Sex (Ed) The Movie

| February 2, 2015

I pretty much got exactly what I was hoping for out of this documentary.  Years ago, I wrote a short article about the dawn of sex education in American in the 1920s.  It was a fascinating topic, rooted largely in the moral and religious climate of the time.  Reading about propaganda and teaching strategies to force kids into associating sex with shame and sin raised the hairs on the back of my neck.  One example that stands out to me was the common practice of instructing young people who were curious about sex to simply imagine every member of the opposite sex as a sibling.  I can only imagine the psychological implications this must have had on these developing minds.

Sex (Ed) The Movie bridges the gap between the 20s and now, focusing on the use of film as a tool for educating every generation for the past 100 years about sex.  I couldn’t imagine I would be as interested in modern sex education as I was with that of the 1920s but actually the entire history of educating young people about sex is amazing.  I was particularly interested in the evolution of education through the 1960s.  With the invention of the birth control pill, and the rise of drugs and free love, the education about sex reached an all time peak of candidness, working to answer kids’ questions honestly and completely so they were prepared for the physical and emotional demands of sex.  Once the AIDS epidemic began in the 80s, everyone was terrified of sex again, which led to federally funded abstinence only education programs beginning in the 90s.

Said programs were not mandated, and weren’t present nationwide.  I had sex education in 1995, when I was in the 5th grade, and I remember a lot of discussion about the mechanics of how it worked without any discussion of sexuality or emotion.  Come to think of it, that sex education class was incomplete because I didn’t understand the concept of an orgasm or the specifics of how a man could actually insert himself into his partner.  Maybe I was just too busy clowning around and replaying old X-Men episodes in my head though.  Hard to say.

The documentary is fairly conventional in its presentation.  It uses a variety of interviews with experts about sex and sex education and history, cut together with excerpts from countless actual sex education films shown to students over the past century.  The content of these films ranged from how the different sexes develop during puberty, to menstruation, to masturbation, to diseases and consequences.  The masturbation segments were particularly interesting in a surreal way.  First, masturbation never seemed to be presented as a sinful shameful thing in the early days of sex education.  It was treated as a normal thing that every boy does.  They didn’t seem to acknowledge that it was normal for girls to do it too, which I’m sure made it a source of shame for a lot of young women at the time, but boys were given a pass.  Masturbation wasn’t treated as something shameful until the Clinton administration when he fired his surgeon general for making a comment about how masturbation should be taught in sex education class.  This sparked the abstinence only programs and set sex education back a good 50 years.

My one big criticism of the film is that it can’t help itself as far as making an argument in the end.  I was on board with it from the start, and hanging on its every word as an informative piece about the history of sex education in America, but as soon as it presumed to persuade me of its importance I started to lose interest and question what I’d been shown up until that point.  I don’t trust film to make a logical, sensible argument.  All I want from this and any documentary is to either tell an interesting story, or present a subject factually in a way that lets me make up my own mind.

Special features include deleted scenes and two actual sex education films used in the 60s and 70s.  Available on DVD from First Run Features on February 3.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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