Back When Sex Ed Was Honest

(Courtesy Washington University Libraries)




A sweet, strong little film, “A Matter of Respect,” has been preserved and digitized by the Washington University Libraries with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Made in 1980, the film features two high school kids, Angela and Tommy, who fall in love. Their fun and tender courtship is intercut with kid-on-the-street interviews about what it means to be a man (“has a job, a nice lady, a car”; “has some dominant strength”; “reproduce in a form that I can carry on my image of myself”).

We cut back just in time to see Angela resisting sex, scared of the experience and extra scared of getting pregnant. Tommy persuades her in the time-honored manner of a cad: “Trust me. I’ll be careful. I know what I’m doing. I’m a man. Whatever happens, I can deal with it.” (We have just seen him open a bureau drawer, stare at three packaged condoms, and shut the drawer empty-handed.)

Back on the street, a few guys say the man is responsible if a woman gets pregnant (“’cuz you’re the cause of it”), but many insist that the woman bears the sole responsibility.

In the next scene: Angela, pale and even more scared, shows up at Tommy’s wrestling practice and says they have to talk. She is pregnant. He slams back at the news: “Angela, why did you have to go and get pregnant?”

“I didn’t do it all by myself!”

“Oh, so it’s my fault?”

She runs out of the room, and he takes a long walk and comes to his senses. The film ends with his heartfelt apology and promise that whatever they decide to do, they will do it together.


•  •  •


Forty-two years later: the only mandatory sex education here in Missouri is focused on abstinence.

And the number of teenage girls giving birth is well above the national average.

Teenagers in Missouri give birth at a rate of 18.8—compared to a rate of 6.1 in Massachusetts, where sex education must include “sexual orientation, gender identity, consent choices, reproductive anatomy, condom education, birth control methods [and] STIs.”

More than common sense suggests that Missouri’s scrupulously limited information might be counterproductive. A raft of studies show that “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth dates.” Positively correlated.

Seeing Angela’s pale, scared, worried face and the initial reaction of her boyfriend would be a far stronger deterrent, it seems to me. So would the earlier dialogue, where you hear her begging to know if Tommy loves her and him saying only, “You’re my girl, aren’t you? I want you.” And calling her “a real freak” for wanting to abstain. And saying, “You act like it’s so damned precious.” And admitting to us that “all this touchin’ and no action finally started to drive me crazy,” so he planned the seduction as “now or never.”

My mom told me more than I ever wanted to know about sex, always just ahead of the questions arising in my own mind. When something came up that neither of us know, we looked it up together. I remember being wide-eyed at the logistics, a little confused about why it was fun, totally willing to delay the experience. She also made sure I knew that boys could survive blue balls and attempts at coercion were disrespectful. But then she assured me that if I ever did get pregnant, she would help me raise the child. Which reminded me how I had panicked the first time I babysat an infant and called her to come over and make sure I did not break the baby. Which took all the appeal out of teenage sex.

Missouri does not trust that kind of realism. A new law makes it illegal for teachers, librarians, even janitors to show students any book (including a graphic novel) that contains even one explicit sexual image (genitalia, masturbation, intercourse). There are exceptions for nudes in art class or illustrations for sex ed, although schools that offer only the legally specified curriculum have no need of such images anyway.

Missouri’s other push is to banish any mention of transgender, gay, or lesbian identity. Teaching that includes kids who are LGBTQ is optional and, according to one survey, received by only three percent of Missouri students. While the education is absent, the topic stays top of mind: the vast majority of LGBTQ students report hearing anti-GLBTQ remarks—often from teachers themselves—and negative remarks about someone’s gender expression.

It is easy to understand parents wanting to keep their kids innocent and safe, but I think they forget that when something feels powerful and mystifying, with adolescence a dark swirling Carnivale of masked eroticism, it is a lot easier to give in and let yourself be swept up in the experience. Hormones and curiosity are potent at that age, and when teenagers’ sources of information are their friends and dubious, hypnotically fascinating sites on the internet, consequences will not weigh much in the mix. Why not arm them with calm, relatable information so we can trust their judgment?

“A Matter of Respect” was made by Blackside, Inc., a production company started by Wash.U. alum Henry Hampton, better known for making Eyes on the Prize. If a conservative Missouri parent saw it today, they might assume it was some woke film pushing a decadent agenda. But in 1980, it was paid for by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as a public health service.

A companion teacher’s guide points out that “changes in sexual mores have reduced the double standard in sexual behavior so that there are fewer social restrictions on young females who choose to become as sexually active as their male peers”—yet thanks to the Pill, “their burden of responsibility for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies has increased.” Teachers are urged to ask thought-provoking questions: “How does the knowledge that the birth of a child might result from any sexual relationship affect your attitude about premarital sex?” “How might a child be affected” by being “unwanted,” their birth unplanned and unwelcome? “How might a child be affected by either parent’s lack of respect for the other?” “How might a child be affected by parents’ inability to provide the care necessary for healthy growth and development because they were not ready for the responsibility of raising a child?”

Taking the child’s point of view is a brilliant stroke. That kind of empathy and forethought takes all the fun out of a back-seat scramble. But conservative parents in Missouri will not tolerate the thought of intercourse, let alone pregnancy, long enough to consider the hypothetical.

The film ends with Tommy’s apology; we never learn what they decide to do next. What matters is that he has accepted his role and responsibility instead of abandoning her. You do not envy them what lies ahead, but you figure they are at least facing it with their eyes wide open.

Four decades later, most of the schoolkids in Missouri—and quite a few other states—will never see eighteen minutes of sex ed that are this honest.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.