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Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870–1924 by Robin E. Jensen (review)
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“Talking dirty” has proven as threatening as actually “doing dirty” throughout American history, and a great irony of the country’s consistently heated debates over sex education is that even highly incendiary curricula often discuss sex only to dissuade students from engaging in it—hardly a subversive or salacious project. Indeed, the creator of a tremendously controversial 1960s curriculum explained forthrightly: “We discuss the values and consequences of promiscuity and the children find no values. They look down on those who ‘sleep around.’”1 Nonetheless, this program and others like it—which openly discuss sexuality if only to discourage it—continue to enrage critics who equate any mention of sexuality with endorsement and with the erosion of morality, the family, and often the nation.

Robin E. Jensen’s Dirty Words reveals how deeply rooted in American culture this opposition to sex talk is, as well as how participating in even highly constrained sexual discourse could be liberatory, especially for women and African Americans. Of great value is Jensen’s broad definition of sex education as “any experience in which a person acquires information about sex and/or topics related to sexual activity through a program aimed at public audiences,” expanding the scholarship on this topic beyond the schoolhouse, where existing studies have left it.2

Jensen, a communications scholar, adds richly to three already dense historical fields: those of Progressivism, of education, and of sexuality. To the study of Progressivism, she reveals how sexuality instruction reconciled the moralism of the era’s reformism with its growing enshrinement of scientific authority. Education scholars gain a fresh perspective on the familiar terrain of Ella Flagg Young’s Chicago Public Schools in seeing how her sex education advocacy interacted with other curricular reforms and engaged the larger goals and strategies of the social hygiene, social purity, and free love movements. Finally, both Jensen’s explorations of the sex education campaigns of Chicago’s schools and of the US military explain how notions of purity, gender, and sexuality were enacted in specific social institutions.

Dirty Words is broken into five chapters, showing how Progressive era sex educators from the wide-ranging social purity, social hygiene, feminist, and free love movements employed “ambiguous discourse” to advance their particular visions; how reformers such as Ella Flagg Young, Margaret Sanger, and Rachel Slobodinsky Yarros as well as the US government framed their versions of sex education to the clients and administrators of the Chicago schools, native and immigrant women, and the military; and finally, how the national exhibition Keeping Fit reveals both the limitations and the transformative nature of sex education discourse in the Progressive era. Jensen frames these chapters with introductory and concluding remarks about the state of contemporary sex education, noting that the persistence of the “ambiguous discourse” has impeded progress toward an empowering, inclusive model of sex education.

Jensen raises the provocative question of whether Progressive era sex education was a mode more of empowerment or of social control and whether access to it was actually a privilege. On the one hand, Jensen appears to sympathize with sex educators, especially in her unforgiving depiction of opponent Anthony Comstock. On the other, she explains how even those who envisioned the most liberatory sex education, such as Margaret Sanger, disdained sexual expression, eschewed discussion of sexual pleasure, and categorically championed marriage. Jensen ably explores how these tensions reflected the thoroughgoing restraint characterizing sexual discourse in this era, explaining how even “personal purity talks,” which unequivocally championed chastity, both inspired controversy as prurient and were welcomed for their radical candor by listeners. The analysis is somewhat less nuanced, however, in decrying the lack of access immigrants and people of color had to sex education and celebrating the efforts of reformers to grant them such privileges. Rightly, Jensen states that such exclusion reflected a prejudicial disregard for the health of “Othered” populations, but it remains unclear why access to what she portrays as often highly problematic programs would be so empowering.

The ambition of Jensen’s approach—defining sex education far beyond the schoolhouse and framing her historical discussion with a contemporary introduction and conclusion—raises other questions. To begin, it seems that engaging historical actors as diverse...



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