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“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Wealthy parents could maintain a steady surveillance of their children with the help of nursemaids, governesses, and chaperons, but for most Americans this became increasingly difficult. With the rise of industrialization working-class children often had jobs that took them away from home for ten or twelve hours a day. Children who did not need to work went to public school, where they were thrown into daily contact with what the Puritans used to call “all sorts.” And by 1900 it was a usual thing for girls to stay in high school until they graduated, along with the boys. Parents were warned to screen their children’s friends. “Constant vigilance is the price parents must pay if they would keep their children pure,” admonished one child-care book; and another, pointing out that any parent would be alarmed if his children were exposed to scarlet fever, asked, “Is there equal anxiety when a certain boy or girl in the community is thought to be a source of moral contamination?” Companions “of poor tone” must be driven away. “Run away, Henry Jones,” Mother ought to say. “I won’t have you play with my children in this yard.”
Parents who imparted the story of cornstalks and shad were often dismayed to find their children ostracized as sources of contamination by other, less daring parents. But as time went on and the young ranged farther and farther from parental surveillance, there was increasing agitation in favor of some form of sex education. Not that it was called that. The gingerly term devised in the early i goo’s was “social hygiene.” The message that usually got through was that this is a sacred and solemn subject and your bodies are temples; but we aren’t going to tell you much about it, and you must put it right out of your mind because it isn’t nice. Says the author of The Renewal of Life (1906), “Very reverently explain that the mother cat has ovaries,” but she stops short of even the most reverent discussion of tomcats. (The same author, however, dares to suggest that “desire is not abnormal in a girl.”) Another adviser recommended that parental talks on sex should emphasize the pain of childbirth in order to “remove any tendency toward lascivious thought which the child might have otherwise.” One little boy wept for hours when told of the agony he had caused his dear mama in being born. The author of Childhood (1905) warned that information must be imparted “as delicately as possible.” With girls “it seems to me a mistake to make unnecessary disclosures, which, however sacredly we may regard them, are more than apt to shock the sensibilities of the immature mind.”
However delicately, sacredly, or frighteningly sex was presented to the young of the early 1900’s, no method seems to have been a resounding success. And when that rising generation grew up and, in the 1930’s, faced the problem of what to tell their children, they were nearly as perplexed as their parents had been. By that time a lot of taboos had been relaxed, and even the most delicate sensibilities had got used to short skirts, lipstick, one-piece bathing suits, the tango and the Charleston, and adolescents driving about by twos in automobiles. “None of our old ways prepare youth,” commented one child-care writer. The experts were now advising parents to give children the facts and not confuse them with tales of the birds and bees. Sex in Childhood (1933) scolded parents for the “sacred but not nice” message. “Don’t panic and shame the child for sexual offenses. Correct and divert him, in the same manner that you might say ‘Keep out of that jar of raspberry jam, you rascal, you!’”
Few parents in the 1930’s were able to equate sex with raspberry jam- which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that today, after so many years of public discussion of sex and so much public exorcism of prudery, there still appear to be many parents who avoid the subject. Dr. Haim G. Ginott, in his best seller Between Parent and Teenager (1969), quotes a father who said, “Sex may have gone as public as AT&T but I want no share in it.” Masturbation still causes anxiety and concern despite at least fifty years of reassurance that it won’t cause insanity or even pimples. The young still complain (again, according to Dr. Ginott), “I can’t ask my mother anything about sex.”
Can it be possible? Or is it that the tables are turned and it’s the children, not the parents, who won’t communicate? After all, what do Mom and Dad know compared to Dr. Reuben or Masters and Johnson or Jacqueline Susann—all available at the corner drugstore for the price of a few icecream cones?