Sex Ed in the Crosshairs

In the mid-1990s, national and state polls showed widespread public support for sex ed in schools—including coverage of contraceptive methods, disease prevention and abstinence. Yet in 1996, supporters of abstinence-only education claimed a major victory when Congress committed $250 million to promote abstinence-until-marriage programs. As outlined in a 1998 Perspectives special report, opponents of sex ed had been increasingly targeting state and local governments, as well as local school boards, in an effort to curtail sex ed in the nation’s schools. For example, between 1992 and 1997, more than 500 disputes over sex ed policies occurred in school districts in all 50 states. The director of training at Advocates for Youth—a nonprofit that promotes reproductive and sexual health—described these developments in stark terms: “These are dark times for balanced, responsible sexuality education.”

Against this backdrop of the abstinence-only movement’s convincing many state legislatures and school districts to weaken or even eliminate comprehensive sex ed programs, this report described how sex ed proponents were working to simultaneously strengthen school programs and build support among teachers, administrators and parents. They argued that essential steps included improving professional training for sex ed teachers, establishing local advisory committees, encouraging parental involvement and promoting the benefits of comprehensive programs. A vice president for education at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America cut to the chase: “Our message has to be that it is immoral to deprive people of information that can save lives and promote health. ’Just say no’ campaigns clearly do not provide such information.” Twenty years after this special report was published, advocates for comprehensive sex ed are still fighting for students’ rights to receive the fact-based sex ed that they need to become responsible, sexually healthy adults.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine