The History of Sex Education: How We Got Here

The history of sex education has been widely debated in the United States for decades.

From the early 1900s, when abstinence-only education took center stage, to today’s comprehensive approach, the country has seen a variety of changes and advancements in this important educational arena.

This article will explore how we got here and discuss some of the key milestones that helped shape our current system of sex education.

One such milestone is Margaret Sanger’s 1912 pamphlet “Family Limitation” which recommended contraception use and advocated for women’s control over their reproductive health choices.

In addition, World War II marked a period of increased access to birth control methods as well as an influx of information surrounding human sexuality.

Furthermore, The Kinsey Reports published in 1948 and 1953 presented data on sexual behavior which included topics previously deemed taboo such as homosexuality and masturbation.

Sex education is a topic that has sparked controversy for decades, but it hasn’t always been so controversial.

In fact, sex education has a long history that dates all the way back to ancient Greece.

Over the years, sex education has evolved significantly as attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed drastically over time.

In this article, we explore how sex education has evolved throughout history. We look at some of the earliest forms of sex education in Ancient Greek society and trace its development through to modern-day practices.

We also consider the current state of sex ed in different countries around the world and discuss how it can be improved going forward.

Finally, we examine some of the key debates surrounding sex ed today and offer our thoughts on how best to approach this important subject moving forward.

The various forms of sex education throughout history

Sex education is an important part of life for people of all ages. Through the years, sex education has been taught in a variety of ways.

From traditional classroom instruction to taboo topics discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to sex ed.

This article will delve into the history of sex education and explore how we got here today.

Throughout time, human societies have held different beliefs about sex and sexual behavior.

In ancient civilizations, knowledge about reproductive health was often passed down orally from elders to young adults; in more modern cultures, however, educational institutions began implementing courses on sexuality and reproduction into their curriculums.

Additionally, religious organizations have also played a role in shaping attitudes towards sexual activity throughout history by providing moral guidelines and restrictions on certain behaviors.

Pre-Modern History

A. Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is often thought of as a time when emperors and pharaohs ruled with an iron fist. But the reality is that Ancient Egyptian culture was much more than just the celebration of powerful rulers.

The Egyptian belief system surrounding sex education was remarkably progressive for its time, particularly in regard to women’s rights and sexual health.

The Egyptians believed strongly in educating both men and women about their bodies, sexuality, and sexual health.

Erotic texts from this era suggest that older generations were teaching younger generations about fertility, conception, contraception methods such as amulets or suppositories made out of honey or crocodile dung, venereal diseases and other topics related to reproductive health.

In addition to this formal instruction, there also appears to have been a casual dialogue between individuals regarding sex which provided further opportunities for learning.

B. Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has a fascinating history when it comes to sex education. The way that people in Ancient Greece taught their children about sexual matters was far different from how sex education is taught today.

In Ancient Greece, the focus was largely on preserving the family line and continuing a strong lineage through marriage and reproduction.

Education around sexuality primarily focused on teaching boys what behaviors were acceptable in order to maintain proper familial relationships, while girls were often excluded or not allowed to attend certain classes related to sexual education.

There also existed a large emphasis on instilling morals and values that men should possess with regards to marital relations.

Although they did not have any formal curriculum for sex education, Ancient Greeks offered their children lessons on personal responsibility and morality that could still be applied today.

C. Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome is an era in history that has been studied for centuries. Not only did it shape the way we view politics and art today, but it also influenced the development of education about sexual health and hygiene.

Before Ancient Rome, sex was seen as a taboo subject, with limited information available on the topic and no formal sex education curriculum to follow.

The Roman Empire introduced new practices that helped move society forward in terms of understanding sexuality.

This included laws governing sexual conduct, social norms around courtship and marriage, as well as religious beliefs on values associated with sexual behavior.

Moreover, Ancient Rome was also the source of medical literature related to reproductive health which set a precedent for further generations to explore such subjects more openly.

Ultimately, Ancient Roman customs played a huge role in making sex education accessible and widely accepted across many cultures over time.

Middle Ages

A. Church-centered teachings

The church has long been a pillar of education and moral guidance for many who adhere to its teachings.

Church-centered teachings often inform how we view sex and sexuality, especially when it comes to educating ourselves and our children on the subject.

B. Lack of formal instruction

For centuries, many cultures have practised abstinence-only teaching methods when it comes to discussing sex with children and adolescents.

This approach often leaves young people unprepared for sexual relationships when they reach adulthood, leading them to make ill-informed decisions about their sexual health.

Furthermore, due to its taboo nature, conversations about sex between parents and children are often kept behind closed doors; leaving young people without access to or knowledge of the subject.

Early Modern History

A. Emergence of public education

Public education has come a long way over the past century, and sex education is no exception. The emergence of public education in the 20th century marked an important milestone in the history of sex education.

Initially, reformers sought to remove any discussion of sexual topics from classrooms, believing it would discourage young people from engaging in such activities.

However, by mid-century, attitudes had evolved and educators began introducing more comprehensive sexual health curricula into schools.

The 1960s saw a major shift in how sex was discussed publicly as well as within educational institutions.

Reformers argued that if students were provided with accurate information about sexuality then they could make informed decisions when confronted with physical intimacy.

This argument led to the development of sex education programs that addressed a variety of topics such as contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

B. Introduction of sex education in schools

In the United States, sex education has been a controversial topic for many years. The idea of introducing sexual health topics into the curriculum for children is often met with opposition from concerned parents and religious organizations.

Despite this, sex education has become an important part of the academic landscape in American schools today.

Sex education was first introduced in America during the late 1800s as a way to educate young people about sexually transmitted diseases and their prevention.

Since then, it has grown to encompass much more than just learning about STDs – discussions surrounding anatomy, contraception methods, gender identity, and healthy relationships have joined traditional topics in modern curricula across the country.

Late Modern History

A. Sexual Revolution

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is often seen as a time of liberation, when people began to openly discuss sex and challenge societal taboos.

This period was marked by a new openness towards sexuality, which extended beyond heterosexual relationships and included the exploration of homosexuality.

From this new era emerged the field of sex education, which aimed to provide young adults with factual information about their bodies and how to make responsible decisions regarding sex.

Sex education has been around for centuries in various forms but it wasn’t until after the sexual revolution that it became widespread in schools across the United States.

The original purpose was to inform adolescents about safe sex practices, contraception options, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) prevention methods, and reproductive anatomy.

B. Growing acceptance of homosexuality

The acceptance of homosexuality in society has grown substantially over the last few decades, with many countries now legalizing same-sex marriage and embracing LGBTQ rights.

From outdated teachings that suggested non-heterosexuality did not exist, to providing students with the space to learn about gender identity and sexual orientation, the history of sex education shows us just how far we’ve come in recognizing and celebrating diversity.

As we continue to move forward in our evolution of understanding, it is essential that schools provide students with an inclusive curriculum that is open and affirming for all orientations.

C. Impact of the AIDS crisis

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s had an immense impact on the way we teach sex education today.

It marked a significant turning point in how sex ed was addressed, with a shift from abstinence-only curriculum to more comprehensive instruction on HIV/AIDS prevention.

The AIDS epidemic created awareness among educators, parents, and school administrators that knowledge about sexual health is essential for young people’s wellbeing.

Schools began teaching about HIV/AIDS prevention strategies as well as emphasizing the importance of safe sex practices.

This included topics like contraception, condom use, HIV testing, and healthy communication skills around sexual decision-making.

Apart from educational materials, many schools also implemented support services such as counselling or peer groups to help students process their fears regarding the disease and talk about safer sex practices.

Current Status

A. Federal and state regulations

When it comes to sex education, the history of how we arrived here today is both long and complicated.

In the United States, the Federal government has played a role in guiding educational standards since its inception. But individual states also have their own regulations regarding what should be taught in sex education classes.

Since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which established federal funding for public school systems, these laws have been amended multiple times with new provisions about health and safety as well as requirements for sex ed instruction.

In addition to this federal framework, each state has their own regulations around what should be included in sex ed lessons—whether it’s abstinence-only or comprehensive sex-ed programs—as well as who can teach those courses.

B. Public and private school instruction

Public and private school instruction can vary greatly when it comes to teaching sex education.

While public schools may be more likely to provide an in-depth look at topics such as contraception and sexual health, private schools often have a different approach.

Throughout history, sex education has been an evolving field of study, with the earliest education opportunities seen in the late 19th century.

Since then, there have been continuous changes in how this subject is approached in both public and private schools.

In many public schools today, students learn about topics such as body image development, healthy relationships, consent and more.

Private schools may also cover these topics but tend to offer lesser instruction due to religious or cultural considerations.

Depending on the school’s values, they may spend more time discussing abstinence or moral decision-making instead of discussing practical information regarding contraception and safer sexual practices.

C. Sex education in the media

Sex education in the media has become increasingly popular and controversial in recent years. From TV shows like Netflix’s Sex Education, to news programs discussing teenage pregnancy, sex education is being brought up in more and more public arenas.

While some support the idea of teaching young people such topics on television, others worry that it will make them sexually active at a younger age.

The history of sex education goes back hundreds of years. In ancient times, sexual practices were largely kept hidden and only spoken about amongst adults in private settings.

Over time, as taboos have been broken down, teaching children about their bodies and how to exercise safe sexual behaviors has become an accepted part of modern life.


The history of sex education is a long and varied one that can be traced back to ancient civilizations.

In the past, sex education was primarily focused on teaching about reproduction, reproductive organs and contraception. However, in recent decades, sex education has evolved to encompass broader topics such as gender identity, sexual orientation and healthy relationships.

This article provides an overview of how we got here by examining the different approaches to sex education over time.

Beginning with ancient civilizations, it’s clear that teaching children about their bodies and reproduction has been around for centuries.

Ancient Egyptians were known to have taught young people about fertility and contraception through the use of medical texts written in papyrus scrolls.

As knowledge spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, religious institutions began incorporating lessons on marriage and procreation into their teachings.

When it comes to sex education, the history of how we got here is an important part of understanding current trends and their implications.

The first recorded instance of formalized sex education can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. There, students were taught basic anatomy and contraception as part of their curriculum in order to prepare them for marriage.

This educational approach was not widely adopted throughout the world until much later on in the 19th century when Prussia made it mandatory for all schools teach some form of sexual health instruction.

Since then, sex education has evolved significantly with progressive attitudes towards sexuality playing a key role in its development.

For example, during the 20th century, more inclusive and comprehensive approaches were developed that focused on teaching students more than just reproductive biology; these programs also included discussions about topics like gender identity, healthy relationships, and consent.

The history of sex education is a complex, long-standing one. It’s been the source of debate and controversy for many years, and it continues to be today.

But what does the future hold for sex education? Looking ahead into the future, there are some exciting developments in store.

For starters, sex education is becoming increasingly comprehensive.

In an effort to ensure that students have access to accurate information about sexual health and relationships, curriculums are being developed that cover topic ranging from anatomy and contraception to gender identity and consent.

With this shift towards more comprehensive programs, advocates hope that it will help young people make better decisions when it comes to their sexual health.

In addition to increased comprehensiveness in sex education classes, technology is playing an important role in how these lessons are taught as well.

Antoinette R. Burton, MSW
Antoinette R. Burton, MSW
Antoinette is a Michigan-based MSW Sexual Health Educator with 10+ years experience. She received her Master's from University of Michigan and specializes in inclusive sex ed for youth, LGBTQ+, college students, and adults. Believes access to accurate sexual health information is key to overall well-being.

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