Lesson Plan: The History of Teaching About Sex

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This lesson plan is designed to be used in conjunction with viewing The Education of Shelby Knox, a 76-minute long documentary of one high school student's efforts to change the sex education policy of her school district from abstinence-only to comprehensive. In addition to acknowledging the complexity of debates about sex education policy, the film provides wonderful examples of civic engagement and working through parent-teen conflict.

You can obtain copies for educational use from Incite Pictures or record the film off-air and use it for educational purposes for one year.


In this lesson, students will:

  • Examine the current debate over sex education
  • Understand the difference in approach between abstinence only and comprehensive sex education
  • Know which approach to sex education is used in their school district and understand the reasons for adoption of that approach
  • Understand U.S. historical approaches to information about sex and sexuality
  • Be able to identify the content and purpose of the Comstock Act
  • Use the Internet for research, with special focus on .gov sites
  • Take notes and write summary paragraphs and a short persuasive essay


SUBJECT AREAS: Health, Sex Education, History, Civics, Government (see related learning standards below)


  • Student Handouts
  • VHS/DVD of The Education of Shelby Knox, VCR/DVD player & monitor
  • Internet access for student research
  • Copy of your district policy on sex education

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: 4 class periods


The Education of Shelby Knox is an excellent tool for the high school classroom because it is about a high school student, her parents, and her peers. This lesson plan takes advantage of students' natural interest to look at a debate that directly affects their lives: the debate over what constitutes appropriate and adequate sex education.

The debate over sex education is not new to the U.S. To provide context for the debate, this lesson asks students to examine the Comstock Act (1873). This act provides historical background for a number of issues related to sex education, including birth control, abortion, and censorship.

Because the film and the lesson deal with questions related to sex, we strongly recommend pre-screening and careful preparation. Students should be mature enough to discuss the issues using academic and political language. Student research should be supervised to ensure against access to sites with inappropriate sexual content.

Historical Background on The Comstock Act

In reviewing the Comstock Act with students, you may want to mention the following:

  • The Comstock Law is named after its author, social crusader Anthony Comstock. After serving in the infantry during the Civil War, Comstock moved to New York City. In his view, as a devout Christian, the city was filled with depravity. He began an anti-obscenity crusade that included banning all material that he deemed to be lewd. These included literary works. He also believed that the availability of contraceptives promoted lust.
  • In 1873 the Comstock Act was made law as part of a larger bill governing the U.S. Postal Service.
    • The Act made it illegal for anyone, even physicians, to manufacture, sell, or distribute birth control.
    • The Act made it illegal for anyone to distribute any information about birth control methods or to send "obscene" materials through the mail.
    • Because the law prevented the sharing of information, it was used to prohibit sex education, to censor literature (including D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Edmund Wilson, Tolstoy, Balzac, and many other authors now considered great), and to prevent people receiving publications with any kind of sexual content (entertainment or educational) in their homes via the U.S. mail.
    • In 1916, Margaret Sanger was arrested for opening the nation's first birth control clinic. Her case, decided in 1918, made it legal for women to use birth control for therapeutic purposes.
    • In 1936 the Comstock Act was amended (U.S. v. One Package) to make it legal for physicians to distribute birth control devices and information across state lines, including via the U.S. mail.
    • Much of the Comstock Act remained in effect until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled that banning contraception was unconstitutional.
    • The Comstock Act has been amended several times, but it has never been repealed.


Class 1:

  1. Let students know that they are going to do a brief unit examining current debates about comprehensive sex education vs. abstinence only education and that the unit will begin by looking at historical context.
  2. Distribute the text of the Comstock Act and give students a brief background on the law (see background section).
  3. Distribute the research questions handout and assign students to use the Internet to answer the questions on the Comstock Act. Students can write in note form rather than full paragraphs, but let them know that you will be asking for their answers during the next class period.
  4. Because students will be searching terms related to the word "sex", you may want to allow for research time in class rather than assign research as homework. You may also wish to restrict student research to .gov websites. To create a list of sites that you find acceptable, you may want to go to FindLaw. This site allows for a comprehensive search of all government sites. Type in "Comstock Act". Because some school computers block any sites including the word "sex", you may need to make special arrangements with school librarians for student access to the sites you need.

Class 2:

  1. Ask students to share what they have learned about the Comstock Act. Discuss and summarize, helping students see that how one constructs a problem and what one believes about sources of authority and sources of human weakness, influence what kinds of solutions one supports.
  2. Let students know that they are going to shift from the kind of public discourse addressed in the Comstock Act to dissemination of information in schools.
  3. In preparation for showing The Education of Shelby Knox, remind students of the questions on their research handout and assign them to take notes during the film that will provide answers to those questions.
  4. Show the first part The Education of Shelby Knox.

Class 3:

  1. Show the remainder of The Education of Shelby Knox.
  2. Encourage students to share their reactions to the film. For general discussion questions see the discussion guide. See Discussion Guide »
  3. Assign as homework the task of turning notes on the Comstock Act and The Education of Shelby Knox into summary paragraphs.

Class 4:

  1. Start a class discussion by asking students to list the similarities and differences between the Comstock Act and the Lubbock school board's adoption of abstinence only education. Discuss how the history of restricting speech about sex influences the current debate over sex education in schools. Also discuss the difference between general public dissemination of information, and information taught in a public school classroom.
  2. Let students examine their school district's sex education policy. If this policy is available in writing, distribute copies. If not, you may wish to invite an administrator or school board member to your class to provide the information to students.
  3. Wrap up the discussion by asking students to identify the difference between sharing information (a school's responsibility) and sharing values (a family's responsibility). As time allows, invite students to share their views on their school's approach to sex education.


Collect homework (summary paragraphs) and use it to assess student comprehension.

Optional: Assign students to write an op/ed for or against abstinence-only education using at least one historical reference to back up your position, or write a letter to your school board indicating support for or opposition to current school policy.


  1. Student research questions
  2. Text of Comstock Act - Note: the paragraph breaks and numbers are to help with comprehension and discussion. They are not in the original document.

for The Education of Shelby Knox

(Note: This table is downloadable in the PDF version of this lesson plan)

COMSTOCK ACTThe Education of Shelby Knox
For supporters of the legislation or policy:

What did the legislation/policy say?

What problem(s) was the legislation/policy intended to address?

How would the legislation/policy solve the problem(s)?

For opponents of the legislation or policy:

Did they agree that there was a problem?

If they agreed that there was a problem, how did they define that problem?

Why didn't they think the proposed legislation/policy would solve the problem(s)?

Describe any alternative solutions proposed.

For supporter and opponents:

How did the way that people defined the problem(s) influence the solutions they crafted?

CHAP. CCLVIII. - An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States, or other place within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,

(1)shall sell, or lend, or give away, or in any manner exhibit, or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or, offer to publish in any manner,

(2)or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes,

(3)any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material,

(4)or any cast, instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion,

(5)or shall advertise the same for sale,

(6)or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section hereinbefore mentioned, can be purchased or obtained,

(7)or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles,

(8)shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof in any court of the United States having criminal jurisdiction in the District of Columbia, or in any Territory or place within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, where such misdemeanor shall have been committed; and on conviction thereof, he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.

SEC. 2. That section one hundred and forty-eight of the act to revise, consolidate, and amend the statutes relating to the Post-office Department, approved June eighth, eighteen hundred and seventy-two, be amended to read as follows:

(9)"SEC. 148. That no obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print, or other publication of an indecent character,

(10)or any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion,

(11)nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature,

(12)nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things before mentioned may be obtained or made,

(13)nor any letter upon the envelope of which, or postal-card upon which indecent or scurrilous epithets may be written or printed, shall be carried in the mail,

(14)and any person who shall knowingly deposit, or cause to be deposited, for mailing or delivery, any of the hereinbefore-mentioned articles or things, or any notice, or paper containing any advertisement relating to the aforesaid articles or things,

(15)and any person who, in pursuance of any plan or scheme for disposing of any of the hereinbefore-mentioned articles or things, shall take, or cause to be taken, from the mail any such letter or package,

(16)shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall, for every offense, be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned at hard labor not less than one year nor more than ten years, or both, in the discretion of the judge."


  • Look at FCC laws governing indecency. What kinds of messages are prohibited by U.S. law? Ask students to examine the media they use most (video games, music, magazines, etc.) and assess whether or not they circumvent the intent of the FCC regulations.
  • Ask students to find examples of current media messages about sex. Discuss what kinds of messages are being communicated and whether or not the messages promote healthy behavior.
  • Ask students to interview their parents or guardians about their views on the types of information about sex that schools and/or media should disseminate.
  • Research sex education policies from other countries and compare to current U.S. policy. In what ways are motives and methods similar and different?
  • If your school's Internet blocking policies made research on the Comstock Act difficult or impossible, you may want to engage students in a discussion of the pros and cons of requiring schools or libraries to use blocking software. This could be extended to a school-wide survey about appropriate Internet access policy and eventual student recommendations to administrators and the school board.


American Experience: The Pill — The website of the PBS series, American Experience. This episode is on the history of The Pill. The site includes brief histories of the Comstock Act and the work of Margaret Sanger.

Planned Parenthood: Timeline — Planned Parenthood has created this timeline of reproductive rights, including rights involving contraception.

Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (About.com) — This excerpt from historian Andrea Tone's Devices and Desires: A History of Contraception in America, provides details on how the Comstock Act came to be law.

Reader's Companion to American History: Birth Control — Historian Linda Gordon provides a brief overview of the history of birth control information in the U.S.


Level IV [Grade: 9-12]


Standard 10: Understands the fundamental concepts of growth and development

10.2 Understands how physical, mental, social, and cultural factors influence attitudes and behaviors regarding sexuality


Standard 1: Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government

  1. Understands how politics enables a group of people with varying opinions and/or interests to reach collective decisions, influence decisions, and accomplish goals that they could not reach as individuals (e.g., managing the distribution of resources, allocating benefits and burdens, managing conflicts)
  2. Knows formal institutions that have the authority to make and implement binding decisions (e.g., tribal councils, courts, monarchies, democratic legislatures)
  3. Understands the sources of political authority (e.g., consent of the governed, birth, knowledge) and its functions (e.g., create and enforce laws)
  4. Understands why politics is found wherever people gather as a group (e.g., it enables groups to reach collective, binding decisions that can be enforced)
  5. Understands some of the major competing ideas about the purposes of politics and government (e.g., achieving a religious vision, glorifying the state, enhancing economic prosperity, providing for a nation's security), and knows examples of past and present governments that serve these purposes
  6. Understands how the purposes served by a government affect relationships between the individual and government and between government and society as a whole (e.g., the purpose of promoting a religious vision of what society should be like may require a government to restrict individual thought and actions, and place strict controls on the whole of the society)

Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society

Source: McCrel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)