What can we learn from the history of sex education?
Usually, when people come across the phrase ‘sex education,’ the first thing that comes to their minds is the somewhat awkward, partly-cheese experiences they had in junior high school classrooms. They think of a middle school teacher going through a list of sex organs and sex functions in a dry, boring, often clinical way. Most people would chuckle at their memories of their sexual position books because, in most cases, these instructions leave out the fun, naughty, dirty, forbidden bits of sex.
Sex Position Books are an important part of sex education.
Of course, when most of us reach adulthood, we realize that the main reason why sex ed was such a boring class to go through was they were intended to be boring. They obviously weren’t meant to get their audiences excited about sex. If anything, these courses were aimed squarely at getting kids to understand that once they hit puberty, they can become parents if they aren’t careful. The ‘preventive’ air and environment surrounding sexual education makes for truly boring and dry classes. Not surprisingly, a lot of teenage girls still manage to get knocked up despite this abundance of technical sexual information. What gives? Very simple. The courses are so boring that they tuned out.
Interestingly enough, the history of sex education ran the gamut between excited instruction to downright misinformation and discouragement of sex acts. A quick survey of sexual instruction through the ages and across different cultural settings sheds quite a bit of light on how changing social, economic, and political forces have a direct effect on sexual attitudes and instruction.
It’s important to note that sexual instruction (and their matching manuals in some form or other) have always been around. However, in most cases, such sex ed talk was relegated strictly to a parent-child exchange. Here are some highlights of sex in history.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had liberal attitudes towards sex… or so they say
One of the most commonly repeated myths about sexual mores and attitudes in our contemporary age is that however liberal our mindsets may be about sex, sex acts, hetero and homosexual sex, they pale in comparison with the ancient era Greco-Roman view of sex. While it is true that the long line of Roman emperors and Greek rulers keeping male lovers does highlight a distinct difference between modern and ancient sexual practices, a quick peek beneath the libertine surface of Roman and Greek ancient sexual traditions show that it was actually more conservative than we think.
Many modern observers keep pointing to the Greeks and Roman world as a more liberated and ‘progressive’ world in terms of sex. This is an illusion. While multiple partners and same gender action was more widely practiced during those days, they also came with extreme deprivation of women’s rights. For the most part, women were viewed primarily as vehicles of procreation. You had sex with your wife to have kids. No more, no less. If you were an ancient Roman or Greek, your most common preference for recreational sex is another man, a female prostitute, or a teenage boy. Rigid sexist cultural lines aside, Greco-Roman perceptions of sex also played up on the imbalance of power between the partners. The older partner was viewed to be in charge of the younger partner while the younger partner was supposed to be the passive recipient of the older man’s teaching.
Contrary to modern conceptions of sex in this era, all the above was hardly progressive nor focused primarily on a mature, mutually pleasurable conception of sex. Indeed, as Michel Foucault noted, the mere fact that the Greeks and Romans kept talking about sex was an indication that they were grappling with substantial insecurities and lack of total comfort about this subject matter.
The Kama Sutra philosophy – pleasure and spirituality intertwined
Acting as a counterbalancing narrative to the Western fixation and discomfort with sex was the Kama Sutra of India. Rooted in Hindu philosophy and spiritual traditions, the kamasutra is actually just one part of a multi-section book that aimed to guide the reader to proper living, morality, and the good life. Its author acknowledged that the book was actually a compilation of previously published books by other authors.
The Karmasutra is not only one of the sex position books. It touches on concepts of love, passion, and responsibility. While it is most famous for its catalog of standing, sitting, kneeling, and lying sex acts, the key thesis that informs and works through the book is the concept that physical pleasure cannot be divorced from spirituality. Given the direction of Hindu spiritual literature, this is hardly surprising. After all, several centuries before it was published, the Bhagavad gita was converted from oral to written form. One key tenet of the gita was the idea that we can worship through our daily activities-the concept of ‘bhakti.’ The main thing to keep in mind was one’s focus. If one were to live life with a focus on the divine, regardless of how mundane or even seemingly carnal or materialist one’s life is, one can still live a righteous life.
Viewed from this perspective, the karmashastra goes from a simple sex manual to a manual to living a righteous life. This is what separates Western and Eastern mindsets as far as sex is concerned. In the Eastern frame of mind, since sex is intertwined with spirituality, it is a perfectly acceptable to celebrate sex acts and improve one’s skills in the bedroom. Sexual pleasure, to the ancient Hindus, was one of the many gateways to a spiritual state. Accordingly, sex ed, in this context was not just about being a better lover but being a better overall spiritual being. What a contrast from Western notions of sex as the West transitioned from the Greco-Roman era to the Christian period.
Sexual Sin of reading sex position books and the Rise of Christianity in the West
It doesn’t really take much effort to understand why apostolic or early Christianity seemed so hostile to Greco-Roman sexual mores. First, the practices of male prostitution, orgies, and pedophilia were in stark contrast to Hebrew ideas of sexual propriety. Indeed, according to the Old Testament, one of the main reasons why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed was due to rampant sexual immorality.
As the New Testament books Romans and Corinthians show, the whole idea of having sex for pleasure was very problematic indeed. Sex was viewed primarily as dirty or sinful by the early Christians if it occurred outside of marriage and was focused primarily on sex instead of marital bonding (which has procreation as its ultimate purpose). Not surprisingly, Greek sexual literature was suppressed from the end of the Greco-Roman era through the Dark Ages, the medieval period, and only ending with the rise of the Renaissance.
Renaissance Sex education and attitudes
The repression and taboo treatment of sex for pleasure or non-marital non-heterosexual trysts seemed to have ended abruptly with the beginning of the Renaissance. A quick analysis of the word ‘Renaissance’ gives us the reason for this seemingly overnight sea change in public and official sex attitudes. Renaissance is French for ‘rebirth.’ During this period, a lot of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature resurfaced. The rich mathematical, scientific, and humanist legacy of the Classical Age was celebrated excitedly by Renaissance Europe. One crucial component of this is ancient art.
Since ancient sculptures and mosaics lacked the modesty of Medieval Europe, old public sexual attitudes had to change. Of course, what people did behind closed doors were probably more in keeping with ancient Greek sex acts and practices but starting with the Renaissance, Europeans’ public proclamations involving sexuality dramatically loosened. Male on male sex and attraction was quietly accepted. Clinical explorations and depiction of genitalia were pursued. Literature more readily incorporated sexual themes.
In terms of instructions regarding sex, a lot of this was informal and took the form of ‘acceptable’ depictions of sex acts. As more and more Renaissance artists looked to ancient mythology for subject matter inspiration, they readily depicted sex acts in their work-as long as this was depicted as having taken place in a mythic time and place (often involving gods, goddesses, and nymphs).
As liberated as Renaissance sex attitudes may seem to us (especially in light of the extremely uptight and repressive attitudes towards sex prevalent in the Middle Ages), it would be a mistake to believe that people became sexually liberated in the Renaissance era. Most people had a tongue in cheek or mostly hypocritical approach to sex. In their public pronouncements and public values, abstinence and sexual purity are talked up. However, as seen from the well-documented lives of Cellini, some of the Renaissance popes and clergy, and many Italian nobles’ peccadillo, their private sexual behavior rivaled those of the ancients.
The history of early sex education in America: sex as evil
Given the intense hypocrisy apparent in the contrast between private and public Renaissance sexual morality, there was sure to be a backlash. This began with the Protestant Reformation, then the Catholic Counter-reformation, and eventually reaching the Puritans in per-Restoration England. Take note, however, that rabidly prudish public attitudes about sex didn’t apply across the board in England. Co-existing the highly repressive Christian sexual mores of the Puritans were the downright bawdy sexual activities of the Catholic and non-Puritan English. Still, sexual instruction during this period highlighted chastity, saving one’s self for marriage, and sex purely for recreation instead of pleasure. Not much has changed except for one key point: sex became the Devil’s tool.
Puritan and non-Puritan theologies roundly denounced sexual pleasure as a trap set by the devil. While some allowance for it was made in the confines of marriage, this highly uptight attitude permeated parts of England and imported wholesale into New England. Not surprisingly, some key segments of the Salem Witch Trials had subtle and not-so-subtle sexual overtones. Of course, sexual instruction, almost all of it private within family settings, portrayed sex for pleasure as dirty, immoral, and to be engaged in only for the purpose of procreation.
Sexual education in the 1700s and 1800s
The Enlightenment and neo-Classical Age’s focus on scientific discovery loosened up sexual mores somewhat on both sides of the Atlantic. While there was still massive hypocrisy between private and public sexual attitudes, discussions regarding sexuality were more liberal-especially in France. You only need to look at the ribald and subtle erotica of this era to see how attitudes about physical intimacy between males and females have changed. Indeed, this was the era of Tom Jones and the Marquis de Sade. Still, there was still quite a bit of consternation and worry about human sexuality as evidenced by the taboo on masturbation.
Indeed, the 1800s involved sensual instruction that was on a warpath against self-pleasure. All sorts of devices were invented to penalize masturbation (like rings with spikes around the penis to discourage masturbation). Much of the sex education literature in the 1800s championed sex for procreation and avoiding masturbation. The prevailing thinking being that masturbation led to moral weakness, lack of self-control, and ‘feeble mindedness.’
Sex Ed in the Modern Age
It was very hard to shake off Victorian ideas about sexuality. After all, the Industrial Revolution blossomed in that era and shaped modern educational philosophies. Still, the Kinsey Report of the 1940s changed modern attitudes regarding sex. Masturbation was no longer the taboo sexual perversion that led to claimed harms like blindness and insanity. Kinsey’s inquiry into same sex practices even shed light on the prevalence of same sex action. Paired with the invention of the contraceptive pill, The Kinsey report led to the Sexual Revolution.
The Sexual Revolution and the post-AIDS landscape
Modern sex ed took root in the shadow of the Kinsey Report. Masturbation, sexual pleasure, and a proper understanding of sexual behaviors, sexual organs, and pregnancy gave women a lot of freedom. Sex is now thought as an activity between co-equals. Sex for pleasure is not just acceptable it is thought as a key part of a healthy lifestyle and mindset.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s shifted sex ed once again. This time, the focus of sexual instruction supplemented sexual pleasure with safe practices. Besides condom use, modern instructions on sensuality also highlight the importance of self-pleasure. While abstinence is still discussed as an option, in most education boards’ jurisdictions, it isn’t offered as a top choice. The focus is more on safe sex.
As you can tell from the changing patterns of sexual morality and practices through the ages, instructions regarding human sensuality mirror the disconnect between public and private morality. We finally got real with ourselves at the start of the Modern age. Indeed, depending on where you live, we might still not be out of the woods just yet as far as a truly liberated sexual education mindset is concerned.