The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.

It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.

Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures.

Before the Storm

As urbanization in the United States hit an uptick in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so did the public’s interest in sex education. The same sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that had always existed posed greater dangers in dense cities, where they could now spread farther and faster. At the same time, industrialization introduced new roles for women and changing attitudes about sex and procreation. Children had been assets to rural families that needed more bodies to help with herding and harvests, but to urban families, they could bring costs to the home in the form of food, clothing, and health care. Modernization made the necessity for sex ed manifold.

In 1892, the National Education Association issued a call for “moral education in the schools” — or sex ed, when translated from Victorian to today’s English. Already, a growing publishing industry had developed around medical guides and marriage manuals for knowledge-hungry adults, but a curriculum for youth followed a slower path. It wasn’t until 1913 that Chicago became the first major city to teach sex ed in all of its high schools. Although the “Chicago Experiment” got a cold reception, overall support for sex ed persisted, and by 1927, 45 percent of U.S. high schools were teaching some form of sex ed.

In its earliest iterations, sex ed was moralistic and highly fear-based by today’s standards, much of it fueled by concerns about STDs among urban prostitutes and soldiers returning from a more sexually liberal Europe. In a society that was still highly segregated by race — and to a lesser extent sex — it was also rife with racist stereotypes, rigid gender expectations, and occasional appeals to eugenics. With titles like Social Purity, materials for white audiences often emphasized sexual hygiene as a way to maintain racial distinction and a robust population. For black Americans, patronizing messages about the importance of personal and family respectability were common.

How the Civil Rights Movement Became a Catalyst for Concern

Although sex ed always had some critics among puritans and other social conservatives, it largely avoided widespread and concerted opposition until the late 1960s. Resistance reached new heights in part because of the so-called sexual revolution, the new era of women’s sexual empowerment that feminism and birth control played a big part in launching. The social conservatives who saw moral downfall in the changing culture searched for places to draw a line in the sand — and they eventually zeroed in on sex ed.

However, it wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex — suddenly at the behest of women as much as men — that stirred the anxieties of the old guard. So, too, did interracial sex. Among those who wanted to control women’s bodies, some of the most outspoken were those who wanted to control white women’s bodies first and foremost.

The racism that upheld systems of slavery, segregation, and lynching was deeply gendered, fraught with notions of vulnerable white women who required protection from the sexual interests of black men. Those notions elevated white men to a place of chivalry while relegating black men to a place of crude impulses and animal appetites. At the same time, they dovetailed with apprehension about the possibility of seeing the white race outnumbered and displaced from power as a result of non-white fertility — as well as the tides of immigration. Patriarchy was embedded in racism, because procreation was viewed as a battleground that could determine the future of the white race.

By the time the sexual revolution arrived, so had school desegregation, as well as a broader Civil Rights Movement to integrate other spaces and challenge discrimination in employment, voting, and other facets of American life. The gendered nature of racism meant that the sexual revolution and Civil Rights Movement often faced backlash from the same circles. It also put sex ed in the crosshairs of people whose unease about female sexual autonomy was heightened by the prospect of seeing it occur in racially diverse spaces. The idea that children and teens would be learning about sex in integrated classrooms was a two-pronged threat.

The Ringleaders

By 1968, an organized campaign against sex ed was beginning to form. In the spring of that year, Christian Crusade Publications, a company founded by segregationist preacher Billy James Hargis, published Blackboard Power. Penned by Gordon V. Drake, the book warned that sex education was “a new scheme designed to demoralize our youth.” Besides sex ed, it covered other conservative concerns about public education, including the racial unrest in U.S. schools. While Gordon’s racial overtones were more subtle, Hargis was known for being adamant in his belief that segregation was “God’s plan” and “one of natures (sic) universal laws.”

Later in 1968, Rep. John Rarick of Louisiana entered critical remarks about sex education into the Congressional Record. Rarick was known as a segregationist politician who had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he first entered politics (and who later in life supported David Duke’s bid for the House of Representatives).

The racial dimensions of Rarick’s opposition to sex ed were made clear in a radio interview he did in 1969. Speaking to the Bible Institute of the Air, a program broadcast from Mesa, Arizona, Rarick warned of “Negro militants” in the nation’s capital, among them a woman who viewed sex education as “the only solution to the race problem” because it would teach teens to “in-breed with different races.” In his racial paranoia, he viewed sex ed as a conspiracy to create “the One International Brown Man.”

Throughout 1969, Rarick shared repeated warnings about sex ed before Congress, on one occasion telling of a sex educators’ conference where one subject was interracial sex among adolescent white girls. He claimed that attendees openly discussed how those white teens took an interest in sex outside their race “to show their concern and atone for white guilt.”

Other segregationists joined Rarick’s cause, including Lee Dodson, who was active in both the White Citizens Council and the Liberty Lobby, a group that released an anti-sex ed sound recording titled The Child Seducers. Rarick’s paranoia was also echoed by Jan Pippenger, a concerned parent in Anaheim, California, when the debate over sex education reached her city. She shared unverified anecdotes about black and white students who were encouraged to dance together in darkened rooms, listening to “wild African music” and experiencing “strange sexual feelings.” Another Anaheim parent worried that her children would become “mere pieces of meat in a racial stew.”

Anaheim and other parts of Orange County were represented at the time by James Utt, a congressman who had raised eyebrows years earlier by suggesting that the United Nations was training “a large contingent of barefoot Africans” to take over the United States. He had voted against the Civil Rights Act and opposed Hawaii’s admission to the union on the grounds that it was populated by too many non-whites and not enough Christians. Utt abhorred the idea of interracial sex and feared that the Civil Rights Movement had become a new haven for it.

1960s anti-Semitic and anti-communist propaganda targeting interracial sex. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Utt sympathized with the John Birch Society, and like the Birchers, he believed communists were behind both the Civil Rights Movement and the push for sex education in our schools. They were both seen as programs to dismantle the social order and the reigning morals of the nation. Those suspicions were shared by others in the war against sex ed, including Billy James Hargis, Gordon Drake, and Rep. Rarick.

Red-baiting, or accusations of communist ties, was a common tactic conservatives used to discredit social movements. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, it served as a way to dress their concerns in less explicitly racist terms — and to bring people who had little or nothing invested in segregation to their cause.

As Utt’s grandson told the Laguna Beach Indy in 2016, the congressman’s rhetoric was wholly in line with a brand of conservatism that had grown among middle-class suburbanites of that era. “There were anti-communist reading groups, stop sex education groups, and an explosion of evangelical churches,” he said, adding that “xenophobic nationalism” constantly stirred “a fear of the ‘other,’ be he dark-skinned or Jewish.”

When Utt died in office in 1970, a senior aide at his funeral commented on the “nice and respectful” treatment by the police who handled the procession. “I wouldn’t even mind if they did this for a Negro funeral,” the aide added, implying that the norm for non-whites should be second-class citizenship.

Though Utt’s personal campaign against sex ed was cut short, the war lived on in his absence. By the end of the 1970s, only three states and the District of Columbia required sex education in their school curriculum.

The Battle Today

The war against sex education eventually took on a life of its own, with racial animosity a waning influence among its most outspoken critics. By the turn of the century, opinion research found that a majority of Americans had favorable views of interracial marriage. Horror stories about racially mixed classrooms dancing to provocative African rhythms would have less resonance as racial attitudes from the Jim Crow era receded from public consciousness.

At the same time, religious conservatives eventually changed their approach, no longer calling for the removal of sex education but instead pushing for sanitized replacements that stressed abstinence. Red-baiting and racist alarmism disappeared for the most part, but a 1996 report by People for the American Way did make note of “racist and classist comments” in some material. One text they quoted warned that differences in cultural backgrounds could be “hurdles too high for some couples to negotiate,” seemingly discouraging interracial relationships rather than encouraging increased understanding.

Even if panic over race and Reds has faded in relevance, there’s still a current of irrationality in the war on sex ed. Studies of abstinence-only programs have found no evidence that they result in sexual abstinence among youth. In addition to being ineffective, they are also harmful, leaving students to their own devices when it comes to avoiding pregnancy, protecting themselves from STDs, or understanding consent.

Today, an overwhelming majority of parents support sex education in both middle and high schools. However, only half of all states mandate sex education, and the remainder leave it up to school districts to decide whether to provide it. Where it is taught, content often falls short of comprehensive, with fewer than half of all schools covering all of the topics recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Information on consent, contraception, and other critical topics hangs in the balance.

Beyond those topics, advocates for comprehensive, medically accurate sex education are also broadening their idea of what effective curriculum should entail. It includes respect and healthy decision-making; diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity; and information that is not only age-appropriate but also culturally appropriate.

A 50-year war on sex ed has left a mountain of work for advocates and educators. But it should also provide reassurances that their work can endure whatever irrational arguments are thrown at it.