Publication Date

May 1, 2010

Sex has become a “toxic” issue in high school history classes, capable of destroying careers, spawning lawsuits, and dividing communities. So observes the experienced and politically astute superintendent of schools in the upper-middle-class suburb where I teach. My own experience and a survey of colleagues confirm his statement; sex undoubtedly ranks as the most controversial subject secondary educators can broach. Yet it is also fundamental to the human condition and intrudes into historical study of demography, literature, art, politics, religion, civil rights and race relations, gender, law and jurisprudence, popular culture, and technology. One might ask how teachers could possibly do justice to the past without referring to sex. There is little advice available about making sex an object of secondary-school historical study. This essay aims to survey the dilemma, explore a status quo of practice, suggest how to teach lessons involving sex more safely, and appeal to academic historians for help.

There are several reasons why high school students should learn that sex has a history. First, if teachers avoid discussing it, then they cede the topic to a popular culture that objectifies, profits from, exploits, and trivializes it. Second, students need to know how sex fits into other contexts of the past. Sexuality depends upon, influences, and “has been continually reshaped by the changing nature of the economy, the family, and politics.”1 In other words, sexual mores are not fixed in stone, but are contingent on other historical developments. Unless they understand this, students risk falling victim to any political, religious, or hate group that persecutes other people’s sexuality as “unnatural.” Third, national and state history standards mandate at least some treatment of sex, as well as controversies and conflicts over the norms governing it. National standards for U.S. history, for instance, include specific references to Roe v. Wade and the gay liberation movement.2 Fourth, because adolescents live in a highly sexualized environment, any story of the past that omits sex may seem suspect and false—as indeed it is. Intellectual integrity and professionalism can serve as strong counterweights against pressure to exclude sex from history.

Yet such pressure is considerable and seems to be getting worse. I was reminded of this in summer 2008 when working as an instructor for a Teaching American History grant. A local archivist spoke to high school teachers about holdings she made available for student research. One source, from a Colorado mental hospital in the 1880s, listed several patients institutionalized for “masturbation.” “I could never use that,” a teacher of 11th graders said, “because I would get calls from parents.” Others agreed.

When I asked a larger cadre of educators whether, or how, they handled the study of sex, a consensus formed that discussion of the topic is increasingly likely to provoke ire—in the form of parental complaints and administrative fallout.3 English teachers said they had taken novels out of their curricula for sexual content, including George Orwell’s 1984. History teachers usually chose not to teach about the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s for fear of causing offense or because they believed a lesson on the subject might be equated with advocating a point of view.

What these teachers describe squares with personal history. I began teaching in 1985, but only in the last few years have I received complaints, either directly from parents or via administrators, about sexual content in three of my history lessons. I mentioned one such occurrence in the April 2002 issue ofPerspectives, an incident that I then attributed to my relative unfamiliarity with high school teaching norms (having recently returned to secondary education after a stint as a college professor) and with the pedagogical goals of that lesson.4 Knowing my workplace better, I now incline more toward self censorship. However, my colleagues and I continue to find it difficult to predict which lessons might generate complaints.

This volatility, or “toxicity” to employ our superintendent’s word and invoke his sense of the damage such controversy can cause, is probably symptomatic of a society that holds extraordinarily conflicted views about youth and sex. Teenagers operate in a blatantly sexual world. Advertisers pitch movies, music, clothes, and cosmetics to pre-teens by linking these products to sex. Commercials on network television tout Viagra and lubricating jelly, and talk show discussions are even more explicit. Promoters of sporting events, sitcoms, and so-called “reality” television offer titillation for ratings. There is increasing and justifiable concern about the internet opening up realms of sexual experience and exploitation to adolescents that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.5 Because much of this seems beyond the control of concerned adults, a heightened level of institutional repression at school has resulted from uneasy parents pressuring teachers and administrators to purge sex from schools.

Teaching sex also affronts some parents’ religious convictions. One of my survey subjects feared that her frank teaching about sex would one day get her in trouble. Even so, “I feel much more uncomfortable talking about religion,” she said. “I think that is a very, very tricky area.” In her case, the two controversial subjects were linked.

In the trenches of secondary school social studies offices, the flux surrounding how we treat sex often works itself out in debates, ruminations among colleagues, and revisions of lesson plans. Over the past five years, the issues I have discussed, or heard discussed, include whether

  1. to show images of Michelangelo’s “David” to a 9th-grade World Civilization class (teachers involved ultimately decided against it);
  2. to explain to 12th graders in advanced-placement (A.P.) classes that European peasants had no access to birth control, but that lactation tended to reduce conception rates so that nursing mothers gave birth at regular intervals every two-and-a-half to three years (while I teach this, most of those polled do not);
  3. to teach 11th graders in U.S. history classes about the Stonewall Inn riot of 1969, the result of a police raid on a gay bar in New York City, and how it served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement (only two of my interview subjects address this topic);
  4. to use an excerpt from Simon Schama’s Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution in a 12th-grade A.P. European history class; it gives examples of how the Parisian popular press discredited Louis XVI by accusing his wife of lascivious behavior.6(I used this source until administrators informed me that there had been complaints and that it was “inappropriate.” I stopped using Schama and preemptively jettisoned an essay on prostitution in early-modern Europe from my syllabus.7);
  5. to explain to 11th graders that birth control advocate Margaret Sanger was arrested during the Progressive Era for distributing pamphlets through the mail describing how to use a diaphragm contraceptive. Officials labeled the pamphlets “pornographic.” (Most of the teachers in my survey do not mention Sanger.)
  6. to teach about the work of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, the development of the birth control pill, and the U.S. Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticutin 11th grade U.S. history and to link them all with the concept of a post-World War II “sexual revolution.” (Only two of the teachers I polled invoke the term “sexual revolution” as a theme of instruction.)

College professors might wonder why these sources would raise red flags, but in their classrooms students have adult legal status and academic freedom gets greater priority. Having lengthy experience both in secondary and postsecondary education, I am struck by the powerful effect parental influence has on teaching and grading at the high school level. Professors can ignore a constituency of parents, but high school teachers do so at their peril. Academics concerned about history instruction of younger students should be alerted to the power of parental audiences. Tellingly, a recent issue of the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History (written mainly by university academics for high school teachers) devoted to “sex, courtship, and dating” contained no mention of how the lessons it contained might prompt parental complaints or require teacher discretion and editing. While the magazine contained creative and engaging lessons, teaching many of these would be problematic given the present climate, and use of primary sources such as “A New Bundling Song” and “The Whore in the Snow” would certainly elicit complaints. 8

Ultimately, what secondary instructors choose to teach or omit often has little to do with history or pedagogy—and maybe even little do with sex. (Does Michelangelo’s David count as sex?) More often than not, teachers formulate lessons involving sex by considering what an extreme element of parents might find offensive, how administrators would react to complaints, and whether a lesson was worth the trouble it could cause.

It seems a fair generalization that secondary public education has a higher tolerance for violence than for sex in history classes. In World Civilization classes, teachers are more likely to show excerpts from Gladiator than to teach the traditional reproductive cycles of premodern societies. Similarly, they might provide a Hollywood version of Spartan martial prowess via a scene from 300, but they would be less likely to discuss Spartan sexual norms. Among the teachers I polled, there was greater willingness to show clips from the war filmsSaving Private Ryan, Glory, or Apocalypse Now than to have students learn about contraceptive history by teaching about Margaret Sanger, the Pill, or abortion and the historical trajectory of laws governing it. By pointing this out, I do not intend to criticize teachers, but to suggest a societal critique. Teachers select subject matter based on their understandings of workplace norms and community mores. It may be safer to showcase violence, but one wonders how students will understand the past, and their own time and place, when their history classes opt for reticence about sex and explicitness on violence.

Neither do textbooks offer much support for integrating sex into historical narratives. My school uses two popular U.S. history texts. The American Pageant includes index references for “birth control” and “sexuality.” The authors make brief mention of Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and contraception—but not of gay rights. The other text, The Americans, is even more cursory, omitting Sanger, Kinsey, and homosexuality.9 Neither tries to address the criterion on gay liberation from the National Standards.

Thus history teachers determined to include lessons on sex have the deck stacked against them. National standards may occasionally work in their favor, but local pressures, cultural anxiety, and the relative absence of discussions of sexuality in textbooks all have inhibiting effects. Those who strike out on their own to teach about sex and misstep face reprimands or, in extreme cases, suspension, forced resignation, or firing.

Sexuality shares commonalities with other subjects once marginalized or excluded from history curricula. As Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn have pointed out, through much of the 20th century Native Americans, women, African Americans, immigrants, and workers rarely figured in primary and secondary students’ studies of the American past. It took concerted effort, spearheaded by academic historians, for multiculturalism to make inroads. Sex will require similar labors.10

And because of its cultural “toxicity,” the history of sex may face a uniquely difficult road into the mainstream. High school teachers cannot make this happen by themselves but will need ongoing help from academics. Scholars of sex and gender must be willing to make a case, beyond narrowly specialized audiences, to explain why the history of sex is vital enough for inclusion in the secondary classroom. Textbook authors could make greater use of the riveting, varied, and prize-winning work of historians who have connected sex to larger analyses of political, economic, social, and legal developments.11 Teacher training should prepare a new generation to approach the subject professionally. Young teachers are especially vulnerable to workplace pressure, and so they must receive educations that enable them to speak authoritatively about the place of sex in history. Historians can also reach out to high schools with professional development and curricular assistance. Without such help, the history of sex is likely to become a forbidden topic in high schools.

High school teachers may have reached a crisis moment regarding sex in history. Regrettably, their short-term choices seem rather stark. Either they keep silent about sex or roll up their sleeves and tackle the arduous and time-consuming task of collaborating with colleagues to identify which sexual histories are worth teaching. They should proceed to write their selections into curricula that serve as the basis for instruction. They will need to justify their decisions to administrators and boards of education, because they will require the support of these groups when challenged. While this process may be contentious, it is the safest method for continuing to teach sex in history class.

Democratic societies should partake in lively debates over the curricula of public schools. Historically, American public education tends to a cautious consensus. Sex may be one of the thorniest subjects of our time for history educators, but they cannot afford to sit out the debate. Unless they mobilize and ally with academic historians, they will continue to be forced into silence about the sexuality of people from the past. Given the centrality of sex in history, and our own cultural uses of it, such a silence would be deafening—and tragic.

Christopher Doyle teaches advanced-placement U.S. history and humanities courses at Farmington High School, a public school in Connecticut. He has published articles on history, education, and contemporary adolescence. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Connecticut.


1. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 2nd edition, (New York, 1997), xii.

2. For Roe v. Wade see Standard 4B at On gay liberation see Standard 2B at

3. My survey consisted of questions directed to 40 public-school teachers in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut.

4. On line at

5. Steven Mintz sums up this conflict powerfully: “The media prey on children and adolescents with wiles of persuasion and sexual innuendo once reserved for adult consumers. The young have become more knowledgeable sexually . . . . Yet contemporary American society isolates and juvenilizes young people more than ever before. . . [and] sends [them] many mixed and confusing messages. . . . They are told to be innocent but also sexually alluring.” Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2004), 381. Joan Jacobs Brumberg also traces the increasing sexualization of adolescent life through the 20th century. See The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York, 1997). On sex in advertising to teens and preteens see Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York, 2004), 56–58.

6. Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York, 1990), chapter 6. My students also read two other chapters in this source that did not mention sex, several chapters in their textbooks, and over a dozen primary sources.

7. Kathyrn Norberg, “Prostitutes,” in Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge, eds., A History of Women in the West, v. 3, Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1993), 458–74. I used this essay because it complicates traditional narratives that suggest growing personal freedom in Europe over time. Norberg shows, instead, growing sexual constraint and misogyny from 1400 through 1800.

8. “A New Bundling Song” and “The Whore in the Snow,” Organization of American Historians, Magazine of History, 18:4 (July 2004), 12–13.

9. Thomas A. Bailey, David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant, 11th edition (Boston, 1998); Gerald A. Danzer et al., The Americans (Evanston, Boston, and Dallas, 2000).

10. Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York, 1999), especially chapters 2, 3, and 5.

11. For instance, my U.S. history students have enjoyed and learned much from selections of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary,1785–1812 (New York, 1991); also Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988); Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1998); and Christine Stansell’s City of Women, Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (Urbana and Chicago, 1987) to name just a few.

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