Sex Ed Through the Decades, and Sexism Against Female Politicians

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Dance, Little Children

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On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be talking to Sarah Mirk about the history of sex education films, followed up by some of the more entertaining clips I found from them. Also, there’s a good chance Hillary Clinton is going to run for president, which means that sexist attacks on female politicians are starting to be a real problem again. It’s a problem we need to stop, for the good of everyone.

Recently on Comedy Bang Bang, Scott Aukerman, Reggie Watts and Lizzy Caplan debated the hot topic of whether men could be funny.

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Clearly we need someone to make a list of all the funny men so we can present it to a group of women so they can go down the list, striking anyone they claim is not funny and making excuses for why the rest don’t count somehow.


Y’all, Hillary Clinton hasn’t even declared that she’s running for president in 2016 and already things are getting completely out of control when it comes to the issue of her gender. In an ideal world, the fact that Clinton is a woman shouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, in the ideal world, people would look at her record, both pros and cons, and determine how they’re going to vote based on the issues and on their sense of how well she would perform as a leader. At bare minimum, it would be nice if people acknowledged that we have never had a female president before and that the majority of elected leaders in the United States are male and that demonstrates that being a woman actually tends to work against you as a politician. But instead we’re being subjected to right-wing fantasy land rants where pundits pretend that being a woman is somehow a benefit to Clinton. After claiming that Clinton can’t run on her record or promises to continue Obama policies, Rush Limbaugh hit the claim that drawing attention to her gender would help her.

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But is this true? Nope. In reality, as research by the organization Name It Change It has shown, drawing attention to a female candidate’s gender tends to hurt her chances. It’s worse if people say sexist stuff about her, which Clinton tends to get a lot, but the effect holds even if the attention a candidate gets is seemingly positive. This is a bipartisan problem, and not just something that affects Democrats or Republicans. Which means that, regardless of your party affiliation, you should have an interest in defeating these ridiculous attempts to reduce Clinton to her gender. It hurts all women, regardless of party, if women are forever being made to feel like they have to answer for their gender somehow.

And yet, Clinton continues to be subject to attacks that start from the assumption that her gender somehow gives her an unfair advantage or that her gender somehow disqualifies her. Such as with Reality Cast favorite Keith Ablow of Fox News, on the show Outnumbered. The female hosts of the show are all Republicans and were attacking Clinton on foreign policy, but they never suggested that anything about her gender should be held against her. But not Ablow!

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His implication couldn’t be clearer: That there is no such thing as a woman that could be qualified to be president, and therefore we have to shoehorn someone in who has no real qualifications. It’s almost laughably transparent what he’s doing here, because whether or not you like Clinton or agree with her, she does, in fact, have a hefty career as a lawyer, a policy maker, a senator and a cabinet member. By making this about her husband, Ablow is trying to make this all about her gender and try to reduce her by saying she’s just someone’s wife, even though she’s held higher offices than her husband did before he was president . And he clearly, from that statement, finds it implausible that a woman could ever be distinguished enough.

Again, regardless of your party, this kind of sexism should offend you, because it can and will be used to discredit any woman who runs.

In fact, it’s not just right wing pundits anymore who are trying to imply that being a woman gives you an unfair advantage, even though the actual statistics tell a much different story. In a segment about Clinton, CNN’s Chris Cuomo got all whiny at the supposed disadvantages that male candidates face when up against female candidates, particularly when women’s issues are at stake.

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There’s not evidence that anyone is pushing a “female agenda.” There are plenty of female politicians that support policies that are anti-woman and plenty of male politicians that support policies that are pro-woman. There’s no reason to think the voters are confused about this. And that’s why it’s so troubling to see how female politicians, regardless of party, get reduced to their gender. Or the way that it’s implied that only women have a gender, as if men don’t also have one. We need more women in politics, and this sort of thing unfortunately discourages that, as many qualified women are not particularly interested in entering a debate about whether or not their gender somehow makes them less qualified for the job or gives them an unfair advantage, which is another way of implying that they’re less qualified for the job.




After that wonderful interview with Sarah, I thought it would be fun to play some of the clips from some of the sex ed films that she covers in her piece, which are all covered in the upcoming documentary Sex (Ed): The Movie. There were a lot of movies that were clearly intent on preventing people from getting STIs. But sometimes those intentions backfired, because the dramatic music and dialogue often ended up sending the opposite message, which is that these sorts of things are shameful. Here’s a clip from the 1961 sex ed film Dance, Little Children.

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What researchers have learned since then is that shaming people about STIs or otherwise blowing them all out of proportion in this way is one of the surest ways to get them to ignore their own symptoms or live in denial. The movie also had a backfiring message in implying that the only way men could get STIs is to sleep with sexually forward women, who are coded as bad girls. So while trying to convey the message that STIs were everyone’s problem, they ended up sending the message that it’s only a concern for “bad” girls and the men that have sex with them. In reality, of course, STIs tend to be a problem that affects everyone and they don’t check to see if you fit some kind of arbitrary sexual moral standard before infecting you.

That said, as Sarah points out, not all sex education was dour or frightening. Disney, for instance, had a couple of movies that are fairly upbeat for their time and try to actually reduce fear and stigma. For instance, there’s the 1948 animated short called “The Story of Menstruation”. In part, because it was a partnership with Kotex, it was in their best interest to assure girls that a period is not a particularly scary or debilitating thing.

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Granted, they frame a lot of it with this assumption that women and girls are obligated to be especially sweet and accommodating, particularly to men. But by 1948 standards it’s not entirely retrograde, particularly in terms of throwing off so many of the stifling rules and taboos about menstruation that were so frequently used to police women and make them feel like their bodies were this unconquerable burden.

Sex ed films were often aimed mostly or strictly at male audiences, which is why they often were blunt and accepting of human sexuality in ways that may surprise you. Such as in this film from the 60s.

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As Bitch Media’s YouTube video “Babies & Bananas” points out, 30 years later Bill Clinton was pressured to fire Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders for making the exact same point, albeit for both men and women instead of just for men. Even today, another 20 years later, there’s still a number of books and videos out that try to argue that masturbation is wrong and should be avoided as much as possible. Clearly, we’ve endured decades of this struggle between people who have common sense enough to know that masturbation is normal and healthy and people who like to pretend that it’s some kind of horrible sin to be overcome, but hopefully, with each generation, more and more people are beginning to see that it really, truly is not a big deal to masturbate.

I have one more clip to drive home how not-new it is to be frank in sex ed films, at least those aimed at men, about the fact that sex is a thing people do and it’s foolish to expect them to abstain indefinitely. This is from a 1942 sex ed film for the Defense Department.

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See, they even had a sense of humor about it! It’s worth remembering that this filmstrip is 72 years old. Medical experts have known for a long, long time that condoms are, in real world terms, a lot more effective at preventing STI transmission than pointlessly lecturing people on the supposed evils of sex. So why are we still debating it? Why do we still have a problem of people demonizing contraception?


And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, what is it about Fox News and statutory rape edition? Tucker Carlson has been on and on lately about how it shouldn’t count as statutory rape if the older person is female and the younger person is male, and now you have Jesse Watters trotting out the same line on the same network.

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He wasn’t as out of control as Carlson, but it’s still the same idea. And that idea is, to be blunt, that young men are inherently smarter and more capable of handling adult relationships than young women. The only reason to believe this is if you believe men are inherently better than women, full stop. And that’s why you’re seeing this nonsense come out of the mouths of so many men on Fox News these days.