Brenda Goodman’s documentary Sex(Ed), not to be confused with the recently released Haley Joel Osment vehicle Sex Ed, traces the history of sexual education films in America, from its first installment in 1893 to the 21st century’s hype of terroristic abstinence-only programs. The film mixes a plethora of entertaining clips from such “moral education” films throughout the decades (some of which are YouTube favorites, like the homosexuality-as-invisible-smallpox “Boys Beware” from 1961) with the usual talking heads, from college professors to what can sometimes feel like randomly selected, and not particularly insightful, college students who happened to bump into the documentary crew on their campus.
What’s most striking about this neglected film history is that, as Sex(Ed) argues, sexual education in America has consistently been an endeavor outsourced to cinema, as the kind of one-way lecturing that mutes students, stifles questions, and gets parents and instructors off the hook. These films have largely acted as moralistic lessons on hygiene and propaganda for a troubling hetero-centric version of biology that sees the human body as a kind of lifeless machine: “Most men know less about their own bodies than they do about their automobiles,” says a military sex-education instructor in a 1940s film by the U.S. Department of War. They’ve also helped to ingrain essentialist notions of what it means to be a man (impulse-driven masturbators who bareback if the woman looks clean) and a woman (blood-dripping gate-keepers of sin at perennial risk of getting raped, apparently).
Sex(Ed) works well when Goodman allows for the archival footage itself to tell its story without the interruption of the often pedestrian testimonies of the young non-experts. It struggles to keep its focus on this particular history of cinema, as it sometimes wanders off into the impossible task of telling the entire history of sexuality of the past 120 years. Had the film taken a more hands-off approach, akin to the uninterrupted string of film clips in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, the material would have been able to simmer in a more contained and immersive way, even if we’d miss some of the spelled-out historical context (the war did this, feminism did that). Goodman’s film scratches the surface of some unsurprising facts about American culture, at times evoking surprising links between the pathological prudishness, the obsession with denying the sexuality of children, the shame about non-productive pleasure, and the efforts in effacing human desire in all of its unwieldy obnoxiousness. As such, Sex(Ed) feels like an important albeit incomplete document of American history, and an essential conversation-starter to be introduced in school curricula.
DOC NYC runs from November 13—20.
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