At the Intersection of Sex and the School: A Conversation about Sex Education with Professor Jonathan Zimmerman

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

MOHLER: Jonathan Zimmerman is Professor of Education and History and Director of the History of Education program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He also holds an appointment in the Department of History of NYU’s graduate school of arts and sciences.

He’s a frequent op-ed contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, as well as other popular newspapers and magazines. He is the author of several books, including Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory; Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century; Whose America?: Culture Wars and the Public Schools; and Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925. His most recent work is Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

Professor Jonathan Zimmerman, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Professor Zimmerman, you write about the intersection of the century of sex and the century of the school and that led to your work on sex education. How did that come about?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, in a way, my book is a story of something that didn’t happen. Sex-ed in this country and around the world has been remarkably brief and attenuated in schools and that’s ironic because I think the 20th Century was, as you say, both the century of school and the century of sex.

It was the century of the school in the sense that school as a formal institution became ubiquitous around the world. You know halfway through the 20th Century only half of humanity entered a formal school in their lives and now it’s north of 95%. And that’s just in my lifetime. I think in 500 years that will be among the most remarkable facts about my lifetime is the fact that school went from essentially an institution that half of humanity patronized to an institution that all of humanity patronized. So it was the century of school.

And it was also the century of sex in the sense that in especially the west there was an enormous explosion of new kinds of sexual expression, new kinds of sexual configuration, and family configurations. So it was the century of school and the century of sex, but it turns out that school and sex don’t play very well together.

One of the reasons my book is so short is that there wasn’t that much sex-ed and there still isn’t. Despite what both advocates and critics say, there is remarkably little sex-ed, even in countries that are you know proud of how explicit their sex-ed is, like Sweden. When you actually look at the ground, you find that the number of hours devoted to the subject are remarkably slim.

MOHLER: In your book, you write, “In the century of the school and the century of sex the school struggled to master sex and, for the most part, the school failed.”

ZIMMERMAN: That’s right.

MOHLER: I think you make that thesis, you prove the thesis in your work. But let me ask you a background question of this. Whose idea really was it that the school was the place where sex was to be taught?

ZIMMERMAN: It was the American’s idea. And this gets back to my mom because one of the things that she taught me, like many left-leaning Americans, she taught me that other democracies, especially in Western Europe, were somehow ahead of the United Stated on sex-ed. And this turned out to be wrong. In fact the United States was the progenitor of sex-ed. In part because it was the pioneer of the mass high school. So in the early 20th Century millions of Americans went to high school, more than in any other country.

And so at a certain level it makes sense that this would also be the birthplace of sex-ed because sex-ed has across time and into the present been mainly targeted at teens, at adolescents. It’s original purpose, and I would argue in the United States its ongoing purpose, was to ward off negative collective outcomes, specifically unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Basically, sir, sex ed began in the United States during panics over venereal disease. What was happening in cities like Chicago and New York was that middle class men were patronizing prostitutes, which has always been a major conduit for STDs, and going home and infecting their wives. And this created a huge panic and, I should add, a highly racialized one. It was a very ugly racial dynamic to these kinds of panics because the argument was, “look, if immigrants or people of color are contracting STDs and by virtue of that becoming sterile, well that’s not such a problem, but if white Protestants are, you know what that is, that’s race suicide.” And please know I’m quoting people from that era.

MOHLER: Absolutely.

ZIMMERMAN: And, so, that’s what, that’s what, brought forth sex-ed in this county. The idea was to try to use the schools to warn kids against it. And specifically against, you know, these dangers that attached to it. What’s really interesting comparatively is, as you might guess, you know urbanization and modernization is happening everywhere, including in Europe, and there are big venereal disease outbreaks in places like Paris and Berlin, but until the mid-century the Europeans don’t really use schools to try to address it. They often did it via kind of the legal mechanisms, either trying to interdict prostitution more strictly or in some places trying to regulate it, it varied. But they didn’t look to schools. Americans did. And that’s where sex ed came from.

MOHLER: You know, in your early chapters, you describe what I might call two trajectories in terms of sex education, and I want to test a bit of a theory with you because I want to take your argument perhaps a little bit beyond where you take it in your book. It seems to me that the two trajectories are this: you have an European model, and what we call an American model. The American model is focused—at least early on—on, as you said, more public health consequences, using words even like hygiene, and related to the family, whereas the European model was more of a revolution. And in order to document my question before I ask you to respond to it, you begin the book by citing a Swedish school teacher and author by the name of Ellen Key, who in 1900 was calling for sex education—and again this in a Scandinavian context—and you say that she was not only looking for what we might call the birds and the bees, biology and human reproduction, she was looking herself for a moral revolution.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s right.

MOHLER: It appears to me that at least in the early decades this was far more the European story than the American story.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, yes, but the chronology here is a little bit different and more complicated. Ellen Key was very, very far ahead of her time, even in Sweden. And it’s not really until mid-century that the Swedes and other Western Europeans get in on the sex-ed act. There were little inklings before that time. But the United States was again the pioneer, and the Europeans didn’t really come in en masse until the mid century. But with respect to the thrust of your question, you’re right. Once countries like Sweden embraced sex ed, they did embrace a different model of it. And this is another place where I think my mom was wrong. Again, she said that the European countries were “ahead of the United States.” Well, any metaphor about a race or a competition implies a shared finish line, right? They’re all going to the same place. Well, they weren’t! And I think your question highlights that—the United States was trying to prevent negative collective consequences like you said, and when countries like Sweden and then Holland and West Germany embraced sex ed, the orientation is much more about the individual and, specifically, trying to help each individual develop a healthy sexual life, including sexual pleasure, and that’s a very different kind of orientation.

MOHLER: Indeed. And you document that very well. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the stories. Let me go back to the beginnings in what you describe as the origins of sex education. And I want to go back in the American—and you might say even the English-speaking tradition here—because Britain appears to be somewhat similar to the United States in these respects.


MOHLER: That is, it was a concern for hygiene and I want you to speak to that, but I want you to press further the point you made earlier, the racial point. It seems to me that you can’t tell this story without reference to the incredible and lamentable American history of eugenics.

ZIMMERMAN: Definitely. I mean, look, you know, to say that advocates of sex ed were eugenicists is not to say something that’s so remarkable or revolutionary, because eugenics was an accepted science.


ZIMMERMAN: They weren’t alone. Almost anyone who attended the university in that time in the United States learned some aspect of eugenics. Please understand in no way am I trying to apologize for this, right, but it always strikes me as ironic when I see someone on TV saying, “And Woodrow Wilson embraced eugenics.” Yes, right. So did almost every educated white person in the United States regardless of, you know, background or political party. The other thing I want to emphasize, sir, is I think we have to be very careful about what I call the fallacy of original sin, which is because something is born in a racist climate it is now and forever illegitimate. I don’t think that that is logical. So, you know, were some of the sex educators trucking in eugenics philosophies and ideas? Absolutely. As were almost all white people of their time. Does that invalidate sex ed today? I don’t believe it does. I think what it should do is make us scrutinize sex ed or any other project to see the degree to which eugenic ideas might continue to infect or inflict us. But that’s very different from discrediting it, you know, whole cloth. I think that’s really a fallacy.

MOHLER: You know, I understand that. And as one who affirms the doctrine of original sin, I understand it can become a logical fallacy in that sense, an intellectual temptation. I do want to press the point a little further, though, because you are documenting how a concern for public health or public welfare was largely behind the American trajectory here. And the use of words like “hygiene” and all the rest raises the question: what was the vision of public health that drove them? What was their picture of the just and righteous and hygienic society? What would that have looked like?

ZIMMERMAN: Here’s what’s complicated about it: their vision of that society is one where people think about the collective rather than themselves, right? But the collective doctor was often framed as “the race,” which is where the ugly, well, racist and eugenic dimension enters into all of this. The idea is: don’t just think about your individual pleasure or wants, think about the consequences for everybody. Think about “the race.” Now what’s interesting about this appeal is, of course, you know it mirrors what you see in lots of other, well, let’s just say progressive reforms of every kind, right? What is, you know, mining regulation about? Well, Mr. Miner, I know Mr. Mine Owner, it may be in your interest to have an unsafe mine because it costs you less to operate. But this isn’t just about you, right? This is about the whole. This is about the common people. This is about the folks who work in the mine. And this is about the broader kind of social ramifications. So, as hard as it is to understand, sex ed, as it was conceived, to use a very, very loaded metaphor, fit very snuggly into that. The idea is: don’t think about yourself, think about the whole and think about hygiene, which was explicitly a collective metaphor about the health of the race and of the nation.

MOHLER: I think just about anyone that has access to the internet or for that matter has seen documentaries on this has a pretty good idea of the kinds of black and white hygiene films that were shown, many of them to soldiers before the Second World War, but especially during the Second World War, in which sexual issues are completely—and this is why I’ve written on it—well, they are completely redefined away from morality and towards hygiene, as if that’s a sustainable argument.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, what’s interesting, sir, is there were plenty of people making the same objections at the time. So, especially in the Catholic Church, there were very strong objections to sex education—not because the Catholics objected to the message of sexual continence in the curriculum, because obviously they didn’t—nobody did—but because they objected to the line of argument. They said, “This isn’t a scientific matter. This is a religious matter.” So, again, they weren’t objecting to the idea of keeping yourself clean and keeping yourself chaste, but they said that should be a religious imperative rather than a scientific one.

MOHLER: A very interesting debate I recently came across pitted two mathematicians and, in particular, two high school math teachers in an argument as to why they teach algebra—not, not whether algebra should be taught or what constitutes correct pedagogy for algebra, but rather why they teach it. And there were two very different reasons. One said, “I teach it because it’s necessary knowledge. It’s a basic intellectual tool that students are going to have to have.” And the other said, “I teach it because it’s a rite of passage through which a student has to go in order to prove him or herself worthy of continuing in study, even if they major in French poetry or something.” Those are two not contradictory but two very different approaches. When it comes to sex education and your history, it seems to me that, well, you make the argument that in one sense modernity or the modern age, the modern worldview, equals sex education, that you can’t have sex education in this sense without modernity. But it seems to me to be premised upon an enormous trust in human rationality, as if, if you can just give the right information, people can be trusted to make the right decisions. It seems to me that’s a pretty big jump, right in the forefront.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s right. And I would say sex ed was a response to modernity, but largely a failed response. It’s part of modernity, and it’s responding to certain conditions that are alarming people about modernity. But it’s very slow to take root for a number of reasons. And one is because people are quite skeptical of precisely the premise, Doctor, that you’re describing. They called it in the early 20th Century the Socratic Fallacy, the idea that if you know something it will influence your behavior. And it turns out that, especially in the realm of sex and sexuality, decision-making is so murky and weird and complicated that we don’t really have a lot of evidence that knowledge per se affects the way people make choices. And there are other analogies to that in the public health world. Look, let’s take one of the great public health victories of the past 30 years, which is the decline of cigarette smoking. Keep in mind, there’s still too much cigarette smoking, we haven’t won that war, right? But there’s been remarkable declines in cigarette smoking. Would any reasonable person suggest that the reason that happened is because more Americans have a deeper knowledge of the pathogenesis of, you know, lung cancer? I don’t think so. I’m all for teaching about that pathogenesis. I think it’s good for people to know that. But I think it’s a highly romantic idea to think that the reason cigarette smoking plummeted was that more people had knowledge about its ill effects. I think there were all kinds of images in the media that were extremely effective. They didn’t necessarily alter people’s knowledge of lung cancer but they swayed them in a kind of pre-rational way. And a lot of these decisions are pre-rational.


MOHLER: When Professor Zimmerman starts his book by talking about the century of the school and the century of sex, you know that an interesting story is about to unfold. And, it has to do with those two, and the question of school-based sex education. The fact that that has been controversial from the start and remains so today is fact one; but fact two is when we look at this particular controversy, much is revealed not only about sex and sex education, not only about a vision for the schools, but about a vision for humanity and an understanding of the good life, of what it means to be human. And, the problem, of course, is this: if you’re talking about sex education, you’re talking about sex. If you’re talking about sex, you’re talking about what just about everyone understands to be one of the most fundamentally moral issues of human existence.


MOHLER: As you would not be surprised, as a theologian, I found certain arguments in your book to be particularly interesting. One of them is where you reference theology—you don’t do so very often—but I appreciate the fact you understand that is very much a part of the background. In particular, by the time you get to the sexual revolution in the late fifties, sixties, and seventies and onward, and when you are talking about this European context, a sex education that became more focused on personal autonomy and personal fulfillment, and even defined in terms as sexual pleasure rather than the more American model, you point out in your book that it was the nations of Europe that were more marked by the liberal Protestant tradition that eagerly embraced this model, and it was the more Catholic nations, by and large, that resisted it.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s true, but I also want to emphasize that it’s pretty hard to generalize because there was resistance among liberal Protestants in those northern European and Scandinavian countries. You know, the thing about liberal Protestants is they never agree with each other. Leaving aside the terms liberal and conservative, which are complicated, even in a country like Sweden with an established Lutheran church, the Lutherans themselves are deeply divided on these questions. And as sex ed ends up in Sweden there are all kinds of statements and criticisms that are issued by parts of the Lutheran church. It turns out that an entity like the Lutheran church is tremendously diverse internally. I think one of the dangers in discussions like this one is we all tend to blow over those distinctions, you know, “they’re Protestants.” There was debate in these countries, nothing was simple.

MOHLER: That continues, but these are also at a more fundamental level some of the most secularized societies in Europe. As the most secular societies, they should be expected to be more prepared to abandon what I would define to be historic Christian not just sensitivities but moral judgement that very much are explicitly rejected by many of the European sex education models.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s right. And I think it is precisely because of the secular dimensions of this argument that created so much religious dissent in these countries. Yes, they are secularizing, but there are lots of religious people in them, and of course, to cut to the end of the book, as you read, they become in some ways more religiously conservative as immigrants move and settle there.

MOHLER: I want to get to that in just a moment, but there are a couple of themes that continue in every chapter of your book, and I think for very good reason. You point out that there is disagreement among politicians, disagreement among educators, disagreement among religious leaders like you just mentioned, but the major dynamic seems to be between the sex education proponents and parents, and that shows up in every one of your chapters.

ZIMMERMAN: Some parents, right? Again, if you surveyed the parents of the United States, most of them approve of sex ed, right? But many of them don’t. Many of them are divided. The principle objection is interesting because sometimes it is an objection to the specific content of the sex ed curriculum, but sometimes it’s an an objection simply to the idea that the state in the form of its public schools should have anything to do with the subject, right? Now these aren’t mutually exclusive objections, but they’re different. The first objection is: I don’t like the lesson taught about subject x. But, objection number two is: by the way, I don’t think you should be teaching about subject x at all. And indeed, that’s what the Pope said in his encyclical about sex education in the late 1920s. The Pope said that this entire subject is not a valid one for state-sponsored schools to address because it is a parental and a church matter.

MOHLER: Well, when it comes to dividing the question there, I think there’s probably more controversy over the ‘what,’ at least in the American context—the ‘what’ is to be taught—rather than the ‘whether.’

ZIMMERMAN: Yes sir, but that is actually in a U.S. context a very recent development. What you just said is true, but before the AIDS crisis there were plenty of people on the American right who said that this subject should not be discussed in schools. The AIDS crisis changed everything in the United States, and it changed this issue especially. What happened after AIDS is everyone’s for sex ed, they’re just for different kinds. There really was a ‘whether’’ question pre-AIDS. There were people who wanted sex-ed and there were people who didn’t; people who said, “That’s my business. That’s not your business.” After AIDS, almost nobody takes that position.

MOHLER: The “whether” also continues, that is, whether or not there should be sex education in schools, continues with “opt out” or exemption rights that are acknowledged for parents in many school districts. You make a very interesting point—it comes late in your book, I think about page 97—you make the point that that only really happens in the United States. In fact, let me read to you here. You say, “Only in the United States, with its deep rooted traditions of lay and local school control, did parents win real authority to exempt their children from sex education.”

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, the UK as well, to a lesser degree, although they kind of went back and forth on that question. Yes, I think that really is something that marks the United States as different. As a scholar of education, I should tell you, this is what makes American education both so fascinating and so difficult to understand. There are 14,000 school districts. You know, in France, there’s one. You know, its the Bureau de whatever, Educacion. So, there is this 300-400 year tradition of local control in the United States that gives local communities, school boards and the parents who elect them, an extraordinary amount of discretion that most other countries find completely baffling. So your community doesn’t like it? So what? I mean, isn’t it a national imperative? Isn’t it something we all should do? Well, Americans are very jealous of their local prerogatives, especially when it comes to school.

MOHLER: You just accidentally reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes about Charles de Gaulle, because, I believe he was speaking to John F. Kennedy, that he said to the president that his challenge was governing a nation that had 246 kinds of cheese. Evidently, one kind of school, but 246 kinds of cheese.

ZIMMERMAN: I should tell you, Doctor, that there is a day on the French school calendar called ‘Cheese Day’ – jour du fromage. Theoretically, all over France, every school and every teacher is supposed to explain these different kinds of cheeses. And that speaks to my point about the question of centralization over decentralization. It’s actually a myth that everyone in France reads the same thing every day, but in theory they actually do because there’s a shared national curriculum. We don’t have that.

MOHLER: No, we don’t, and that’s an issue of ongoing debate in this country. Speaking about that debate, let me just ask you to just speak outside your book for a moment and speak to a listenership of largely evangelical Christians. Let me just ask you, what would you say we should learn from the debate in the United States over sex education?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, I would say that the fundamental message in my book is that sex education is inherently contested, will always be controversial, because sex itself is so deeply tied to our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our world. So, what that means is it’s extremely difficult to create any kind of consensus about what sex-ed is or should be. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying or end the discussion. And I also want to emphasize that I am not against sex education. Not at all. But I do think that history shows that the great diversity of our country and of other countries, which has only been magnified in the era of globalization, makes any kind of shared sex education not impossible, but deeply problematic, precisely because we all bring such different sets of values to the subject.

MOHLER: Now is that growing? At least to many of us it would seem to be growing to more acute levels than even before. When you look back at the kind of sex education approaches, at least in the film strips and things that are available from the 1950s, it doesn’t appear that there was anything like a great cultural conflict going on. If anything, it was the larger international conflict of the Cold War that might be in the background to it.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, although starting in the ‘60s in this country there really was, and their sex-ed became somewhat more explicit in the 1960s, and it started to address subjects that hadn’t been addressed before, including sometimes contraception, including sometimes masturbation, sometimes abortion. And especially in places like Orange, California, which is one of the real birthplaces of the so-called New Right, this created a great deal of controversy. And again, that controversy was still along the poles of what I think you were calling earlier “whether we should have sex-ed,” because a lot of the objectors just looked at this and said, “No! This isn’t a valid subject for our schools.”

MOHLER: By the way, I was born in 1959, so in 1972 I was a thirteen-year-old in the eighth grade, and then following thereon, I was in the midst of all of that in a South Florida school district very much like Southern California. In the eighth grade I ended up in a school that was one room for hundreds and hundreds of students, because walls were oppressive and divisive. We had facilitators, not teachers. It was the whole 1970s progressive educational issue blown up into one room in Fort Lauderdale, but we had sex education. And I tell students that I think now it would be very difficult for a school to tell a lot of kids something they don’t know factually, or at least we expect them to know. But I’ll just tell you that I heard a lot of things as a thirteen or fourteen-year-old in sex education that I really didn’t know anything about, and frankly didn’t need to know anything about. So this is a very personal story, too.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, well look, you know, in that, I think, Doctor, based on the pulse that’s lived on across time, I think in some ways you were a little bit exceptional, because one of the things that we found out over time is that when you survey kids—this goes back to the 1920s—and you ask them, “Where do you get your sexual knowledge?” school is always at the very bottom of the list. And this is one other reason why we should be very sanguine about what schools can do here. The most popular answers are peers and media institutions and family. And they’ve kind of gone alternate amongst themselves over the years, but those are the three dominant places where kids get their sexual information, or, I might say, misinformation. But like five-percent of kids check that.

MOHLER: Yeah, for me, I had parents who did really a wonderful job, and at a very age-appropriate way of what I would consider to be a very wholesome sex education. And my mother is a Registered Nurse, so trust me, it was quite factual. But I was hearing about contraception in the eighth grade, as in varieties and methods of, and I think in one sense that might have been more liberal than would have been the case in most school districts in America, and maybe more explicit than what would be found in a lot of school districts even now.
ZIMMERMAN: You know, it varies. And I know that’s a cliché, but I think we always have to remind ourselves that there’s 14,000 school districts. And so what sex-ed looks like in one part of the country or even in one part of the state is often going to be hugely different from what it looks like in another part of the country or the state. But you know, I would encourage your listeners not necessarily to make an assumption about the liberal nature of a curriculum that includes contraception, because the question in all kinds of education is always, “What’s the goal here?” And it may well have been in your Fort Lauderdale school that the goal was kind of closer to a European model of encouraging each individual to make their own choices, or it might actually have been folded into that old goal of “don’t do it or else.” The presence of contraception as a subject I don’t think necessarily speaks to a liberal or a conservative goal; it depends on the purposes of the lesson.

MOHLER: The bigger issue that ends like a bomb in your book, to tell you the truth, is I think an irrefutable fact. And let me just cite it where you write it on page 148 of your book. You write, “When it came to sex, however, the most influential global force was never the school. Starting with magazines and films and culminating in television and the internet, mass media had a much more profound effect on children’s sexuality in the twentieth century than any set of formal educational institutions.”

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, and it’s been that way for a hundred years. I mean there’s a really strong survey of literature about this. And it’s probably more so today because the kids have so many more screens to look at, right?
MOHLER: Absolutely.

ZIMMERMAN: And you might not like this fact, but the kids are in front of screens much more than they’re in school. I mean, you add up the amount of screen time that our kids have, screens of every kind, it’s vastly greater than the amount of time they’re in classrooms.

MOHLER: Yeah, going back to 1981, you cite a director of an American Principal’s Association who had a rather pithy way of putting it, and this is again 1981: “A twelve minute film strip is hardly a match for two years of R-rated films every weekend.”

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, and I really like that quote because it really embodies I think a recurring theme in the history of sex ed. We’ve been trying to do this for 100 years; we’ve been trying to use schools to somehow control or rein in these media messages, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try but again I think we should be really realistic and sanguine about what schools can do in this realm. The media is much more ubiquitous; it’s much more attractive; it’s just stronger. And so going back to the 1920s, I mean I have this passage I really love about the first international sex ed conference which was in Finland, and the Americans are kind of running the show there because they were the pioneers of the subject. But the great irony is the Europeans are saying, you know, “You’re actually a big part of the problem. You know why? Hollywood!”

MOHLER: Exactly.

ZIMMERMAN: Because this is the era of the silver screen, and we’ve got Greta Garbo and Rudy Valentino—neither of whom were Americans, by the way, but anyway—the Americans do a big mea culpa and they say, “Oh yeah, you’re right, those terrible images. And that’s precisely why we need to engage the school to counter them.”

MOHLER: Yes. I think, by the way, that’s an irrefutable point. I think every parent will probably recognize the fact that there really isn’t an argument that there’s anything more powerful than the mass media in conveying moral messaging, and in particular sexual messaging in this culture.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. And again, for good or ill, right? Again, I’m not trying to say that all of the images in the media are harmful or immoral in some way. I do think that some of them are. But the media itself is a rather variegated thing. I mean, you and I are participating in the mass media right now!

MOHLER: Indeed we are! We are a part of the great monster, even as we speak! Now in your book, you also make a very interesting point, because you talk about a global history. And in one sense it becomes global towards the midpoint of the storyline here. But it also becomes global in a different way, not just in terms of the fact that you look at some models in Africa and elsewhere, but because, setting it in its context from the Age of Empire into the Cold War and beyond, you also talk about how the situation is changing in Europe and the United States because of immigrant communities coming here now.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s right. You know, I think that one of the takeaways of the book, hopefully, is that the real inhibitor on sex education, on the growth and development of sex ed, is globalization itself. I think that especially among liberals, there’s a lot of facile discussion of globalization, and people who are liberals assume that globalization is going to spawn something that they like or that they want—some sort of cosmopolitanism or liberalization of this or that. And I think the sex ed story shows precisely the opposite. If by globalization we mean the rapid movement of people and ideas across borders, I would say that in the past 20 years, especially in places like Sweden and Holland, it’s been a major inhibitor on sex education because many, although not all of those immigrants, are coming from Africa and Asia, many of them are coming from devout Muslim and Hindu communities and they object very strongly—many of them, not all—to the sex ed messages that they see in schools. So globalization has been a huge check on sex education, rather than a promoter of it.

MOHLER: You are a professor of history, and yet I think it’s not unfair to ask you to look to the future. In both the American and the European and even the global context, what do you see as the future of sex education and the controversies likely to emerge?

ZIMMERMAN: I think the future of school sex education is going to be a lot like the past. And what that means is very little both in terms of substance and in terms of effect. Please understand I’m not saying I’m opposed to school based sex education. I’m not. But I think that precisely because of our diversity, which has become ever more enhanced by globalization, our schools are not going to be able to transmit anything but the most banal and non-controversial messages about sex, which for the most part will go in one ear and out the other. However, I also want to emphasize that the discussion we have had thus far about sex education has only been about schools. That’s the subject of my book. And when you say to most Americans “sex education” that conjures school. But I would suggest to you that’s a very narrow understanding of education. And those of us who work in formal school settings are very biased on this subject. We tend to equate school and education because, well, we work in schools and we want to matter, right? Most people do. But especially on the subject, I think we need to take a much broader view, and we need to think of education in a much wider way. And I think especially in the mass media, there are some very promising sex education developments that have nothing to do with schools. For example, there are state health departments that run these text messaging services where if you’re an adolescent kid and you have a question about sex, you can text someone who actually knows what they’re talking about—imaging that, right?—as opposed to a peer who doesn’t. And they will text you back. And this has a lot of advantages I think. First of all, it meets the kids where they are. Again we can bemoan the fact that they are on the screens all the time, but we can’t deny it, right? They are. It meets the kids where they are, and it’s also individuated. That is, it is generated by the individual kid and the answer is tailored to them. That is sex ed too. It is not sex ed like teacher get’s up and talks about the sperm and the egg. But it’s sex ed, and I think there are a lot of indications it’s very promising!

MOHLER: Let me ask you another question directed towards this conversation. And that is, if you could for a moment advise American evangelical Christians about how we can helpfully contribute to this national conversation, what would be your advice?

ZIMMERMAN: Oh boy, that’s a great question. I think the first thing I would urge is for any listener who’s concerned about this subject to find out what their school is actually doing and to be quite skeptical about some of the things they read in the mass media about sex education. Because this is such an emotional subject and so deeply tied to our sense of ourselves as human beings, it is also a very easily distorted subject. And across time, I’ve found people who believe that the teachers are giving how to recipes for achieving sexual pleasure. There’s no evidence for these sorts of distortions. But they spread through the media. So the first thing I would encourage listeners to do is to find out what’s happening and not take at face value the criticism they hear from someone else. The next thing I would urge people to do is to accept the fact that the school is going to be limited in what it can do. I think in general we probably expect too much from our schools. We burden them, they have a huge amount of responsibility that they didn’t have before. I do think there’s a place to provide information as needed to adolescents about sex, but schools are not going to be solvent to this problem. And I would urge people not to rely too much on schools and, again, to take a wider view of education and to think about sex education as emitting from numerous nodes, starting with the family and going through media institutions, and not burden the schools.

MOHLER: I deeply appreciate the conversation, professor. I want to ask you, what’s your next project? By the time something of this magnitude comes out, I know you’re on to something else.

ZIMMERMAN: Yes, there’s several of them. I have a book coming out in August about campus politics which takes off from all of the demonstrations on campuses in November. You remember at Mizzou the football team trying to boycott, and protests about Woodrow Wilson, trying to historicize that a little bit and ask how are campus protests today compared to earlier generations and what we can learn from that.

MOHLER: Professor Zimmerman, thank you for joining me on Thinking in Public.

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you, it was really fun.

MOHLER: I really enjoyed the conversation with Professor Zimmerman. The title of his book is Too Hot to Handle, and there was a question as to how exactly this kind of conversation could be handled, because after all, if you’re talking about sex education, it could go off in any number of ways. The sensitivities there are absolutely apparent; they are unavoidable. And yet, the book by Professor Zimmerman is really important because of its historical focus and the quality of its analysis. He does tell a story. There’s a narrative that drives the book, and it has to do with the emergence of the idea that schools should teach sex or sex education, and then the inevitable questions that would follow: how, when, what would be taught, and who would do the teaching.
As it turns out, many of the controversies in the beginning of the sex education movement are questions that continue to this day. And I would argue, they’re inevitable because if you’re going to talk about sex education and if you’re going to talk about young people in the schools, you’re going to have to talk about what will be taught and how that will be morally presented or if it’s to be presented morally at all, at least in terms of any traditional morality.

But that’s of course the issue. When you look at the story Professor Zimmerman tells, it is a story of pluralism and diversity, even when it comes to sex education. As he makes very clear, the European trajectory was quite different than the American trajectory or what might be broadened to an English-speaking trajectory. In the United States, the issue was first and foremost public health, whether that was defined as hygiene or by some other kind of public health metaphor. The reality is, the concern was collective behavior and how sex education could be used to prepare a generation behaviorally if not morally to avoid some of the public health consequences of sex. You might say that we see this today in the claims that sex education is primarily about either preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases or lowering the teen pregnancy rate, as if those are the sole issues of concern. But if you are going to frame sex education in purely hygienic terms, in terms of public health and public policy, then those are the issues you talk about. And this is where many American parents would counter, where’s the morality?And of course, the morality is there. Despite those protestations on the part of many sex educators that they are not teaching a morality, you can’t teach sexuality without explicitly implying a morality. And furthermore, eventually explicitly delineating what that morality might look like.

In the United States, we now see two rival understandings of what it means to be human. There are many varieties of these two rivals, but the basic distinction is between those who see the human being as a divinely designed creature who is, after all, not self-defining and certainly not autonomous—not in the modern sense that we see in that second conception of humanity that sees human beings as autonomous individuals. And of course, both of these imply a certain understanding of adolescence. In the first model, we might describe that as most consistent with a biblical theology and a biblical worldview, adolescence is understood as a necessary process—physiological, but also psychological and spiritual—that helps the individual grow from being a child to growing into adulthood, and does so in order that that individual might fulfill the purposes of adulthood within the overarching design for humanity and marriage and family and human sexuality as found in Scripture. The second understanding, the second worldview applied to adolescence, sees it as a period where the adolescent is emerging as an autonomous individual, and thus the concern is to prepare that autonomous individual best to exercise that autonomy. But here’s the problem of course: if you’re actually hoping to have autonomous individuals who will emerge, you can’t speak about any binding sexual morality as anything other than what might be an option, an option to be set alongside others to be chosen by the self-actualizing autonomous human individual. By the way, that is why the modern secular understanding of adolescence has produced such a long period of adolescence. Other factors surely play a part, including economics and other sociological issues, but the reality is it is clearly taking these supposedly autonomous individuals a much longer time than in times past to emerge as autonomous or as adult individuals.

Christians listening to this conversation—especially American evangelical Christians—will understand that the issue of our discussion has been at the center of so many of the cultural conflicts of the last several decades, and of course inevitably so. If you’re deciding that the schools will teach sex in any way, if sex education is to be assigned to the schools, and if the schools are to belong to the common community, then inevitably there will be debates—and that’s putting it mildly—about what will be taught and how the entire process should be conceived and then delivered.

Professor Zimmerman’s scope is of course the American public schools. But largely missing from the story is the fact that it was sex education and a progressivist liberal vision of sex education, either in perception or fact, as Professor Zimmerman points out, school district by school district, that is at least based enough in fact that many Christian parents simply withdrew their children not only from sex education in the public schools but from the public schools themselves. The exodus of so many from public schools in America in especially the last several decades and especially among American evangelicals, can be traced in large part to the phenomenon of sex education in the schools and the debates about that sex education, and to the fact that Christians are rightly aware of the fact that when one is teaching sex education, one is actually talking about what it means to be human and what it means to be sexual beings and how we are to understand the purpose for that sexuality and whether we are to receive it as a boundary gift or as an experiment in personal autonomy.

I deeply appreciate Jonathan Zimmerman’s very careful review of these issues in his book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, and I especially appreciate what I previously described as that bomb that ends of the book, that irrefutable judgment that it is not the schools after all that have been the primary engines for the sex education of young people in the United States and beyond. Increasingly and pervasively, it is the mass media. That statement from that school principal that he recorded and I cited, going back to 1981, when the principal said and I quote, “A 12 minute film strip is hardly a match for two years of R rated films every weekend” is a reminder to parents that sex education cannot be limited in concept to what is going on in the schools, or for that matter not going on, because sex education is going on around us all the time. It is the 24/7 ubiquitous fog, it’s the cloud of a universe around us that is bombarding us with all kinds of sexual messaging all the time, and not just coming in terms of R-rated movies and Hollywood’s products, but the entertainment culture writ large and the advertisement culture and, for that matter, trends in fashion and just about everything else. One of the things Professor Zimmerman also makes very clear is that peers rank very, very high in terms of the source of conversation if not knowledge about sex among young people. That’s not new, indeed it can’t be new, but it is another fact that parents must keep in mind.

But finally, when it comes to speaking especially to the Christian church and Christian parents there’s something else that simply leaps out at me from this book, and this is this: if we don’t expect that sex education is first of all rightly assigned to schools, then to whom is it assigned? One of the issues made clear here, is that if parents fulfilled their responsibility as the primary sex educators of their children, much of this would be unnecessary. Now of course, that wouldn’t cover many children in the public schools who might not have the benefit, indeed do not have the benefit of parents who would teach in that way. And furthermore for Christians, we understand that it is the Christian worldview that distinctively teaches us the origin and purpose of the sexual gift and God’s design for that gift that takes the form of commandments statutes and laws and principles.

I appreciated Professor Zimmerman’s answer to my question when I asked him how American evangelical Christians can be a helpful part of this conversation in terms of the larger culture, and of course we have a great deal invested in what happens in the public schools. But regardless of where our children are, it is the Christian who must understand it is our responsibility, first of all as parents but also as the Christian church, to make certain the right messaging about sexuality is received by and understood by our own children and young people. And furthermore that means that it must be received by and affirmed by and lived out by the adults in the congregation as well.

In this sense, in a biblical sense, sex education is taking place all of the time and every single one of us is a sex educator. As Professor Zimmerman implies in his book, some people consider sex education to be too hot to handle. But this is where Christians have to understand that the Bible is so explicit and clear in its teaching on human sexuality because it isn’t too hot to handle, it is simply too important not to.


Again, thanks to my guest Professor Jonathan Zimmerman for thinking with me today. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to  Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.