Vagina. Penis.

Do these words still make you uncomfortable to read—let alone say?

That might not be your fault, explains Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Ed. The topic has caused major headaches over the past century for teachers and administrators, who, without a set curriculum or organized training, have been “stymied by sex, which resisted most efforts to rationalize it and systematize it into the modern school,” Zimmerman writes. In many cases, formal sex education has been limited to an anonymous question box, a yellowing poster reading “Sex won’t make you an adult, but it could make you a baby,” or that awkward old condom-onto-a-banana routine.

And if you went to school in the United States in the 20th century, you may have heard of a teacher who got fired for straying from lectures about STDs to discuss the taboo notion of pleasure, or remember kids from religious families who opposed any mention of birth control. Basically, there have long been landmines at every turn. 

The prevailing assumption about all this is simple: America’s Puritan roots have compromised our ability to talk about sex—and that discomfort because especially obvious when you compare the U.S. to a more enlightened country like Sweden. The trouble is that isn’t true, Zimmerman explains: The U.S. actually pioneered the whole idea of using schools to teach kids about sex, starting in the early 1900s when progressive reformers sought to address public health challenges—like the spread of venereal disease—brought about by increasing urbanization. “Put bluntly, “ Zimmerman told NYU Stories in a recent interview, sex ed became most urgent when it was revealed that many “middle class men were patronizing prostitutes and then infecting their wives.”

This happened in cities like Paris and Berlin, too, of course—but it was here in the U.S. where education was championed in the 1920s and ’30s by groups, such as the American Social Hygiene Association, as a solution to both prostitution and disease. And when cultural changes—like Hollywood films that brought sexualized images to the big screen, or automobiles that suddenly provided amorous teenagers a place to escape the watchful eye of their parents—threatened the idea that sex was something you learned about from your family, schools were expected to provide moral guidance, too.

It was, after all, a new era of universal public education, with almost everybody—boys and girls from all different economic backgrounds—attending school for the first time in history. Reformers shared the optimistic idea that education could correct all kinds of social ills, and started reaching out to international partners in an effort to export school-based sex ed worldwide almost as soon as they invented it.

book cover: "Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education"

That’s when things really got complicated. Sex ed did take off in the Scandinavian countries, and, yes, in Sweden in particular, but not quite in the way early American advocates had envisioned. There, “sex instruction aimed to help each individual develop a sex life that was personally meaningful and satisfying, and that goal came before broader social ones,” Zimmerman writes.

In a way, globalization has hindered, rather than advanced, the goal of getting sex ed into classrooms around the world, Zimmerman noted in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. That tension is a central theme in his book, where he quotes a 1983 World Health Organization document that declared: “At present, it is not possible to define the totality of human sexuality in a form that would be acceptable to all countries.” Yet the report went on to assume that “by 1995, in every country, at least 80 percent of the people...will have an opportunity of leading an emotionally satisfying sexual life in harmony with the needs, beliefs, and values of the individual and society.”

In person, Zimmerman is almost gleeful in criticizing fellow liberals for the contradiction that he sees in such statements. “You find people in the contorted position of saying, ‘I’m a multiculturalist, I’m a globalist, and I strongly believe that everybody should be able to hold on to their culture, and we shouldn’t interfere with it. But I also believe in the individual right to sexual self-determination,’” he says. “Well, buddy, what if that culture doesn’t believe in that right? People bring their ideas with them, and no ideas are more deeply inscribed than those about sex and sexuality.”

Ultimately, Zimmerman leaves open the possibility that school isn’t the best place to teach kids about sex, after all—a conclusion that will no doubt ruffle feathers among lifelong sex ed advocates. In a twist, this group includes Zimmerman’s mother, Margot Lurie Zimmerman, to whom he dedicates the book—with the hope that she “won’t mind that some of the ideas in the book depart from her own.”

Below are some highlights from Zimmerman’s surprising history of the ongoing debate.


Early sex-ed advocates had some bigtime backers.
Of $177,000 donated to the American Social Hygiene Association —which engaged with local communities to generate popular support for sex ed and standardize policies across school districts—in 1918, $145,000 came from the Rockefellers. John D. Rockefeller also donated to individual school districts, often anonymously: In 1912, for example he paid for a lecturer to give 18 talks about sex to teachers on the Lower East Side.

Eugenics was part of the conversation right from the start.
Because sexual promiscuity could spread disease, it was thought to have the potential to weaken the race. British boys were told not to masturbate, lest they pass on mental and physical ailments to succeeding generations. Birth control advocates explored the possibilities of limiting the reproduction among “lesser,” non-white races. “The Progressives were all about trying to emphasize the collective rather than the individual, and to develop systems to get us to think of the whole instead of just the individual parts,” Zimmerman says. “Eugenics is the nasty, racial cousin of that line of thinking.”

And then there was “population control.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations—worried about unchecked population growth in the developing world—worked to plant sex ed programs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that emphasized the virtues of having fewer children. Zimmerman notes how hard it was to broach the topic in countries that opposed any talk of sex in the classroom. Educators, he writes, “tried to teach the benefits of small families while avoiding the question of where families came from, or how they might remain small.”


The sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s didn’t change much.

While the New York Student Coalition for Relevant Sex Education campaigned for high schools to establish “Rap Rooms” where they could get accurate information on topics—like abortion and contraception—not covered in their sex ed classes, and German magazines called for “Love Rooms” to facilitate hands-on learning(!) at school, the demands of liberal educators for updated sex ed were met with renewed resistance by conservatives.

By 1979, Zimmerman reports, students in 90% of American schools (and 98% of British students) received some kind of sex ed, but the courses rarely moved beyond so-called “plumbing lessons” to discuss the social “dilemmas of sex.” And almost all countries continued to avoid discussing the “Big Four” taboos: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.

By 1983, 12 countries had made sex education mandatory, but of those only four had set a national curriculum. The United States was not among them. “We’ve got 14,000 local school districts and an intense tradition of local control,” Zimmerman explains.

AIDS changed everything.
“I went to college in New York at Columbia in the late ’70s, and for a while in the mid-’80s, the [alumni magazine] obituary section for my class was longer than any other, including people who’d gone to school there in the 1920s,” Zimmerman says, reflecting on the magnitude of the epidemic. “Before AIDS, some people were for sex ed and others weren’t. After AIDS, everyone’s for it.”

But liberals and conservatives continued to disagree on just what schools should say. In Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, teachers developed ever-more explicit strategies for encouraging condom use. But in the 1990s one-fifth of teachers in the U.S. reported avoiding sensitive topics, including AIDS, for fear of being criticized by their communities. And in much of the developing world, many teachers were caught between the national goal of “protecting young people from a cruel disease” and fears that they would corrupt minors with “lurid ideas and images.”

In 1997, the World Congress of Families brought together conservative, and often religious, activists around the world to advocate for abstinence-only sex ed in the age of AIDS. At a U.N. session in 2002, the U.S., along with Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, and the Vatican opposed any reference to “reproductive health services and education” for youth.  

Who owns the child: the parent or the state?
By 1980, Zimmerman reports, nine states had granted parents permission to withdraw children from sex ed lessons, while five others required parental consent before students could begin them—making the United States one of the the only places where parents were officially given the right to exempt their kids from the subject.

While aspects of early debate about sex ed—like the argument that chaste schoolmarms didn’t have enough personal experience with sex to teach it well, or the contention that sex ed could somehow defend the modern family against the threat of Communism—might seem quaint to modern ears, many still pack punch today. As Zimmerman writes, “a century after modern sex education started, its dilemmas remained largely the same: whose values were right for children and adolescents, who would decide, and why.”

NYU was a pioneer in sex ed.
Zimmerman’s book offers a tantalizing clue about a New York City public school teacher who was placed on administrative leave for “showing his class a sex education filmstrip—produced by health educators at New York University[!]—that included pictures of intercourse and oral sex.”

According to a 1974 New York Times article, the filmstrip in question, Lovemaking, was produced by NYU’s health education department for the Unitarian Church—who used it in Sunday school sex-ed programs for kids in junior high.

That NYU department was founded in 1964 by Marian Miller Hamburg, who at that time also created the nation’s first graduate program in human sexuality. Eventually called Human Sexuality, Marriage & Family Life Education, the program was once headed by professor Ron Moglia, who told the Times in 1987 (as the AIDS crisis was spiraling out of control) that he believed sex ed should start with kids as young as 5. Though that program no longer exists, Moglia’s work continues—now within Steinhardt’s department of applied psychology.


Finally, just for fun—

An (incomplete) list of euphemistic titles for various types of sex ed over the years:
Mothercraft, Baby Nursing, Moral Education, Marriage and Motherhood, Human Development, Social Hygiene, Population Education, AIDS Education, Life Skills, Adolescence Education, Keeping Fit, Healthy Happy Womanhood, The Science of Life, The Gift of Life, Family Life Education, Reproductive Physiology, Family Living, Purity Education...and, of course, Health Class.

And Zimmerman’s (international) list of colorful metaphors for what sex ed might do:
“awaken the sleeping bear” (Sweden), “wake a sleeping child” (Japan), “Show nuts to the squirrel” (Thailand), “show the way to the deer” (Vietnam).

—Eileen Reynolds

Hear Zimmerman speak about sex ed at an Institute for Public Knowledge panel discussion on Monday, March 30.