From Anthony Comstock to Jocelyn Elders

Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet Alexandra M. LordThe Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009; 224 pages, $40.00 I’m someone who managed to reach adulthood without so much as thirty seconds’ worth of sex education. My parents were far too lace-curtain to broach the subject voluntarily; my father would respond to my frequent questions about where babies came from with the jocular riposte, “Is that a loaded question?” My high-school biology class was helpful, but mostly about the mathematics of meiosis. Somehow, though—and like most people I knew—I managed to figure out everything on my own. Dorm conversations in college were especially helpful, providing an ample education—from the sexual know-it-alls on every floor—about all sorts of ways to avoid pregnancy as well as the panoply of frightening diseases that could strike the incautious in love. For this reason, I have always regarded the idea of using school time for sex education as surely a joke. How about a field trip to a farm if you want to teach the kids the basics about the birds and the bees? “Look at that cow and that bull—no, don’t look!” How about using those valuable class hours to improve youngsters’ spelling instead? Anyone who has spent any time around hormonally charged young people realizes that there is almost nothing to know about sex that they haven’t already picked up from their peers. Even during my own innocent upbringing, syphilis and gonorrhea were as much talked-about as their loathsome equivalent, “the pox,” had been in seventeenth-century England. That was why I fully expected Alexandra M. Lord’s Condom Nation, with its merry punning title, to be a humorous if scholarly romp through the decades of high-minded government bumbling from the early-twentieth century on, as public-health officials have taken it upon themselves to explain laboriously that, um, “venereal diseases,” as t
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