Book Review

Globalizing (and Historicizing) Sex Ed

Jonathan Zimmerman, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) 202 pages.

Review by Richard Hughes

In 1947, just six years after Life Magazine declared the rise of the “American Century,” the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) distributed sex education materials to 47 different nations and over 60 organizations across the globe. Formed in the Progressive Era and now combined with the political, economic, and military might of the United States in the early years of the Cold War, the ASHA and similar groups reflected the rise of sex education in Europe, the United States, and eventually the non-western world throughout the twentieth century. Scenes of educators, government officials, and health care workers unpacking sex education films and written materials for classrooms in places such as East Asia, Africa, and Latin America symbolized the rising hopes and influence of western sex educators after World War II.

However, if little about the postwar world looked familiar to those who had lived through the first half of the century, historian Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, 2015) emphasizes the enduring limits of sex education in both the United States and abroad. This brief but ambitious survey of sex education since 1898 tempers claims about modernity and revolutionary change with a narrative largely about continuity. Despite their resources and often evangelical commitment, sex educators in virtually every country from the United States to the Middle East faced strikingly similar opposition to their efforts to teach students about the physical, emotional, and social realities of sexuality. Rather than simply conflicts over specific curriculum materials or the training of teachers, the passionate arguments over the nature and future of sex education in the last century illuminate larger intellectual debates over culture, power, and rights, both individual and parental, in a globalized world.

Reflecting the increasing efforts of historians to globalize U.S. history, Too Hot to Handle examines largely published sources from educators, social scientists, policy makers, playwrights, and non-governmental organizations in over sixty nations. Zimmerman’s sources come disproportionately from the United States, Great Britain, and Sweden as those countries initiated many of the efforts to globalize sex education. His analysis underscores the degree to which advocates of sex education forged a truly international toohotmovement that often shared goals, strategies, and, in the case of eugenics and concern about population control, assumptions about humanity, to address such problems as sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. As universal state-run education became a symbol of a modern age, sex education grew yet often involved different approaches. For example, sex education in the United States, centered mostly on locally controlled schools, tended to stress “the perils of sex and the need for restraint” (11) while supporters in Sweden crafted a national curriculum that focused on the rights and decisions of individuals as sexual creatures.

Scholars of cultural conservatism in recent American history will be surprised with the breadth of opposition to sex education throughout the twentieth century. Far from just the hallmark of Catholic clergy or political conservatives reacting to the sexual revolution in postwar American culture, strong opposition to sex education also emerged among Protestants in northern Europe, secularists in France, and Marxists in the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that issues associated with sexuality and education transcended political boundaries, opponents capitalized on almost identical arguments about sex education as a dangerous import from a foreign country. Soviets during the Cold War condemned sex education from the United States as capitalist decadence while communities in places such as postcolonial Kenya rallied against sex education as the “cultural invasion” (123) of the West.

Opponents, regardless of country, repeatedly stressed that sex education promoted sexual promiscuity among students and teachers. Proponents perceived sex education as a way to prevent problems such as sexual abuse and violence while opponents argued, often quite successfully, just the opposite. Teachers remained poorly trained and vulnerable to attacks from both sides. While assumptions about gender, family, and childhood varied tremendously over time and across locations, opponents around the world emphasized that sex education in schools violated their rights as parents. Zimmerman claims that such arguments contributed to rise of a “Global Right” (123) by the 1990s as opponents as varied as American evangelical Christians, Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, African intellectuals, and leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church found common ground in their hostile reaction to sex education. Not unlike references to “San Francisco values” among conservative politicians in the United States in recent decades, opponents of sex education around the globe pointed to the ominous threat of Swedish sex education as evidence of what one observer called “Ideological Globalization” (12). Meanwhile, advocates of sex education in both the United States and Sweden remained stymied by organized opponents much closer to home.

These unlikely allies in the struggle against sex education are not the only source of irony in Too Hot to Handle. Zimmerman’s work, in addition to broadening more traditional approaches to fields such as the history of education and sexuality, is at its core a narrative about a lengthy clash of ideas regarding sexuality and schools in the modern world. This intellectual conflict was hardly academic in that both sides of the debate assumed that ideas and information, the stuff of the classroom, mattered. Supporters believed that sex education could dramatically improve (and sometimes save) lives while opponents fervently assumed that the ideas embedded in sex education held the power to ruin lives, especially of children. If teachers and school administrators suffered because of the debate, it was precisely because of the growing belief of Americans and others around the globe in the power and importance of public education.

However, Zimmerman explains that both sides may have overestimated the importance of sex education in that, after almost a century of conflict, there is little evidence that such efforts changed the actual behavior of students. In fact, the book lacks the voices and perspectives of the targets of sex education, students around the globe. Perhaps that is fitting as Too Hot to Handle surveys the persistent debate over sex education while including surprisingly little about the realities of sexual behavior in the twentieth century as measured by the sort of historical changes that have interested historians for decades. For example, as supporters and opponents struggled over sex education in almost every nation, much of the world experienced significant changes in a number of areas such as family size, contraception, abortion, feminism and gender norms, adolescent sexual behavior, courtship and dating, homosexuality, as well as prostitution and other forms of sexual commerce. Of course, addressing these issues would require a much larger project as would a book that explored connections between sex education and other developments such as world wars, economic crises, revolutionary changes in urbanization, immigration, science, technology, and, as the author suggests near the end of the book, the crucial role of an increasingly pervasive global media. To Zimmerman’s credit, this engaging international history of both the possibilities and limits of sex education raises more questions – both about the role of sex education as well as the relationship between broad intellectual debates and human behavior- than it answers.