United States sexual education programs are not a neutral force. Sexual education programs do not simply offer lessons in anatomy and biology, but also in specific forms of gendered social behavior and heterosexuality. In Sex Goes to School, Susan K. Freeman writes that “the history of sex education could be viewed as an exercise of social control” (Freeman 2008, xi). While Freeman adds that this perspective can be limiting and may diminish individual student’s agency, it is nevertheless well worth considering that those who create materials for sexual education view it as a possible method of instilling values in students. Moreover, by being classified as part of the education system, these programs send the message that those teaching it, and by extension, any materials they choose to use, are an unquestionable authority on the subject and have a set of right answers. Examination of sexual education films can allow for a deeper understanding of how heterosexuality has been taught and maintained. In particular, this paper focuses on 1960’s sexual education films. I argue that these films provide a way to mandate heterosexuality, stigmatize homosexuality, and push back against a growing sexual revolution.


The Beginnings of Sex Education in the United States

To understand how heterosexuality is taught through sex education, it is useful to first examine why and how the programs were created. The invention of sex education in the United States can be traced back to 1913, when a group of physicians, lawyers, and social activists, headed by Grace Hadley Dodge, conceived of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). The ASHA was an early champion of sex education (Moran 2000, 32; Luker 2006, 37-38). They saw the ASHA as a solution to the problems of prostitution and venereal disease (Luker 2006, 41-43). Joined by other groups and professions—sociologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and family life specialists among them—sex education caught on and expanded. Sexual education was cemented in the United States; between the end of World War I and the 1960’s, sex education would be largely comprised of “preparation for marriage,” “an attempt to discourage premarital sex,” and “training for ‘responsible parenthood’” (Luker 2006, 59-60).

An advertisement for military sexual education film, Fit to Win.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fit_to_Win_(1919)_-_Ad_1.jpg.

As the world changed, sexual education was martialed to various causes. Some early sex education films, created during WWI and used in the ensuing years, were made for the United States military. As such, these films were intended to strengthen the United States military, and primarily addressed sexually transmitted diseases, which ran rampant through soldier populations. The films offered both graphic, troubling images of those afflicted with syphilis and gonorrhea as a deterrent. The title of the program was Fit to Fight, emphasizing the need for soldiers to remain disease-free and better serve their country (Eberwein 1999, 22-25). These films continued to be used and produced through WWII (Eberwein 1999, 63-65). Besides linking sexual fitness and health to good citizenship, these films contain underlying assumptions about sexual behavior and gender difference. Sexual desire is seen as exclusively a male desire, and the films assume that men will act on this desire—hence the focus on prophylaxis and the prevention of disease. In contrast, women in this time period are advised to avoid sex outside of marriage. Instead of prophylaxis, abstinence is the key to remaining healthy (Eberwein 1999, 95).

As Valerie Huber and Michael Firmin note in “A History of Sex Education,” sex education was also folded into “the character education movement” (Huber, Firmin 2014, 35). During the 1940s and 1950s, as sexual education was increasingly taught in public schools, sex education fell under the larger term “family life education” (Huber, Firmin 2014, 35). Other aspects of family life education include “character building, relationships, money management, marriage, and childbearing” (Huber, Firmin 2014, 36). By linking sex education with the aforementioned categories, the status of sex itself becomes solidified: as something done for procreation, as something fundamentally different for men and women—both physically and mentally, as something meant to take scope within marriage, and thusly, as exclusively a part of a heterosexual lifestyle. This focus on essentialist gender roles and gender difference is integral to maintaining heterosexuality; men’s strong desire for female bodies is still assumed.

These various focal points can be observed in sexual education films made specifically for public schools. One early, popular sex education film made for schools was Human Growth (1948). In May 1948, Life magazine ran a story on the showing of Human Growth in Eugene, Oregon (Eberwein 1999, 1). The film would also be the subject of articles in Time and Newsweek, demonstrating the degree to which sex education had become an interesting part of the United States education system. Human Growth is focused on anatomy, with depictions of fallopian tubes, ovaries, and sperm, and a focus on menstruation, puberty, and basic sexual anatomy (Human Growth 1948). The end goal of sex, as seen through the film, is pregnancy and traditional families.

Human Growth is not without its problems. Eberwein notes the following problems in Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire: the omission of the clitoris, sexual pleasure, and masturbation, the lack of African American students in the depicted classroom, and the emphasis on “manly” and “womanly” (Eberwein 1999, 3, 114). However, there is another problem with the film that is constant in many sexual education films: assumed heterosexuality. Human Growth does this not only by focusing on gendered difference and thereby, essentialist gendered behavior, but also by depicting sex as an offshoot of pregnancy. It thereby obliterates not only sex for pleasure, but also sex between women and between men.


Characterizing the 1960s and Sex Education

In the 1960’s, social movements towards sexual liberation and women’s rights came into the forefront of the American public imaginary. As Kristin Luker notes in When Sex Goes to School, “on the level of lived experience, the sixties and the sexual revolution broke down a set of hierarchies that most people took for granted” (Luker 72). Among these hierarchies were insistence on the pairing of sex and marriage, and the total scandal (among middle and upper-class white families) of unplanned pregnancy. These changes, among shortened hemlines and freer sexual behavior, endured through the 1970’s, where even more changed and debates over sex education grew even more heated (Luker 70-71).

Birth control pills marked a new way of thinking about the role of sex.

Among the biggest sexual changes of the 1960s was the introduction of birth control pills, which made clear that sex was not simply for those in a marriage—a sentiment echoed by a “vocal minority” of Beatniks and hippies (Huber, Firmin 2014, 37). In 1964, Dr. Mary S. Calderone founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which believed that “sex education’s purpose was not to force sexual standards on anyone but merely to make information available,” a strong break with a tradition of sex education that focused on sex only as an element of marriage (Moran 2000, 161-162). Dr. Calderone is still credited with playing a major part in “recasting contraception and

[…] sexuality education as essential to human health and well-being” (More, Fee 2015, 2255).

Backlash against the freer sexual culture of the 1960’s can be seen in the sex education films used in public schools. In many ways, it is worthwhile to read the sex education films of the 1960’s as reactionary to these movements. These films were not created in reaction to a perceived sexual revolution, but their continued use—rather than updating to films that more accurately reflected the changing times—can be seen as a reactionary stance.

By and large, sex education films in this time period ignore homosexuality (Moran 2000, 76). In this way, heterosexuality is assumed and implicitly enforced. Without so much as a tacit mention of feelings for members of the same sex for men or for women, adolescents who might have those feelings are thereby silenced, told by omission of their experience that they are abnormal, or, in the films that do address homosexuality, even mentally unstable.

Since homosexuality rarely appears in sex education materials, films such as Boys Beware (1961) are all the more noteworthy. Boys Beware was released by Sid Davis Productions. It was shot in Inglewood, California, and produced with the city’s police department and the Inglewood Unified School District. The film was originally shown in Inglewood (“Archive” 2003). However, the Attorney General of Florida, Richard Gerstein, also recommended that high schools in Dade County, FL, show the film, which shows that it had, at least, a far reach (Hensley 2015). It was also remade in 1973 in full color, which indicates that it was called for enough to be reused over ten years later (“Archive” 2003).

Boys Beware condemns homosexuality and links it with criminal behavior. The emphasis on crime is immediately apparent; the film is narrated by voice-over by a police officer, and the four plots are from his case files. The first story is about a boy named Jimmy Barnes who hitchhikes home from baseball. He strikes up a friendship with the driver of the car, who gives him rides home on several occasions. Jimmy and the man go out for soda and go fishing. Eventually, Jimmy is shown pornography by the man, at which point the narrator reveals that the man is a homosexual, afflicted with “a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous or contagious, a sickness of the mind” (Boys Beware 1961). It is unclear what exact homosexual activities Jimmy and the man get into. Nor would viewers of the film be certain what homosexuality is; no mention is made of the pornography being focused on men. However, the man is arrested, and Jimmy released on probation, indicating that he is no longer an innocent party. Homosexuality is equated with promiscuous behavior, and is also seen as contagious: as something that youth can be infected with, and as a serious crime.

In the second story, homosexuality is linked with violence. Mike Merrick, the second boy in the video, is subjected to a more aggressive homosexual man, who watches him play basketball. Mike accepts a ride home from the stranger, and is killed. The voiceover narrates that “Mike traded his life for a newspaper headline” (Boys Beware 1961). Again, what is interesting here is that homosexuality is a nebulous concept allied with crime and violence. However, death has nothing to do with homosexual activity, and any sexual activity is implied so subtly as to be almost invisible. Instead, homosexuals seem to have little to do with attraction to the opposite sex. These trends continue through the next two stories, which add kidnapping to the list of crimes homosexuals seem to be innately guilty of. The final story warns against going off alone and against public restrooms, where homosexuals spend time.

From Boys Beware, the following vision of a gay man is given: predatory, prone to violence, a person who may seem normal but is in fact, mentally ill. However, only the first story can plausibly seem to have anything to do with sex, and even then, that homosexuality involves sexual attraction to the same gender is far from obvious. The homosexual is simply pushed into the same category as any criminal. For adolescents who are unfamiliar with what exactly homosexuality entails, this film will not offer any answers.

The companion film to Boys Beware is Girls Beware, which was also produced by Sid Davis productions in association with the Inglewood police and public schools, and likely viewed in similar settings. From the content in Boys Beware, it would seem likely that the Girls Beware film would be similarly engaged in warnings about and against homosexuals. One would imagine that in this instance, the homosexuals would be lesbian women rather than gay men. However, Girls Beware has nothing to do with homosexuality. Instead, the film focuses on male sexual predators. Sexual desire, therefore, becomes exclusively the territory of men, erasing the possibility of lesbianism entirely.

In fact, Girls Beware is predicated on notions of innate sexual difference between men and women. While Boys Beware depicted boys playing at the beach, playing sports, and fishing, Girls Beware shows girls babysitting, going to the movies, and flirting, subtly demonstrating which spheres are open to each gender. Men and women are seen as acting in specific ways, none of which are open to homosexual activity.

The format of Girls Beware mimics Boys Beware, with a female police secretary and four cases. The first case is that of Judy, a girl who accepts a babysitting job over the phone after advertising at her local supermarket. When her mother attempts to contact her later, the phone number given is incorrect. Judy is missing for a week, and eventually murdered. Judy’s assailant is also called “mentally ill.” In contrast to Judy, Barbara, another babysitter, politely declines to allow a man into the house, and avoids a stranger and possible aggressor. Like Boys Beware, emphasis is placed on the individual’s ability to stay safe by avoiding stranger. Unlike Boys Beware, girls are not made complicit, indicating perhaps that they cannot participate in sexual desire.

The latter plots illustrate the dangers of male sexual desire. Sally and Elizabeth, the subject of the third case, attend the movies and meet two older boys. Sally allows the boys to give her a ride home, while Elizabeth chooses the safer option of going home with a parent. The boys drive to a remote place, and Elizabeth becomes nervous after they drive past her home and park off the road. The boys advance on Sally in the car, and the camera fades to black. Sally is later found wandering down the road, dazed and confused. Terms such as ‘rape,’ and ‘sexual assault’ are not used, and instead, the blame is placed solely on Sally. Nor are Sally’s rapists punished at all. Moreover, although two boys took Sally, no mention is made of any activity between the boys; complete and total heterosexuality is once again assumed.

Mary, a teenage girl, meets Robert, an unemployed high school graduate, at a local malt shop. They start a relationship, and while initially their relationship is happy, Robert soon grows possessive and restricts Mary’s time with her friends. Mary and Robert become intimate, and though Mary does not want to, she “complies with his desire” (Girls Beware 1961). Mary becomes pregnant, and is placed under “the guidance of juvenile authorities” (Girls Beware 1961). Robert is not mentioned again; Mary alone bears the punishment of pregnancy. Sex is condemned outside of marriage. In addition, sex is tacitly defined as an act between a man and a woman. The end result of illicit sex is pregnancy, leaving aside any possibility of homosexual sexual activity.

There are several contrasts besides the one noted above with Boys Beware that are well-worth investigating. For example, the homosexuals in Boys Beware are always caught and imprisoned. In Girls Beware, the boys and men who abduct and rape women and girls are never caught. Instead, a focus is placed on the girl’s punishment. Perhaps these separate punishments are for separate audiences: the girls who need to be reminded to stay chaste, and boys who need to maintain their heterosexuality. Regardless, homosexuality thereby appears a far greater crime in these films than rape or sexual assault.

While Boys Beware is overtly against homosexuality, Girls Beware contains more subtle messages about heterosexuality. The lack of homosexuality in these films, a deafening silence considering its partner film, reinforces heterosexual norms, particularly for women. While homosexual men are at least acknowledged to exist, women who are attracted to other women are invisible.

It is not surprising that these films fail to account for homosexuality. Homosexuality was medically considered a mental illness through the 1970s. However, as we move forward, it is important to note that heterosexuality has been carefully taught. Hopefully, later sexual education films can present a more nuanced view of sexuality and gender.





Albert Productions. 1947. Human Growth. MPEG at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/0239_Human_Growth_00_23_35_00.

Eberwein, Robert. Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Davis, Sid. 1961. Boys Beware. MPEG at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/boys_beware.

Davis, Sid. 1961. Girls Beware. MPEG at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/girls_beware

Freeman, Susan K. Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Hensley, Nicole. 2015. “Mo. Teacher Suspended after showing anti-gay PSA to Class.” New York Daily News, May 7. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mo-teacher-suspended-showing-anti-gay-psa-class-article-1.2214343

Huber, Valerie J. and Michael Firmin. 2014. “A History of Sex Education in the United States Since 1900.” International Journal of Educational Reform 23 (1): 25-51. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2130/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=6b20cdbc-3ae6-4845-aad1-d60feda3673c%40sessionmgr101&hid=127.

Luker, Kristin. When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex—and Sex Education—Since the Sixties. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Moran, Jeffrey P. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

More, Ellen S. and Elizabeth Fee. 2015. “Mary Steichen Calderone (1904-1998): Advocate for Sex Education.” American Journal of Public Health 105 (11): 2255-2255. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302822.