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Sex Education and Mass Communication in the Mid-Twentieth Century
Questioning the relationship between medium and message has long exercised media and communications theorists, but historians have devoted comparatively little attention to the issue.1 The historiography of sexology confirms this: rather than approaching the history of sexual knowledge as the communication of expertise, historians have looked to books, manuals, films, and posters simply as sources of "evidence" of that expertise; rarely has the medium itself been the object of historical inquiry. This is curious because the first half of the twentieth century saw not only the institutionalization of sex education and the popularization of sexual expertise (notably in the marital manual) but also extraordinary developments in mass communication—in the genres of journalism and broadcasting and in the variety of media technologies available for public pedagogy. In this article we extend the historiography of sex education's usual sites of analysis by looking at two signature media of the twentieth century, the mass-circulation magazine and broadcast radio. By focusing on the medium as much as the content of the message, we can begin to connect the history of mass communication with that of sex education.
In analyzing twentieth-century sex education in English-speaking cultures historians have proceeded along three broad trajectories. Those on the [End Page 71] first trajectory have studied the sexual education of children and youths newly formalized through the systematic instruction of parents as sex educators.2 Those on the second have analyzed marital manuals, which do provide a wider scope for inquiry into one print medium. Usually packaged as hardcover books and intended for adult readers' private consultation, such manuals were either purchased or studied in libraries or clinics.3 Although historians have not tended to categorize the marital manual as "sex education," readers clearly sought them for enlightenment on sexual matters.4 Those on the third trajectory have concentrated on the institutional development of formalized sex instruction in educational institutions and in the military. Generally speaking, histories of formal sex education have been based on sexological books and the instructional materials of professional sex educators. Through these media information about reproduction, contraception, venereal disease, and sexual practices ("normal" and "abnormal") was transmitted to wide audiences in libraries, the military, and (with varying degrees of government support) schools and colleges. Jeffrey Moran's Teaching Sex describes the sex-education movement in the United States during the early to mid-twentieth century as an attempt to impose controls on youth, on the newly created "adolescent," through instruction delivered within medical systems or through sex educators.5 Julian Carter has declared that starting in the 1920s "mandatory state-sponsored schooling [in the United States] . . . created the possibility for sexual pedagogy on [End Page 72] a mass level."6 But how might the historiography shift if we were to approach "education" not in its narrow institutional sense but more broadly—as advice, as instruction, as communication? Asking questions about "mass" sexual pedagogy necessarily shifts the historian's focus to mass communication, to other media for expert instruction, and to new journalistic genres of popular pedagogy, all of which functioned outside of educational, military, or religious institutions. Extending the recent historiographical move toward the epistemology of sex education—to how rather than what sex knowledge was offered and obtained7 —we suggest here that the medium as well as the content and context of the sex message calls for critical analysis.
Our approach builds on work that traces important distinctions among the genres of sexual texts. Lesley Hall, for example, has examined the significance of issues like cost, binding, and foreign language quotation in medical books. These factors largely determined the reception of sex books as either learned, authoritative, and therefore respectable or popular, too easily accessible, and therefore obscene. As Hall notes, the expense and limited circulation of the earliest editions of Havelock...