Sex education, as it is understood today, was unknown until about 200 years ago. In ancient and medieval Europe sex was seen as an integral part of life, not as a separate, problematical issue which needed special study. Sexual knowledge was acquired spontaneously together with all other kinds of knowledge. Children did not live in a "protected" world of their own, but took part in virtually all adult work and leisure activities. Since the majority of the population lived on farms close to nature, boys and girls had ample opportunity to observe the mating of animals. Indeed, it was not uncommon for people to share their house with their cattle. Neither the highest nor the lowest social classes enjoyed much personal privacy, but there was also no squeamishness or embarrassment about the natural bodily functions. Families were used to bathing and sleeping together in the nude. Courtships and pregnancies were discussed openly, and women gave birth to their babies at home. The "facts of life" were never a secret to anyone, and as soon as they reached puberty, both males and females were considered ready for marriage. (See also introduction to "The Human Body".)
Even at the beginning of the Modern Age, when a new urban middle class started to exchange important information in print, sex was not yet treated as an isolated topic. Thus, educational books for children, like the Colloquia Familiaria by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1522), approached sex simply and straightforwardly as a normal part of domestic life, giving it no more and no less emphasis than other matters of general interest.
However, in the course of the next few centuries people adopted a very different attitude. First childhood, and then adolescence, began to emerge as special, "innocent" periods of life, in which the individual had to be shielded from the temptations of the adult world. An increasing prudery saw everything sexual as dirty and dangerous. Masturbation was discovered as a universal problem and declared a serious threat to health. By the time Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulated his "enlightened" educational theories in Emile (1762), sex had become a highly mysterious and deeply disturbing subject. (See the introductions to "Infancy and Childhood" and "Adolescence.")
Rousseau believed that all children were born in a "natural" state of "holy innocence" which had to be preserved as long as possible. For him, sexual ignorance was bliss, at least in childhood. After puberty, sexual information was justified only in answer to direct questions, but even then it was advisable to stifle further curiosity by making the adolescent disgusted with the subject. Perhaps it was best if the educator used "dirty words" for sex organs and sexual functions and stressed their connection with the most repulsive bodily excretions. On the other hand, one had to be careful not to arouse any premature passions by becoming too explicit. Indeed, the educator always walked a very thin line. A single inappropriate remark could ruin his pupil's life.
In many respects Rousseau expressed the attitude of his age. However, there were other influential educators, especially in Germany, who suggested a different approach. While they shared Rousseau's basic belief that children were innocent, and that sex was dangerous, they saw early "sexual enlightenment" as the only effective way of combating the danger. In their opinion, sexual ignorance was even worse than sexual knowledge, because it led to harmful misconceptions and wild fantasies. Furthermore, it was impossible to fight masturbation without discussing it freely. In short, if sex education had its distasteful side, it was nevertheless a necessary evil.
In accordance with this general view, the first formal sex education classes were instituted in some "progressive" schools. These classes aimed, above all, at creating a sense of modesty and wholesome fear. Everything had to take place in an atmosphere of utter seriousness. Any suggestion of pleasure or joy was to be avoided. As a matter of fact, it was proposed that students should be prepared for a sex education class with a special and very meager diet which would weaken their bodies and thus prevent dangerous desires from being aroused. As an additional safety measure, an indirect approach was recommended. Beginning with a description of plant and animal life, the teachers could gradually lead up to the touchy subject of human reproduction. Still, they must not become too specific. It was enough to hint that women bore their children "under the heart" and gave birth in great pain. Naturally, the danger of death in childbed could always be emphasized. In the same somber spirit, some educators also preferred to demonstrate the anatomical difference between the sexes by inviting their students to the morgue and showing them naked male and female corpses. In addition, children were taken to hospitals and insane asylums to observe syphilitic patients and madmen who were described as victims of masturbation. Some schools used books containing allegedly true reports about adolescents who had died miserably as a result of "self-abuse", in spite of the best medical treatment. Students were also encouraged to read stories about seduction, abandonment, infanticide, and similar gruesome matters. In short, the real purpose behind the whole enterprise was not so much to educate the young about sex as to warn them against temptation.
As already mentioned, these early sex education programs were developed in a few model schools, and they reached only the children of the rising middle classes and the lower aristocracy. Sex education for all segments of society was not considered until after the French Revolution in 1789. Educators appealed to the new democratic French government to make such education mandatory and especially to provide medical instruction for girls about menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and baby care. If these plans had been carried out and followed through to their logical conclusion, they would undoubtedly have accelerated the emancipation of women. Unfortunately, the revolutionary momentum was soon lost. Not only in France, but all over Europe, the middle classes became increasingly powerful and conservative. Even the earlier limited educational experiments were abandoned. Thus, only a short time after its introduction, the subject of sex disappeared again from the curriculum.
Nevertheless, in the early 19th century, adults still had free access to some positive sexual information. Both in Europe and in America a number of serious "marriage manuals" were published, which took a very reasonable attitude towards sex and also described various methods of contraception. These books were not always scientifically correct (some important facts about human reproduction had not yet been discovered), but at least they tried to be helpful. Furthermore, around the middle of the century, new technical processes made the mass production of condoms possible. As a result, more and more people began to plan the size of their families.
The Christian churches were, of course, well aware of these developments, but took no official stand on the matter. Even most Catholic bishops preferred to remain silent and instructed their priests not to upset parishioners who acted in good faith. It was only later, when rapid industrialization and a rising nationalism prompted governments to demand a population increase, that the churches became more outspoken. Finally, the politicians and clergymen were joined by various civic groups which feared for the very survival of civilization, and which called for a "Christian" crusade against contraception and other "immoral" practices.
In the U.S. the most successful of these new crusaders was Anthony Comstock, the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock had begun his career as a fighter against the "demon alcohol", but later devoted his life to the eradication of "obscenity". With his slogan "Morals, not Art or Literature", he set out to prevent the dissemination of sexual knowledge and to end all public discussion of sexual matters. His intense lobbying efforts persuaded Congress in 1873 to pass the so-called Comstock Act, which made it a felony to mail any "obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, writing, paper, or other publication of an 'indecent character' ". Comstock himself was made a special agent of the Post Office. This gave him the right to open other people's mail, and soon he was able to establish a veritable reign of puritanical terror.
In Comstock's opinion, one of the greatest obscenities was contraception. Thus, under the new law, contraceptive devices could no longer be imported or shipped across state lines, and even the mailing of contraceptive information was prohibited. As a result, Comstock could take on even the medical profession, and, like any true fanatic, he had no scruples about using immoral means to achieve his "moral" ends. For example, he or one of his followers would obtain the address of some kindhearted physician and write him a tear-drenched letter, pretending to be a poor, sick mother of many children on the verge of killing herself, and begging for some advice on how to prevent further pregnancies. If the physician responded, he was promptly arrested and sent to prison. Naturally, this also meant the end of his career. When, in 1914, Margaret Sanger started to write about contraception, Comstock had her indicted. However, since she left the country, he could not obtain a conviction and therefore decided to punish her husband instead. Using the standard method of entrapment, one of Comstock's undercover agents succeeded in buying a birth control pamphlet from the unsuspecting Mr. Sanger, who was therefore imprisoned. For the aging Comstock, this turned out to be the last heroic deed in defense of "decency". He died before his victim had served his full sentence.
As we have repeatedly pointed out, in the second half of the 19th century, most Western nations were gripped by an unprecedented prudery. Ignorance and hypocrisy carried the day, and thus many hard-won civil liberties were quickly surrendered. The phenomenon is, of course, also known as Victorianism, after the English Queen Victoria, whose reign fell into this period. Still, we have to realize that the sexual repression was international. England and the United States were neither better nor worse than other countries. The reasons for this historical development are still not entirely clear. Perhaps it was related to the general process of industrialization.
While we do not really know why the Victorians were so afraid of sex, we nevertheless understand how this fear could spread and grow. An important contributing factor was censorship. Once the assumption had been made that children and adolescents were endangered by sexual information, the eventual active suppression of such information even for adults was only a question of time. Over the years, the public simply became more and more sensitive. The 16th and 17th centuries had produced the first examples of a special "children's literature", but even these were later found to be too indelicate. The 18th century created a "purified" Bible for children, but, in the 19th century, a second and more thorough purification was deemed necessary. Even the traditional catechisms were no longer considered chaste enough and therefore had to be rewritten. Soon the procedure was applied to the other "classics" as well. Ancient Greek and Latin authors appeared in new, censored editions. In England, a "Family Shakespeare" was published which omitted all "indecent" words and phrases. Thus, not only children, but also their parents were protected. Needless to say, the new "adult" books had to conform to the same "pure" standards. In short, both the young and the old began to live in an artificial world from which all references to sexual functions had been removed.
On the other hand, people were secretly obsessed with sex. Since it could no longer be openly discussed, it became a dark and threatening force. Unknown dangers lurked everywhere. Even the most innocent words and actions acquired sexual overtones. It became important for any well-bred person to notice such overtones and to ignore them at the same time. Eternal vigilance was the price of chastity. Finally, "good taste" developed to the point where a "decent" citizen was expected to keep books by male and female authors separated on the shelf, thus avoiding the accusation that he favored sexual promiscuity.
The Victorian "conspiracy of silence" created an atmosphere of perpetual panic. It was generally believed that innocence, modesty, decency, and purity were under constant attack, and that any measure taken in their defense was justified, it was also assumed that whatever people did not know about sex could not hurt them. Thus, boys and girls grew up in complete ignorance about the most elementary biological facts. Quite often, they were even deliberately misinformed. They also heard occasional vague talk about various diseases caused by masturbation. Many adolescents were subjected to cruel and useless "treatments" in order to "cure" them of this "solitary vice". Some developed such an overwhelming sense of guilt that they committed suicide. Those who reached adulthood usually remained uninformed and superstitious. Sexual fear continued to permeate their entire lives. However, there was no one who could educate and reassure them. With the acceptance of censorship they had lost the right to understand the functions of their own bodies.
Over the years, this sexual ignorance exacted a horrible price from society in the form of unhappy marriages, unwanted children, and wasted lives. Its full cost in human suffering will, of course, never be known. Still, at the end of the 19th century, at least some of this suffering was so obvious that it simply could no longer be overlooked. An ever growing number of men and women became nervous, depressed, or even physically ill because of their sexual problems, and any treatment remained ineffective until these problems were recognized. Physicians like Freud, Bloch, and Hirschfeld, who tried to help such patients, were therefore forced to conclude that the silence had to be broken and that the time for reform had come. Thus, they began to educate first their professional colleagues, and then a wider adult public about sexual matters. Finally, when the adults had overcome their fears, adolescents and children could also again be included in the discussion. This, in turn, cleared the way for an entirely new and comprehensive approach to sex education.
Note: For a description of sex education in 18th-century Europe the preceding text has largely relied on the hitherto untranslated study Sexualunterdrückung by Jos van Ussel, Reinbek b. Hamburg, 1970. Information from this important study has further been used in other parts of the present book. However, the study contains more material than can or should be summarized in a textbook such as this one. It is to be hoped, therefore, that van Ussel's work as a whole will soon become available in English.