by MARISSA SITTLER
Sex education has been a contentious topic since it was first introduced by the United States government in the early 1900s. However, Utah has been and continues to be stuck on the receiving end of flak from outsiders, as well as its own residents concerning its (lack of) sex education.
What might be defined as “sex education” now, was not the same during 1946-47, when LaMar Holmes conducted a study, The Status of Sex Education in the State of Utah, in which he sought to discover what Utah’s K-12 public schools were teaching its students. Holmes mailed a questionnaire to 435 public school principals listed in the Utah Public School Directory of 1946-47. One hundred seventy-four out of the 435 questionnaires were returned.
In Holmes’s study, he defined sex education as “activities directed toward bringing about the development of wholesome habits, conduct, attitudes, and ideals within the individual to the end that the family will be preserved and home life improved.” (Holmes, 10) The purpose of sex education, in his eyes, was not to teach of sexually transmitted infections or contraception, but rather to teach adolescents to respect the opposite sex, and to build “wholesome” relationships.
In Holmes’s study, there was not an official sex education curriculum for Utah’s public schools that was mentioned. Instead, offerings at schools varied. One example was a unit of instruction called “sex education” that was administered in tenth and eleventh grade physical education. Another school’s principal simply said that sex education was part of the health education program in his school. Perhaps the most comprehensive curriculum mentioned in the study was that of a home nursing class, which included a one-hour period for lecture and informal discussions about each of the following subjects:
“1. Anatomy and physiology of the female reproductive system. 2. Physiology and hygiene of menstruation. 3. Conception, growth and development of the fetus, and the birth of a baby. 4. Prenatal care of the mother including social and emotional adjustments. 5. Baby care including collection of layette and demonstration of a baby bath. 6. Brief discussion of the social diseases.” (Holmes, 19)
On the other end of the spectrum were schools where sex education was not integrated into the curriculum. Rather, instruction was given if “problems arose.” (Holmes, 18)
Three decades before Holmes’s study, Utah newspapers were discussing the need for a consistent curriculum and regular instruction of sex education. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on March 5, 1916, that Dr. M. J. Exner of New York said, “Sex education at high school is necessary” because the earlier the education, the better guidance in regards to the topic for high school-aged boys. Exner also commented on the sources of sex education in early years, and that “91.5 per cent said they received their early impressions from unwholesome sources, mostly from older boys; 70 percent said those impressions had aroused in them morbid curiosity, distorted the whole sex question, and led to unfortunate practices.”
On August 11, 1927, the Ogden Standard Examiner covered a meeting of the World Federation of Education. In an address to its health section, Dr. T. W. Galloway of New York, associate director of the department of education of the American Social Hygiene association, stressed “the need of greater sex education in home and school, particularly among junior high school students.” In addition, Galloway said the current state of sex education did not include enough information about biology, anatomy, hygiene, or venereal diseases.
In a May 5, 1948, Daily Utah Chronicle article, another medical professional added her two cents to the sex education discussion. Dr. Bernice Moss, of the physical education department, believed that even those who had already been taught or trained on the topic of sex education could benefit from further instruction.
An article in the Salt Lake Telegram on May 23, 1938, noted that Dr. William Cary, a gynecologist and obstetrician, said “too many college courses are being taught by people who have had no personal experience” when it comes to sex education classes and that the teaching of such curriculum needs to be better.
A sex education conference in 1948 sponsored by the Adult Education committee, Board of Education of Iron County School District, and Parent-Teachers Association was held in a public school auditorium and was regarded as highly successful with good attendance. Miss Winifred Hazen, the consultant in family life education for the State Department of Public Instruction, was the conference leader. In a February 12, 1948, Iron County Record article, she stressed “the need for accurate knowledge of sex behavior, and fundamentals to proper training of every child, and also the responsibility of teacher and parent in giving proper information.”
It was not, however, only medical professionals who recognized the need for expanded teaching of sex education in Utah’s public schools. Students, also, voiced their opinions in favor of the matter. Several Utah newspapers chronicled stories on students’ reactions. As the Utah Daily Chronicle reported on March 2, 1939, “Sex education should no longer be a matter to be whispered about, a large majority of American college students believe.” Sixty-two percent favored making courses on the principles of sex mandatory, according to a nationwide study done by the Student Opinion Surveys of America.
The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 8, 1948, that more students had been interested in a course on sex education than any other class offered in adult education curriculum of the Salt Lake City schools, according to Ralph V. Backman, head of the division.
On December 10, 1948, the Telegram reported that college students did indeed want more education about sex. According to surveys, about 99 out of 100 of people of all ages said they learned “practically nothing from courses in high school or from parents! Appalling!”
Despite considerable support for improvement upon sex education from medical professionals as well as students themselves in Utah’s public schools, currently the status of Utah’s public sex education is abstinence-only. Senator Frances Farley introduced the idea of teaching abstinence in 1988 into schools’ core curriculums in response to the AIDS crisis then. However, what Farley did not introduce was an abstinence-only stance, but the curriculum has since become that.
A February 16, 2017, Salt Lake Tribune article reported that Utah Democratic representative Brian King tried to introduce two bills to update Utah’s sex education curriculum. Both failed because people view sex education as the parents’ role. King’s bills intended to create a more comprehensive sex education for students, as the current curriculum for Utah’s public schools forbids the teaching of contraception, in addition to many other things.
The Trump administration has threatened to defund Planned Parenthood, an external source of sex education for what is not taught in schools. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan created a bill to eliminate health care for millions of Americans, which included Planned Parenthood centers. Neil Gorsuch recently became the Supreme Court Justice, and his history of interference with reproductive health and rights is concerning to Americans who need basic access to reproductive health care at centers such as Planned Parenthood.
Marissa Sittler is a sophomore at The University of Utah studying communication, with an emphasis on journalism.
Albert E. Wiggam, “College Students Seek More Sex Education,” Salt Lake Telegram, December 10, 1948, 8.
“Sex Education Conference Draws Good Attention,” Iron County Record, February 12, 1948, 10.
“Sex Education Popular,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 8, 1948, 8.
Jean Bruno, “Sociology forum urges early sex education,” Utah Daily Chronicle, May 5, 1948, 2.
“American Students Favor Sex Education,” Utah Daily Chronicle, March 2, 1939, 1.
Ruth Millett, “Doctor Suggests Improvements In Sex Education,” Salt Lake Telegram, May 23, 1938, 4.
“Sex Education Need Stressed,” Ogden-Standard Examiner, August 11, 1927, 3.
“Sex Education In High Schools Is Urged,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 5, 1916, 5.
The Tribune Editorial Board. “Sex ed is ed,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 16, 2017, 10.
Holmes, LaMar L. The Status of Sex Education in the Schools of Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah, 1948.