Sex ed was eroded as part of a political backlash. "In the '70s, there began to be a series of moral campaigns — some were directed against abortion ... some were directed against homosexuality," Herdt notes. "When Reagan was elected, it ushered in a whole new social campaign — and for the first time, opposition to sex education and opposition to abortion was joined, and served as a bridge to connect different groups who had previously never been working together: groups that were against gun control, groups that were against abortion rights, and groups that were against homosexuality."
All of which has led to the current state of affairs, and as things stand, "I consider the United States one of the most backward countries when it comes to comprehensive sexual education and positive values regarding sexual behavior," Herdt says. But he's hoping to play a role in changing that.
The Ph.D. program at CIIS seeks to train a new generation of experts in human sexuality with a pair of concentrations. The first centers on clinical practice for contemporary practitioners, marriage and family therapists or psychiatrists. The current training requirement for clinicians on human sexuality is a measly eight hours, which "just shows the disregard that society has for sexual pleasure, and sexual wellbeing and relationship formation, and so on," in Herdt's view.
The second concentration centers on sexual policy leadership. Asked to identify some of the most pressing policy issues of concern to sexologists, the program director said existing gaps in comprehensive sex education is a top priority, and predicted transgender rights would intensify as a major issue. "I also feel that the Republican assault on women's bodies, women's contraceptive and reproductive rights — this is a huge and very dangerous area."
Herdt became involved with CIIS through a conference called Expanding the Circle, which merges the LGBT community with individuals working in higher education from throughout the country. Prior to that, he ran the National Sexuality Resource Center at SF State. Asked why he'd looked to CIIS rather than a major university to house the program, Herdt responded, "these large premier institutions, such as Stanford and Berkeley — you know, they have many, many extremely important programs ... But they do have a more traditional emphasis when it comes to disciplines."
At CIIS, on the other hand, he found openness to the kind of academic program he envisioned. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, columnist and author of numerous books on sex, will be a professor there along with Sean Cahill, director of Health Policy Research at The Fenway Institute and co-author of LGBT Youth in America's Schools.
Promoting sexual literacy is just as important of a program goal as influencing policy, Herdt said. "Americans really continue to have very sex-negative attitudes when it comes to the body, the integration of sexuality with all the elements of their lives. So many people feel that sex is fragmented in their lives, and they don't have a holistic sense of wellbeing."
While advancements in neuroscience, psychology and other forms of research have all served to further our understanding of sexuality, Herdt bristles at the idea that it is all hard-wired.
"I'm very much aware that Americans continue to have a view that when it comes to the important things in sexuality, they're all hard-wired in the brain," he says. "I do not agree with that view. I believe that the most important things in human sexuality are the things we learn in society. The values we learn, the ethics, the way we can form relationships. The way we learn to love. Or not to love, to hate. These are such tremendously important issues in human sexuality and human development." He added, "Let's put it in its proper way: It's interactive."