Failing Grade

By Wagoner, James | Conscience, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Failing Grade

Wagoner, James, Conscience

Condom Nation: The US Government's Sex Education Campaign from World War I to

the Internet

Alexandra M. Lord

(The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 240pp)

978-0801893803, $40


EVER WONDER WHY AMERICA is so screwed up about sex? Why one of the wealthiest, best educated nations on earth has the highest STD rate among developed nations with the exceptions of only Romania and the Russian Federation? Why the US has spent over $1.5 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs when 95 percent of Americans have sex prior to marriage? Or why advertisers are free to exploit sex to sell everything from laptops to Levis bur condom advertising is still too "controversial" for prime-time television?

Many answers to these questions can be found in "Condom Nation," Alexan dra M. Lord's richly detailed history of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and its efforts to educate Americans about sex. Since its founding in 1798 as the nation's Marine Hospital Service, the US Public Health Service has been attempting the societal equivalent of a "shotgun wedding"--reconciling a deeply conflicted and puritanical morality with the dictates of public health science. Throw in a heavy dose of hypocrisy, racism and xenophobia and you pretty much have an explanation for the failure of the Public Health Service to establish sexual health literacy in America.

Ms. Lord provides focus and context for all of these hapless efforts. From the "social hygiene" campaigns of the late 19th century to the People's War against Venereal Disease in the 1920s, to the distribution of 50 million condoms a month to the troops during World War II, to the feeble attempts to harness the sexual revolution of the 1960s for social change, it's deja vu all over again.

All of these campaigns failed for three fundamental reasons. First, the focus is always narrowly cast on disease rather than sexual health, which means the campaigns attempt to educate Americans on how to prevent STDS without really talking about sex! Viewed through a current cultural lens, the results make for a great comedy until one thinks about the cost in terms of human health and well-being.

During World War I, the film "Fit to Fight" told the story of five soldiers and their experiences with prostitutes. Billy Hale, the erstwhile hero of the film, refuses to have anything to do with prostitutes. Kid McCarthy, the boxer from the wrong side of the tracks, engages bur gets treatment. Two of their compatriots engage but don't seek treatment and suffer the predictably dire consequences. Ms. Lord makes the point that, for its time, the film constituted a breakthrough because it educated troops about treatment for syphilis and other venereal diseases. The comic aspect comes into play when Billy Hale, mocked for his abstinence by fellow soldiers, proceeds to beat them to a pulp, winning the admiration and friendship of Kid McCarthy. All very uplifting I'm sure, bur what does this hypermasculine morality tale have to say about sex and how to experience it in a positive, healthy and responsible way? Not much, and that's the problem.

One of the first rules of public health social marketing campaigns is that fear has limited reach. Behavior change entails agency and an ability to manage the positive as well as the negative aspects of human sexuality. One cannot terrorize someone into developing healthy attitudes and beliefs; they have to evolve naturally from within.

ONE OF THE ASPECTS OF "Condom Nation" that I enjoy the most is Ms. Lord's ability to show how the fear-driven public health service campaign strategies often failed to keep up with the times. The materials aged rapidly and were kept on the shelves for far too long--all of which explains why, back in 1968, my junior high-school class burst into laughter watching one of these dated films. I guess ridicule is not an effective social marketing strategy either. …

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Failing Grade


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