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  • The Emergence of Sex Education:A Franco-Swiss Comparison, 1900–1930
  • Virginie De Luca Barrusse (bio) and Anne-Françoise Praz (bio)

Around 1900, sex education emerged as the focus of debate in western Europe and the United States, a phenomenon that can be viewed as part of the “discursive explosion” identified by Michel Foucault. In contrast to the salacious or even pornographic evocation of sexuality that had hitherto been dominant in literature and political pamphlets, doctors and philanthropists attempted to make discourse on sexuality respectable for the first time: they treated it as a legitimate object of knowledge, they used what Foucault called an “authorized vocabulary,” and they proposed an analytical approach to the study of sex.1 Although Foucault did not address sex education in his History of Sexuality, the subject provides an interesting development of the Foucauldian framework. Sex education implies considering not only the content of the message (namely, a scientific language that allows one to talk about sex) but also the identity of the recipient, children and adolescents. Providing sex education seemed to contradict prevailing tendencies to treat childhood and youth as an age of innocence to be preserved as long as possible from the necessarily corrupting realities of the flesh. The “repressive hypothesis” that Foucault challenged actually describes evocations of sexuality addressed to youth up until the end of the nineteenth century. An awkward silence prevailed at the expense of the dissemination of information; young people were forced to learn about sexuality through fragmentary information or abrupt revelations. Thus, talking about sexuality to young people and even teaching it in schools was a real innovation.

Scholars such as Lutz Sauerteig, Roger Davidson, and Jeffrey Moran have begun to address this puzzling shift.2 Among the factors mentioned [End Page 46] to explain the emergence and legitimation of sex education, they point to the motivation to disseminate medical knowledge about the seriousness and contagious nature of venereal diseases (VD). But rather than accepting the arguments of historical actors at face value, we argue that other concerns were hidden behind this health warning, and we demonstrate that the dangers of the VD epidemic were exaggerated in order to serve other purposes, such as to solve the perceived problem of “race degeneration.” Recent studies on the French case also underscore the normative function of sex education. Far from simply communicating information, its real purpose was sexual dissuasion; all advocates of sex education in Europe encouraged young people of both sexes to abstain from sexual activity before marriage, with the exception of some neo-Malthusians, who advocated free love combined with access to birth control as a radical denunciation of the bourgeois marriage.3 Our goal here is to contextualize this shift through an exploration of how these advocates of sex education perceived the evolution of society and sexuality at the time.

The existing literature has demonstrated the variety of actors who mobilized around the issue of sexuality at the turn of the century: physicians, demographers, eugenicists, sociologists, pedagogues, philanthropists, pastors and other members of the clergy, politicians, and militant neo-Malthusians. In the process, some surprising and unorthodox alliances were sometimes formed; moral philanthropists, for example, initially very close to physicians, later united the promoters of innovative pedagogy against the medical profession. This suggests the existence of hidden agendas on the part of various individuals and groups and provides evidence that motivations for venturing into the territory of sex education were not limited to the stated goal of combating a hazard to health or morals.

Historians of sexuality have similarly reached a consensus on the issue of the relative lack of success of advocates for sex education across the Western world for the first decades of the twentieth century. Despite the proliferation of discourse in books, brochures, lectures, and newspaper debates, few sex reform groups succeeded in achieving significant policy reform to implement sex education in schools, and even these successes were controversial. This article proposes to analyze the reasons for these successes and failures through a comparison of the emergence of sex education in France and French-speaking Switzerland from 1890 to the interwar period. This comparative approach presents two complications. First, focusing on the...


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