Publication Date

4-15-2017

Advisor(s)

William Pinch

Major

History (HIST)

Language

English (United States)

Abstract

Sex education in the 1950s taught students about obvious topics, such as sex, reproduction, dating, and family relationships, but also about less obvious ones, such as positive eugenics. Positive eugenics, or the encouragement of supposedly “superior” people to reproduce, was marketed to white American teenagers in sex education courses largely through film. This thesis argues that classroom film became the primary means of communicating about sex in the 1950s; this communication largely consisted of eugenics lessons in which white students learned that they were responsible for “bettering” society by procreating. Students absorbed these messages even in seemingly value-neutral biology courses. The 1950s was also one of the only decades in United States history in which sexual education enjoyed strong public support. This thesis contends that the fifties were a decade of intervening calm in the sex education debate because these positive eugenics lessons were especially popular in the climate of the Cold War. The Cold War played out on the home front in the form of a family-centered culture, in which the nuclear family could literally act as a defense against communism by maintaining strong moral fiber. In this way, the fifties were the “perfect storm” for sex education: positive eugenics messages found a vehicle in the atmosphere of the Cold War, such that teenagers in the 1950s were forced to grapple with eugenic principles in sex education class.

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