Though you may assume that sex education is a recent innovation, like cell phones or the cinematic career of Shia Labeouf, human beings have actually been educating each other about the intricacies of sexuality and their bodies for millennia. You may already be familiar with the existence of ancient writings and art about sex from China, Greece, and other early civilizations, but you may not know that many of those same cultures also produced sexual advice manuals — like Ovid's Ars Amatoria, published in 2 A.D., which was basically The Game for ancient Romans, and offered advice on topics like how often you should see your lady for optimal relationship happiness (answer: often, but not too often).
Sexual instruction changed with the times, and by the Victorian era, innovations in printing led to the development of a small industry in books and pamphlets designed to teach young people about sex — though most of them just focused on either scaring the reader off masturbation, or introducing the rudimentary basics of sexual intercourse, so that the reader wouldn't freak out on their wedding night and mistake a penis for a giant, irritable tapeworm or something.
Sex ed as we now know it didn't come onto the scene in 1913, when Chicago became the first public school system in America to offer sex ed classes — where it was met with instant controversy, and ended the career of school superintendent Ella Flagg Young. Sex education became part of the educational experience of more and more American throughout the '20s, 30's, '40, and '50s, and as film technology developed, so did the media used to teach sex ed — but unfortunately, just because the technology was more sophisticated, didn't mean the ideas were.
While we're lucky that the ideas below have fallen out of fashion, we should remember that the battle for accurate, respectful sex ed that's accessible to everyone is still far from complete.
1. "Masturbation Makes Some People Commit Suicide"
Victorian sexual beliefs were more complicated than we often give them credit for being — despite the common stereotype of Victorians as prudish folks who endured sex just so that they could continue the species, historians have noted that the Victorians used sex toys and pornography, were interested in female orgasms, and engaged in premarital sex.
However, just because Victorians were perhaps hornier than we've given them credit for being in the past, doesn't mean they had a very accurate view of human sexuality. A 1903 sexual education manual called Perfect Womanhood for Maidens—Wives—Mothers, which was supposed to teach women the basics of human sexuality, included the belief that masturbation could cause every health problem short of your head suddenly detaching from your body:
The sexual organs, too, are very closely connected with the spine and the brain by means of the nerves, and if they are handled, or if you keep thinking about them, these nerves get excited and become exhausted, and this makes the back ache, the brain heavy and the whole body weak. It lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis, and heart disease. It weakens the memory, makes a boy careless, negligent and listless. It even makes many lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.
Thinking like this was why the Victorian era also gave birth to a hot market for anti-masturbation devices for men and women, which often surrounded the genitals with spikes, clamps, metal threads, and other elements that basically made your junk look like a minor villain from Mad Max: Fury Road. Of course, it wasn't all just a big joke — doctors were convinced that masturbation was a serious health threat, and sometimes went so far as to surgically remove the clitoris of women who supposedly masturbated "too much." Ugh.
2. "Knowing About Their Sexual Organs Will Make Women Too Horny"
Remember that time in high school, when someone showed you an anatomical drawing of some labia and you got so hot and bothered that you passed out? No? Huh, that's weird, because that kind of reaction to basic sexual information was a huge concern for sexual educators at the beginning of the 20th century.
While it was assumed that men would pick up sexual knowledge somewhere along the way (pornography? Watching two stray cats go at it in an alley? Erotic limericks?), women were thought to be ignorant of sexuality and their bodies, and thus required special instruction before they married — but not too much instruction, lest a promising young wife turn into a lusty degenerate.
According to a 1916 book about human sexuality called Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, a young woman about to be married,
...should know the scientific names of her organs, not because there are many vulgar names as in the case of boys, but because dignified names help attitude. Ovaries, uterus (womb), vagina, Fallopian tubes, and vulva will be sufficient. Detailed description of the external organs (vulva) might arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation.
3. "There's No Way To Protect Yourself From STDs"
Though many of us associate sex ed films with sex ed classes, the original sex ed films were actually shown in theaters to paying audiences, presumably because premium cable had yet to be invented. The first ever sex ed film, released in 1914, was Damaged Goods, and focused on syphilis (the goods in question = your syphilis-riddled genitals).
Damaged Goods followed a man who contracts syphilis from an extramarital tryst, then commits suicide after his child is born infected with the disease. And in the final minutes of the 1920s sex ed film for women embedded above, The Science Of Life, a screen warns that "Promiscuous sexual relations often result in the spread of two diseases — syphilis and gonorrhea."
While syphilis was a major public health issue at the time, particularly since the discovery of penicillin was still a few years away, the film doesn't give any information on how to protect oneself from it or (god forbid) talk to your spouse or doctor (it also doesn't explain how people have sex, why people have sex, or that women have external genitalia). It simply places syphilis as a life-ruining threat, one that the viewer has absolutely no control over whether or not it is introduced into her life. Congratulations, you're a woman!
While this film is nearly one hundred years old, its message — that people (and women in particular) have very little agency when it comes to what goes on in their sexual lives, including whether they'll be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases — remains unfortunately common in sex ed materials to this day.
The Bottom Line
It would be great if we could just laugh off these three old-fashioned ideas that were taught in past sex ed classes, but the truth is, not all sex ed today is notably more accurate. As author Roger Eberwein noted in his 1999 book, Sex Ed, “One of the first discoveries one makes when examining sex education film and videos is that the historical progression from the earliest sex education films to the most recent videos doesn’t necessarily represent a clear ‘advance’ in the treatment of the issues...Some of the most recent educational videos specifically reject the advice that was given 20 years ago about birth control and masturbation.” As John Oliver noted on a 2015 episode of Last Week Tonight, "only 22 states mandate sex education, and only 13 require the information to be 'medically accurate,'" and only 18 states require sex ed classes to provide information on contraception.
Which is a good argument for why studying the sex ed lessons of the past is good for more than just a laugh — they help us remember that we have never come quite as far as we think, and that there is still much work to do.
But, OK, fine, that thing about women getting unbearably horny if you tell them that they have labia is pretty hilarious, too.
Images: Bray Studios Inc.; Giphy (4)