ranging from Freemasons and devil worship to a DVD about “cleansing the soil for the Aryan antichrist.”
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In the 1990s and 2000s, Christian-based abstinence-only groups showed up in public schools in a major way. In 1998, eight percent of American teens said they received abstinence-only education without any instruction on contraception. By 2008, that number had risen to about 25 percent.
Instead of just showing up in a class with a VHS tape, Christian group Silver Ring Thing travels around the country hosting concert-style abstinence events at schools, churches, and community spaces around the nation. Actors on stage rile up the crowd with the help of giant screens that run emotional films centered on virginity and morality.
These high-octane presentations recall the early days of sex education cinema—in the 1920s, for instance, government-funded films meant to educate people from all walks of life about good morals were screened at mass presentations. Silver Ring Thing put on its multi-media performance at schools, churches, and community spaces around the nation.
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the federal government for providing federal funding to Silver Ring Thing, which received more than million dollars during a three-year period to produce its “Christ-centered sexual abstinence” program. The ACLU settled the case. The Silver Ring Thing seems to have scaled back somewhat, especially as federal policy has changed to favor “evidence based” sex education in recent years. But to this date, The Silver Ring Thing boasts that it has given more than 200,000 students silver rings promising abstinence.
In her study of sex-ed films, Sex(Ed) director Goodman found that sex education involved significant class issues. “There is a real difference in the education you get in a private school versus in a public school. In a private school, you might get sex education every year. In public school, it’s very much about disease prevention and pregnancy prevention. It’s about prevention rather than coming from a positive place,” says Goodman.
As an example of empowering and accurate sex-ed that’s not found in public schools, many people point to the Unitarian Universalist’s “Our Whole Lives” program. Used in some privates schools, Our Whole Lives includes videos as part of a curriculum that revolves around a more holistic discussion of teens’ identities, feelings about their bodies, sexuality, and values. “It’s the best sex-ed I’ve seen,” notes Goodman.
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The use of sex education films in schools began in Oregon. These days, the state has one of the nation’s few comprehensive sex-ed policies, meaning that public-school students are taught age-appropriate information about their bodies, health, and sex from elementary school all the way through high school. It’s one of the most progressive policies in the nation.
After Oregon updated its sex-ed standards in 2009, the state health department funded the creation of new videos for its program aimed at sixth graders, which is called My Future, My Choice. The old videos used in schools felt outdated—some of the characters wore tie-dye shirts—and the updated videos used a racially diverse cast and gender-neutral language about relationships. Other than those tweaks, the message of the videos remains essentially the same, and fundamentally conservative. One teen sums up the basic message of the video: “It’s okay to think about sex, it’s okay to talk about sex, it’s okay to show affection for another person, it just may not be a healthy choice to have sex now.”
My Future, My Choice video producer Kris Gowen explains that the videos, which are split up into clear segments, are supposed to be used in conjunction with a classroom discussion as a way to stimulate conversation. While it’s absent from the videos, condom education is part of the in-class curriculum. The main goal of the videos is not demonstrate good examples of how to stand up for yourself, says Gowen. “They also do not use a fear-based model,” says Gowen, via email. “There are consequences shown, but not by using a “‘your life is over’ mindset. There are no horrible references to being ruined or damaged because a young person is sexually active.”
Though Oregon does not mandate abstinence-only sex education, the curriculum strongly recommends abstinence as the best option for teens—the new videos reflect that, stressing over and over ways to say “no” to sex but not delving into what happens if you want to say “yes.” In the videos, male and female teens openly discuss how they have sexual desires and how to resist peer pressure to have sex. But no one winds up in a sexually active relationship that ends well. Female birth control is never overtly mentioned and there is only one line in the 33-minute video about how condoms and spermicide can prevent STDs and pregnancy, which the host follows up with the caveat, “However, the only 100 percent sure way to prevent STDs and pregnancy is to not have sex.”
While the content of sex-ed videos doesn’t get discussed often in mainstream pop culture, it’s clear that videos shown in public schools are closely scrutinized by people opposed to teaching sex-ed in schools. In response to Oregon’s curriculum, which in the videos feels conservative and abstinence-focused, Oregon right-to-life groups held a “rally to save our children” at a state’s sex-ed planning conference this spring. At the Oregon Right to Life Conference held in May 2014, speaker Lori Porter urged attendees to take action against the state’s sex-ed policies. “If you knew what they meant by ‘healthy relationships,’ you would be shocked,” Porter told the crowd. She derided the phrasing of the state standards that sex education should be “medically accurate” and “communicate respect.” “These are loaded words, you need to have your antennaes up when you hear them,” extolled Porter. “Honestly, comprehensive sex-education is carte blanche, anything goes.”
It seems certain that if right-to-lifers watched Oregon’s very cautious and conservative videos, they would still find fault in the lack of damnation.
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While they have progressed in some ways, sex-ed videos seen by American teens in school have much the same stance on contraception as mainstream fare screened during the Mad Men era. But today, students who are dissatisfied by the information they’re presented in school have more ability than ever to do their own research on their sexual identities.
Instead of needing to rely on Disney or an ’80s-era condom magician to dispense advice, young people can make their own sex-ed videos and distribute them to millions of peers. Teens can find or create personal and sex-positive educational videos, like the Midwest Teen Sex Show and the work of Laci Green. Planned Parenthood recently released a sexual health app and videos formatted for phones—an acknowledgement that teens aren’t just sitting at the back of the class watching sex-ed videos these days. Like young people in any time, teens are hungry for information about sex and their bodies. One way or another, they will discover it themselves.
This story is part of a joint reporting project on reproductive rights in pop culture that includes Bitch Media, Feministing, and Making Contact. This work is part of a Media Consortium collaboration made possible in part by a grant from the Voqal Fund.