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  • What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early Twentieth-Century America by Jennifer Burek Pierce
  • Megan M. Connerly
What Adolescents Ought to Know: Sexual Health Texts in Early Twentieth-Century America. By Jennifer Burek Pierce. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011. xiii + 237 pp. $24.95 paper.

In this extensively researched book, Jennifer Burek Pierce chronicles the shaping of adolescent sexuality and the reconceptualization of reproductive health in the beginning of the twentieth century. In particular, she argues that the sex education movement was rooted in a grave concern that the spread of venereal disease threatened society and, ultimately, the economic power of the nation. This anxiety prompted medical experts and social health leaders to employ literacy campaigns and mass print culture as a means to distribute “professional medical knowledge to ordinary adolescent readers” (p. 3). Pierce uncovers the progression of the movement by using several different data sources including magazine articles, bulletins of public health, medical writings, pamphlets, medical treatises, advertisements, and news reports. She argues that the availability of print culture also made it possible for medical knowledge to be spread on international levels.

Pierce begins by profiling French physician Dr. Alfred Fournier and his 1901 pamphlet for male readers, Pour Nos Fils. Fournier was among the first physicians to campaign for more open communication about reproductive health and the dangers of venereal disease. Fournier is credited with “conceptualizing sexually transmitted infection with social disease” and also with the creation of one of the first reform groups, the French Society for Sanitary and Moral Prophylais (SFPSM) (p. 31). Fournier’s claim that the spread of syphilis potentially threatened the French state made the case for sex education a credible one to national leaders. He argued that education and the use of contemporary medicine in the healing of the disease was necessary in order to protect the economic power of France and its citizens. Fournier believed in the importance of reaching men before it was too late and advocated for the education of adolescents in reproductive health. SFPSM printed brochures containing “a mix of medical and social messages intended to warn French teens of the consequences of failing to protect their sexual and reproductive health” (p. 35). Pour Nos Fils [End Page 170] eventually prompted discussions on a global level about adolescent sexuality and reproductive health. Other countries adopted editions of Pour Nos Filles, a later edition of Fournier’s work, and translated it into their native languages.

Fournier’s pamphlet also prompted the French playwright Eugene Brieux to inform audiences through his play Les Avaries about the widespread nature of venereal disease and the domestic threat posed by the ailment. Written in consultation with Fournier to ensure medical accuracy, Les Avaries was later translated into English as “Damaged Goods.” Eventually, author Upton Sinclair adopted Brieux’s play for print, allowing it to reach an even larger audience that included young readers. Another champion of American hygiene literature, Prince A. Morrow, translated Fournier’s work into English, while also publishing his own pamphlets, Social Disease and Marriage. Morrow helped establish one of the first American social hygiene societies, the American Society for Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis. His society, later known as the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene, printed Brieux’s play for distribution in the United States, while also distributing pamphlets aimed at educating youth on disease prevention. This group, too, believed in the importance of informing readers before it was too late, causing them to target an adolescent audience.

Pierce next takes up the story of Reverend Sylvanus Stall, an ordained Lutheran Minister, who used the power of print to address concerns of venereal disease while promoting reproductive health through morality. His internationally known publications, including What a Young Boy Ought to Know and What a Young Girl Ought to Know addressed concerns of youth and argued that “contemporary problems should be met with traditional values” (p. 126). Stall made information about the human body available to teens while simultaneously demonstrating the importance of living a pure and moral life. With his Self and Sex Series, Stall took advantage of the burgeoning market for sex education books and assisted in transforming what was once...


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pp. 170-172
Launched on MUSE
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