“Family Relations,” and “Moral Education” are some of the phrases used to describe sex ed lessons. In Sex(Ed): The Movie, director Brenda Goodman has shrewdly assembled film clips as well as interviews with (s)experts and men and women on the street to reveal how people learned about sex—and whether it was sufficient. Goodman uses a timeline in her snappy, informational film to show how social, cultural, and even political attitudes toward sex and sex ed have changed—or haven’t—as women’s liberation, the gay rights movement, and the AIDS crisis have influenced what we talk about when we talk about gender and sexuality.
Sex(Ed): The Movie illustrates that over the decades, films have addressed hygiene, herpes, and homosexuality. They also have hilarious titles like “Sins of Love” or “Age of Turmoil.” However, most of the films that have been made for and circulated raise more questions than they answer. Dating films for teenagers, like “How Much Affection?” in the late 1950s dispensed “conditioning” advice, hoping that by imparting the right way to behave teenage pregnancies would be prevented. But these films emphasized gender stereotypes. While films for teenage boys talked frankly—and without judgment—about masturbation, films for teenage girls, like a Disney short co-produced by Kotex, discussed menstruation not masturbation.
It may be quaint and campy to look back at these amusingly earnest shorts, but the repercussions of the attitudes being displayed had consequences on how society treated women, sexuality, and social mores. In one WWII military film, meant to educate soldiers about syphilis, women are portrayed as “dirty” and diseased, with men in the films admitting, “She looked clean!” In “Dance Little Children,” a man identifies the woman who spread a sexual disease as “a tall aggressive blonde,” and film often suggested guilt or blame for women who became pregnant.
Sex(Ed): The Movie does make seeing some of the films of interest. (Several titles can be tracked down on YouTube). One in particular, from the 1960s, called “The Game” is especially compelling as it features a boy who is so cool, he wears sunglasses in the bathtub. Other films, like “Would You Kiss A Naked Man?” from 1974, feature full frontal male nudity. Then there is bizarre “Masturbatory Story,” (1976) which has a grown man, wears a fireman’s hat in a foamy tub and sings a country/western-style song about self-gratification. It has to be seen to be (dis)believed. Goodman has obviously done her homework.
The film climaxes—to use perhaps the most appropriate word—in the AIDS era, where films like Condom Sense (1981) are campy, and was perhaps hard to take seriously even back when it was made. In contrast, Sex, Drugs and Aids (1986) actually seems to be a realistic and appropriate sex education film, as three female teens discuss one broaching the topic of condoms with her boyfriend. However, the shift in social mores quickly focused less on protection and more on prevention. Abstinence campaign films, with promise rings and pledges to wait soon became the norm, a move that no doubt was less effective than desired.
And this is what makes Sex(Ed): The Movie so, well, educational. Goodman shows that what, how, and when to present information about sex to kids is still as controversial and radioactive today as it was decades ago. This illuminating film shows us why.