It was here that Calderone began to run into problems, because instead of furthering her studies in chemistry, she wanted to become an actress. According to Jeffrey Moran, the author of Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century and a professor of history at the University of Kansas, Calderone might have just considered acting "because she was really beautiful, but it turns out that's not really sufficient to get you an acting career." She married another actor and had two children. As Calderone would later put it, she gave up this dream shortly after, when she realized she "couldn't be as good as Katherine Cornell—that is, tops."
"She was pretty brave to be involved in this from the very beginning," Moran says, noting that distributing pamphlets with sexual health information could get you prosecuted for obscenity up until the 1970s and 80s. Though she wasn't exactly a "revolutionary," Calderone quickly gained a reputation as the "world's busiest lecturer on sex education."Though she might have resented the title: She wanted to bring parents and children into a free-form dialogue, rather than preaching at them. "She wanted sex ed to be a discussion, not just about the plumbing—which is sometimes what it had been in other sex ed programs—and not just about how to plan your wedding—which is also sometimes what other approaches had done," Moran says. "She wanted it to be an integration of the physical aspects of sexuality (without flinching) with the moral aspects of sexuality, how it's integrated into social life." Described by People magazine in 1980 as "the aristocratic woman with the Wedgwood blue eyes, majestic manner and lyrical voice," Calderone bolstered her message with quotable missives and a straightforward approach, and her sex-positive stances sound ripped from today's more progressive sex education materials: "Sex is not just a series of genital acts"; "parents reflect our sexophobic society"; "the art of friendship between males in this country is seriously impeded by the almost pathological fear of homosexuality"; "the facts are that pornography does not produce crime. Lack of it may." She was known to ask her classes, "What is a four-letter word that ends with a k and means sexual intercourse?" After a moment of confused giggling, she would reveal the answer: "It's talk."
To establish man's sexuality as a health entity: to identify the special characteristics that distinguish it from, yet relate it to, human reproduction; to dignify it by openness of approach, study, and scientific research designed to lead towards its understanding and its freedom from exploitation; to give leadership to professionals and to society, to the end that human beings may be aided toward responsible use of the sexual faculty and towards assimilation of sex into their individual life patterns as a creative and re-creative force.
Young audiences appreciated Calderone's candor, but these qualities also made her a target for conservative groups like the Christian Crusade, the John Birch Society, and the Moral Majority. (Comparisons to Cecile Richards—the bold, mini-skirt-wearing president of Planned Parenthood who frequently addresses ridiculous criticism from the GOP in appropriately strong terms—are not off-base.) In 1969, right-wing groups spent an estimated $40 million on a vicious smear campaign to ruin the "moral degenerate" and "aging sexual libertine" (who they also accused of being a communist). It didn't help that SIECUS's most prominent defender was often Playboy. Still, Calderone was undeterred. In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times in 1974 (the year she turned 70), Calderone swiftly disabused a critic named E. Rouault of her apparent misconceptions about sexual education. "I suggest that E. Rouault take the trouble to read 'Man and Woman, Boy and Girl,' by Money and Eerhardt…" Calderone writes. "If she can understand even half of it, I am willing to guarantee that never again will she be tempted to sound off in areas with which she is unfamiliar… Today, 95 percent of the medical schools of the United States include course work in human sexuality, and their medical students, as well as thousands of other professionals now trained, would be the first to decry and at the same time pity E. Rouault's lack of factual knowledge."
She was pretty brave to be involved in this from the very beginning.
The developments Calderone cites were largely due to her own efforts, but the conservative opposition eventually led Calderone to step down from the SIECUS executive director position, though not entirely willingly. (She stayed on in leadership roles with the organization until 1982.) "Calderone had become such a lightning rod that SIECUS members wanted to ease her out of the organization," Moran said. "A lot of the opposition came to focus on her, and she was a polarizing figure who wouldn't back down. She recognized that she had perhaps become a liability."Calderone was not without of-their-time blind spots. "She was still concerned that young people, especially young women, needed to hold off on getting involved in sex until they were older," says Moran, and she also thought it was best to limit homosexuality, though she promoted tolerance above all else. Nevertheless, her determination to deepen and improve our understanding of sexuality is a helpful reminder of the kind of qualities we need in similar fights today. When a reporter asked her if the public's willingness to discuss sex publicly had gone too far, she replied, "Truth can never go too far."