Sex Education (American History Through Literature)
On 26 February 1835 a Boston mob chased the popular health lecturer Sylvester Graham (1794851) into hiding and harangued the women leaving the hall where he had spoken. One witness saw "about one thousand mobbers" confronting Graham "for lecturing to the Ladies alone and not even their husbands admitted!!!" The previous summer, a mob in Portland, Maine, had attacked Graham while he lectured on chastity to a female audience. Why did such an apparently conservative sex educator draw the crowds' moral outrage? The Graham mobs illustrate major themes of nineteenth-century sex education. First, discussions about sex took place in conspicuously public venues: lecture halls, newspapers, and peer education societies. Second, even adult sex education was highly contested terrain, and people on all sides of the podium engaged actively in conflicts over sexual knowledge. Thus the Boston women vehemently defended their presence at Graham's lecture: "one of the ladies hissed the mob with all vengeance" while another "addressed several of the men." Finally, certain topics that might not seem erotic to twenty-firstcentury minds struck contemporaries as sexually fraught. When Graham lectured on chastity the mobbers viewed him as an interloper in their sexual relationships with their wives. Segregating the class by gender enhanced its claims to modesty. But by admonishing women to limit the frequency of marital sex, Graham challenged the assumption of husbands' unlimited sexual access to their wives that both under-wrote women's feme covert legal status and circulated loudly in popular culture. The speaker later recalled that his remarks on "the frequency of connubial commerce" had "given more offence" than any other topic he broached. Additionally, married women may have sought birth control advice within a "chastity" lecture. Periodic abstinence within marriage, or the rhythm method, grew in prominence as a contraceptive strategy after the 1840s when lecturers and writers popularized the newest scientific explanations of ovulation and the menstrual cycle.
ORAL AND VERNACULAR TRADITIONS
New forms of sex education boomed in the United States from 1820 to 1870, when diverse sources of printed information began to supplement face-to-face conversations among family members and peers. The transportation revolution of the 1820s moved the cultural products of public sex education beyond the urban North. While residents of burgeoning cities could most easily access the new media, canvasing agents also sold domestic medical manuals and health journals throughout the hinterlands. Manuals often contained information about sexual behavior and pregnancy, instructions for assisting childbirth, and recipes for treating sexually transmitted infections (STI). However, word of mouth continued as the primary form of sex education for many through mid-century. For example, enslaved people educated each other secretly in herbal knowledge that may have included abortifacients. In addition, spiritual traditions such as vodoun included herbal methods for treating many diseases, including STI.
From the later seventeenth century until the 1830s, one pseudonymous midwifery manual titled Aristotle's Masterpiece (1741) offered the most accessible written information on sex in North America. The book recorded Anglo-American oral culture and may have been read aloud in groups. Aristotle's Masterpiece differed from much of the later sex education literature in several ways. First, it devoted bawdy passages to sexual sensation, offering descriptions of clitoral sensitivity and female ejaculation as evidence that women's pleasure counterbalanced men's lust. It also posited female orgasm (and therefore consent) as necessary for conception to occur, a theory that undermined the rape accusations of pregnant women. Second, no mention of contraception accompanied this view of conception. However, the pseudo "Aristotle" cautioned women against seeking herbal emmenagogues (agents that promote the menstrual discharge) if pregnant coded but recognizable abortion reference. Finally, Aristotle's Masterpiece privileged penile-vaginal penetration, but unlike later sex manuals, the text ignored practices that deviated from its sexual ideal.
FREE THOUGHT AND CONTRACEPTIVE ADVICE LITERATURE
Throughout the late 1820s and 1830s a band of radical intellectuals known as freethinkers became the major purveyors of new information about sex. Skeptical of organized religion, committed to eradicating poverty, and optimistic about the possibilities of human agency, the free-thought tradition profoundly shaped nineteenth-century American sex education. Its proponents were the first to encourage interventions in the seemingly inevitable process of conception. As contraceptive literature proliferated, the marital birthrate among white adults born in the United States declined dramatically, reduced by almost half over the course of the nineteenth century. Freethinkers also introduced "physiology" as a rubric for sex education. By the end of the 1830s consumers could assume that popular physiology lectures and texts included sexual information. Three freethinkers engaged most famously with sexuality: Robert Dale Owen, Frances "Fanny" Wright, and Charles Knowlton. Beginning with them, physiologically framed contraceptive advice became a major feature of sex education literature.
In early 1831 Robert Dale Owen (1801877) published the first American contraceptive advice pamphlet, Moral Physiology. The tract described vaginal sponges and condoms but primarily advocated coitus interruptus, ushering into public dialogue lasting debates over the efficacy and morality of withdrawal. Moral Physiology argued that even unmarried women should have the requisite information enabling them to control their fertility, debunking the double standard that allowed male seducers to escape the consequences of extramarital pregnancies. Yet while Owen wrote for women as well as men, his preference for withdrawal as a technique preserved male control over contraception and militated against the use of contraception in casual or commercial sex. Owen explicitly addressed working-class people, arguing that decreased family size would ameliorate poverty until property relations could be revolutionized. Some working-class readers wrote letters of appreciation for the information provided in Moral Physiology, but others angrily insisted that labor activism should address wages and conditions of work in industrial society rather than focusing on the sexual practices of workers.
Fanny Wright (1795852), a brilliant Scottish heiress and Owen's publishing colleague, became the first woman to address American audiences about sexuality. Wright unabashedly embraced sexual pleasure as "the best source of human happiness" and advocated free physiology lessons for all workers, especially women. She affirmed women's desires, insisted on the necessity of consent, andost explosivelydvocated interracial sex. With visionary optimism, Wright believed that consensual interracial sex would purge the society of racism. Coupled with her critiques of the marriage relation, such ideas enraged conservatives and alienated erstwhile financial supporters. Opponents of women's sexual autonomy used Wright's name as a slur to dissuade other women from speaking in public. Decades later, even women whose ideas about sex hardly resembled hers earned reputations as "Fanny Wrightists," an association that continued to carry severe social consequences. Although Wright mainly contributed to sex education as a speaker, her controversial messages touched important literary figures: Walt Whitman, among others, recalled the impact of her oratory.
In 1832 her fellow freethinker Charles Knowlton (1800850) introduced genital anatomy into American sex education and faced legal persecution as a result. His book Fruits of Philosophy drew Massachusetts obscenity charges four times between 1832 and 1835, resulting in one conviction and a sentence of three months of hard labor. Allies organized a spirited defense, and at least one of his trials drew large crowds. Knowlton's understanding of reproductive physiology, particularly the motility of sperm, offered evidence against the old claim that conception required female orgasm and also led him to promulgate spermicidal douching as the most effective contraceptive method. Knowlton thought pleasure a legitimate goal of sex and argued that in order to be realistically effective, contraception should not impede sensation. Fruits of Philosophy urged women to take power in reproductive decision making (including an explicit defense of abortion). Thus, in the developing sex education literature, free-thought physiology added a proto-feminist ethos and contraceptive focus to pseudo-Aristotle's emphasis on pleasure. Both traditions assumed a largely nonprofessional and working-class readership.
RESPECTABLE PHYSIOLOGY AND THE NEW DEVIANCE
During the 1830s the free-thought tenet that bodily processes could be strategically managed coalesced with a social movement that strove to democratize medicine by educating ordinary people about self-healing. The popular health movement promoted disease prevention, critiquing the medical establishment for charging exorbitant fees and administering dangerous treatments for illnesses that could have been avoided. Hundreds of lecturers and healers itinerated throughout the North and West during the second third of the century, often drawing crowds that numbered in the thousands. But the emphasis on preventing chronic diseases as well as pregnancy drew invidious distinctions within popular sex education. Beginning in the 1830s in the United States, physiological arguments began to distinguish "healthy" sex from "unnatural" genital behaviors. The practice of pathologizing particular sexual behaviors while simultaneously promoting others bore lasting and contradictory implications for sex education. Ironically, scientific categories of sexual normativeness and deviance grew out of a popular movement that rejected intellectual elitism.
Graham most famously promoted a popular science of sexual restraint based on a distinction between natural and unnatural behaviors. He maintained that the body needed equilibrium to function properly and that excessive stimulation destroyed harmonious cooperation among the organs. Masturbation, defined inherently as artificial stimulation, appalled him. By overstimulating the nervous system, it led to debility, mental illness, and death. It also carried social consequences. Graham frequently worried that male masturbators rendered themselves impotent as husbands and fathers. In at least one lecture, he associated female masturbation with lesbianism. Sex education became a form of prophylaxis against deviance. Youth required special instruction in "nature's laws" to encourage them to abstain. Graham compiled an entire book of lectures to young men, but he also claimed that masturbation "appears to be still more common among girls." Includingnd targetingouth in public discussions of sex constituted a significant innovation. Graham exerted tremendous influence on the emergent culture of American sex education, achieving fantastic fame especially among middle-class and upwardly mobile reformers. After his career, few sex educators avoided the topic of masturbation and none until the twentieth century argued that it could be part of healthy sexual function.
Yet ironically, Graham's words inspired younger writers to develop a language of sex education that challenged the institution of marriage and promoted sexual self-sovereignty for everyone who had reached puberty. Two of the most noteworthy mid-century sex educators, Mary Gove Nichols and Frederick Hollick, radically reworked Graham's message.
Mary Gove (1810884) educated women primarily to achieve sexual independence from husbands and doctors. In publications and lectures she provided information about pregnancy, birth, and contraception to married and unmarried women. After leaving a violent first marriage, she turned the Grahamite focus on self-restraint into a tool to encourage women to resist all external controls on their sexual and reproductive livesspecially nonconsensual sex and compulsory motherhood. During the 1840s Gove moved within literary circles in New York City, most notably befriending Edgar Allan Poe. While these intellectual peers introduced her to the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier, Gove developed her hydropathic (water-cure) practice. She and her second husband, Thomas Low Nichols, author of a risqué sex education book titled Esoteric Anthropology (1853), began to urge the abolition of marriage from a physiological standpoint. Their sex radicalism eventually alienated them from mainstream sex educators.
Frederick Hollick's (1812900) more reformist influence on American sex education peaked during the 1840s and 1850s, when his two most popular books went through hundreds of editions and at least three translations. Like Gove, Hollick used physiology to critique contemporary marriage, but he stopped short of calling for free love. He invited young, unmarried readers to explore his highly explicit sex manuals The Origin of Life (1845) and The Marriage Guide (1850), both of which celebrated coital pleasure while providing clear contraceptive instructions. Hollick argued that all people who had reached puberty needed sexual information and services. The Marriage Guide advertised condoms, aphrodisiacs, and genital therapies; later works instructed readers in STI cures. Hollick's extreme popularity probably resulted from his ability to titillate and challenge readers without overtly calling for a sexual revolution.
INTERACTIVE SEX EDUCATION: WHO WAS LISTENING?
The penny press, ubiquitous handbills, and wheat-pasted broadsides introduced most urbanites to the existence of sex education lectures. But popular health lectures attracted only those with leisure time and money to spare. The average price for a lecture averaged twelve and a half to twenty-five cents; publications ranged from twenty-five cents to a dollar. Cheaper sources of information about prophylaxis, STI cures, abortion, and contraception were available in proprietary pamphlets and newspaper advertisements. Among lecture attendees, petition signatures and testimonials of skilled craftspeople, clerks, and merchants outnumbered but did not fully eclipse those of laborers and servants. Sex education lectures were frequently segregated by gender; they were likely often de facto segregated by race. However, Grahamite sex education touched listeners within free black activist communities: abolitionist and African American newspapers carried notices and articles about popular health speakers. The middle-class African American lecturer Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806882) taught physiology to working-class and formerly enslaved black women in courses that likely included information about sex. Students engaged actively in the lectures, sometimes participating as anatomical demonstrators or querying the teacher according to their own interests. Douglass's career spanned several decades, continuing through Freedmen's Aid efforts in the mid-1860s. Given dominant racist stereotypes that hypersexualized black women, Douglass may have consciously chosen to desexualize her lecture notices. White writers included sexualized, racist imagery in their sex education material, exacerbating the hostile environment that African American speakers faced. Nearly all sex educators perceived themselves as vulnerable to censure, but white lecturersomen and menefended their right to speak about needed information with social and scientific justifications. Black teachers refrained from making public statements about the sexual content of their work overall.
In general, mid-century readers of openly sexual literature developed a sense of personal involvement and shaped its educational content. Thousands wrote testimonials to announce their approval of popular writers and to recount their own discoveries, priorities, and experiences. The careers of Gove and Hollick illuminate the interactive workings of sex education during this period. Gove inspired and even trained women to speak to each other about sexual physiology. She gave her first public lecture (1838) at the behest of Grahamite women in Boston, and in the wake of her lecture tours into the 1840s, audience members formed peer education groups known as Ladies' Physiological Societies from Maine to Ohio. Ordinary women also defended embattled lecturers. When Hollick faced obscenity charges in Philadelphia during 1845 and 1846, hundreds of women campaigned on his behalf, at once demanding sex education and defining its respectability. In this context, Lydia Maria Child (1802880), an icon of female literary activism, urged women to pursue sex education without shame.
THE END OF AN ERA
As the Civil War consumed the nation, widespread involvement in sex education waned. The diversity of available information declined further during the conservative postwar decades. In 1873 Anthony Comstock (1844915), a dry goods salesman turned anti-vice lobbyist, won national legislation that outlawed the transmission of "obscene" information through the mails. As obscenity charges effectively silenced dissenters, sex educators increasingly both professed institutional expertisenathema to antebellum popular health writersnd articulated a conservative sexual consensus that presupposed marriage, disparaged female desire, criminalized abortion, and called for increased monitoring of youth.
See also Crime and Punishment; Education; Feminism; Free Love; Marriage; Miscegenation; Same-Sex Love; Science; Sexuality and the Body
Aristotle. Aristotle's Works: Containing the Master-Piece, Directions for Midwives, and Counsel and Advice to Child-bearing Women, with Various Useful Remedies. 1741. London: Published for the booksellers, 1830.
Gove, Mary S. Lectures to Ladies on Anatomy and Physiology. Boston: Saxton & Pierce, 1842.
Graham, Sylvester. A Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity Intended also for the Serious Consideration of Parents and Guardians. Boston: Light & Stearns, 1837.
Hollick, Frederick. The Marriage Guide. New York: T. W. Strong, 1850.
Hollick, Frederick. The Origin of Life: A Popular Treatise on the Philosophy and Physiology of Reproduction, in Plants and Animals Including the Details of Human Generation, with a Full Description of the Male and Female Organs. New York: Nafis & Cornish, 1845.
Knowlton, Charles. Fruits of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Adult People. 1832. Edited with an introductory notice by Norman E. Himes with medical emendations by Robert Latou Dickinson. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1937.
Nichols, Thomas Low. Esoteric Anthropology: A Comprehensive and Confidential Treatise on the Structure, Functions, Passional Attractions and Perversions, True and False Physical and Social Conditions, and the Most Intimate Relations of Men and Women. Anatomical, Physiological, Pathological, Therapeutical, and Obstetrical; Hygienics and Hydropathic. Cincinnati: Valentine Nicholson, 1853.
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Fett, Sharla. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Silver-Isenstadt, Jean L. Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Knopf, 2002.
April Rose Haynes