Birds Do It, Bees Do It: A history of US sex education

How did you first find out how babies were made?

This was the opening question from Dr. Potts’ speech at the launch of the UC Berkeley exhibit Birds do It, Bees Do It: a Century of Sex (Mis)Education in the United States on October 1, 2014 in the Berkeley Doe Library. The three speakers discussed different aspects of sex education and its history in the USA: Robin Mills, UCB Sex Educator; Dr. Malcolm Potts, and Dr. Thomas Laqueur.

Openness to Sexual and Reproductive Justice is Improving, But the Struggle Continues

Potts noted and celebrated that we have come a very long way in attitudes and openness to sex education in the US, and that young people today have more sexual autonomy than ever. He acknowledged that, in spite of this, there still exist strong groups with deeply patriarchal attitudes who actively resist empowering women to make their own choices about their sexuality and sex lives. He also compared the controversy around access to safe abortion to the controversy around access to and use of condoms, regaling us with an anecdote set in the 1990s: Potts and friends sold three condoms in a Virgin Megastore in Ireland and were arrested for the act. In the 90s! So yes, while the struggle surrounding access to abortion is still underway, we can look to the past for encouragement to keep moving forward – only 25 years later and condoms are far more easily available.

Berkeley Students Can’t Get Enough

The event’s opening speech was given by Robin Mills, who discussed the history of sex ed at UC Berkeley. While today some of us view sex ed quite negatively, in 1939, UCB organized an on-campus sex ed class. Four thousand students showed up, breaking the doors off their hinges to cram themselves inside. A decision was made to broadcast the whole lecture on the campus PA system, and a new culture of sex ed was born at Berkeley. For a few decades prior to that, the university had no sex education, and prior to that, sex ed was offered in non-coed classes and under the School of Hygiene. Womp, womp, we’ve come a long way, that’s for sure. During Mills’ talk, Jenna Gaarde, YTH ally, walked into the room and was greeted with a loud,

“And here’s Jenna, our first life-sized penis!”

UC Berkeley’s sex ed program includes a campus outreach element involving a person in a penis suit who walks around and talks to students about SEX and more! Jenna is famously, ‘the first penis’.

‘Sex positivity’ is Unique to our Time

Dr. Thomas Laqueur followed up with a discussion on ‘Why sex?’ Well, sex is everything, the physical reason why you and I are here. While acknowledging that there are battles to wage for greater reproductive justice, he quickly reminded us all that sex education, for the greater part of human history was much more concerned with how to have children than how to prevent having them, and that sex primarily for pleasure is a very new cultural phenomenon.

The exhibit itself showcased books and campaign materials that have been used as part of sexual education initiatives in the US. It was interesting to see the development over time and when what kinds of messaging started appearing. The exhibit included banned books that teach young children about sex and reproduction, trippy sex ed posters from the 70s, and much more.


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