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. Lord
  • The 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 they used to be called, can be a problem if you hang around with prostitutes or persons of “low moral standards,” as they used to be called. The subtitle of Lord’s book, The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet, reflects the many hours she spent poring through the National Archives, the records of the U.S. Public Health Services, and the Department of Health and Human Services researching shifting changes of policy and propagandistic strategy once the federal government decided that one of its missions was to teach people that the consequences of sex outside of marriage can often be less than optimal.

According to Lord, the government’s involvement with citizens’ sex lives began with the so-called “Comstock” laws, federal and state, starting in the 1870s. Promulgated as part of the Progressive era’s reform impulses, the laws targeted not only pornography but also the promotion of contraceptives, which were believed to encourage premarital and extramarital fooling around. Several generations were to pass before birth control gained respectability as an accompaniment to sex within marriage in that it allowed parents to limit and age-space their offspring.

Perhaps inevitably the Progressives’ do-gooder impulses propelled the Public Health Service to implement its first sex-education campaigns during the early years of the twentieth century, all in the name of “protecting women and the family,” as Lord writes, from the consequences of diseases transmitted to them from straying swains and husbands, especially World War One soldiers serving abroad where they were likely to contact God-knows-what from loose foreign women. Ministers and religious organizations played key roles in supplementing, with their own exhortations, the government-produced posters, pamphlets, and silent films. The emphasis was primarily on manly “self-control”—that is, chastity and fidelity—and the pamphlets typically alternated between appeals to sexual virtue and efforts to strike fear of disease in the hearts of their readers. Pregnancy-prevention was off-limits as a topic. A typical poster for servicemen from this era, reproduced by Lord, depicts an innocent-looking and very pretty young lady whistling along with a songbird perched upon a bare winter bough. The caption reads: “This girl may become an invalid for life if she marries a man who has had gonorrhea not completely cured.”

At the same time, however, the condom industry was perfecting its wares (diaphragms for women were also being successfully, if in many places illegally, marketed) and in 1936 a federal court ruled that distribution of the devices was permissible as long as they were sold strictly for the purpose of preventing disease. Within a few years, federal and state agencies were regulating condoms’ safety and effectiveness; by 1937 the Public Health Service was handing out what Lord calls “blunt advice” in a syphilis pamphlet, continuing to exhort readers to avoid sex but also reminding them that “the use of the rubber (condom) during sexual intercourse . . . protects both the man and the woman.” That double-sided “if you can’t be good, be careful” approach picked up steam during World War Two, at least in material pitched at servicemen and the “good-time girls” they might meet in bars: “You can’t beat the Axis if you get VD,” a poster warned.

Sex Education Run Amuck

The development of antibiotics toward the end of the war enabled the swift and successful treatment of some sex-related diseases. The invention of the birth-control pill, together with a preoccupation with “overpopulation” toward the end of the postwar baby boom, began to make contraception not just respectable but quasi-obligatory among middle-class people. The sexual revolution of the late 1960s vaporized what remained of many people’s moral resistance to non-marital sex, which could now be viewed as practically consequence-free, even among high schoolers. Except that it turned out not to be so. “By the mid-1980s, growing numbers of teens had become sexually active,” Lord observes, and “rates of venereal disease and teen pregnancy had also risen significantly.”

The solution to those problems was supposed to be—and still is, as far as its advocates are concerned—sex education in public schools or, as its advocates like to put it, “comprehensive” sex education that goes well beyond the birds and the bees or the middle-school gym teacher’s lecture about puberty. The idea is that if the government could launch a full-scale campaign during World War Two to persuade servicemen to use condoms during non-marital sex, why can’t the government launch a full-scale campaign to try to persuade teen-agers to do the same? And what better place than the classroom, where the youngsters are a captive audience? Sure, condoms have been widely available for decades in every drugstore in America, but if only you could give them away for nothing or show teens exactly how to put them on right in school by practicing with a cucumber, why then . . . it works in Europe, doesn’t it?

The bien-pensants who launched such programs continue to believe with touching naiveté in their efficacy. My own city, Washington, D.C., which has the highest AIDS rate in the nation and whose out-of-wedlock birth ratio is 90 percent, not only hands out condoms in schools but also pays for baskets of free condoms in laundromats. Yet the sex-education groupies have failed to take into account one thing: that a considerable number of Americans, especially parents, continue to have strong moral and religious objections to encouraging a nonchalant attitude toward non-marital sex; an even greater number question whether the government should be in the business, propagandistically or otherwise, of spending taxpayers’ dollars to shape the values with which its citizens clothe their most intimate decisions.

For that reason there has been a continuing culture war over “comprehensive” sex education between its cheerleaders and the group that Lord calls “the Religious Right” (evangelicals plus the pope, the Mormons, and the Orthodox Jews). Prominent occasions for skirmishes have included Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General Everett Koop’s AIDS pamphlet of 1988 that pitched condom use but failed to mention the inherent health risks of sodomy and protective effects of monogamy, and the get-over-it stance of Bill Clinton’s Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, who decorated her office with a bouquet made out of condoms and who famously declared in 1994 that “masturbation is a part of sex education and should perhaps be taught,” as though teen-age boys need instruction in such matters! The latter remark got Elders promptly fired by Clinton, who wanted to hold a second term in office.

Blaming George W. Bush

All of this would be a fascinating romp through American cultural history—except that Lord has clearly taken sides. The side she has chosen is not Jerry Falwell’s or the pope’s. Lord’s discussion of abortion is a tip-off. She writes:

In the two and a half centuries following the first European settlement in North America, a poor understanding of contraception had made abortion a necessity for many couples who needed to limit their families. Reflecting longstanding European attitudes toward abortion, the practice had in fact been legal in most states. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, states rushed to ban the procedure. There were multiple reasons behind this . . . but paramount among them was educated physicians’ fear that abortionists, many of whom were women, were performing a procedure that was difficult to perform safely. Physicians, who were struggling to establish themselves as the nation’s principal medical practitioners, also resented the way in which abortionists added to the competition for patients.

This is sheer fantasy. Abortion had been regarded as a crime under English (and hence American) common law since at least the late-Middle Ages. While the early English judges and authors of legal treatises mostly agreed that abortions committed before quickening could not be prosecuted—because there were no reliable pregnancy tests so it was impossible to determine whether an unborn baby had been killed—and abortions committed after quickening were not “felonies” (that is, crimes punishable by death), they were treated as the gravest of misdemeanors. When the American states began passing statutes that banned abortion during the nineteenth century, they were simply following the lead of England in codifying common-law crimes into formal written laws; the earliest English statute, dating to 1803, made abortion after quickening a capital crime and abortion or attempted abortion before quickening a deportable offense. So I checked Lord’s source for her dubious claims about the history of abortion law in the United States in her footnotes. It turned out to be a book titled Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950–2000, a collection of essays by abortionists and abortion-rights advocates edited by Rickie Solinger, author of several other books arguing for unrestricted abortion. This led me to wonder about the accuracy and thoroughness of Lord’s other research.

Elsewhere Lord uses euphemistic words and phrases—”blunt,” and also “candid discussions,” and “providing Americans with information on sex”—to describe government promotion of condom use. She devotes an entire chapter to sneering at the abstinence-only sex-education programs that some school districts have set up over the past twenty years, hinting that inadequate information about contraception underlay both Bristol Palin’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and that of Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney’s sister) in 2007. Lord blames the George W. Bush administration’s “disregard for science.” Unfortunately for Lord, the most recent “science”—or at least statistical research—suggests exactly the opposite: that abstinence-only education, by upholding sexual restraint outside of marriage as the social ideal, does effectively persuade teen-agers to hold off until they are mature enough to deal with sex’s consequences. The study, published in the February 2010 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that two-thirds of young teens who received abstinence-only education delayed sexual activity for at least two years afterwards, compared with fewer than half of those who received only condom-based “safe sex” education.

It would have been nice if Lord had recognized that sex isn’t just about “education,” but is actually the most complex of human activities in which sheer hormonal drives, subconscious longings for offspring, wellsprings of emotional feeling, and even the base desire for pleasure untrammeled by latex interfere with what one might have learned in a class or from a pamphlet. That would have made Condom Nation a genuinely interesting book. Still, I took comfort in her statement that “in the two decades that followed the presidency of the first President Bush, comprehensive sex-education programs did not completely disappear, but they declined in number across America.” Hooray.

Mrs. Allen is a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times.