12:11am Thursday 19 October 2017

How globalization has stymied sex education

Zimmerman, director of the history of education program at the Steinhardt School and a professor of history at New York University, spoke about his latest book, “Hot and Bothered: How Globalization Stymied Sex Education.”

Introduced as an incredible public intellectual, commentator and go-to historian who “The Daily Show” calls simply ‘John’, Zimmerman related the history of sex education in the United States and Western Europe, telling a story about how his book evolved and the surprises he came across while writing it.

“You absolutely have to be surprised in the course of doing the work that we do,” he said, “or you will just say what you thought before.”

The son of a sex educator, Zimmerman received a “very, very rare and liberal sex education” from his mother in the mid-‘70s – including having her ensure that he and his friends had condoms at their disposal should the need arise. “Her name was Margot (with a silent ‘t’), so my friends called them Margots (no silent ‘t’), after my mom,” he said. “It makes utter sense to me and it worked and here’s how: Like everyone else, I did really dumb stuff and here’s one dumb thing I never did. I never had unprotected sex and it worked for me.”

His first surprise, he said, was that some of what his mother taught him about sex education turned out to be untrue. She believed that the U.S. was much farther behind other countries that were more progressive, Zimmerman said, but he found that the U.S. was actually the pioneer in mass sex education.

Surprise number two was that Europe actually developed different goals for sex education, Zimmerman said. The third surprise was how little sex education there actually is, even in places like Sweden.

“There’s a lot of talk and discussion and there’s an elaborate curriculum, but there isn’t a lot happening,” he said. “There is a shockingly small amount of sex education around the world. So if anybody says sex education does this, you can with certainty write them off because if something happens that little (six hours in a year), to say that it does ‘X’ behaviorally is an absurdity.”

But the real surprise for Zimmerman was surprise number four – globalization and the rapid movement of people. “I thought globalization would bring good things, but for sex education, globalization inhibited it, stalled and even stopped it,” he said.

Taking the audience through the evolution of sex education in the U.S., he noted that it is still primarily addressed to adolescents, but venereal diseases were the impetus. “Men were seeing prostitutes, coming home and infecting their wives and causing a huge panic,” he said. “What’s interesting, is that precisely the same thing was happening in Paris and Berlin, but in the U.S. we seized on an educational solution rather than legal mechanisms that they chose in Europe. We determined that we needed a change in the attitude of the young because we couldn’t do much with adults and our hope lies in the children of the future.”

The United States began to spread their model, but competition came from Hollywood, where “sex was oozing from every pore” of the movies, Zimmerman said. Schools tried to compensate, but films encouraged petting in automobiles. “The automobile was critical,” he said. “There were more cars in the U.S. than in Europe and that had enormous consequences for the U.S., including for sex education.”

Sex education developed more slowly in Europe. The U.S. still retained prominence in the Cold War Era, challenging Europe as they rebuilt and started to create a new kind of sex education, Zimmerman said, refashioning it as as family life education.

Sweden became the first country in Europe to require sex education, with a campaign for a more honest and shame-free model and a goal to help each individual develop and determine their sexual life. In the U.S., the concern was about the whole, the rate, Zimmerman said. 

“But we don’t know if these figures – rate of teen pregnancy, rate of STDs – are due to sex education. Maybe sex education isn’t relevant. But the fundamental reason for sex education is the right to individual knowledge and pleasure, not about rates, Zimmerman said. 

In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with the rise of the new right, the sexual revolution and counterrevolution impacted sex education as well.

By the early 1980s, the World Health Organization released the first set of sex education goals stating that by 1995, 80 percent of the citizens in every country will have opportunities for leading and emotionally satisfying sexual life. “I question the idea that there can be anything shared or normative given what we know about global diversity,” said Zimmerman.

During this period, people like Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Charles Keating began their anti-smut campaigns. Nixon had a Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, and sex education became framed as one of parental rights, Zimmerman said. ”These are our children, our business, not yours,” he said. “Sex education became a matter of parents’ rights.”

And then AIDS changed everything. “My students today have never breathed a breath without AIDS being in their lives,” Zimmerman said. “It changed everything, including sex education. Before AIDS, some were for it and some against it, and after, everyone was for it.”

Sex education evolved again, including a movement for abstinence. “Nobody said schools shouldn’t do sex education anymore,” said Zimmerman, but the nature of it changed and so did the global nature where pretty much every country teaches it, except Africa where the numbers are incredibly stark and it’s a young person’s disease. Three quarters of AIDS patients live in Africa.”

We will see a worldwide conservative rebellion against sex education because people in Ghana and places like that don’t stay there, Zimmerman. “They go to places like Sweden and sex education now becomes controversial. A lot of those people don’t want this kind of sex education, but one million of the 10 million people in Sweden come from these conservative countries.”

It’s now happening all over Western Europe and in Canada, where evangelicals are uniting with these immigrants, Zimmerman said. “It’s global and multicultural, but it’s joining hands to strategize how to stalemate sex education and in many cases successfully.”

So why hasn’t sex education worked? Why hasn’t it taken hold?

“It’s actually about the behavioral effects and we don’t know what they are,” Zimmerman said. “Sex education isn’t a matter of science. It’s the limits of school itself. For 100 years, we tried to use sex education to counter mass media, but schools are a puny David against the goliath of mass media.

“More fundamentally, dissent is about the nature of the individual, especially about sex education,” he added. “The goal of individual decision making by adolescents insults religions and others who don’t leave sex up to the individual. Millions of people around the world find the entire concept anathema.”

Finally, Zimmeran said, what has inhibited all of this is the fact that this diversity is coming to your door. It’s there. Globalization doesn’t equal liberalization.”

The Couper Lecture is funded by the Edgar W. Couper Endowment Fund for Educational Excellence, which also annually supports Couper Fellows, enabling them to focus on their research. 

Binghamton University, State University of New York


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