Since the days of Sigmund Freud, of course, educators had deliberated whether, when, and how young people were sexual beings. But the debate accelerated in the era of AIDS, spurred by the astonishing development of new media technologies: videos, satellite television, and the Internet.
Each new advance made sexual imagery more readily available to more and more children and adolescents, which in turn under-scored the issue of what—and how much—they should know about the subject.
By 1999, even a relatively conservative country like Malaysia reported that nearly half of its teenagers had seen a pornographic video. As one educator predicted, adolescent consumption of pornography would become even more common when the “Multimedia Super Corridor”—soon to be renamed the Information Superhighway, and then the Internet—came to Malaysia.
She was right. By 2007, an educator in Ghana warned that the widespread growth of computer technology—one of the keys to the country’s economic boom—had also increased students’ access to pornography, which in turn “leads to a debased conscience and a perverted character”; in the worst cases, the educator added, children became “addicted” to watching it.
Almost all of this sexual content—whether on video, television, or the Internet—came from the West, as a Thai parent emphasized. “I blame the media that allows Western culture to reach Thailand,” he charged, noting the rise of premarital sexual activity, pregnancy, and AIDS in the country.
To advocates in the world public health community, of course, these developments simply underscored the need for so-called comprehensive sex education. “Suppose if a couple rides a scooter, both need to wear helmets, as both are vulnerable,” an Indian newspaper editorialized, pleading for schools to address contraception, abortion, and other sensitive topics.
“Sex education is not at all a liberal thought with strains of western permissiveness; rather, it is borne out of necessity, of the changing times we live in.” As the comment’s defensive tone suggested, however, more and more critics regarded sex education as a reflection of the “permissive” trends it claimed to control.
“Far from being an antidote to today’s sexual revolution…sex education programs are a typical and integral part of it,” a conservative Catholic activist in the United States wrote in 1996.
“Their real aim is to train the kids to ‘get with’ today’s sexual revolution— times have changed!—not to warn them against it.” Her rhetoric hearkened back to the 1960s, when Western liberals like Mary Calderone cast sex education as a response to new mores, and conservatives blasted it as an embodiment of the same.
Now a similar debate played out around the world, with an added tinge of imperialism; instead of simply corrupting children with sexual ideas and impulses, critics charged, sex education also undermined their “native” or “indigenous” traditions. To one Kenyan, sex education violated “authentic African values”; in India, critics derided it as “a conspiracy by Western bodies” against “Indian culture.”
In the worst case, its foes said, sex education led to the actual violation of children’s bodies. Ironically, sex educators often promoted the subject as a way to stem the widespread problem of sexual abuse by teachers. The issue was especially acute in Africa, where male teachers coerced female students into trading sex for school fees; such abuse was also a common form of AIDS transmission on the continent, where some countries reported that as many as 30 percent of their teachers were HIV-positive.
But to critics, sex education was once again part of the problem, not the solution; by requiring teachers and students to discuss sex, it exacerbated the harm it was designed to prevent. “What has actually happened,” one African critic charged, “is that sex education ... has opened doors for many teachers to take advantage of the age and vulnerability of girls to abuse them sexually.”
On the one hand, an Indian women’s leader worried, sex education would make children “more curious about sex”; on the other, it would make teachers more cognizant of the students’ sexuality. “Students are constantly complaining about sexual exploitation or harassment by teachers,” another Indian warned. “If these sex gurus are appointed, then more girls will be exploited.”
Some teachers who engaged in sexual abuse even went on to blame sex education, confirming critics’ worst fears. “After reading about human reproductive organs and sex education, I was enticed to try it out myself,” a male Indonesian teacher told police, after confessing to molesting eight boys in his elementary school.
But it was highly unlikely that the teacher’s own sexual instruction made any reference to pedophilia or to homosexuality, other than to condemn both of them—and often in the same breath. To be sure, critics in the Third World often charged sex education with spreading homosexuality alongside other alleged “Western” social ills, including child molestation. In the West itself, however, most schools remained silent about same-sex love.
In New York, home to one of the world’s largest gay communities, school superintendent Joseph Fernandez was forced out of office in 1993 in a flap over a new multicultural curriculum that included several books about gay families; British parents burned a similar book at a 1986 protest, which set the stage for a Parliamentary law two years later barring “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. The very phrase implied that gay orientation was not “natural” to young people; it stemmed instead from some early trauma or seduction, often at the hands of a teacher or other caregiver.
Meanwhile, educators in the developing world continued to insist that homosexuality—like sex education—was an evil import from the corrupt West. As one Kenyan critic noted, quoting national independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, “there’s no African word for homosexuality”; according to Daniel arap Moi, the country’s ruler in the 1990s, the concept was “against African norms and traditions.” So it must originate elsewhere, a Botswanan student added. “These things are from alien countries,” he flatly declared.
But in a world of enormous diversity inside borders as well as movement across them, it was becoming difficult to determine what was alien—or “native”—to any given country or community. In a televised debate in Lebanon, for example, a psychoanalyst called childhood sexuality a “scientifically proven fact”; but a medical doctor countered that it did not exist, except in “the perverted Freudian mind” of the West.
Likewise, some Chinese educators spoke knowingly of child sexual impulses while others dismissed them as a “foreign” idea, again citing the alleged pathologies of Freud. Some Indian observers called sex education “a crime against the younger generation” and a “form of western aggression,” while others warned that Indian youth would suffer—from unwanted pregnancy, early marriage, and especially AIDS—unless they received explicit instruction about it.
In the increasingly multicultural West, meanwhile, sex educators discovered that many newcomers simply did not share their assumptions about sexuality, childhood, and much else. “Why should parents allow their children to be taught those values which are destructive of their own family and religious beliefs?” a Muslim immigrant in the United Kingdom asked, decrying discussions of out-of-wedlock sex in schools.
But it was even worse in Holland, he added, where a relative reported that his school had required him to make sculptures of “body parts” as part of sex education. The curriculum also included frank descriptions of homosexuality, which was haram (forbidden) in Islam.
In the Netherlands, however, gay teachers in Muslim neighborhoods had been “forced back into the closet”—as one scholar wrote—after students harassed them. “The greatest challenge in the Netherlands is to make social life more sexually diverse and to ensure access for young people of all ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions to the erotic worlds they may be interested in,” the scholar added. “The challenge is to add multisexuality to multiculturality.”
But he gave no indication about how Holland could meet this test, especially if the people providing sex education could not express their own sexual thoughts and identities; he simply called upon schoolteachers to celebrate “difference,” even as his own evidence illustrated that many of their students balked at the idea.
“Not educational policies, but sexual pleasures ought to be a Dutch concert where every bird learns to sing its own song,” he intoned. As always, it would be classroom instructors—not scholars, activists, politicians, or school officials—who had to conduct this cacophonous orchestra. In a rapidly globalizing world, teachers were charged with harmonizing the dissonant tones and rhythms that human beings assigned to sex.
Most of all, teachers were supposed to talk with—not just talk at— their students. Especially after the AIDS crisis began, “discussion” became the key pedagogical mantra for sex educators around the world. To be sure, earlier generations of school officials had also called for “free, frank enquiry and discussion,” as a British teachers’ union resolved in 1944; at the 1973 Ford Foundation conference for African educators in Mali, likewise, organizers sponsored small- group conversations to dispel teachers’ “subconscious fears” about sex.
But the 1980s and 1990s brought a renewed accent on student discussion. It was not enough to give students information about HIV and other diseases, educators said; schools had to alter their attitudes, which could only come from free-ranging dialogues about the context and meaning of sex in their lives.
One Swedish foreign-aid worker even suggested that HIV/AIDS was “a blessing in a terrible disguise,” insofar as it would “force people to start speaking openly about sex and sexuality”; anything less would be a “recipe for disaster,” a Dutch educator added, citing high adolescent AIDS and pregnancy rates in the United States.
In fact, growing numbers of American teachers were already using “participatory activities” in sex education, as an impressed Turkish visitor reported in 2000. Upon his return home, he instituted similar methods in the school where he worked. “We have joined the universal educational mission of talking openly about sexuality in our schools,” he declared.
Excerpted from Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education by Jonathan Zimmerman. Copyright © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.