Think struggles over sex education are as outdated as chastity belts? Think again—despite research that links abstinence-only education to higher birth rates and more sexually transmitted diseases, battles over sex education are currently raging in states like Mississippi and Utah. As parents, teachers, and students debate how or whether to educate kids about sexuality, it’s worth remembering one of the great sex ed battles of the last century—the surprising fight in Anaheim, California, that led to accusations of what Natalia Mehlman calls “a communist plot to brainwash Anaheim’s schoolchildren.”
Fear of Communism seemed inextricably linked to protests against Anaheim’s sex ed program in the 1960s, Mehlman writes. The prosperous city’s educational policies became a lightning rod in the late Sixties when a sex ed program that had been in place for years caught the attention of an outraged Catholic parent named Eleanor Howe. Howe decried a curriculum she considered incendiary for its treatment of homosexuality and masturbation—and the protests that followed invariably focused on worries that the program was part of a larger communist plot to corrupt Anaheim’s children.
The worries made sense given Anaheim’s squeaky-clean, morally homogeneous image. Seen as a kind of suburban mecca where Disneyland is located, Anaheim promoted strict gender roles and resisted the counterculture. But by the late Sixties, notes Mehlman, there were cracks in the facade: the city was growing quickly and cultural shifts began to worry parents and alienate teenagers.
“Sexual mores were changing among youth, but many parents clung to an increasingly obsolete model of normalcy,” writes Mehlman. When a local official who failed to support right-wing Barry Goldwater was ostracized and accused of homosexuality—something that was often paired with Communism in the eyes of those who clung to the status quo—the political situation erupted.
Mehlman sees sex education as the battlefield where late 1960s arguments about democracy, culture, sexuality, and identity politics played out. Threatened parents linked disparate social forces, like the Civil Rights Movement, to sexual licentiousness and communist sentiment. Opponents of the sex ed program, or “Antis,” mobilized in an unprecedented political bloc, taking over the school board and mandating that students receive permission to attend sex ed classes.
Rather than stop the supposedly objectionable curriculum in its tracks, the actions of the Antis ironically backfired. Mehlman writes that as protesters read passages of the curriculum out loud and got into altercations with young adults, “the silence around sexuality had broken down, as had the image of protective parent and vulnerable child, innocent victim of sex education.” By the end of the 1960s, the sex ed program was gone—but so were Anaheim’s inhibitions about discussing sex in the first place.