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MLN 117.4 (2002) 722-736

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"Comment se font les enfans?"
Sex Education and the Preservation of Innocence in Eighteenth-Century France

Shane Agin

Against the backdrop of high infant mortality rates, the widespread practice of child abandonment, women dying in childbirth, and the overall difficulty of bearing and raising children, the notion of family stood out as one of the great obsessions of eighteenth-century France. 1 Domestic scenes of familial virtue depicting the proper behavior of fathers, mothers, and children were common in the art and literature of the day; and treatises on the correct way of educating sons and daughters abounded. However, the integrity of this model was constantly threatened by the libertine mores that the would-be virtuous families of the day saw lurking just outside their doors. Thus the new focus on family and familial virtue often masked the period's deep-seated fear of society's moral corruption. In the real, or simply perceived, struggle between the bonheur of domestic virtue and the plaisir of libertine decadence, it became imperative to educate France's youth about the dangers of debauchery. This meant teaching them about sex. But in this era of Enlightenment, how would philosophers conceptualize sex education outside the dogma of the Church? How could they promote virtue without playing upon [End Page 722] the superstitious wildcard of eternal paradise or damnation? Or as Foucault bluntly posed the question, "Comment un discours de raison pourrait-il parler de ça?" 2 In this article, I will focus on how two of the most prominent figures in the age of reason, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, two men who knew firsthand the difficulties of raising families in the eighteenth century, two social critics who were engaged in the battle against vice, did, in fact, talk about that.

Any attempt to understand Rousseau's ideas on sex and procreation has to go back to the citoyen deGenève's own entry into the world. Early in his Confessions, he describes his parents' courtship and his eventual birth: "Ma mere avoit plus que de la vertu pour s'en défendre, elle aimoit tendrement son mari; elle le pressa de revenir : il quitta tout et revint. 3 Je fus le triste fruit de ce retour. Dix mois après, je naquis infirme et malade; je coûtai la vie à ma mère, et ma naissance fut le premier de mes malheurs." 4 In this passage, we already see many of the thematic and stylistic elements that characterize Rousseau's body of work on the whole. Beyond his general tendency to bathe his stories in a hyper-romanticized light, there is the overt association of love and sex with illness and death. Rousseau, as he states, is not only the sad, sickly fruit of his parents' idealized love, but he is also the direct cause of his mother's death. Here, there is no attempt on the part of Rousseau to qualify things: Jean-Jacques' birth cost his mother her life and this death set into motion the sad series of misfortunes that would plague his entire existence. The mournful circumstances surrounding his own birth left the young Rousseau with a hazily defined aversion to procreation in general and with "un cœur sensible" that would become one of his dominant traits. 5

Jean-Jacques' sensitive heart readily lent itself to a taste for reading. As he tells us, together with his father, he would read the novels that had belonged to his mother. Rousseau points to this moment as the beginning of what he felt to be his potentially dangerous cultivation of the imaginary. Imaginarily placing himself into the adult worlds [End Page 723] laid out in the pages of the novels before him, the young Jean-Jacques altered the course of his natural cognitive development. According to Rousseau, because of his early contact with these fictional worlds, his imagination developed precociously, well before his reason, giving him "de la vie humaine des notions bizarres et romanesques, dont l'experience et...


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