History of Sex Education

Sex education in the United States is subject to many different forces. Social trends, public health concerns, politics and various controversies have all, at different times and in different ways, affected the substance and teaching of sex education. Over time, however, one thing has remained consistent: public support for sex education. The most recent national polls show that 93 percent of Americans support “sex or sexuality courses being taught” in high school and 84 percent support such instruction in junior high.1 Though the American public overwhelmingly supports teaching sex education, there are still plenty of people who oppose it. For much of the modern history of sex education, opponents argued that schools should not be in the business of teaching young people about an intensely personal matter that belonged exclusively to families and churches. They also argued that sex education encouraged too-early sexual activity, that schools were encroaching on parental rights and authority, and that these classes were nothing more than “smut education.”

Throughout the 1980s, these arguments began to lose legitimacy as the American public reiterated its support, research conclusively refuted the idea that teaching sex education encouraged sexual activity, and more attention was being paid to the increasingly high rates of teen pregnancy. And, as the 1980s drew to a close, the entire country was paying attention to the new AIDS epidemic. With the epidemic came even more calls for sex education, and advocates and educators used this momentum to push for policy changes, training and resources.

By 1989, 23 states had passed mandates for sexuality education, an additional 23 states strongly encouraged sex education, 33 mandated AIDS education and 17 additional states recommended it.2 In June of 1989, SIECUS published “Sex Education 2000: A Call to Action,” which outlined 13 goals that would ensure that all children received comprehensive sexuality education by the year 2000. The introduction to this document speaks to the optimism of the time: “A new national consensus on the importance of sexuality education is emerging ... National public leaders, including the Surgeon General of the United States, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Department of Health and Human Services have recently urged the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education for children and youth.”3

While advocates were optimistic about the future of comprehensive sexuality education, its opponents were becoming more organized. Groups like Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Moral Majority and the Eagle Forum spearheaded campaigns to discredit comprehensive sexuality education. Aware of the changing times, these groups no longer argued for the complete removal of sexuality as a subject in school. Instead, they acknowledged the importance of sex education but contended there should be only one message: sexual behavior outside of marriage was unacceptable. These national conservative groups spread their brand of sex education by working from the bottom up and the top down. They approached local school boards and national politicians with the same message: sexual behavior among unmarried young people is an epidemic, and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in school are the solution.

One of their early successes at the national level came as part of the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), which was passed in 1981 and is widely considered the precursor to today’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Its goal was three-fold: to prevent premarital teen pregnancy through “chastity and self-discipline;” to promote adoption among pregnant teens; and to care for pregnant and parenting teens.4 AFLA supported the development of curricula such as Teen Aid and Sex Respect, two of what would become many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear and shame. These curricula are often rooted in specific religious beliefs and portray premarital sexual activity as immoral and universally harmful. They typically rely on negative messages that suggest that premarital sex is inevitably harmful, provide distorted and inaccurate information about STDs, HIV and prevention methods, and promote stereotypes and biases based on gender, family structure and sexual orientation.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, these groups had a great deal of quiet success at the local level, convincing school boards across the country to adopt restrictive abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In 1996, the groups’ success on the national level changed the landscape for sex education dramatically. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Act was passed under former President Bill Clinton’s administration and fundamentally changed how low-income families received federal assistance. A part of this legislation was Title V, Section 510(b), which allocated $50 million per year over a five-year period to states for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. These programs were governed by a very strict definition of abstinence, known as A-H (see sidebar on page 7) in which states could choose to focus on some sections of the definition over others. In addition, states were required to provide a $3 match for every $4 received from the federal government for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Every state except California accepted these funds.

In 2000, conservative lawmakers upset by what they saw as states’ dilution of the abstinence-until-marriage message (some states were using Title V funds for media campaigns, youth development, and after school programs that lawmakers felt were not sufficiently focused on abstinence), created an additional $20 million federal funding stream, the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance–Community-Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE)

CBAE is by far the most restrictive of the federal government’s funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Whereas under Title V funding, states ultimately decide which programs receive funding, all decisions regarding CBAE funding bypass the states entirely. The federal government awards grants directly to community-based organizations. Programs funded under CBAE are required to teach all eight points in the federal government’s definition of “abstinence education.” Given the government’s strict control, it is not surprising that the increased funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs over the years has all been within this funding stream. In 2007, the CBAE program, as it was now called, was funded at $113 million.

With these funds and the accompanying “stamp of approval” of the federal government, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs made their way into more and more communities. Moreover, proponents of this approach worked to convince state legislatures that this was the only appropriate method of teaching about sexuality in schools, and a series of restrictive state laws were passed across the country. Some states even included elements of the A-H definition verbatim in their laws.

As the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry and movement grew, advocates for comprehensive sexuality education and the funding community increasingly focused on trying to limit the amount of money funneled into these programs and highlight their seemingly obvious deficiencies. These efforts have begun to pay off:

  • U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman’s report The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs outlined the misinformation, gender stereotypes, fear and shame contained within popular abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula5;

  • The Society for Adolescent Medicine issued a statement upon review of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage policy. The Society said that “current federal abstinence-only-until-marriage policy is ethically problematic, as it excludes accurate information about contraception, misinforms by overemphasizing or misstating the risks of contraception and fails to require the use of scientifically accurate information while promoting approaches of questionable value”6;

  • The long-awaited federally funded review of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs by Mathematica concluded: “Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age”7;

  • Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding has been rejected by more than 20 states, including New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine and New Mexico; and

  • Comprehensive sex education advocates have been successful in introducing the REAL Act (formerly entitled FLEA) in 2001 and have since garnered more than 107sponsors in the House and 18 sponsors in the Senate. The REAL Act has served as an effective model for state legislation and state level advocates.

  • In December 2009, Congress passed an appropriations bill that eliminated the majority of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This major victory marked the culmination of a decade-long campaign to promote honest, accurate, and comprehensive sex education in America. More than $100 million in annual CBAE funding for abstinence-only programs have been reallocated to evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention and sex education initiatives.

  • In spring 2010, through health care reform, Congress made available $75 million in federal funds for states to implement evidence-based comprehensive sex education, unfortunately it also re-established Title V, providing $50 million in federal funds for states to implement abstinence-only until marriage programs.

Since 1996 and the significant increase in abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, broad efforts to implement comprehensive sexuality education largely have been derailed. Many schools continued to teach high quality sex education, numerous organizations stepped in to support and train teachers, and some states undertook efforts to pass progressive policies, but these efforts were significantly limited by a lack of funding.
Today, as the pendulum swings away from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, advocates for comprehensive sex education are challenged to remain vigilant on the policy front, making certain that we maintain gains against this failed effort. At the same time, advocates must also throw considerable support behind efforts to implement comprehensive sexuality education at the state and local levels.


1 Sex Education in America: What the Public Opinion Research Tells Us

2 Sex Education 2000: A Call to Action, Debra W. Haffner, SIECUS, March 1990

3 Haffner, page 1

4 Rebekah Saul, “Whatever Happened to the Adolescent Family Life Act” (The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, April 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1, accessed June 26, 2008); available at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/tgr/01/2/gr010205.html.

5 “The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs” (United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Minority Staff Special Investigation Division, December 2004, accessed June 24, 2008; available at http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20041201102153-50247.pdf.

6 Society for Adolescent Medicine, “Abstinence-only education policies and programs: a position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine” (Journal of Adolescent Health 2006; 38(1)) pages 83-87.

7 “The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510: Interim Report” (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., 2005); available at http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/evalabstinence.pdf.