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Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. (Reviews).

Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. By Jeffrey P. Moran (Cambridge and London: Harvrd University Press, 2000. x plus 281pp. $27.95).

In this well-researched, finely nuanced, and insightful book, Jeffrey Moran describes the roller-coaster history of the American sex-education movement. The early sex education movement had to overcome the Victorian "conspiracy of silence" about sexuality, which Moran traces to the belief that evil thoughts formed no part of the child's natural development. Any mention of sex would infiltrate wicked images into the pristine "chamber" of the child's mind. Around the turn of the twentieth century discussions of sexuality came into the open under the impetus of several intellectual developments. The pioneer psychologist G. Stanley Hall advanced a view of human development that legitimated "storm and stress," which Hall traced to the collision between maturing sexual impulses and social prohibitions, as intrinsic to adolescence. On a parallel track, Dr. Prince A. Morrow and other activists found a receptive audience for their insistence that national moral decay required the public discussion of sex and that sexu al drives could be moderated by an informed awareness. Apprehension about moral decay was scarcely new, but sex-education activists in the early 1900s focused attention on the moral (sexual) dereliction of middle-class males, who frequented dance halls and worse, rather than on the destructive lusts of the "perishing classes," and in this way they imparted a new urgency to sex education.

Drawing on new medical insights about venereal disease, these early activists substituted the dissemination of scientific information by experts for religious preachments in order to uphold traditional values about pre-marital chastity. In the 1920s, however, their outlook faced the first of several challenges as the community "standards" which they had confidently invoked on behalf of sexual restraint buckled under pressure from changing middle-class norms of sexual behavior. In the hedonistic 1920s the movement for sex-education came to be dominated by the argument that pre-marital chastity would enhance fulfillment in marriage. "Locating the deepest human satisfactions in marriage," Moran writes, "allowed sex educators to accept the new philosophy of pleasure seeking without sacrificing their principal assertion that extramarital and premarital sex were forbidden" (p.93).

Sex educators of the 1920s infused the movement with a strong tilt toward the promotion of family life. The University of Utah introduced courses on "patrology" and "matrology" and in the 1930s Russell Sage College established a Hall of Homemaking where the college's president and his wife met with students in "frank discussions" of the intimate problems of home life. Unruffled by the revelations of Alfred Kinsey about American sexual behavior, sex education passed noiselessly into Family Life Education (FLE) in the 1950s. In place of Progressive era warnings against venereal disease, FLE combined a bland sex-education curriculum with alluring portraits of the joys of consumption that awaited the happy couple. High schoolers in Kansas in the mid-1950s visited local merchants to learn how to buy engagement and wedding rings. Yet, because of the localistic nature of American public education, older and newer approaches often coexisted, cheek by jowl, in FLE curricula, and graphic illustrations of the effects o f venereal disease, Moran suggests, acted more than the prospect of fulfilling marriages to scare teenagers into chastity.

FLE aroused neither much interest nor controversy before the 1960s, when the sex revolution initiated a new era for the movement. In 1964 sixty-year old Mary Steichen Calderone started the Sex Education and Information Council of the United States (SIECUS). A Vassar graduate and medical director of Planned Parenthood, Calderone sought to nudge sex education away from its longstanding preoccupation with pre-marital sex and toward rational planning for marriage, which in her view included birth control, relaxation of laws against abortion, and substitution of a "framework" for making rational decisions for traditional prescriptions of chastiry. Yet even as Calderone brought a new liberalism and realism to sex education, conservatives, who long had ignored the movement, were linking it to the counter-culture and the anti-war movement. John Birchers and Christian Fundamentalists battered sex education in the schools. Restrained by temperament from scare tactics and gutter responses, Calderone lost the initiative , but by the 1980s sex education was becoming an unintentional beneficiary of the twin furors over the "epidemic" of teenage pregnancies and AIDS. By 1990, for example, all fifty states mandated or recommended AIDS education in the schools.

Despite its apparent triumph, sex education remains controversial, but for new reasons. Embracing the old-fashioned assumption that the dissemination of correct information would inoculate teenagers against "mistakes," liberals have seized on the AIDS crisis to boost sex education. Abandoning their 1970s opposition to sex education, conservatives have countered with "abstinence only" curricula. Each side has invoked "values" while relying on scare tactics. Neither appears to recognize, Moran argues, that evidence for any lasting effect of sex education on teenagers is meager, and both act as if the behavior of adolescents somehow can be sealed off from that of adults. Perhaps the time has come, he concludes, to inter Hall's notion of adolescence as a separate stage of life defined by sexual maturation and deferred gratification.
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Author:Kett, Joseph F.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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