I grew up in a generation in which sex education was simple anatomy. This went in there.
There were some diseases you could perhaps catch, but they were easily cured by penicillin. Penicillin I was taught was discovered entirely by accident one day when a petri dish became moldy. Much like the true complex story of penicillin, sex proved to be far more complex than I had ever been taught.
1960’s and early 70’s sex education was simply “this is the act”. However, the dangers of sex that my parents and grandparents had to fear were now gone thanks to medical science. My grandparents generation had the fear of horrible sexually transmitted diseases. A chance viewing of the movie “Dr.Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” was my only education about what life was like for those of my grandparents generation. It was also my introduction to the scientific method. (Great movie, well worth viewing)
Sexually transmitted diseases were covered in my middle school health class under the heading “If you get a sore here, go see your physician.” We were also told how lucky we were to be living in an age where death was not a byproduct of sex. I also remember covering how horrible it was before safe abortions. My school was not particularly liberal, but it was a time in which people remembered why abortion was legalized. My teacher, a young woman, knew of two friends that had died of back alley abortions. The articles about young women dying drove the need for abortion laws. If you think photographs of dead fetuses are moving, try to think of photographs of dead young teens and women. We’re far enough from the original passing of safe abortion laws to have forgotten why we passed them in the first place.
The pill was the other big picture of my time in “Health Education Class”. While we did cover all forms of birth control, the pill was the clear winner. It was easy and effective. A lot of the girls in middle school were already on the pill. It was used then as it is today, to help with severe period cramps. The pill was familiar to most of us, even if it wasn’t being used to prevent pregnancy.
The problem seemed to be that there was so much left out I had little education about homosexuality. I never even knew the Village People were gay. I swear, my daughters laugh at me for not knowing this, but as a young teen I had no clue. My girlfriend Linda and I both had a huge crush on the construction worker. Our parents never ever discussed what it meant to be gay. Several of my friends from that time that grew up to come out as gay. Their stories about having to cover up until they reached the relative safety of college are horrifying. I realize many children today also have to hide their sexual orientation, gay, bi, transgender, but at least these are things they can read about online and find people at least talking about sexual orientations. My one gay friend in middle school was simply a “tom boy”. She had short hair and played sports really well. She never had a boyfriend because she was “too good at sport”. Sometimes we would try to help her with makeup and dressing the “right way”, and only later did I find out those sessions were absolutely terrifying for her. She was afraid we would find out, and little did she know we were all just too clueless.
The worst part is that she had no clue she was not the only lesbian in the world. Her Catholic family had never mentioned anything about other sexual preferences to her. Only in high school did a lesbian teacher talk to her. The teacher could see she was obviously depressed and completely unaware her feelings were perfectly natural. But back then, a person could reach high school and have no clue that people could be anything but heterosexual. You just didn’t mention this to your children. Remember this was at a time when many adults thought Liberace was just a funny pianist that dressed in a flashy manner. My mom admits she had not a clue when she saw him on TV that he was gay.
The one problem for our parents was that with the pill and penicillin, how to keep us all from having SEX? There had to be a reason besides going blind and insane from syphilis or having a baby. The fall back was guilt. Good girls did not have sex before marriage. Good boys only had sex with bad girls. A horrible example was one Catholic girl that became pregnant at 17, Her strong Catholic family made her go to school her entire pregnancy, as an example of what happens to girls that are bad. Then the family made her put her baby up for adoption. The sad part was that soon after the girl committed suicide, thus proving the point her family had made that she was bad all along. I still remember her because I knew even then she wasn’t the bad one, her family was bad. Religion was being used to try to control what science had controlled.
The Catholic children all exempted out from “Health Education”, so they were the ones that suffered the most. The rest of us were informed by our more liberal churches that there was still a moral price to be paid for having sex before marriage. Everyone then went off to college where we found sex was rather nice, and nothing very bad seemed to happen. That was until AIDS.
Now sex education I am told has to include a lot more than “insert A into B”
There are the new dangers that science hasn’t cured yet. Everything from herpes to HIV. When AIDs hit, the dream of carefree sex went out the window. Some religions were quite happy to have a concrete sign that their GOD was unhappy with all this carefree sex with no consequences. While science could cure syphilis, AIDS was truly a case of the Lord taking his anger to another level.
Also while science could still assure us of safe abortions, enough time had passed that new generations could no longer name their friend in college that had died in a botched abortion. Young women dying was replaced by the image of young women just too lazy to raise children. Throw in the new open closet policy of the gay/bi/trans community and both churches and “Health Education” classes have a lot more to talk about.
I’m glad that my children were raised during a time where they knew the gay kids in their Middle School, instead of trying to put lipstick on them so they could “Get a guy”. I’m glad that children growing up are aware of methods to have safe sex, and also that sexual orientation is addressed as just they way some people are. It’s not presented as a choice, it’s presented as just another interesting variety in how people are born. I realize that my children had the good fortune to go to a school ,with liberal caring parents and teachers, who agreed that honest and science based “Health Class” is what children need.
Still, it was interesting to attend “Health Class” when I was a teenager have one friend turn to me and said “We can have sex, and just enjoy it?” Fast forward to today, my neighbor works for a high school in Vermont. At a large gathering she was addressing a group of educators about “Why Teenagers Have Sex”. Her reply was “Because it feels good. A lot of teenagers are having enjoyable sex and using protection.” It was rather an unpopular talk to a group that wanted the moral issues emphasized, not to be told many teenagers were handling sex and protection in a very mature fashion. It seems the endless battle between morality and science as regards to sex goes on even today!
Great article Kitty. I also was clueless, I think I was the queen of cluelessness. I remember when I had that health Ed class to learn about my period. I had no clue that was in fifth grade I remember them telling us something about bleeding down there and I was very upset. One girl told us that her friend had started bleeding whenwhen she was on a horse and she made it sound like it was just gushing blood everywhere that really freak me out. Sex on the other hand in my family was never discussed. I remember being a teenagerand they were talking about someone being divorced my mother almost whispered the word and the car windows were rolled all the way up
Consider yourself lucky you got the ED class in fifth grade to learn about your period. My older sister saw the menstrual cycle film strip in fifth grade while attending school in Plantsville, CT. My two younger sisters saw the menstrual cycle film strip in fifth grade while attending school in Warsaw, NY. But, I was in fifth grade in Castile, NY. A very, very small town where a significant portion of the population was associated with a Calvinistic three year Bible college either as employees or students (most of whom were married with children and had failed at real life so had decided to become servants of God- my own parents included in this menagerie.) I didn’t get the menstrual cycle film strip in fifth grade because it has to do with sex.
Instead, when I was in sixth grade my mother made me read a book published by “Kotex” with the look of “Dick, Jane, and Sally” which said “You’re getting older now and soon you will find a stain in your panties. When you see the stain, tell your mother and she will give you Kotex.” I had no idea what “Kotex” was or what the stain would be. When I asked my mother to explain what I had just read she said, “You don’t need to know that because the way you are it will probably never happen.” That was the extent of my sex education until I leaned about the reproductive system in science class in ninth grade. Of course, that didn’t include any information about sexual intercourse. My parents were so keen on making me an example of the good Christian life, (and I was so afraid of the beatings I would get if I disobeyed), that I was very isolated growing up. I was that weird girl who wasn’t allowed to square dance in gym class, play cards, or go to the movies. I didn’t have any friends who discussed sexual things with me.
Fortunately, when I went to college I got a sexual education from a woman who befriended me, (realizing I was a country bumpkin) within a week of starting my freshman year. She was concerned that my lack of information about such an important issue could cause me serious problems. That’s when I realized that my sister’s boyfriend had been sexually abusing me. Before her instruction, all I knew was that whatever he was doing, it hurt. I just thought, because he was really into sports. that it was some sort of rough-housing that athletes enjoy engaging in.
This dear college friend has my deepest gratitude for educating me about sex (and the other life skills she taught me).
I was reminded also that I was babysitting once, for neighbors kids, and the mom asked me to explain about SEX to the kids while I was babysitting them (they were ages 10 and 12). I had to laugh, at the time I was 18 and I guess she figured she could trust me. Thankfully the kids knew all the basics, but she was worried her 12 year old would have her period soon..so I was able to answer her questions. But who would just say to the babysitter “oh can you explain please?”
My mother’s instructions about pre-marital sex consisted of – if you have sex, no man will ever want to marry you.
the old “why buy the cow when the milk is free”. I just remember thinking why was it I got the talk about before marriage sex, but my brothers didn’t. If they were wed having been a virgin, it would have been considered very odd.
I’m grateful to have been raised in a town known for it’s gay culture. Not as fully accepted as today but a lot of gays were “out” and at least not attacked. Our school did a fair job with sex education, as did my mostly progressive mother. When HER mother said of a young couple who were in a relationship, “…but I’m sure nothing unpleasant is going on between them.” my mother corrected her: “You mean that nothing PLEASANT is going on between them.” No doubt Victorian grandma was not amused.
This is such a great article. Thank you.