Human Relations Education Once Considered ‘Communist Plot’
Going back to 1980 to write The Sex Ed Chronicles required me to return to the 60’s and 70’s to get the political setting just right. Until I started my research, I did not know that sex education had been considered part of a ‘Communist plot.’
In 1960, John Birch Society president Robert Welch urged parents to join their local Parent-Teacher Associations and take them over. According to a Time magazine reporter in 1969, Welch had “decided that sex education was a ‘Communist plot’ akin to community fluoridation plans.”
As part of my research, I read a National Education Association (NEA) manual, published in 1970, advising state and local teacher’s unions on how to confront extremists opposed to sex education in the public schools. The manual referred to a documentary supported by the Society called ‘The Innocents Defiled’ which put sex education instructors in an unflattering light, saying that they were spreading “moral depravity” and that they were “bent on the corruption of America’s youth, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the United States.”
The John Birch Society also formed a front group called the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE) to attract non-members to their cause. The NEA manual mentioned an irony: the Society emulated the Communist party, their sworn enemy, by forming a front to hide their true motives. This movement did succeed in attracting its own base: according to author and sociologist Janice Irvine, 80 to 90 percent of MOTOREDE members were not John Birchers. MOTOREDE was not the only organization of its kind; others were parents’ organizations with names such as Sanity of Sex (S.O.S.) and Parents against Universal Sex Education (PAUSE).
While opinion polls of the time showed overwhelming (71 percent) support for sex education, and sex education was endorsed by not only the NEA, but also the National Council of Churches, the American Medical Association and the U.S. Catholic Conference, vocal conservative opposition led legislators to reconsider sex education, or gave their political kin ammunition to fight it. Organizations opposed to sex education in public schools existed in 35 states in 1969.
One politician, for example, the late California State Senator John Schmitz, introduced the Sex Education Act of 1969 in the Golden State. While innocently named, this legislation required an ‘opt-in,’ meaning that any sex education program required 100 percent parental approval before it could be taught in a public school. Schmitz’ legislation also called for dismissal and revocation of teaching credentials for any instructor who taught an unapproved class. Three years later, elected as a Congressman from Orange County, Schmitz became the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party, attracting over a million votes.
Aside from linkages to Communism and liberal ideology, opposing arguments against sex education were similar to today: classes are too explicit or specific; they are taught too early; or, abstinence should be stressed over contraception.
However, during the 60’s, the organized opposition was also linked to causes that had become, or were about to become unpopular. Parents could be opposed to sex education, but also opposed to, as examples, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism or the Vietnam War. As a result, single-issue groups strictly opposed to sex education were more effective than broad coalitions.
Today’s opposition to sex education is more sophisticated; conservative Republicans have done a much better job of being more inclusive and grass roots; they are embarrassed when they are seen on the side of any organized group that preaches segregation or discrimination, or shown as hypocrites when they take moral actions contrary to their political views.
Sex education advocates are also more sophisticated; they are better focused on the health and medical reasons for comprehensive sex education, and less disposed to label their opposition as fanatics. There were quick dismissals along this tone during the 60’s; they kept their opposition alive—and possibly legitimized them with voters.
A major problem history showed was that sex educators had looked at their cause as a liberal one; that was a mistake in appealing to states with sizable conservative voting blocs and activist conservative legislators. Neither conservatives nor liberals want their opponent’s views legislated on them, even when they are in the minority.
Today, people of all views are more accepting towards sex education. We do see legislatures with ‘abstinence-only’ and ‘abstinence until marriage’ positions as well as ‘opt-in’ policies—but sex education is not going away. Advocates need to do a better job of convincing voters that comprehensive sex education is not a liberal issue, but a health and medical one, as well as an opportunity to deter predatory acts and child abuse.
Today, we see a presidency that prefers to fund ‘abstinence until marriage’ programs, although some governors courageously refused to pursue the money this time around, as the requirements became too extreme—to educate ‘abstinence until marriage’ through the age of 29. However, the next presidency will promise a more moderate position—or leave the funding issues to the states.