Learning About Sex: The Classroom Films of the 1950s and ’60s
“A human is born either a girl or a boy and for as long as we live, that is the way we will stay.”
— A New Human Life (1968), classroom film
As quoted in Mental Hygiene by Ken Smith (Blast Books, 1999)
When did I first learn about sex? I’m not sure if it was a third glass of wine after dinner, a long day of working through spreadsheets or the fact that I had recently turned 30 and was taking more than a few trips down ol’ memory lane, but this question popped into my head recently. I was a curious, book-obsessed kid, and I’m pretty sure I learned from a book during one of my weekly library visits. It certainly wasn’t in school.
My first recollection of sex education in school was in fifth grade. I attended a tiny Catholic school, and one day, our teacher announced that the girls were going to go talk to the school nurse while the boys would get an extra gym class. While I objected to the boys getting extra kickball time (I was a serious tomboy then), at the same time I was curious about what the mystery trip to the nurse would entail.
In the nurse’s office, the 10 girls in my class gathered as she showed us a black and white film about, well, technically not sex, but menstruation. I don’t recall a lot of details about the film, other than its using crude animation and having the garbled, stuttered — yet stern and authoritative — narration. The film explained what most of us knew from Judy Blume books at this point: egg leaves the ovary, cruises down the fallopian tubes and becomes ejected with blood over three to seven days, over which a woman needed to wear the sponsoring company’s products (I believe it was Kotex). Our nurse talked to us about it after the film as well, outlining the process and taking questions (we had none, partially, I think, from embarrassment). I also don’t recall if we broached the “why” part — that the egg waits for sperm to fertilize it. When it doesn’t become fertilized, becomes expelled. If that was discussed, I’m almost certain that we were not told how such sperm would arrive.
While memories of the film’s content remain fuzzy, what left a clear mark for me was how odd I found the film’s existence, even as a fifth grader. Someone, somewhere, had an idea to make a short film about menstruation and, all over the country, boys are playing kickball while the girls reported solemnly to the nurse. Granted, it was so like my underfunded, small school to show such a dinosaur of classroom cinema in the mid-1980s, but I had to imagine that the girls who watched this filmstrip closer to the time found it as square as I did. Then again, they didn’t have Judy Blume to spell it out for them.
In some ways, showing a film in a dark classroom, giving it an air of authority, made what was an embarrassing topic to most fifth graders feel a little less like a dirty secret. This logic seemed to follow for a number of other topics and other films, thousands of which were made in the 1950s and ’60s. While not consistently exposed to these films regularly, I eventually became aware of others — the highway gore films from high school driver’s ed, a handful on how to groom, be polite and be a productive citizen in a pop culture history class in college, the infamous Duck and Cover. So what about sex? It seems like the ideal topic to explain to kids through the medium. The film sends the same, consistent message, and it may spare a nervous instructor (especially in the ’50s) having to talk to students about the subject. Finding access to these films is difficult, but I discovered a wealth of history behind these films in the book Mental Hygiene by Ken Smith, an addictively entertaining compendium of hundreds of notable low-budget, high-moral films made specifically for teens and adolescents in the classroom. While looking at these films from today’s context (and accompanied by Smith’s wry observations) is hilarious, what’s really interesting to me is how some aspects of the socially accepted and debated messages to give teens and adolescents about sex, dating, sex roles and reproduction today aren’t too far off the mark from what was being fed to them in the ’50s and ’60s.
Take the menstruation films. According to Smith, these were “less common than is generally remembered, primarily because none of the major American educational film producers (there were three or four major companies putting out classroom films during that time period) would touch the subject.” That’s where the sanitary product manufacturers came in. Kotex and Modess made several films entitled The Story of Menstruation (which oddly used Disney animation and a long list of dos and don’ts), Molly Grows Up and my personal favorite, It’s Wonderful Being a Girl, all of which had a sunny attitude toward this new monthly ritual, and even more so, changing the brand-name pads cheerfully and often.
Flash-forward to today — while Kotex and Tampax aren’t making classroom films, they do offer FAQ sections on their web sites (all heavily skewed toward use of their products). Kotex’s site offers message boards as well on a number of topics, such as how to have a mother-daughter talk about menstruation, and more remotely, how to have certain types of sex. Though the sections are broken into “girls” and “women”, the types of questions and answers sound like they’re coming from teenagers (or adults who choose to write their e-mails as if they’d just gotten back from hanging out at the mall). Granted, these corporate sites aren’t the only places for teen girls and nervous parents to seek out advice — and fortunately, it’s remarkably easy to find positive and accurate sites about menstruation (that don’t resort to the hokey unreality of the classroom films).
Like masturbation, sex itself was another subject that the major film producers didn’t really touch — these films, as Smith puts it, “were about plumbing, not sex.” Most were reserved for biology classes and explained, dryly, the human reproductive system. No graphic or detailed explanation was given for how the sperm reached the egg (naturally, since teenagers in the 1950s and ’60s weren’t supposed to be intimate with what sex was). Those films that did acknowledge the oh-so-wrong act of teenage sex were films about syphilis, and sent the message that teenagers should abstain from sex, peppering them with close-ups of sores, disfigurements and dramatizations of formerly sex-crazed teens mentally disintegrating into full-blown dementia, Ã la syphilis. Again, because teenagers weren’t supposed to be having sex, there was no mention of how condoms could help protect them from diseases and pregnancy.
The same argument is rampant today, as evidenced by the numbers of variations on sex-information sites for teens. While many offer well-rounded, accurate information, there’s still that argument of whether to advocate abstinence or a comprehensive sex education program. While most of the sites that provide all the facts often make strong cases for abstinence, they educate visitors of the relative risks of other forms of safer sex barriers and birth control methods. It’s long been acknowledged that HIV/AIDS is today’s syphilis (though the latter hasn’t gone away) and inherently is a scare tactic for discouraging teens from having unprotected sex.
Despite the similarities in the methods between the classroom films of the 1950s and ’60s, After School Specials (the 1980s’ answer to the classroom films) and the Internet, it is refreshing (and a relief) to see that teens do have access to much more information now than they did then. A short browse through some of the links Good Vibrations has listed for visitors under 21, such as Scarleteen, teenwire and teengrowth, reveals a tremendous amount of excellent information geared toward teens — information I wish I’d had back in the day, and a refreshingly far cry from the rigid and almost totalitarian quote that I opened this essay with.
Yet moments after visiting these sites, I visited The New York Times web site and read about President Bush’s statements about legally protecting marriage by defining it strictly as a partnership between a man and a woman, and realized that these hokey films and their mentality have had a lasting impact beyond sheer entertainment value for pop culturists.