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Birds, bees and bigots.

THE CONTROVERSY UNFOLDED LIKE THOSE in so many other towns. Her son had come home from school with a story about something that had happened in his sex education class at Anaheim Union High School. Shocked, Eleanor Howe had not realized that sex education was part of the curriculum, although the Family Life and Sex Education program in her son's school was a model that had attracted favorable national attention for two years.

And so she began to organize, starting with friends and neighbors who shared her fundamentalist religious beliefs. At the end of several months, the Family Life and Sex Education program was dead. The director of the program was transferred back to her former position as school nurse, the school superintendent had resigned and virtually all of the books, films, pamphlets and other materials were packed away. One local journalist commented that the program was back to a "birds and bees" level.

Eleanor Howe deployed familiar tactics in her quest to dismantle the Family Life and Sex Education program. She orchestrated a highly visible and well-organized presentation to the school board, during which she described the FLSE program as a plot by a national organization, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), to undermine the traditional values of family, religion and country. High-school students were being instructed how to masturbate, encouraged to engage in premarital sex and exposed to foul language and pornography, she alleged.

Howe lifted much of her critique almost verbatim from Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?, a popular anti-sex education booklet that was written and circulated nationwide by the religious Right. With the support of a local right-wing newspaper, and of local and national religious and secular right-wing groups, sex education opponents won two out of three available school board seats in a highly publicized election that year. Opinions were inflamed on both sides of the issue, but with program supporters overwhelmed and badly organized, it was not a difficult task to close down FLSE.

This drama, which reads like so many in today's newspapers, unfolded in Anaheim, California in the late 1960s. The years 1968 and 1969 marked a moment of intense controversy over sex education that raged on both local and national levels. National right-wing groups, notably the Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society, discovered the enormous potential in sex education to galvanize and organize communities, raise money and consolidate political power, beginning with school boards. They were frequently the moving force behind the myriad local groups that sprung up, such as MOTOREDE: (Movement to Restore Decency) and POSSE (Parents Opposed to Sex and Sensitivity Education). National organizations that supported sex education, like SIECUS and Planned Parenthood, found themselves on the defensive, rapidly developing workshops and materials on dealing with the opposition. It was unlikely that any local debate on sex education would remain uninfluenced for very long by national pro-sex-education and right-wing organizations alike. Sex education supporters did often try to avoid contact with SIECUS, since any hint of that organization's involvement inflamed the opposition.

Communities in at least thirty states were riven by sex education controversies during 1968 and 1969. By the end of this period, approximately twenty states had considered or implemented legislation regulating sex education. Congress debated bills to end federal funding for sex education and to launch an investigation into SIECUS. By the early seventies, however, the intense furor over sex education had waned. Very slowly and carefully, school districts began to reinstitute programs.

Yet sex education's enduring power as a symbol for sexual chaos, disease and difference is evident in the reintensified debate a quarter-century later. In 1993 SIECUS documented controversies in a hundred communities. The actual number of such community debates is likely much higher, since in Massachusetts alone the have been challenges to comprehensive sexuality or AIDS curricula in almost thirty towns as of early 1994. Congress is again debating bills that would regulate what schools could teach about sexuality and homosexuality. The swift escalation of these controversies suggests that sex education has replaced abortion and anti-communism as major fund-raising and organizational tools for the secular and religious Right.

Sex education is a particularly powerful area of public education around which the Right can organize. It is not difficult, in a culture in which sexuality is alternately distorted, sensationalized, or rendered invisible, for opponents of comprehensive sexuality education to arouse widespread community anxiety through manipulative descriptions of such programs. So although last year self-esteem curricula were numerically the most embattled of public school programs, they don't generate the powerful sound-bites and community outrage that fill coffers. Most mainstream parents are simply indifferent to, or supportive of, efforts to teach their children assertiveness or empowerment skills, whereas they are more vulnerable to allegations that sex educators are teaching sodomy to first-graders or showing pornography in the classroom.

THERE ARE BOTH striking similarities and significant differences between the current controversies and those of the 1968-1969 era. The debates evolve in a strikingly parallel fashion. First, the opposition typically starts with one or two parents; often their numbers remain quite small. But with muscle from right-wing groups, their impact can be disproportionate. For example, it was estimated in Anaheim that prior to the activities supported by the John Birch Society and the Christian Crusade, 90 percent of parents had supported the sex education program that was later so easily defeated.

Second, sex education opponents often challenge other related aspects of the curriculum (in 1969 it was sensitivity training: methods; currently critics oppose any techniques such as relaxation training that are dubbed "New Age"), and link sex education to a broader scheme of social engineering and indoctrination (the Communist plot of the sixties evolved into an alleged scheme by "secular humanists" or more recently "militant homosexuals" for control of the minds of vulnerable schoolchildren). Third, control of local school boards remains a goal for religious Right groups, whose members have won over 30 percent of such elections they entered recently, according to People for the American Way.

Finally, the sex education issue is vulnerable to exploitation of parental fears and concerns. One consistently successful oppositional tactic has been the spinning of sex education apocryphal tales. One such story in 1969 claimed that seventeen male students had raped a 25-year-old sex education teacher after watching a film in class. The story could not be verified; although assumed to be false it reappeared in 1979 in a Christian Defense League broadside. In that version twenty male students raped a 24-year-old teacher during their final exam. One of the rapists was alleged to have said, "Didn't she spend the whole year telling us how to do it, when to do it, and how much fun it would be?" Other apocryphal tales common to both the late sixties and the nineties include those of the teacher who disrobes in class and the teacher who masturbates in class or forces her students to masturbate. Sex education supporters may need to expend exhausting efforts to convince the public that they do not force students to listen to the teacher's sexual fantasies, watch pornography, or practice putting on condoms in class.

DESPITE CONSISTENCIES BETWEEN the sex education controversies of the sixties and those currently unfolding, events in the early eighties radically transformed the landscape of the sex education debates. With the ascendancy of the Reagan administration and Republican control of the Senate, the Right had enormous power--far more than during the previous administration--to shape social policy. In the area of sex education this was most evident in the 1981 passage of the Adolescent Family Life Act, dubbed the "chastity bill." AFLA required grant recipients to involve religious organizations in their programs, funded only programs that promoted abstinence and adoption, and prohibited funding to groups that provided information or counseling on abortion.

AFLA-funded programs have generated close to twenty abstinence-based sex education curricula for schools (supporters of comprehensive sexuality education call them "fear-based"). These curricula focus almost exclusively on the negative consequences of sexual behavior and omit discussion of abortion, contraception or safer sex. Some offer gross distortions--for example, claiming death is one of the major side effects of the birth control pill. They fail to discuss homosexuality, except in some cases to list it as a deviant sexual practice that will lead to disease. Sex Respect, which is one of the most well-known of these curricula, is noted for its slogans, such as "Pet your dog, not your date" and "Don't be a louse, wait for your spouse."

These federally-funded sex education curricula form the epicenter of current community battles over school sexuality curricula throughout the country. Unlike their sixties counterparts, who launched battles to eliminate all sex education from the schools, the contemporary opponents of comprehensive sexuality education have an alternative product to offer. They enter a community with one of their curricula and claim that it will eliminate the risks of teen pregnancy and AIDS, an attractive offer for most parents. And through apocryphal tales, they often taint the comprehensive programs with the stigma of teaching homosexuality, pornography and masturbation. The ensuing debates assume predictable dimensions, emphasizing morality and fear of disease.

These community controversies are powerful because they are simultaneously not about sex education and very much about sex education. There are numerous legitimate concerns that parents and other community members might have about how to teach children about sexuality and relationships. These include age-appropriateness of the material, training of teachers and the development of an inclusive curriculum. And, in fact, there are important unresolved questions about the role and impact of sex education programs in reducing teen pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted infections and HIV in the face of countless other influences such as peer groups and popular media messages.

It is important to emphasize that parents in many communities have questions about sexuality education, and may be critical of such curricula for a range of better or worse reasons. Not all concerned parents are members of right-wing groups and not all opposition to sex education is part of a religious Right challenge.

Yet most legitimate discussion of the dimensions of sexuality education has been preempted by national religious Right groups such as Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition, who have found sex education to be a reliable vehicle for organizing constituents and mobilizing individual and cultural fears. For this project, sexuality education is only a peripheral concern in service of a larger consolidation of political power. Public education has been a crucial site for such an effort, with perennial contests over school prayer, textbook selection, drug education programs, school choice options (which are thinly veiled attempts at public funding of religious education), condom availability and multi-culturalism. These varied educational issues are connected by their potential for arousing displaced anxieties about demonized groups such as people of color, immigrants, lesbians and gay men, and Jews and other non-Christians.

Right-wing dominance in the sex education debates has disrupted the possibility of serious and sustained pedagogical inquiry within the field. Instead, it has situated sex education as another battleground of the culture wars. The sex education controversies, like those over abortion, public funding of the arts, censorship and the definition of family, will not be easily resolved, for they embody radically competing ideologies affecting our most central social institutions and relations.

Indeed, sex education can be the trigger for controversies that never die but linger and transmute. Leslie Kantor of SIECUS notes that only rarely is there a complete termination of debate and conflict once a community has become embroiled over sex education. If opponents of comprehensive programs lose a school board vote, they often go on to run for school board positions, either openly or as stealth candidates. They may launch legal challenges or form advocacy organizations that extend far beyond the sex education issue.

For example, after losing a bitter curricular battle in Newton, Massachusetts, opponents of the comprehensive sexuality education program ran candidates in most of the city's eight districts in the next school board election. They failed to win even one seat. Nevertheless, key actors from Newton have formed a statewide Interfaith Coalition that is uniting Catholics, evangelical Protestants, conservative Jews, and Muslims in a traditional pro-family, anti-sex education and anti-gay agenda for Massachusetts.

National groups on both sides of the debate continue to produce material for use by local communities. SIECUS, for example, has a Community Action Kit, filled with suggestions for community organizing. It is an ironic testimony to their effectiveness that their opposition in certain local controversies has admitted to utilizing the SIECUS organizing tips. National organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education estimate that opponents are successful in approximately half or slightly fewer of their challenges. People for the American Way documented complete censorship or restriction of sex education materials in one-third of reported challenges. SIECUS, which tracks the curricular battles nationwide, puts the figure at fifty percent. The enduring capacity to arouse sexual anxieties and garner support for religious Right initiatives is one reason that sex education controversies will likely continue well into the next century.
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Author:Irvine, Janice M.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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