Unless otherwise noted, all items are from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.
How do you talk about sex? For most of human history, sex was a taboo subject. In Western culture, sex education is the product of a century in development. In the United States, sex education was formally introduced into the curriculum in 1920, though the instruction was inept. The Federal Government tasked the Office of Education, now Department of Education, to publish training materials for educators to effectively teach wide-eyed adolescents about the birds and the bees. Yet the late 1960s and beyond was the true awakening of the how’s, why’s and what’s of sex education.
Children’s literature illustrates the changing attitudes towards sex education over time. Early unscientific and superstitious conversations were largely fear-based and focused on controlling urges and very specific gender roles. Publications from the late 20th century provided ways for young people to be comfortable with their bodies through scientific facts and, in some cases, sexualities. Contemporary books go beyond procreation, introducing comprehensive guides to sexuality, gender identity, and consent. This increased sex education has grown young people’s sexual knowledge, awareness, and autonomy. It has also improved their attitudes towards sexual and reproductive health and behaviors while affirming the position of sex education within a larger framework of human rights.
How Babies Are Made
For younger children, conversations about sex may not be comfortable. Yet they will ask the age-old question, “Where do babies come from?”
Many early books for young children compared human reproduction to that of animals and plants. This is where we get the phrase the “birds and the bees.” More contemporary books often educate in graphic detail. They may personify human sperm and eggs or take a more scientific approach. Some even include pop-up diagrams that focus more on physiology than sexual intercourse.
A Gendered Education
Early sex education books were single sex books, often with very different content. This theme persisted in literature and sex education classes in schools. The separation restricted education to a gender binary, never allowing a full understanding of genders and genitals until the 1960s.
Irving David Steinhardt (American, 1878-1942). Sex Talks to Girls. 1938 (copyright 1914). Lippincott. 23h35711.
Early children’s literature books completely ignored different sexualities. Later sex education books portrayed non-hetero sexualities as sick and abnormal, especially homosexuality. Recent contemporary texts, however, are more inclusive and include representations of a spectrum of sexualities, which teach children to respect and understand different sexualities and behaviors. They are all normal.
Historically, masturbation has been stigmatized as an act of “self-abuse” and even considered to demonstrate poor mental health. As masturbation has become more socially acceptable, portrayals of it have been increasingly positive. By normalizing masturbation, we recognize it as a natural behavior.
Robie H. Harris (American, 1940-) Michael Emberley (American, 1960-). It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. 1994. Candlewick Press. 39h14235
HIV and AIDS
The AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s created a new genre of educational materials focusing on dispelling rumors associated with contracting this fatal disease. Although education and inclusion of homosexuality increased in publications, some still perpetuated the Christian Conservative myth that AIDS was a primarily a “gay plague.”
Education about consensual sex and privacy is a very recent phenomenon. The goal of consent education is to protect youth from sexual assault and abuse or growing up to be abusers. But it goes beyond sex education. It also teaches children to set boundaries for their bodies and develop ways of saying no.
As sex education improved in the last half of the 20th century, awareness for rape and other forms of sexual assault increased. In Defense of Ourselves is an early rape prevention handbook for women that taught them how to defend themselves. But even with increased education, sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds. Rape culture is so pervasive that fiction books are written for teens, particularly young women, that deal with sexual assault and its aftermaths.
(left) Louise O’Neill (Irish, 1985- ). Asking For It. 2016. Quercus. 23h55052 (right) Linda Tschirart Sanford and Ann Fetter. In Defense of Ourselves: A Rape Prevention Handbook for Women. 1979. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 39h16250