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Jonathan Zimmerman has written a concise yet extensive book covering the history of sex education from a global perspective, spanning over a century. In Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Education Zimmerman eloquently describes the different views concerning acceptance or disapproval of sex education being taught in schools. He discusses the apprehension reluctant parents felt about not being in control when it came to teaching children about sexuality, the anxious teachers whose professions were in jeopardy for discussing sex in their classrooms, as well as the critique stemming from religious organizations and politicians who claimed that children were too young to learn about sexuality.
When sex education was first introduced into America in the 1900s, the main goal was to curb and educate children about venereal disease. The U.S was ahead of other countries in continental Europe, who banned sex education, such as Germany, Italy and Russia (even though Russia was arguably more liberal than these other European nations). As sex education was increasingly being taught in schools, parents rallied against it with force, claiming that it was their responsibility to teach children about sex, not the state, and not the teachers. Zimmerman concludes that the issue with parental control over sex education was that parents rarely discussed sex with their children, and when they did, they often gave them wrong information or were unable to answer questions. Teachers were therefore in a precarious situation. Parents were often targeting them as sex education was proclaimed as an attack on parental authority, but teachers also felt ashamed and nervous about teaching sex to children, and many teachers felt that they were not very knowledgeable themselves.
The motivation for encouraging sex education in school was dependent upon various factors across the world. In the U.S, during the 1940s through the 1960s (with the threat of the Cold War), family education was important as a means to establish family bonds and curb venereal disease. In Sweden, the aim was slightly different. Sweden focused on individual freedom and happiness, stating that sex was nothing to be ashamed of, but part of a happy, healthy lifestyle. Sweden was the first nation in the world to in 1956 make sex education mandatory in all its public schools. Still, these views did not necessarily translated into successful classroom debates about sex, as teachers were unprepared to discuss and teach children about sex. In the “third world”, family planning (also called population control) became the major focus, and teenage abstinence was strongly promoted. With the sexual revolution, schools in America and Europe continued to teach sex education, but the question of modernity was a hot topic for many conservative and religious groups who contended that children would know too much about sex at an age that was inappropriate, and again, teachers came under fire for obstructing parental control.
With the spread of HIV/AIDS, a new emphasis on sex education was needed. In the United Kingdom and the United States there was a spike in sex education, but America focused more attention on abstinence only education. Meanwhile, Northern Europe continued to focus on safe-sex practices, whereas the developing world also focused on abstinence only sex education, yet often contended that sex was only appropriate within marriage. As a nation, Sweden believed that other nations should follow suit and teach about safe sex practices, about choice and happiness, but many other nations took issue with that contention. As a fairly homogenous nation, Sweden (and Northern Europe) had little religious and ethnic diversity when compared to for example the United States. But with an influx of immigration into Northern Europe, the sex education practices at school became challenged by those who believed that it was not only inappropriate, but against their religious practices to teach children about sexuality and sex.
In recent years, many of these nations have in fact experienced a tightening of regulations and more opposition concerning sex educations in schools. Zimmerman also contends that the same issues with sex education that haunted societies from the beginning, namely parental reluctance, religious opposition, and the scolding of teachers of sex education still play a major role in the fact that, as Zimmerman concludes, the same issues of a century ago remain.
The book is an excellent source of information for the classroom in a diverse set of studies, such as history, education, human sexuality, gender studies, sociology, psychology and religious studies. Too Hot To Handle engages the reader and is a comfortable, yet interesting read.
© 2015 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.