Sex Education and Right Wing Religion

1968 was a big year in the American conversation on sex. Hippies ushered in the summer of love, the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love,” and Vietnam protestors urged Americans to make love, not war. But in Anaheim, California, sex was still an under the table topic. People had it, but no one talked about it. In August of 1968, however, Anaheim exploded with a controversy over sex, that is, the teaching of the subject in its school system. Controversies over sex education occurred in many other cities, including areas of Texas and in Chicago, but because Anaheim had a model program coupled with the largely right-wing political population, this created a quite a stir. What began as a questioning of the school system’s methods and curriculum soon blew into a scandal that pitted educators on one side and right-wing conservative Christian organizations on the other. The inclusion of these extremist groups into the sex education debate caused attention to be taken away from both legitimate opposition as well as the benefits of the program. The media, always looking for a sensational story, found one in the witch hunters that were organized against the Union County School System. Their words and the attention they received from the media eventually led to the demise of a program once labeled a model for the nation.

Anaheim’s controversial education program was actually the second phase in the effort to educate Union County students on sex. Earlier, more rudimentary programs began in 1962. These consisted of single-sex classrooms in which children watched films during gym class. The first program began to centralize and systemize classes that were taught by school nurses and gym coaches. When a Catholic priest protested a film that was shown about masturbation, the program came to the attention of the Union County School Board, headed by superintendent Paul Cook. Cook was a strong supporter of sex education and all his teachers in the school system. Instead of scrapping the program forever, he decided to poll parents about what to do. A survey of the parents showed an overwhelming interest in sex education, with nearly ninety percent of parents asking for a program in Union County. Thus a revitalization campaign began, and the second phase of Anaheim’s sex education program was implemented.

Former school nurse Sally Williams was recruited to develop as well as teach the new program. Her ideas soon become a model for the nation. She named the program Family Life and Sex Education (FLSE). FLSE was offered to juniors and seniors in the spring of 1965, and the following fall was spread to grades seven through twelve. It was an upgraded, four and-a-half-week session that covered reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and physical changes during puberty (only offered for younger grade levels). The difference here is the format. Anaheim’s FLSE was coeducational and based on a discussion format often related to sensitivity training. Students spent a good amount of class time discussion not just the on mechanics of sex, but also gender roles within relationships and male and female stereotypes. Williams also wanted to create an environment that fostered an honest and frank conversation. Mechanics were described without any sense of innocence or propriety. While she did not aid in designing the course, Dr. Mary Calderon, head of the Sex Information and Education Committee of the United States (SIECUS) and former contributing editor of Sexology magazine, supported Williams’ efforts and goals. Calderon used SIECUS to spread word of Anaheim’s program to aid in implementing it in schools across the nation. SIECUS became Anaheim’s most vocal, visible and powerful supporter.

What drew the most attention from opponents, however, were two points in the curriculum: masturbation and homosexuality. The first had already been a hotly debated topic, one that incited the revitalization of the first program. The first time around, there was only one mention of the topic in a film. The FLSE curriculum guide, however, contained explicit educational directives on the topic. The guide read that masturbation “will not impair the mind,” nor will it “interfere with the successful performance of the sexual function under normal conditions. Any harm resulting from masturbation according to the best medical authority is likely to be caused by worry or a sense of guilt due to misinformation.” The underlying text here is that masturbation is a reasonable sexual expression with no real consequences. This was a major issue for religious members of the community, as was the section devoted to an explanation of homosexuality. Ninth grade students studied “sexual deviations”, where they learned that homosexuality “has been known throughout human history and occurs in many societies âÂ?¦ occasional sexual interest in others of the same sex or periods of great interest frequently occur in adolescents who do not become homosexuals in adult life.” This was the first time the alternative lifestyle was given any kind of credibility or mention other than the traditional Judeo-Christian belief in homosexuality as abnormal, dangerous, or evil. These two issues were championed by the opposition as examples of subversive morality, but they were what the rest of the nation held up as examples of Anaheim’s “model program.” James Collier, a writer for the Village Voice wrote that Anaheim was giving children “what is unquestionably the most intelligent, realistic, honest, and complete course in sex education anywhere in the United States, if not the entire world.” And Collier was not the only reporter looking into the program. Writers for Time, Newsweek, and Redbook were all singing the praises of the Anaheim FLSE.

The FLSE continued for seven years without protest. Thousands of students were exposed to the curriculum before the first controversy ever hit. The first indication that opposition was brewing came when community member and war veteran James Townsend attended a school board meeting during the 1967-1968 school year and demanded that officials examine the FLSE. He had been alerted by Eleanore Howe, a Catholic parent of an Anaheim student, that FLSE was too sexually explicit and addressed issues of homosexuality and masturbation. He told the school board that they do “not have the vaguest idea what goes on in those classes, that you only know what you’ve been told.” He attacked SIECUS’s involvement and feared the corruption of Anaheim’s youth. Because Paul Cook and his school board were so invested in the program, they dismissed Townsend’s accusations. Townsend was unsatisfied by the response, however, and began his campaign with support of community families and churches. The California Citizen’s Committee (CCC), a group that had formerly supported Barry Goldwater and other conservative causes, joined Townsend. This marriage of community support and political clout grew to be the first wave of opposition. It wasn’t long before the community members became acronym crazy and started forming their own groups. Organizations such as People Against Unconstitutional Sex Education (PAUSE), Sanity of Sex (SOS), Mothers for Moral Stability (MOMS), Parents Opposed to Sex and Sensitivity Education (POSSE), and the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE) all had similar agendas: fight Sally Williams, Paul Cook, SIECUS, and dismantle Anaheim’s FLSE. With continued support from the clergy and a moral/religious subtext in their protests, the acronyms fanned the flames of dissent in Anaheim. They also garnered a large press following, as they were seen as the most connected to the interest of the students. These were parents of actual students whose tax dollars supported the school and the program. Unfortunately it was the clergy, not the parents, who were speaking for these groups, and they had a lot to say.

Despite the fact that all the opposition blended together into one wave of protest, there were three main arguments that divided the groups. Many groups said that the parents should be the ones to teach children about sex, not the school system. This was largely a parental complaint, although several churches supported it as well. The key issue was that the school’s program does not leave room for moral issues, it just teaches the basics of sex and topics related. Issues such as love, emotions, and relationships were ignored. Churches also felt that the school system was too pluralistic to provide an adequate education. The clergy felt that the program lacked traditional Judeo-Christian viewpoints on sex and morality. This argument basically comes down to impulse control and impulse denial, i.e., sexual responsibility versus abstinence. These were the two sides to the debate on morality.

A second argument against sex education came chiefly from psychologists and educators. They felt that the courses taught were too specific and too sexually explicit. Psychologists such as James Parsons describedy what he called a latency period experienced by children which occurs primarily between the age of six and the time of puberty. Exposing children to sexual material during this time causes them to be over stimulated. This could interfere with normal development and give children skewed ideas about sex that could last well into adulthood. Thus, the psychologists felt that FLSE provided students with unnecessary information that could cause psychological harm.

The final argument, and the one that incited the firestorm of controversy, was a more low level argument. Right wing Christian coalitions banded together to argue that the educators who taught sex education are evil. They also labeled them as Communists that were out to spread immorality and corrupt children.

There were several specific groups that joined the fight on this side of the debate. Christian coalitions such as the American Education Lobby (AEL) adopted Anaheim as their cause, distributing pamphlets and fliers on the topic, all set to the tone of their own conservative agenda. The AEL attacked SIECUS, saying that their support corrupted the city of Anaheim. One flyer that they created took statements from the speeches of Dr. Mary Calderon and pasted them to make it seem as if Calderon, SIECUS, and the FLSE was in support of premarital sex (a topic to which Calderon was in direct opposition), immorality, and homosexuality. Calderon would later use this as an example of the subversive tactics of the sex information opponents, calling them a “party line of lies, skillfully constructed half truths and quotes out of context.” The Christian Crusade of Tulsa also attacked Calderon and SIECUS, accusing her of “tossing God aside âÂ?¦ to teach American youth a new sex morality independent of church and state.” Also working with the AEL was the John Birch Society and Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade. Birch founder Robert Welch called the FLSE “a filthy Community plot.” Russell Kirk, a writer for National Review with a staunch anti-sex education viewpoint, referred to those that supported the FLSE as a “cult.” These organizations took the issue to a national level, starting “community education” drives and telephone surveys in close to thirty states. These campaigns actually sparked new legislation in some of these states. They also cited SIECUS’s ties to Sexology magazine as an example that the organization was sexually explicit and subversive. Calderon was unwilling to speak out against this opposition (she was quoted as saying “I won’t go on platforms with deliberate liars”). The only national publication to come out in strong support of FLSE was Playboy, which certainly didn’t help the case of the sex educators who were trying to convice the community that the program was not a haven of immorality and sexually explicit conversations.

Despite the fact that the opposition was getting most of the press, there were some organizations supporting sex education, both in Anaheim and in the rest of the world. There were even some Christian groups who supported Anaheim and sex education. Christianity Today, a quasi-liberal religious publication, asked its readers to be responsible in examining the controversy. In fact, it answered the opposition by saying that a careful reading of SIECUS literature showed no support to the argument that the group was out to corrupt the youth of America and that Sexology magazine could “hardly be regarded as lascivious.”

The most public of the proponents, though, was the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA). Through both literature and legislation, the PTA continued to push for a broader sex education program for students of all ages. “The Case for Sex Education,” a press release in their national publication, laid out their support of similar program. They also answered all three of the opposition’s main arguments against their cause. The PTA agreed that parents should ideally be teaching sex education, but they acknowledged that many children simply were not hearing the information from their parents. Thus, it was the school system’s responsibility to fill in where parents fail. Also, those that are receiving sex education from their parents would simply get a reinforcement during the school day. The PTA also responded to churches by saying that there needed to be a marriage of school, community, and home in order for students to receive adequate information. The school provided the information while the church and home would instill morality. But the most important argument in the PTA’s case was their actual goals and curriculum. Elizabeth Hendryson, the 1969 president of the PTA wrote, “the goal of sex education, we believe, is to develop responsibility in human relations – relations between boys and girls, husband and wife, parents and children.” This showed that educators were not out to corrupt children, urge them to have sex, or steer them to make bad choices. They simply wanted to help children grow in their relationships. As a final argument, the PTA said that they not only wanted to teach sex in schools, but that they were obligated to be teaching it. In 1965, Congress authorized funds in Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act so that schools might implement family life education programs at all levels of education. This showed that educators had an even more powerful force on their side: the government.

The debate continued for two years until all the sound and fury finally ended the FLSE in Anaheim. At the end of 1969, a California law that supported sex instruction was repealed by the state legislature. As a result, in the next election, Anaheim’s community groups were able to replace three school board members with conservative candidates that opposed FLSE. Despite the fact that Paul Cook had the parental support from earlier surveys, it was only passive. No parents were willing to stand up in strong support of the FLSE. Cook was unable to regain community support for his program, and he was eventually forced into retirement. Conservative organizations saw his retirement as a triumph in the fight for morality, and it was a major turning point in the grip held by right wing organizations in the world of politics. A member of the John Birch society even wrote that sex education was “the best recruiting device [for the conservative cause] to come down the pike since fluoridation.” Ironically, only once the program was disbanded did the press then jump to aid of sex educators. Time magazine wrote that “to eliminate these courses is to deny many children access to essential knowledge that can ease their difficult psychic transition from adolescence into adulthood.”

Sex education, like politics and civil liberties, was and always will be a topic that inspires debate. The situation in 1968 is similar to one that still continues today. Wherever a sex education program exists in America, there will be opposition. Although fewer conservative politicians are involved in the conversation, right wing Christian groups still actively oppose sex education in school. They either feel it should not be discussed or abstinence-only programs should be taught. This can be seen today in Lubbock, Texas, where STD and teen pregnancy rates are high, yet due to religious protest, no safe-sex education is taught. A group of students who recognize the problem have organized an after-school club that teaches safe sex and contraception to the teens who attend. This has drawn opposition from area churches, but the students stand by their program, saying that teaching abstinence is just not working, as evidenced by the high percentage of Lubbock students with STDs. Brian Graden, president of entertainment for VH1 and MTV, produced a special on sex education and this current trend toward abstinence-only education. Like Anaheim in Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½69, this is an issue that is receiving a lot of attention in the new millenium. “From teachers and parents to politicians and doctors, it seems everyone has a voice in the national debate surrounding abstinence-only education,” Graden said. While some of the language in today’s debate has changed from Anaheim’s time (sex educators are no longer referred to as Communists), the underlying themes of immorality remain the same. The difference is that in 1969, vocal organizations broke down the support system of sex education programs by launching smear campaigns against its leaders. The media attention only fueled the fire. In the end, the program buckled and was eventually destroyed. The triumph is that despite the religious opposition, sex education lives on in almost every public school in America. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was renewed in 2001 and dubbed the “No Child Left Behind Law.” While encompassing all aspects of public education, the Department of Education still allocated funds toward sex education in the United States. Students today are still receiving sex education and information in various forms similar to Anaheim’s FLSE, the once model program.

1 James Hottois and Neal A. Milner. The Sex Education Controversy, (Lexington: Lexington, 1975) pp 73-74.
2 Mary Breasted. Oh! Sex Education, (Praeger: New York, 1970) p 34.
3 Jeffrey P. Moran, Teaching Sex. (Harvard: Cambridge, 2001) p 172.
4 From the Family Life and Sex Education curriculum guide as printed in Oh! Sex Education by Mary Breasted. p 35.
5 Moran, Jeffrey P. Teaching Sex, p 176
6 James Lincoln Collier. The Village Voice. April, 1967.
7 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. (New York: Broadway, 1996), p.104.
8 from the transcripts at the February 1968 Union County School Board meeting as printed in Mary Breasted’s Oh! Sex Education.
9 “Sex Education in Public Schools.” Christianity Today. Sept. 26, 1969. p 6 and Jeffrey Moran’s Teaching Sex. p. 176.
10 The Sex Education Controversy, p 75.
11 The Sex Education Controversy, p 3.
12 “Sex in the Classroom.” Time, July 25, 1969: 50.
13 J. Huffman. “Sex Education in Public Schools.” Christianity Today. Sept. 26, 1969. p 6.
14 Mary S. Calderon, “Sex Education and the American Democratic Process,” SIECUS Newsletter April 1969: 2. and Breasted’s Oh! Sex Education.
15 “Sex in the Classroom.” Time. July 25, 1969. p 50.
16 “Sex in the Classroom.” Time. July 25, 1969. p 50.
17 Kirk, Russell. “Schools and Moral Instruction.” National Review. July 29, 1969. p. 52.
18 “Sex Education in Public Schools.” p 6.
19 Breasted. Oh! Sex Education. p 211-212.
20 “Sex Education in Public Schools.” p. 7.
21 Elizabeth Hendryson. “A Case for Sex Education.” PTA Magazine. May 1969. pp 20-21.
22 “A Case for Sex Education.” PTA Magazine. p. 20.
23 United Stated Department of Education.
24 Jeffrey P. Moran, Teaching Sex, p 184.
25 Jeffrey Moran, Teaching Sex, p 186.
26 “Sex in the Classroom.” Time, July 25, 1969. p 50.
27 MTV Fight For Your Rights: Protect Yourself, Sex in the Classroom.
28 Planned Parenthood. “Controversy Over Abstinence-Only Sex Education.”
29 U.S. Dept. of Education.

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