The Right to Bodily Autonomy: How the Histories of Sex Education and Abortion Shape Current Debates

If the leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade holds up, it will have devastating consequences for women and pregnant people across the US. Many will be required to travel long distances at great costs, both financial and otherwise, to obtain an abortion or will be forced to give birth with no other option. As others have written, this decision will open the possibility for courts to challenge other previously settled civil liberties cases, including birth control, same-sex marriage, trans rights, and, as Indiana Senator Mike Braun said (and later recanted), interracial marriage. Banning abortion is just one part of a vicious approach that strips people of their right to marry whom they choose, have children when they please, or simply enjoy sex on their terms.

Another aspect of this conversation merits attention, as several Republic politicians have already turned their vitriol to it as a target: sex education. Three candidates for governor in Nebraska’s 2022 primary stated that sex education should be reformed or removed from schools to give parents more control. This year, the Republican Party in Maine supported a platform opposing sex education for children. One delegate said he was “Saving our children. It’s plain and simple. It’s not up to the school to parent. It’s up to parents to parent,” and that he did not want schools teaching children to be “hyper-sexualized.” Lastly, in March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that prohibits schools up to third grade from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity. These attacks against sex education and emphasis on parents’ rights are neither new nor rare; rather, they are another move to obstruct young people from getting information about reproduction, gender, and sex.

Not equipping young people with the knowledge about their bodies, their sexuality, and their reproduction also deprives them of bodily autonomy. The current status of sex education in the US is wanting. According to SIECUS, only 29 states and D.C. mandate sex education, 35 states require abstinence-only education included in sex or HIV/STI instruction, and 15 states can teach sex education that is not “medically accurate … or evidence-based/evidence-informed.” If young people, in particular, are not provided with the necessary information to make decisions about sex, condom usage, birth control, abortion, or gender-affirmation care, they cannot have full control over their body and their choice. One aspect that is crucial to this fight against sex instruction is the notion of control—over pregnant (or potentially pregnant) bodies, children, and education. While the social understandings and definitions of sex education have continued to shift, the controversy about control over the topic has been a mainstay for over a century. By pushing for parents to be in control of sex education, conservative politicians and activists have been able to deny publicly funded, holistic, and comprehensive sex education.

One of the central arguments about twentieth-century sex education in the US centered on who had the right and responsibility to teach children about sex. Though some colleges and high schools offered sex education, it was not integrated into public education in the first half of the century; some even opposed medical practitioners dispensing such information. Many anti-sex-education advocates argued that sex education should only exist in the home, thus leaving control within the family unit (and, ultimately, with the father). Books, pamphlets, and films often subtly noted the importance of family control over sex education, by framing parents as the “first teachers” of the subject.

Sex education organizations, like the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA), released pamphlets that constructed the family unit as the primary trustworthy source of sex instruction. The ASHA, founded in 1914, initially focused on issues around prostitution and venereal diseases (VD), and had a national reach among schools, civic organizations, and the government. While not without controversy, in the first decades of its existence the organization maintained quite a reserved approach to sex instruction, as illustrated in its framing of educational materials. The sex education taught by mothers and fathers, then, was morally superior when compared to school- or government-sponsored teachings. With titles such as “Sex Education in the Home,” “Your Daughter’s Mother,” “Choosing a Home Partner,” and “Parents and Sex Education,” these texts composed sex education as a wholesome and responsible discussion that would teach children how to get married and have children, thus sustaining the heteronormative (and presumptively white) family structure. Another pamphlet makes this idea clear with a title, “Parents Tell Your Children,” that borders on ominous: if parents don’t tell their children, then who will? Even in cases where the pamphlets addressed the vice of the day, they often focused on maintaining strong nuclear families. Prostitution, for example, was the “enemy of family stability.” ASHA advocated for sex instruction, but a particular kind that kept control of education, sexuality, and bodies in the family.

During World War II, the US government took a more central role in shaping public sex education. With soldiers off to war, the military saw an increase in VD among the enlisted. This public health crisis also resulted in a labor shortage for the government as many soldiers became too ill to fight. In response, the government launched numerous campaigns to warn soldiers and sailors of the detrimental effects of VD, often putting the blame on prostitutes. ASHA assisted with some of these efforts, by making posters, charts, and fliers. Its materials conveyed two main messages to soldiers: abstain from sex and quickly get treated if you have VD. Meanwhile, school sex education was increasing in numbers. While the question of who has the right to teach sex never disappeared, the focus on World War II and the way some schools integrated sex instruction into biology or physical education courses quieted the uproar a bit.

But the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic brought the question back into mainstream public conversation, chiefly with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s 1986 report “Understanding AIDS.” One of the largest public health mail campaigns, Koop sent his report to nearly every household in the country, estimated to be 107 million residences. It promoted the use of condoms for safe sex, rather than a blanket abstinence-only stance, and also advocated for sex education that began “at the lowest grade possible,” which he later noted meant third grade.

Some newspaper cartoonists satirized Koop’s national headline-grabbing report by treating the text as illicit or not suitable for children. One cartoon featured a mother turning to her two children quipping, “If anything comes in the mail from the Surgeon General, don’t open it!” The joke—that the mother does not want her children to read material like “Understanding AIDS”— nodded to parents as the gatekeeper for any type of sexual material. Koop’s report, and that fact that it was mailed to homes, broke a barrier that gave children and young people easier access to information about AIDS and challenged parents to assume greater responsibility for their child’s sex education. Despite forcefully promoting sex education in school, Koop maintained an emphasis on parents and on family standards, noting that the “final responsibility rests with the parents.”

Ralph Dunagin, “If Anything Comes in the Mail from the Surgeon General, Don’t Open It!” June 8, 1988, C. Everett Koop Papers. Image via National Library of Medicine.

Since the 1980s, debates over sex education continue to preoccupy school boards and divide Americans along partisan lines. Advocates for comprehensive sex education argue that denying comprehensive sex education, and constructing it as suitable only in certain venues or circumstances, robs children and young people of learning bodily autonomy. For many who want to restrict sex education (alongside birth control and abortion), that is the point.

The Florida bill has colloquially become known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but its true name also reveals where its supporters think power and control should be: it is the “Parental Rights in Education” law. The lack of adequate sex education, and the desire to keep sex education firmly in control of the family, is another way of controlling the liberties of women, pregnant people, gay people, or trans and nonbinary individuals.

Featured image: ASHA pamphlet: 1951-1952. Retrieved from University of Minnesota Libraries, Social Welfare History Archives.

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