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  • Sex Education in the Enlightened Nation
  • Shane Agin (bio)

Any study of sex education in the eighteenth century necessarily runs into a nominative and conceptual difficulty: what, after all, does one mean by the expression "sex education," when applied to an era that undeniably would not have recognized it? From this question grows another which constitutes in fact the central focus of this study: how might a sex education program for young women, conceived on a general scale, that is, beyond the intimate space of the confessional or the boudoir, characterize, or be characteristic of, an enlightened nation? The question is fundamental not only to our knowledge of the eighteenth century, but also to our knowledge of the birth and development of a reasoned discourse on sex. And, as such, the question of a sex education program goes directly to the heart of nothing less than our understanding of the Enlightenment as a mentality and as a social project.

Michel Foucault, in the first tome of Histoire de la sexualité, La Volonté de savoir, famously observes that modern Western civilization has never developed an ars erotica, in which the truth of sex could be derived from the practice of pleasure. Instead, he continues, Western civilization was the only one to have a scientia sexualis in which the truth of sex could be revealed by the aveu or confession, a practice instituted by the Church and continued through Freud.1 In Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and [End Page 67] Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England, 1534–1685, James Grantham Turner disputes Foucault's claim as well as the critical shortsightedness of many dix-huitièmistes who seem, according to him, to have the misguided notion that libertinage and libertine literature were purely an invention of the eighteenth century. Not only is there a vast tradition of libertine literature predating the eighteenth, he rightly notes, but it is this same vast tradition which constitutes the ars erotica ignored by Foucault.2 The goal of this study is to offer an alternative perspective on the question in which sexual knowledge is neither a function of confession nor of libertinage, a perspective in which both the Church and the libertine are excluded, a perspective in which alternative models of scientia sexualis and ars erotica coexist within a singular conception of sex education. Sex education programs might seem a topic more appropriate to recent times and places, but, as I hope to show, the idea was in fact seriously pondered by least one eighteenth-century philosopher, who in both his personal life and his philosophical and literary works, attempted to redefine the ways in which people of his time approached the issue of sex.

The early 1770s saw an important confluence of events in the life of Denis Diderot. In the autumn of 1772, his only child, Angélique, was to be married, and shortly after the wedding, Diderot was to begin a long journey to the court of St. Petersburg to thank in person his great patron, Catherine II. For Diderot, the two events were deeply connected. It had been, after all, Catherine's generosity that had allowed him to marry off his daughter with a somewhat sizable dowry. Had his sense of gratitude to Catherine not been so great, it is unlikely that Diderot, never one for traveling in the first place, would have left behind his beloved daughter, married and now with child, to make the tedious trip to St. Petersburg. Angélique's pregnancy weighed heavily on Diderot's mind as he made his way to Russia. The dangers of childbirth and the difficulties of protecting infants from disease were particularly well known to Diderot, who, with his wife, had already lost in infancy three children of their own before the somewhat unexpected birth of Angélique in 1753. Fortunately, his fears were put to rest, when he learned, on his arrival at St. Petersburg, that Angélique had given birth to a boy and that both she and the child were doing well.

In many respects, Diderot's daughter had benefited from both a national effort to reduce the number of infant mortalities and an individual effort on the...


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pp. 67-87
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