Histories of early sex education in America have focused on the physicians and biologists of the early twentieth-century American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). These men of science, however, did not act alone. Religious leaders from the social purity movement worked with them to form the ASHA, which became a center for the sex education movement from its inception in 1914. While hygienists targeted sexual diseases and purity reformers condemned sexual sins, both agreed on the need to break the “conspiracy of silence” around sexuality through educational campaigns. Their combined medical and moral approaches shaped sex education from the start and helped the movement gain a wider acceptance among churches and the general public.
As a result of this merger, liberal Protestants influenced major shifts—and later divisions—among sex educators. Ministers and organizations like the Federal Council of Churches strategically combined restrictive and progressive approaches to sexuality, laying historical foundations for both sides of contemporary controversies between abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education. More immediately, their contributions in the 1920s shifted sex educators away from lectures about venereal diseases and toward “family life education.” Reverend Anna Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) led this charge, appealing to both the hygienists and the purity reformers with her sociological analyses of the family.
Spencer, the first female minister ordained in Rhode Island, was remarkably active in social and religious movements. Along with contributions to the peace movement and women’s suffrage, she participated in many liberal religious groups, including the Free Religious Association, the Congress of Liberal Religious Societies, Ethical Culture, and Unitarianism. Spencer was also a founding member of the ASHA and served on its Board of Directors until her death in 1931. As a religious leader and a professor of sociology at Meadville Theological School, a Unitarian seminary, she was particularly well positioned to navigate the scientific and moral concerns of the early movement.
In the last decade of her life she increased her sex education efforts, pushing the ASHA toward family life education. In 1926 alone, the seventy-five-year-old Spencer gave nearly seventy talks at conferences, churches, and women’s groups addressing sexuality and the family. The broader goals of sex education, she argued, had always been to improve the family. In 1929, the ASHA adopted her bold proposal to create a new Division of Family Relations to oversee all other departments. By framing sexuality in service to family relations, its scope was both narrow and broad, physically limited to the marriage bed but conceptually linked with family structures, gender roles, and social values.
Spencer’s interest in educating the public about sexuality began through involvement and leadership in late nineteenth-century social purity movements, including the American Purity Alliance. Social purity brought together a variety of organizations interested in abolishing prostitution, raising the legal age of sexual consent, and educating youth about sexual and spiritual purity.
The origins of the sex education movement in the United States derive from the merger of purity leaders, like Spencer, with physicians of the social hygiene movement. Social hygienists were primarily concerned with spreading facts and warnings about syphilis and gonorrhea, while purity reformers emphasized moral education, the desire to end prostitution, and the framing of sexuality as part of Christian family life. In line with liberal religious trends of their day, purity reformers were eager to adopt scientific rationales that supported beliefs in monogamous marriages. In turn, they saw some of their values incorporated into the movement and legitimated by medical professionals.
The hygienists ultimately agreed that scientific facts were not enough to convince the public to stop risky sexual behaviors; moral guidelines were also needed to stop the spread of venereal diseases. The alliance protected both sides from charges of “obscenity,” since religious reformers vouched for the work with their moral reputations and physicians lent scientific authority to the cause. Many physicians, however, viewed traditional religions as ineffective against venereal diseases because they presumably ignored scientific explanations and interventions in favor of admonishing sermons and moral blame. Liberal religious sex educators had to deal with such stigma against religion, even though they too embraced science and often shared contempt for “traditional religion.” The hygiene agenda came to dominate, even as it borrowed and benefited from purity reformers.
Nevertheless, religious motivations shaped family life education and the alliances forged around it in several ways. Liberal Protestant reformers brought into the movement exhortations to stay pure for marriage. Furthermore, family life education offered interfaith opportunities to bring Protestants, Catholics, and Reform Jews together around a shared fear of the dysfunction and disintegration of American families. With Spencer as the liaison, the ASHA partnered with the Federal Council of Churches to offer conferences on sexuality and family relations. The ASHA’s strategic refusal to take an official stance on contraception made the organization less controversial from some religious perspectives. Neutrality on contraception especially accommodated the ASHA’s Catholic members, while at the same time distancing itself from the feminist reforms of birth control activists.
Family life education also responded to and interacted with trends in social science, particularly sociology, psychology, social work, and counseling. Like religiously motivated sex educators, social scientists planned to rein in recent changes in sexuality by grounding it within family contexts. Their goals included preserving the family as a social institution, transforming sexual development into individual and social progress, and establishing socially responsible behaviors. Social science offered data about “modern” families, including problems and recent adaptations. At the same time, family life education gave religion a new authority among social scientists interested in the domestic sphere. Ministers were seen as experienced marital counselors and leaders in the moral education of children.
Spencer’s work brought together the liberal Christian and social scientific trends affecting the sex education movement. In books such as The Family and Its Members, she argued that the family was a valuable social institution that should be preserved, although modernized. She believed that religion could empower the family to fulfill its social functions and guide its transition into a more democratic institution. As the director of the ASHA’s Division of Family Relations, Spencer contacted almost eighty theological schools urging them to add courses on family life so that ministers could provide better instruction to youth and couples preparing to marry. Unlike approaches emphasizing the physical side of sexuality, she assured them that family life education situated sexuality in “its proper place” in relation to the home.
The Division of Family Relations was hit hard by Spencer’s death and depression-era budget cuts. In 1932, the ASHA combined educational and family life projects within a new Division of Education and Family Relations. While this meant that family relations no longer had its own department, it solidified the goal of making sex education more about the family. Family life education was spreading to more schools, especially through domestic science courses, and churches that had worked with Spencer and the Federal Council of Churches had become important sources of education and counseling about sexuality and marriage.
Sex educators like Spencer played a significant role in developing both conservative and liberal views of sexuality within family life education, and these roles directly informed later divisions in the sex education movement. Most obvious is that family life educators promoted a restrictive framework of “religious family values” that would reemerge in later abstinence-only education and the evangelical pro-family movement. At the same time, family life education broadened the understanding of sexuality as something that defined relationships and social life. Religious appreciation for scientific perspectives on sexuality also increased, a trend that would further develop within comprehensive sexuality education. Because social scientists deemed repression to be ineffective or harmful, family life educators encouraged positive guidance so that people would experience sexuality at its greatest potential.
In addition to laying the grounds for later divisions, family life education had an ambivalent impact on the success of sex education. It boosted the movement by appealing to more Americans, especially Christians. However, it also put sex education in danger, because sexuality often got lost among other topics of family life. Depending on its user, “family life” became a way to bring sexuality out of the shadows or bury it under less controversial topics. The popularity and flexibility of this framework meant that it not only shaped the direction of early sex education, but continues to be used today to promote wide-ranging agendas.
Kristy L. Slominski is a historian of American religions and sexuality. Her current book project is a history of religious contributions to the American movement for public sex education. She received her PhD in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She recently completed her term as a Board Member of the American Academy of Religion and currently manages Religion Scholars in Progress, an online collection of professional development resources for religious studies. In the fall, she will be teaching religious studies at the University of Mississippi.
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