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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 561-563

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Book Review

Teaching Sex:
The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century

Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. By Jeffrey P. Moran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. 304. $27.95 (cloth).

In Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Jeffrey Moran offers a well-researched, concise, and clearly written account of the American struggle to develop policies to teach sex and sexuality, combat sexual diseases, and reform sexual deviancy while at the same time transmitting responsible family values to future generations. Historically, this struggle between religious moralists and secular social service professionals has played itself out as a battle to control the sexual morals and behaviors of the nation's youth. Like the resolution of many other important social issues, as Moran's story illuminates, what evolved was a one-size-fits-all, "sexless" educational curriculum designed to please everyone. In the end this particular labor to control the nation's youth produced a compromised "Instrumentalist Approach" that allowed educators--without teaching sex--to warn school-age children about the evils of premarital sex and sexual diseases in the context of responsible family values. Since the topic is far from resolved in modern American politics, Moran's story provides an historical framework for this particular struggle for the American soul.

In eight chapters, Moran explicates the cyclic struggle of sex education proponents, disease-training advocates, and family-life educators to define American adolescence and establish a national sex education policy. Chapter 1, "The Invention of the Sexual Adolescent," begins in 1904 with Clark University psychologist G. Stanley Hall's attempt to research and define adolescence. Hall's Victorian beliefs (he personally referred to genitals as the "dirty place") combined with a progressive ideology to set the stage for numerous attempts to reform young men's insistent sexual urges, protect virtuous women, and allow people to understand the role of sexuality in character development. At the same time, the problem of adolescent sexuality was exacerbated by a changing American landscape, characterized by overcrowded cities, culturally diverse immigrants, crime, and disease, that provided illicit temptations to young people, who were pushed into co-educational public schools just when the age of puberty was declining and many young people were delaying marriage. As a Social Darwinist, Hall [End Page 561] envisioned a coalition of educators (in the new high schools and colleges), religious leaders, and family and social science professionals who would promote chastity and reform savage urban youth.

In chapter 2, "Regulating Adolescent Appetites," we learn that the coalition failed. Rates of prostitution, promiscuity, divorce, child abandonment and abuse, and venereal disease increased, while immigrant populations proliferated, and the white birthrate declined. President Theodore Roosevelt responded by warning the nation of the possibility of "race suicide." In an effort to change the situation, worried reformers attacked the Victorian "conspiracy of silence" and turned to eugenics, birth control, and sex education. This spawned a new cadre of Progressive Era professionals (social hygienists and sex educators) who advocated sex education to break the silence and teach adolescents to "control natural urges" and make "intelligent choices." Turning over parental responsibility to professionals was not an easy sell, and many Americans with traditional religious and family values resisted these new ideas.

The story reaches one of its turning points during World War I, when middle-class American soldiers were exposed to lower-class moral values and less restrictive, European ideas of free sex. Chapter 3, "The Revolt of Youth," tells of the attempts to defeat the idea that war was a "moral holiday" and to establish national educational programs in the military to combat venereal disease and keep it from spreading throughout America. Despite the united front among promoters of sex/disease education, these programs failed to control promiscuous sexual behavior; VD increased as postwar, middle-class youth became more sexually active.

The next two chapters describe the loss of sex education programs to disease education models. Chapter...


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