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What Adolescents Ought to Know

Sexual Health Texts in Early Twentieth-Century America

Jennifer Burek Pierce

Publication Year: 2011

In 1901, Dr. Alfred Fournier committed an act both simple and revolutionary: he wrote For Our Sons, When They Turn 18, a sexual and reproductive health treatise based on his clinical work at a leading Paris hospital. If this booklet aided adolescent understanding of health, it also encouraged reformers around the world to publish. By 1913, countless works on venereal disease prevention were available to adolescents. During this period, authors wrestled with how to make still-developing scientific information available to a reader also in the process of maturing. What would convince a young person to avoid acting on desire? What norms should be employed in these arguments, when social and legal precedents warned against committing ideas about sex to print? How, in other words, could information about sex be made both decent and compelling? Health reformers struggled with these challenges as doctors’ ability to diagnose diseases such as syphilis outpaced the production of medicines that could restore health. In this context, information represented the best and truest prophylactic. When publications were successful, from the perspective of information dissemination, they were translated and distributed worldwide. What Adolescents Ought to Know explores the evolution of these printed materials—from a single tract, written by a medical researcher and given free to anyone, to a thriving commercial enterprise. It tells the story of how sex education moved from private conversation to purchased text in early twentieth-century America.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv

Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

This manuscript has had a long genesis. From my first encounters with the seemingly strident convictions of librarians whose concerns with children and vice filled the pages of old issues of Library Journal and Public Libraries, to the days I spent reading in the Kinsey Institute library in an effort to make sense of nineteenth-century physicians’...

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pp. 1-18

In 1901, Dr. Alfred Fournier committed an act both profoundly simple and strikingly revolutionary: he wrote a treatise on sexual and reproductive health for young men, full of cautions and information based on his clinical work at a leading Paris hospital. The publication, Pour nos fils, reflected Fournier’s understanding of the...

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Chapter 1: French Origins of International Sexual Health Communication with Adolescents

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pp. 19-62

At the age of seventy, French physician Alfred Fournier turned, in the words of one colleague, his “prudent pen” to adolescents’ risk for sexually transmitted infection.1 The preeminent syphilologist of his generation, Fournier had become convinced that the secrecy and shame surrounding syphilis were conditions that allowed it to flourish.2 It...

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Chapter 2: Initial Transnational Intersections:French Texts and American Culture

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pp. 63-88

It did not take long for a broader commitment to sexual health education to emerge from Alfred Fournier’s public activism. Between the French doctor’s prestige and his work’s scientific basis, arguments about the need to prevent venereal disease gained currency and attracted individuals to the cause. While hundreds promptly joined...

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Chapter 3: Social Hygiene vs. the Sexual Plagues in Indiana and the World

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pp. 89-119

Even before the first copy of Damaged Goods was sold, American writers and health advocates had begun to instruct adolescents in the new facts of reproductive health. Adult attitudes toward young people’s information needs varied, but they concurred in the importance of collective action and authorship, joining a small but growing...

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Chapter 4: What Young Readers Ought to Know:The Successful Selling of Sex Education

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pp. 120-151

Neither the difficulties of financing sexual health education nor its progressive mission could forestall reproaches against the growing body of informative treatises. “There is nothing new about the Seven Deadly Sins,” Agnes Repellier wrote in 1916. Her apologia for innocence and decency, “The Repeal of Reticence,” recoiled from the attention...

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Chapter 5: Battling Books: Censorship, Conservatism,and Market Competition

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pp. 152-177

Even as humanitarian and opportunistic impulses shaped the distinctive print culture of Progressive Era hygiene literature, equally forceful voices countered the aspirations of the genre’s progenitors. The best-known hygiene titles for young readers realized significant circulation in the early twentieth century, and the realities of a growing...

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pp. 178-191

Their difficult inception a recent but fading memory, the initial sexual and reproductive health titles of the twentieth century were soon awash in competition. Where Alfred Fournier had once envisioned himself alone, counseling a father to share Pour nos fils with his adolescent sons, there followed any number of publishers who wished...


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pp. 193-226


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pp. 227-238

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761854
E-ISBN-10: 1613761856
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498914
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498915

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 1 , 1 , 1 , 5 b&w photos, 5 b&w photos, 5 b&w photos, 5 b&w photos, 3 b&w illus., 3 b&w illus., 3 b&w illus., 3 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700521
MUSE Marc Record: Download for What Adolescents Ought to Know

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Teenagers -- Sexual behavior -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Written communication -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Sex instruction for teenagers -- France -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases -- United States -- Prevention -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Fournier, Alfred, 1832-1914.
  • Sexual health -- Study and teaching -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Sex instruction for teenagers -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Teenagers -- Health and hygiene -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
  • Teenagers -- Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
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