President's Report Masthead
June 30, 2015

How globalization has stymied sex education

Though the United States was out in front of Western Europe and other countries when it came to sex education in the last century, it still hasn’t resulted in behavioral changes, and globalization is to blame. That was the message Jonathan Zimmerman gave during the 23rd Annual Edgar W. Couper Lecture on May 1 in the new Admissions Center.

Zimmerman, director of the history of education program at the Steinhardt School and a professor of history at New York University, spoke about his latest book, “Hot and Bothered: How Globalization Stymied Sex Education.”

Introduced as a public intellectual, commentator and go-to historian who “The Daily Show” calls simply ‘John’, Zimmerman related the history of sex education in the United States and Western Europe, telling a story about how his book evolved and the surprises he found while writing it.

“You absolutely have to be surprised in the course of doing the work that we do,” he said, “or you will just say what you thought before.”
The son of a sex educator, Zimmerman received a “very, very rare and liberal sex education” from his mother in the mid-‘70s – including having her ensure that he and his friends had condoms at their disposal should the need arise. “Her name was Margot (with a silent ‘t’), so my friends called them Margots (no silent ‘t’), after my mom,” he said. “It makes utter sense to me and it worked and here’s how: Like everyone else, I did really dumb stuff and here’s one dumb thing I never did. I never had unprotected sex and it worked for me.”

His first surprise, he said, was that some of what his mother taught him about sex education turned out to be untrue. She believed that the U.S. was much farther behind other countries that were more progressive, Zimmerman said, but he found that the U.S. was actually the pioneer in mass sex education.

Surprise number two was that Europe actually developed different goals for sex education, Zimmerman said. The third surprise was how little sex education there actually is, even in places like Sweden.

“There’s a lot of talk and discussion and there’s an elaborate curriculum, but there isn’t a lot happening,” he said. “There is a shockingly small amount of sex education around the world. So if anybody says sex education does this, you can with certainty write them off because if something happens that little (six hours in a year), to say that it does ‘X’ behaviorally is an absurdity.”

But the real surprise for Zimmerman was surprise number four – globalization and the rapid movement of people. “I thought globalization would bring good things, but for sex education, globalization inhibited it, stalled and even stopped it,” he said.

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