- Sex Ed, Segregated: The Quest for Sexual Knowledge in Progressive-Era America by Courtney Q. Shah
This book’s title is misleading if quickly skimmed, because what follows is not a history of sex education in segregated schools. Rather, in this concise history of Progressive Era sex education movements, Courtney Q. Shah posits a modern sort of question: How was the radical potential of sex education and sexual talk limited, distorted, and deflected? Shah explicitly ponders why sex education’s [End Page 561] capacity for challenging stereotypes about racial difference, providing an avenue for nonwhite respectability, limiting men’s sexual exploitation of women, creating opportunities for female leadership, and democratizing the benefits of good health was unable to gain widespread social and political traction.
Shah’s investigation dives deeply into several bodies of sources, including American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) records, a variety of reform and medical periodicals, and publications by movement luminaries such as Prince Marrow and Maurice Bigelow. In chronologically ordered chapters, she argues that the reasons for sex education’s conservative execution lie with the reformers themselves, who were attempting to advance their cause without undermining the widespread assumptions that an individual’s capacity and contributions to society were bound by his or her race and gender. Over and over again, reformers staked their authority upon their ability to distinguish between “the salvageable and the hopeless” (p. xvii), a task they completed with the language of science and expertise.
On the rare occasions when reformers’ strategies and programs whispered of slightly radical intent, the response from parents, the white public, and government threatened to quash the whole field; racial and gender conservatism proved to be a precondition for any discussion of a previously taboo topic, holding the “normalization” of sex education (p. 142) and the expert standing of reformers hostage. For example, chapter 2 illuminates the infamous 1913 fiasco wherein Chicago Public Schools’ moderate and modest sex education program fell to the protests of parents and public figures; sex education lost standing when it posed greater social costs to white Americans than the health benefits promised. Cowed reformers moved out of schools and into the business of getting social clubs, civic groups, and parents to deliver information about sexuality and sexual health.
What opportunities emerged to imagine a sex education that circumvented or even challenged the racial and gender status quo? In chapters 3 and 4, Shah traces the complicated and compelling efforts of African American physicians in the National Medical Association and individual women’s rights reformers who attempted to harness sex education to other aspirations—of holding men responsible for all of their sexual actions, of supporting women’s sexual agency, of claiming that black and white bodies and ailments are more similar than different. It did not go particularly well. Even the relatively modest ambitions of granting to black middle-class women the same courtesies and protections extended to white middle-class women or extending to married women opportunities to regulate reproduction were ignored, censored, or a combination of both.
It was only during World War I, when venereal-disease-laden soldiers became a national security issue, that sex education gained a tenacious hold and a legitimate place in the educational landscape, albeit generally in training camps, clubs, and forums rather than schools, and unequally distributed among the population. Regrettably, young women were still systematically undereducated and then detained if they committed sexual transgressions, and black soldiers found themselves subject to dire restraints, including forced medical treatments. A case study of how negotiations between stakeholders unfolded among San Antonio’s [End Page 562] wartime population represents Shah’s research at its strongest. The relationship between (white) women’s clubs that leveraged their feminine expertise to create policewomen positions, local businesses that sought to profit from proximity to a military base, soldiers looking for all kinds of recreation, and federal policy makers who wanted soldiers to maintain VD-free status is elegantly told through the primary source trail...