Sex education has never been without controversy in this country, but a long-forgotten comic book once sparked a particular uproar for its approach to the birds and bees—leading the author to vow that he would take his case all the way to the Supreme Court if he had to.
Sol Gordon, a psychologist and professor of child and family studies at Syracuse University, published Ten Heavy Facts About Sex in 1971. The comic was groovy and honest and packed with useful information for teens trying to safely navigate the Sexual Revolution. Which, naturally, meant it was loathed by many of their parents.
I first discovered Gordon’s comics while doing archival research at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, home of the infamous sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Poring through the archives, I found a copy of another one of Gordon's books, VD Claptrap. The comic stars Ms. Wanda Lust and Captain Veedee-O, spacemen who travel the galaxy to rid the planet Venus of the "Kling-Ons" of syphilis and gonorrhea.
Throughout the ‘70s, Gordon’s psychedelic comics attempted to reach American youth in ways other media could not. As the author told the Los Angeles Times in 1973, “It doesn’t even occur to average young people to pick up books for information, but comics are a way of communicating with them. Once they read a funny cartoon, they are motivated enough to read a few lines of information.”
Gordon created and distributed his comics through Ed-U Press, an offshoot of the Institute for Family Research and Education at Syracuse University, which he headed. Written by Gordon and illustrated by Roger Conant, the comics also covered topics including pregnancy prevention (Protect Yourself From Becoming an Unwanted Parent), drug use (What Do You Do When You're All Drug Doubt?), alcohol abuse (Juice Use—Special Hangover Edition), and diet (Gut News For Modern Eaters).
For comic books, they were text-heavy. Their far-out drawings are more like one-panel cartoons than page-length narratives, meant to make teenagers laugh and keep reading. A typical page consists of a few nudge-nudge, wink-wink visual and verbal puns and several paragraphs of chatty, slangy health information. The topics covered in Ten Heavy Facts About Sex were based on questions asked by 5,000 teenagers across the country.
Gordon and his colleagues sold the comics to other universities, health educators, youth clinics, and organizations like Planned Parenthood. They cost 25 cents each. By 1974, Ed-U Press had sold a million copies of its comics. Ten Heavy Facts About Sex was his most popular title, according to a New York Times article at the time, selling 625,000 copies.
Of course, Gordon was not the first sex educator to distribute his message with comics. Planned Parenthood had been producing its own comic books since the 1950s, and continued to do so into the ’70s. In 1976, Marvel even teamed up with the group to create The Amazing Spiderman vs. The Prodigy. At the time, Stan Lee told the Hartford Courant, “When a million or more teen-agers are getting pregnant each year for want of good education and birth control help, it’s quite in character for Spiderman to want to do something about it.”
Lee wasn't the only one concerned about teenage promiscuity in the '70s. In May 1972, The New York Times lamented American teenagers’ “vanishing virginity.” (Meanwhile, a few months later, the same newspaper published a study showing adolescent sexual activity remained relatively stable since World War II.) Parents naturally panicked upon learning that “nearly half of America’s unwed daughters have had sexual intercourse by age 19—and most of them haven’t bothered with contraceptives.”
Teenagers became implicated in the marked increase of births outside of marriage and the “epidemic” of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea. The American Social Health Association reported in 1971 that at least 5 million Americans suffered from undiagnosed syphilis. Nearly half of all reported cases of these STIs occurred in Americans under the age of 24. “VD… is out of control: in our community, our state, our nation,” intoned the Los Angeles Times that same year. “It is high time to respond to the threat with all the weapons of information and medical treatment we have.”
Gordon's weapon of choice was humor, which he saw as the key lubricant in broaching sexual taboos with teenagers. As he told a reporter in 1974, “You can’t communicate with someone about subjects like sex and drugs if he’s uptight.”
Many parents of teenagers, though, vehemently disagreed. They didn't want educators sending messages that contradicted those that they had imparted to their children. As one mother wrote to the Boston Globe in 1970, "I feel as many other parents do: that sex education rightfully is the responsibility of the parents…. I am strongly opposed to Sex-Ed programs in the schools."
Though sex education in schools has always been divisive, 40 years ago the whole concept was still new. In the 1960s, sex education in schools became “faddish,” and by the early ‘70s, most schools across the country had introduced some kind of sex education program. As they became more widespread, however, these programs were met with parental hostility in nearly every district. The far right accused sex education of being part of a Communist plot to undermine American youth. Even Gordon’s peers in the medical community saw school-based sex education as dangerously subversive. Psychiatrist Louise Eickhoff, for example, claimed in 1970 that it “destroys the inbuilt natural safety devices of the personal, private, intimate love connection that protects the individual and society from evil and harm. Sex education programs are wrong.”
That Ten Heavy Facts About Sex became part of this backlash was no real surprise, as it tackled “taboo” subjects such as premarital sex, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, and masturbation—topics that were off-limits even for many sex educators. A comic book that tolerated or condoned such behaviors was simply unacceptable to many parents.
After Gordon was profiled in the Los Angeles Times in 1973, one mother wrote the newspaper to complain about him and about Ten Heavy Facts About Sex, which her daughter had been given in a school hygiene class. She wrote, “It promotes, yes, promotes, perversion in the form of bestiality, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography and general sexual promiscuity, explicitly advising the reader to engage in any form of sexual practice mentioned, because they are all normal… You can imagine my surprise and chagrin to find Gordon lionized and his writing presented in so benign a light in ‘View.’ Regardless of Sol Gordon’s impressive educational credentials, they have regrettably left him unprepared to distinguish right from wrong.”
Later that same year, in May of 1973, San Diego County supervisors ordered Planned Parenthood to stop distributing Ten Heavy Facts or else lose funding from the county. Planned Parenthood protested that no one else had objected to the book, which they were distributing across the nation.
In fact, Ten Heavy Facts had previously been banned from general distribution at the 1971 New York State Fair. An Appellate Division of New York's State Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the book was not legally obscene, but was not exactly fit to be read, either. The majority opinion was that it “suggests that sodomy is acceptable and it surely condones and encourages homosexuality and bisexuality, if one is so inclined, while conceding that the majority of people favor heterosexuality.”
Gordon brushed off this dissent, vowing to the press that he would defend the comic all the way to the top court in the land. On sex education, he saw himself as firmly in the moral right, and his work as pragmatic. Gordon favored what he called “moral sexual education,” which “begins with the premise that sexuality is an integral part of our identity, and that our sexuality is a natural and positive part of our humanity.” In an ideal world, he believed, parents would feel comfortable enough to talk about sex openly, and to provide teenagers with both the knowledge and the values they needed to make moral sexual choices. The last page of Ten Heavy Facts proclaims: “Morality is good for you.”
And so, Gordon was willing to meet teenagers where they were — to use their media, their lingo, their humor. And doing so helped him get his message across to a generation that was apt to consider him obsolete. Americans who came of age in the ‘70s saw themselves as distinctly more accepting of “deviant” sexual behavior than their parents—why should they listen to what their parents had to say on the topic?
In choosing to speak to teens’ concerns rather than those of their parents, Gordon admitted that older generations cannot always successfully pass down their own values. In using comics to communicate his message, Gordon perhaps acknowledged that teens were unlikely to hear it any other way.
Samantha Meier is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. She is currently at work on a history of the underground 1972 comix anthology Tits & Clits.