Sex Education Icons

Sex Education Icons

History doesn’t leave us wanting for icons in the fields of sex education, awareness and fulfillment. Here are some names from the past and present who have brought us where we are.

Sex ed has come along way – but not far enough. In the 1950s, American public schools taught sex education to students by making them learn about botany – yes, the study of plants – and kind of just hoped they’d figure out what they really meant by “pistils and stamens.” Things improved a bit in the 70s, but not a lot. 

Many public schools are still teaching abstinence-only sex ed, which isn’t really education at all. Abstinence-only education has proven to be ineffective time and time again, with teen pregnancy and STI rates much higher than they are in states with more comprehensive sex ed. As of 2014, the CDC reports that 80 percent of teens don’t get proper sex education before they have sex. And the ones who do likely just get information on condoms and pregnancy, which is extremely important at that tender age. But what about learning techniques – how to do it and do it well? We can’t expect that to be taught in schools anytime soon.

The good news for adults who may have received less-than-ideal education is that a few private citizens have stepped up to the plate to pick up the slack. Some of these sex educators are mainly adults who have the ability to travel and have resources, while others are broadcast on mainstream television for concerned and curious kids to catch late at night.

Havelock Ellis

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Havelock Ellis wore many hats: writer, poet, physician, and progressive intellectual (well, by the standards of the late 1890s; he was, unfortunately, a eugenicist as well). Ellis quite literally wrote the book on sexuality – several, in fact. He published several volumes of The Psychology of Sex over the course of his life. His book Sexual Inversion, a study of homosexual behavior, is still referred to in academia, as well as his book on what he called eonism, what we may refer to today as being transgender. 

Havelock’s works are notable as they are quite objective. They don’t ascribe any pathology or immorality to the sexual human behaviors he describes. Although he had a long way to go, Ellis did start these important conversations and influenced future sexologists.

Betty Dodson

A New York City artist decided to seek her own sexual liberation after her divorce from her husband in 1965. In response to a lot of anti-sex attitudes in the first-wave feminist movements, Betty was decidedly pro-sex and authored several books on masturbation and sexuality like Liberation Masturbation: A Meditation on Self Love and her bestseller Sex for One. Betty was a champion of women taking their sexual pleasure into their own hands, holding masturbation workshops in her home and making sure everyone left with a Hitachi Magic Wand.

Today, Betty runs a 501(c)(3) public charity to disseminate sexual information and education and empower women to become certified to run sexuality workshops of their own. At 91 years old, she’s still having great sex and wants others to do the same.

Patrick Califia

A transgender man who started his career as a lesbian separatist and community educator, Patrick Califia became one of the most important pro-sex activists in the 1970s and 1980s. Born into a religious LDS family, he dropped out of college and began attending anti-war and women’s liberation rallies. After moving to San Francisco, he began working a San Francisco Sex Information switchboard, an organization that disseminated accurate and free information on sexual health. In 1975, upon expressing an interest in S&M, he found himself suddenly barred from lesbian feminist circles. Understanding this as inherently anti-sex, he founded the first lesbian BDSM group in America and wrote the first book on it as well, entitled Sapphistry. Califia continued writing educational and informative articles on S&M and safe sex for various publications throughout his life. After penning several non-fiction books on queer sexuality as well as S&M erotic fiction, Patrick’s writing convinced the lesbian community to accept S&M as a valid form of sexuality. Or perhaps, as the Chronicle put it, “They read Califia-Rice’s S/M fantasies, got turned on and got over it.”

Annie Sprinkle

Sex work, performance art, environmental activism – these worlds rarely overlap unless you’re Annie Sprinkle. The former pornographic starlet has been a revolutionary pro-sex feminist since the 1970s and has used her experience to destigmatize, heal and raise consciousness about the private body, the public body, and the Earth’s as a whole. In 2002, she became the world’s first porn star to earn a Ph.D. after attending the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She’s authored several books on the sex work industry, regularly lectures at various colleges, and tours around the world with her partner doing performance art. Proponents of what they call the “ecosexual” movement, they have performed wedding ceremonies to the Earth, the sea, the dirt and rocks to raise awareness about urgent environmental crises.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer

As well as authoring over 45 books on sex and sexuality, she was also a late-night TV sex advisor, but the lesser-known story of Dr. Ruth is worth noting. She survived the Holocaust, although her family sadly didn’t, and was a trained sniper and scout in the Israeli army.

After emigrating to New York, she worked for Planned Parenthood between studying sociology, education and human sexuality. WYNY-FM hired her for $25 a pop to broadcast 15-minute shows on Sunday nights. Her radio show turned into a syndicated television show, extending to a full hour throughout the years. As she frequented the talk show circuit and became a beloved public figure, Dr. Ruth normalized talking about sexuality for Americans. 

Nina Hartley

Yes, here’s another sex-positive feminist (did you think you’d find a sex-negative anti-feminist on this list?) who started her life’s work in porn. An outspoken pro-sex worker rights activist, Nina has led by example and proven that women in porn exercise agency and self-ownership in decisions that lead them to the industry. She’s directed countless films and has appeared in several mainstream films and documentaries. She’s authored several educational books and created and produced a series of video guides that is both provocative and informative.

Ericka Hart

After serving as a Peace Corps HIV/AIDS volunteer in Ethiopia, Ericka Hart was inspired to continue her path as a sex educator. She earned her master’s degree in Human Sexuality and has educated people of all ages in New York City as an acclaimed speaker, award-winning sex educator, lecturer at Columbia University, and activist. As a survivor (worrier, in her words) of bilateral breast cancer, she realized her identity was not featured prominently in her treatment. 

She challenged this by going topless in public, demanding representation and visibility of black and brown LGBTQIA+ people in breast cancer awareness. Ericka’s focus on dismantling anti-black standards of beauty, systemic patriarchy, attitudes toward chronic illness, and the medical-industrial complex reminds us that sex education isn’t just about having orgasms – it’s about fighting for the right to have access to resources that center and recognize our identities.

Plenty of our favorite sex educators have written books or published video guides you can find on the shelves of your local HUSTLER Hollywood store or on