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Shelf Help: 'Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education'

Sex ed through the ages.

Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education
Jonathan Zimmerman
Princeton University Press

Sex is global, but how people learn about it is hyperlocal. A Dutch kids’ show featured a condom rolled onto a model of an erect penis; American high schoolers are subjected to gory slideshows of childbirth and ulcerous genitalia; Iranian educators emphasize the “enjoyment of each partner” (within marriage, of course); Chinese teachers urge abstinence to counter the “ ‘sexual freedom’ of capitalism.” The historian Jonathan Zimmerman combed through a century of sex ed on nearly every continent, finding controversies that sound eerily similar across space and time: sex-ed policies driven by fear that young people are having the wrong kind of sex.

Americans peddle family values to Africa while admiring the supposedly libertine Swedes. Indians fear Hollywood values, but don’t know whether sex ed will stop the incursion or make it worse. For a century, sex educators have pinned their dreams of a world without sexual ills on the upcoming generation. Meanwhile, social conservatives hope that confining sex talk to the home—and foregoing public sex education—will resurrect sexual mores of the past. Are children individuals who need information to make good decisions? Or do societies have a right to protect them from sexual knowledge that could pull them further from their communities? Isolation is not an option, if it ever was one: Internet porn and networks of sexual connectivity have little regard for national borders. Sex ed may be upsetting because it reminds us that sex isn’t so private at all. No matter who’s imposing the culture of sex, it’s a work in progress—just as it always has been.


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