Susan K Freeman, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 200 8. Hardback $60.00/Paperback $25.00. ISBN. 978-0-252-03324-7/978-0-252-07531-5. Xvii + 220pp.
It is a very good thing to see a study of sex education which looks at diverse sites in which it was happening and emphasising the very specific and local factors which influenced it and indeed, had a major impact on whether it was taking place at all. In the British context it is very clear that provision varied enormously, from area to area and from school to school. In Freeman’s excellent study, one possible quibble is that she is focussing on a number of well-thought-out programmes, in different locales, that endured over a reasonable period of time, produced literature or other media which became more widely disseminated, and formed models for emulation: because these are the ones that can be tracked and which left records. It is much less easy to trace less highly-motivated and well-organised endeavours, the resort to occasional outside lecturers of greater or lesser competence, or document the widespread neglect or deliberate shunning of the subject.
Freeman pays significant attention to the various extra-curricular ways, besides these carefully structured pedagogical approaches, by which young people acquired sexual information during the period. The extent to which school-based programmes gained support is evidence that many parents were deeply insecure concerning their ability to give information. Various well-intentioned youth organisations took on the task, though there was a huge range of attitudes: Freeman cites the prissily dismissive response of a Girl Scout leader. She also emphasises the very important, and increasing, role of mass media, with a diversity of messages emanating from advertising, women’s magazines, popular novels, movies, and television. The role of peer communication was also, if perhaps the hardest to calibrate, very influential.
Looking at the subject in this specifically situated way establishes how radical and progressive it was to advocate and implement sex education at the period. Too often analyses of early to mid-twentieth century sex education closely analyse the texts in circulation, with particular emphasis on their moralistic approach and problematic gender and racial attitudes, without the recognition that to be promoting enlightenment on sexual matters, was, in however compromised a form in practice, a daring and potentially dangerous project. Freeman suggests in her introduction that it has been too long taken for granted that sex education ‘reflected the patriarchal gender ideology of the larger culture̵ 7; (p. xiii) - certainly problematic in the UK context in which so many advocates from the late nineteenth century onwards were committed feminists (if of differing political stripes).
Freeman does not gloss over the normalising and conventional attitudes embedded in the manifest messages of sex educators. The clitoris almost universally remained unillustrated in depictions of the female genital area, and unmentioned. Even so, as early as 1947 the Units in Personal Health and Human Relations, developed by the Minnesota Department of Health in conjunction with the University of Minnesota College of Education included the clitoris, labelled as such, in its diagrams, and included suggestions for its inclusion in discussion in the lesson plans. There is evidence that this work was also used elsewhere. But Freeman considers this to have been wholly exceptional (p. 75).
The sexual characteristic of girls which received far more attention was their developing breasts: which were, of course, a visible marker of the transition to womanhood, the object of male attention, and required a certain degree of management. Menstruation was also something that had to be managed: while it might be discussed, it was still an area of secrecy and one in which girls had to be trained to deal with discreetly. Messages were ambivalent and contradictory: it was ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and not about being sick, yet was something that had to be concealed from surrounding males by careful forethought and strategy. If male students were told about it, in general terms, it was often with messages about being particularly considerate to girls and women during their times of special fragility.
A similar ambivalence hovered over the subject of masturbation, if it was mentioned at all). While eschewing traditional views that it caused physical debility or mental breakdown, if mentioned at all it was not encouraged and suggestions were given for how to avoid the practice. Concerns were raised over its potential impact on later marital adjustment.
Heterosexuality and marriage were, it is quite clear, absolutely central to the discourses of sex education at this period, with emphasis on the complementarity of male and female. The notion of marriage was largely companionate, and sex education was promoted as enabling this ideal state in which both halves of the couple were aware not only of their own sexual natures but of the differences that might create tensions and unhappiness. However, Freeman acutely observes that the format of most sex education programmes, which were about raising points for class discussion rather than laying down rigid rules of correct behaviour, enabled exploration of this paradigm. She also notes that influential sex education experts inclined to a socialisation model for contemporary sex roles, rather than resting entirely on biological difference. There were different and conflicting ideas in play.
The sex education programmes Freeman discusses were remarkable not just for the ir potentially controversial content, but for the widespread recognition that to be effective they required entirely fresh pedagogical approaches, enabling the asking of questions and promoting discussion rather than simply conveying facts to a passive audience. It was not just about presenting young people with the knowledge about the anatomy and physiology of their sexual organs but with introducing wider issues about the social implications of these.
This is an excellent and well-researched study which has even managed to uncover some material of individuals’ own experiences of sex education, which fits in very well with its attentiveness to sex education as a process rather than a set of axioms. In the light of more recent controversies over sex education in the USA, it reminds us that the continuing story is not a linear Whiggish narrative of continuous progress, and that we should not dismiss the immediately post-War era as completely mired in a return to conservative ‘family values’. The picture contains much more nuance and Freeman has demonstrated how very complex it was. Her book will surely prove of interest to contemporary sex educators as well as to historians in a range of areas.
Lesley A. Hall