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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 213-249

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Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease:
Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education

Julian B. Carter
Stanford University



Epistemological Ambivalence

At least since the enlightenment, sex education has been a part of the process by which children are guided into adulthood; think, for instance, of the elaborate care with which Rousseau formed Emile's developing passions. 1 But it is only in the past hundred years that mandatory state-sponsored schooling and steadily increasing enrollments of students past the age of puberty have created the possibility for sexual pedagogy on a mass level. The movement for sex education in the public schools [End Page 213] began in the second decade of the twentieth century, at the cultural moment when vocal public criticism of many social ills was paired with an equally articulate optimism about education's ability to effect their cure. In 1916, Maurice Bigelow, social hygienist and director of the School of Practical Arts at Columbia University Teacher's College, commented that "a large number of the most enlightened people" had recently

turned to education in their search for progress toward the solution of the great sexual problems. This is not surprising to one who is watching the current tendency towards confidence in education. Education has become the modern panacea for many of our ills--hygienic, industrial, political, and social. . . . In every phase of this modern life of ours we are looking to knowledge as the key to all significant problems. 2

This essay scrutinizes the characteristically Progressive statement of "confidence in education" in the light of sex instructional materials generated in the United States between 1910 and 1940. I offer detailed readings of a number of such texts, using them to demonstrate that, optimistic rhetoric notwithstanding, sex education in this country has long roused profound ambivalence even among its most ardent supporters. 3

It is easy to miss this ambivalence about sexual knowledge because sex educators have exhibited so little ambivalence in their discussions of sexual activity. The chief message of almost all twentieth-century sex education amounts to "Just Say No." Thus, the history of sex education can be seen as the story of shifting strategies aimed at discouraging people from having sex outside of marriage. This is, for instance, the narrative of the most comprehensive historical treatment of the subject, Jeffrey Moran's Teaching Sex. 4 Moran shows that in the early years of the century, adults tried to keep adolescents chaste by emphasizing the dangers of venereal disease; around midcentury, classes in "family life" gained popularity, only to be superseded in more recent years by a renewed discussion of disease prevention. My purpose here is not to challenge Moran's excellent historical account, though there are points on which we disagree, but to deepen and enrich it by paying closer attention to the texts generated by the movement he studies so well. Because he is primarily interested in sex education as a public movement aimed at social control, Moran's work is grounded in activists' and educators' statements about sex education and pays relatively little attention to actual classroom materials. Where Moran tells an [End Page 214] "externalist" story of a social movement directed at controlling adolescent behavior, I want to evoke the "internal" climate of conflicting beliefs and feelings about sex and knowledge. This approach seems especially appropriate because, as we shall see, early-twentieth-century sex educators were reluctant to speak about sexual acts even in the interest of controlling them. Instead, they directed their considerable energies at shaping the epistemological environment within which young people would experience, and act on, sexual desire.

Among the most pressing of "the great sexual problems" for this era, in the minds of many reformers, was the decline in the birth rate among the middle-class, native-born Anglo-Americans who claimed the right to represent the core of national identity and well-being. Since the 1870s, this segment of the population had been losing demographic dominance to the New...


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