Sex Ed in the ’80s

Amid the growing AIDS crisis in the 1980s, many state and school sex education policies were vague or nonexistent, and not much was known about the content and quality of sex ed. To address this lack of knowledge, the Guttmacher Institute conducted several large-scale surveys to assess how states, schools and teachers were performing on the sex ed front. These surveys represent early efforts to generate baseline data and identify the strengths and weaknesses of existing programs.

In a Perspectives article published in 1989, Asta M. Kenney and colleagues analyzed data collected from state education agencies and some 200 of the nation’s largest school districts. They found that four-fifths of the states either required or encouraged the teaching of sex ed and abstinence, and that nearly nine in 10 supported education about AIDS and STDs. Notably, only two-thirds supported instruction regarding pregnancy prevention. Assessment of the school district data revealed similar levels of support, and nearly all districts taught about AIDS, STDs and abstinence. So far, mostly so good: Support for sex ed was widespread, and many topics were being covered in classes.

In the same issue, Jacqueline Darroch Forrest and Jane Silverman examined data from a national sample of more than 4,200 sex educators. Three-fourths believed that by the end of seventh grade, students should be taught about transmission of the “AIDS virus,” STDs, sexual decision making and abstinence, while more than half included teenage pregnancy, birth control and homosexuality in that list. Although most teachers confirmed that sex ed and AIDS education were offered in their schools, they also reported that most topics were taught less often and in a later grade than they thought appropriate. A subset of current sex educators said the three biggest problems they faced were pressure from parents, the community or administrators; inadequate or dated materials; and student embarrassment or lack of knowledge.

These two analyses complemented each other and provided a timely overview of the state of sex ed across the country. And perhaps most important, they highlighted that sex ed programs in the ’80s needed to be strengthened and implemented earlier in students’ schooling. Sounds familiar.

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Family Planning Perspectives may be accessed through Wiley Online Library (2003–) and JSTOR (1969–2011).

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine