Alexandria Digital Research Library

An American Religious History of Sex Education

Slominski, Kristy L.
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Religious Studies
Degree Supervisor:
Catherine L. Albanese
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Education, History of., Education, Religious, Religion, General, and Religion, History of.
Venereal disease
Liberal religion
American history
Abstinence-only education
Sex education
Social hygiene
Dissertations, Academic and Online resources
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2015

Opposition between conservative, evangelical abstinence-only advocates and liberal, secular comprehensive sexuality educators has come to characterize American sex education. This formulation has led cultural observers to conclude that "religion" has been primarily a restrictive force, with little attention paid to the impact of liberal religious sex educators. In this history, I argue that, before conservative religious prominence, liberals---primarily Protestants---set the tone for religion within the national movement for public sex education. I conclude that their work, which strategically combined progressive and restrictive approaches to sexuality, unintentionally laid foundations for both liberal and conservative sides of contemporary controversies over sex education.

Through their involvement, liberal ministers and organizations influenced major shifts in the teaching of sexuality. I contextualize their contributions within five phases of the movement for public sex education: the roots of social hygiene education, the early institutionalization of sex education programs, and the separate developments of family life education, comprehensive sexuality education, and abstinence-only education. Taking religious influences seriously reveals new actors, themes, and strategies within each phase. To anchor the study, I focus on organizations dedicated principally to public sex education, namely the America Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) for the period prior to 1960 and the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States (SIECUS) for the remainder of the century. My approach shows not only how religion influenced the mainstream movement, but also how the movement impacted its religious participants, especially through their interactions with physicians, public health officials, public school teachers, and other sex educators. Encounters with medical and social scientific trends inspired strategies for adapting Christianity to a quickly changing American society.

Chapter one demonstrates that liberal religion entered early sex education through the social purity and social hygiene movements that came together to form ASHA in 1914. The next chapter explores the emergence of the Young Men's Christian Association as ASHA's partner in providing moral education about sexuality within colleges, the military, and local Ys. Chapter three shows how the liberal religious influences of Anna Garlin Spencer and the Federal Council of Churches transformed ASHA's sex education into family life education beginning in 1925. The fourth chapter traces the shift from family life education to comprehensive sexuality education and the embrace of the "new morality," or situation ethics, by SIECUS educators. In the final chapter, I address struggles between two competing versions of sex education after the emergence of abstinence-only education in the 1980s as an evangelical replacement for comprehensive curricula.

As religious people pushed to develop sex education, they held onto the reins as best they could. They broke ground for new ways of envisioning responsibility for sex education (expansion) with the goal of controlling moral behavior (contraction). As they pushed the movement forward, they often succeeded in adapting and molding it to their religious vision, complete with ambivalences and unexpected outcomes. In particular, I analyze historical ironies that developed around women's sexuality, religious pluralism, and abstinence.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (332 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Kristy Slominski
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