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!