‘Sex (Ed)’ the Documentary: A Comprehensive Study of a Touchy Topic

By Mark Walsh — February 02, 2015 4 min read
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Millions of Americans, especially Baby Boomers, can recall the corny classroom instructional films of their youth, titles such as “Cindy Goes to a Party,” “Shy Guy” (featuring future “Bewitched” star Dick York), “Why Vandalism?”, and “Meat and You—Partners in Freedom.”

OK, that last one was from “The Simpsons,” which has spoofed the educational film genre for years. The quintessential classroom films, though, flickered on after the boys and girls were separated. It was time for Sex Education, and many teachers were only too happy to turn the lesson over to a 16-millimeter film projector.

Filmmaker Brenda Goodman has sifted through thousands of hours of old sex ed films to come up with one of the best education documentaries I’ve seen.

Sex (Ed): The Movie” is funny and campy much of the time, but more often it is a serious discussion about how this nation, and its schools, have taught children about sex, whether it was couched in terms of making teenage friends, dating, adolescent development, sexual hygiene, abstinence from sex, or—non-abstinence from sex.

“I was really setting out to see how we communicate about sex in this country,” Goodman, a film professor at the University of Southern California, said in an interview.

The answer is that we often did it incompletely, with obfuscation, the demonization of some groups (such as women and “homosexual predators”), and the exclusion of non-traditional relationships.

The documentary has screened at film festivals over the last year and is being released Tuesday on DVD. It should not be confused with the recent romantic comedy “Sex Ed,” which starred Haley Joel Osment as a teacher.

Goodman and her team spent weeks in USC’s archives, traveled to a National Archives facility outside of Washington, and turned to other collections, such as that of Rick Prelinger, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the founder of the Prelinger Archives. (He appears in the film, and many of the titles excerpted in it are available in his online collection, including the ones I’ve linked in this post.)

“I think that right here in my office I must have 500 films,” Goodman said. “People would say, ‘Did you see the one with the rabbits?’ and we would be off on a chase for that one.”

(I wonder if some of those people were thinking of “The Simpsons” great sendup of sex ed films, “Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide to You-Know-What.”)

The documentary traces the history of sex ed films, with Goodman estimating that there have been some 100,000 produced.

As early as the 1890s, with the United States dealing with an influx of immigrants, “moral education” programs were developed to teach hygiene, including sexual cleanliness.

Those programs led to the first sex ed films. “Damaged Goods,” about the dangers of syphillis, appeared in theaters in 1914. By World War II, the U.S. military realized that men needed instruction in sex topics, particularly condom use, to battle venereal disease. The great director John Ford even was behind one such film, “Sex Hygiene.”

After the war is when the sex ed films entered American classrooms on a large scale. For one thing, the documentary says the military donated its surplus projectors to the schools, helping create the market for all manner of instructional films. “Human Growth,” released in 1947, explained to youngsters the change in their bodies from child to adolescent, all while stressing the path to dating and marriage. The film was shown in many classrooms, banned in many other places, and featured in a Life magazine cover story on sex education in 1948.

Given the mores of the late 1940s and 1950s, it is understandable that many of the films were on the tame side, stressing dating and comportment themes, with titles such as “Are You Popular?”, “Going Steady?”, and “Dating: Do’s and Don’ts.” Even Walt Disney made an animated short for girls, “The Story of Menstruation” (1948), sponsored by Kotex.

A 1957 film, “As Boys Grow,” was unusually frank in its acknowledgement—and lack of value judgment—of male masturbation. (But as the documentary notes, there were apparently no films of that era acknowledging the phenomenon for girls.)

By the 1960s, with the Pill and changing sexual mores, sex ed films changed with the times. A backlash began, with conservative groups such as the John Birch Society issuing pamphlets that asked: “Is the little red schoolhouse the place to teach about raw sex?”

Meanwhile, the only attention that gay Americans received in this era was to be painted as sexual predators. The Ingleside, Calif., police department and the Ingleside Unified School District teamed up in 1961 to produce “Boys Beware,” to warn of men who had “a sickness that was not visible ... a sickness of the mind” known as homosexuality.

The documentary has lots of clips from films of the 1970s, some of which featured full frontal nudity, romps in the woods, and other stuff that was just weird. By the 1980s, with the challenge of AIDS, more explicit films such as “Condom Sense” (1981) and “Sex, Drugs, and AIDS” (1986) were the norm.

The documentary suggests that in more recent years, particularly with federally funded abstinence-education programs, sex ed films have been on the decline and group presentations such as “Silver Ring Thing” and “Pure Freedom” are in greater use.

“Films are still in use,” said Goodman. But almost needless to say, young people have many more ways to get information from the Internet, including “peer-to-peer” videos on YouTube.

“The notion that there will be this lesson about sex education at school still exists,” Goodman said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a very comprehensive lesson for the most part.”

(For those who want a more comprehensive discussion of sex-ed films, the documentary’s Website links to articles in two online magazines, Collectors Weekly and Bitch Media.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.