Sex Education

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In a society that compartmentalized everyday life into public and private "spheres," sex in the nineteenth century was considered an extremely private matter. Sex education programs did not exist in schools. It was the role of parents or older siblings to impart sexual information to younger family members. Public discourse on the subject was welcome only if the message was consistent with culturally held ideas about gender roles and the purpose of sex. Challenges to these ideas were subject to suppression and even prosecution.


It must be said that, in general, American families failed in their role as sex educators. Inhibited by a strong sense of modesty, parents and siblings were often circumspect in telling children "the facts of life" if they broached the subject at all. Consequently many young people acquired their sex education on the sly from pornography or from furtive discussions with members of the working class, such as servants, who generally were more open about sex than the middle class. Those with no access to such resources often entered marriage knowing very little about reproduction and birth control. Some were in the dark about the sex act itself.

True, the diaries and letters of some middle-class Americans reveal the details of richly satisfying erotic lives. Especially in large cities such as New York, couples often prided themselves on having a sophisticated attitude toward sex. But much more frequently, personal writings speak of sexual ignorance and anxiety. Middle-class women were expected to be virgins before marriage. Virginity in men too was valued, although a double standard existed which could excuse a man if, for example, he had visited a prostitute to gain "experience." Many couples faced their future as sexual partners with fear and trepidation. The historian Peter Gay, in his monumental study of the nineteenth-century middle class, The Bourgeois Experience, cites the letter of one man, writing to his fiancée, who anticipates her "terror" at seeing him naked on their wedding night (p. 291). A memorable scene from Frank Norris's (1870–1902) 1899 novel McTeague illustrates this "terror" that many young women felt upon being alone with their husbands for the first time. The wedding party is breaking up, and as the newlywed Trina McTeague watches her family leave, she begins to panic: "They were going, going. When would she ever see them again? She was to be left alone with this man to whom she had just been married. A sudden vague terror seized her; she left McTeague and ran down the hall and caught her mother around the neck" (p. 101).

Many marriages went days, and often much longer, before being consummated. Often marriage resulted in a sexual mismatch, pairing a libidinous, demanding husband with a wife who had been taught little about sex except that (1) its sole purpose was procreative and that (2) women were supposed to be sub-missive and assumed to be passionless—that is, they found no pleasure in sex for its own sake. Such was the upbringing of Annie Besant, who would enjoy a distinguished career as a scholar of religion and philosophy. In her autobiography, published in 1893, she wrote of a marriage that ended in separation, a marriage that she had entered "with no more idea of the marriage relation than if I had been four years old instead of twenty" (p. 70). Victimized by a conspiracy of silence on the subject of sexual intimacy, and thus unprepared to understand her own sexuality, she speaks for many daughters of her generation in regarding her initiation into the mysteries of sex as a "rude awakening." In the scene from McTeague, Trina's mother, who speaks in the heavily inflected English of a German immigrant, calms her daughter with empty assurances ("Poor leetle scairt girl, don' gry—soh-soh-soh, dere's nuttun to pe 'fraid oaf"), before essentially advising her to submit to her new husband ("Dere, go to your hoasban'," p. 101). For many American women, this is where their sex education began and ended.

In 1872 and 1873, Congress enacted laws against the publication and dissemination of obscene materials. Commonly known as "the Comstock laws," these statutes in effect made sex education an illegal activity. The following postal statute was used to prosecute doctors who wrote about birth control:

No obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print, or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information directly or indirectly, where or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things before mentioned may be obtained or made, nor any letter upon the envelope of which, or postal card upon which indecent or scurrilous epithets may be written or printed, shall be carried in the mail; and any person who shall knowingly deposit or cause to be deposited, for mailing or delivery, any of the herein before-mentioned articles or things, or any notice or paper containing any advertisement relating to the aforesaid articles or things, and any person who, in pursuance of any plan or scheme for disposing of any of the herein before-mentioned articles or things, shall take or cause to be taken, from the mail any such letter or package, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, for every offense, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned at hard labor no less than one year nor more than ten years, or both.

Comstock, Frauds Exposed; or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted, p. 401.


Outside the family, certain experts enjoyed a cultural mandate to educate Americans about sex. Signaling a shift from an earlier time, when the clergy was the recognized public authority on all matters pertaining to sex, Americans in the latter part of the nineteenth century entrusted doctors with this role. The rise in popularity of sexual advice literature attests to a hunger among those who could afford to buy it—mainly middle-class Americans—for sexual information. By and large these sex manuals were written by male doctors. Appealing to a growing public faith in science, these medical professionals would cite scientific evidence to support basically the same arguments made by clergymen a generation or two earlier. The dangers of sex were cataloged in full: venereal diseases could kill, so young men were urged to be continent. Young women, reminded of their duty as future mothers, were cautioned to avoid any activity that could jeopardize their reproductive systems.

The intensity of these familiar arguments rose as challenges to the social order presented themselves. For example, arguments asserting scientific "proof" of the delicacy of the female reproductive system became more strident as the woman's rights movement grew in strength. The years after the Civil War saw a vocal minority of women call for the same rights and privileges that men enjoyed, including access to higher education, which was the gateway to careers in medicine, law, and business.

In this context Dr. Edward Clarke's alarmist treatise Sex in Education must be read. Published in 1873, Sex in Education was reprinted eleven times in its first year alone. The volume spawned a number of treatises by other authors, most of whom rushed to agree with Clarke. Citing half a dozen case studies of young women who had fallen ill or collapsed from stress while attending women's schools such as Vassar College, Clarke asserted that the college regimen was "out of harmony with the rhythmical periodicity of the female organization" (p. 79). In other words, woman was a delicate organism, and she who subjected herself to the rigorous demands of a higher education ran the risk of throwing her menstrual cycle out of balance. According to Clarke, the consequence of prolonged stress to a woman's reproductive system would be infertility. With credentials that included ties to Harvard, Clarke could not be dismissed as a quack. His conclusion—that America could see the day when it would have to import its mothers-to-be from foreign countries—frightened many people.

Clarke was not alone in reaching faulty scientific conclusions in the name of educating the public about sexuality. A whole body of medical literature appeared contemporaneously with Sex in Education that treated such subjects as masturbation. Again, citing case studies, these reports linked masturbation—or "onanism," "self-abuse," or "self-pollution"—to any number of symptoms, from lethargy to much more dire effects such as epilepsy and insanity. Having studied the nineteenth-century panic over masturbation, Peter Gay comments: "The vice of 'self-abuse' or 'self-pollution' propelled learned men, and some learned women, into postures of perspiring alarm; they flooded the literatures of medical advice and moral uplift with macabre case histories and desperate, repetitive pleas for action before it was too late" (p. 295). "Action" included depriving young men of all enticements to masturbation, such as warm baths, tight clothing, French novels, and stimulating drinks like tea and coffee. Cures of strict exercise, bland diet, and medicine were prescribed. In extreme cases male masturbators were fitted with restraining devices such as straitjackets and penile rings.

Although the medical experts were wrong about a good many topics they addressed, these doctors were probably not trying deliberately to mislead the public. If a doctor encountered a mentally ill person who masturbated frequently, he could draw the conclusion that masturbation had caused, or at least contributed, to the disease. Psychoses were not well understood in the nineteenth century. Moreover, although doctors believed that they were drawing their conclusions from science, they were often in reality moralists who saw masturbation and other expressions of sexual passion as vices or evils. In other words, they were not able to shed cultural values when studying their patients. At the top of the list of values in the nineteenth century was that of doing one's duty: a man's duty was to sire offspring while contributing productively to a thriving capitalistic economy. Masturbation, then, was regarded as evil because it threatened social order. It amounted to a draining of the vital energy that a man would need to father strong, healthy children and to become a good citizen.

Female masturbation was disturbing on an even more profound level. A woman found engaged in "self-gratification" was acting contrarily to the virtually sacred idea that a woman was passionless. Among women, only prostitutes were thought to be unable to control their sexual desire. Clitoral amputation was one method of treatment for both young girls and adult women who were caught masturbating.


Absent from virtually all sexual advice literature of the nineteenth century were invitations to enjoy and explore one's sexuality. Erotic pleasure was a private matter between married couples, a topic not open to public discussion. Reproduction was the only goal of sex to be acknowledged publicly. With the rise to prominence of Anthony Comstock and his New York–based Society for the Suppression of Vice, Americans were protected by sexual police that tenaciously pursued anyone who crossed the line between private and public. Progressive doctors who published educational information about contraceptives were fined under the so-called Comstock laws, since the very mention of birth control implied a purpose for sex besides that of reproduction.

Anthony Comstock began his career in the early 1870s, cracking down on sellers of obscene material such as pornography. Comstock held no elected office or official position within the law enforcement community. His campaign against obscenity was very much a private crusade that rapidly gained political endorsement and the public's trust. Soon obscenity came to be defined as anything that Comstock believed threatened the public by speaking too frankly about sex. Although many of those arrested by Comstock's agents were indeed involved in the thriving pornography industry, he also hounded people who could hardly be called pornographers. Many were jailed.

Ira Craddock was one of Comstock's many victims. Craddock was a member of the social purity movement, which, with its origins as an antiprostitution league, had a positive impact on society in the last decades of the nineteenth century. During its heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, the social purity movement achieved a number of victories: it reformed many prostitutes; it convinced many middle-class Americans to adopt a single standard that held men just as accountable for prostitution as women; it lobbied successfully for changing the legal age of sexual consent from as low as ten in some states to between fourteen and eighteen in twenty-nine states. Social purists like Craddock became figures of controversy when they went further, calling for sex education that did not avoid discussion of birth control and erotic fulfillment. Craddock's marital advice tract Right Marital Living (1899) provoked Comstock with, for example, a passage celebrating "the sacred moment when husband and wife shall melt into one another's genital embrace, so that the twain shall be one flesh, and then, as of old, God will walk with the twain in the garden of bliss" (Stoehr, p. 631). Even though Craddock expresses sexual ecstasy in religious terms, as an experience bringing married couples closer to God, Comstock considered Right Marital Living obscene. Imprisoned for violating the Comstock laws, Craddock would eventually commit suicide.

The advocates of free love were another group who tried to extend the boundaries of sexual discourse. They too suffered the wrath of Comstock. Whereas conventional morality held that sex outside of marriage was sinful, free lovers believed that sex without love was the true immorality. Did not many marriages decline into loveless unions? asked the free lovers. Marriage became a form of prostitution or slavery when a husband would "use" a wife he no longer loved for sexual gratification. Several utopian communities were founded in the mid-1800s where members were encouraged to form monogamous love relationships without falling into the "trap" of thinking that marriage must be the inevitable outcome.

In this excerpt from Anthony Comstock's book Frauds Exposed (1880), the anti-vice crusader defends his campaign to rid society of those who traffic in "obscene publications":

The effect of this cursed business on our youth and society, no pen can describe. It breeds lust. Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, damns the soul. It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step. It robs the soul of manly virtues, and imprints upon the mind of the youth, visions that throughout life curse the man or woman. Like a panorama, the imagination seems to keep this hated thing before the mind, until it wears its way deeper and deeper, plunging the victim into practices he loathes.

This traffic has made rakes and libertines in society—skeletons in many a household. The family is polluted, home desecrated, and each generation born into the world is more and more cursed by the inherited weaknesses, the harvest of this seed-sowing of the Evil one.

And these monsters—these devil-men, or men-devils—caught in this cursed traffic, and prosecuted legally, and legally placed where they cannot longer strike their deadly fangs into the vitals of the youth, are made martyrs of, and the so-called "liberals" of this land rally to their defence! and, at the beck and call of this band of ex-convicts and co-conspirators, a combined effort is made to repeal these laws!

Comstock, Frauds Exposed; or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted, p. 416.

Free lovers occupied a radical fringe in nineteenth-century society until Victoria Woodhull began, in the early 1870s, to lecture to middle-class audiences on women's rights. Like other nineteenth-century women with progressive thoughts, Woodhull believed women should be allowed to vote; but her ideas on women's rights, which she expressed not only in lecture halls but also in her own periodical, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, went far beyond the issue of suffrage to include a woman's right to enjoy and to refuse sex. Comstock arrested Woodhull for publishing obscenity and prosecuted her vigorously, jailing her a total of three times before she finally fled to England to rebuild her life.

While radicals agitated for more openness in sexual matters, American writers of the 1880s maintained the status quo. Courtship and marriage were main subjects in the first important American novels of the decade, Henry James's (1843–1916) The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and William Dean Howells's (1837–1920) A Modern Instance (1881); however, James and Howells played by the rule of keeping private matters private. Modern literary critics find a rich abundance of sexual symbols and patterns in The Portrait of a Lady and A Modern Instance, but these are not on the surface. They must be uncovered and interpreted by critics schooled in applying Freudian psychology to literary texts.

James and Howells were key figures in the movement known as American literary realism, but their sense of realism did not extend to writing frankly about their characters' sex lives. Bedroom scenes were unheard of. Even when writing of something as common as pregnancy, these authors used circumspection and euphemism. It was not a matter of being held back by fear of prosecution. They were simply representatives of the American middle class writing to an audience whose expectations for serious literature did not include discussion of what went on between a wife and a husband in their bedroom.

Although tame by early twenty-first century standards, a few novels of the 1890s did deal with sexual themes. In Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), Stephen Crane (1871–1900) offers a sympathetic portrait of a young prostitute. The heroine of Kate Chopin's (1851–1904) The Awakening (1899) is prepared to break free of her conventional marriage and to act upon her passion for another man. The marriage in Norris' McTeague (1899) deteriorates into a sadomasochistic relationship. But these were isolated examples of novels that took risks; they did not represent a concerted effort by American writers to bring sexual frankness to literature. Moreover, they were not well received but were in fact targets for disdainful reviews.


Comstock's power to intimidate and prosecute those who would attempt to educate and enlighten the public on sexuality would continue until his death in 1915. However, he alone cannot be blamed for the atmosphere of sexual repression that characterized nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century middle-class life. After all, Comstock went about his business with the blessings of his peers. Thus the lack of reliable sexual information was not only the result of wrong conclusions reached by the medical experts but also the product of a society that willfully allowed itself to remain sexually ignorant.

Comstock's last celebrated arrest was that of Margaret Sanger (1883–1966), whom Comstock detained for distributing her pamphlet on birth control called Family Limitation (1914). The issue of birth control and the name of Margaret Sanger are inexorably linked. She was able to unite the classes over the issue of birth control, arguing that birth control meant sexual freedom for those middle-class women who wished to enjoy sex without becoming pregnant. It also brought control over fertility to working-class women, who often bore child after child. The economic demands of providing for a large family doomed working-class couples to live in poverty. Birth control offered a way out.

Comstock would already be dead by the time charges against Sanger were dropped in 1916. His death did not immediately put an end to the policing of sex education—Sanger was arrested again, later in 1916, for opening a birth control clinic in New York that distributed contraceptives to working-class women—but the tide was changing. Sanger's arrest had prompted some public outcry. Members of the intellectual community even wrote in protest to President Woodrow Wilson. Moreover, enough people wanted to hear what Sanger had to say that her supporters were able to organize a lecture tour of more than a hundred cities.

Change did not happen overnight. But as most social historians agree, by the 1920s America had rejected the conspiracy of silence against sex education. A new era marked by a more open attitude toward expressions and discussions of sexuality had begun.

See alsoAdolescence; The Awakening; Feminism; Pornography; Prostitution


Primary Works

Besant, Annie. An Autobiography. London: Fisher and Unwin, 1893.

Clarke, Edward H. Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873.

Comstock, Anthony. Frauds Exposed; or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted. 1880. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969.

Comstock, Anthony. Traps for the Young. 1883. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967.

Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vol. 2, The Evolution of Modesty, the Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity, Auto-Eroticism. 1900. New York: Random House, 1936.

Maudsley, Henry. "Illustrations of a Variety of Insanity." Journal of Mental Science 14 (July 1868): 155–161.

Norris, Frank. McTeague. 1899. Edited by Donald Pizer. New York and London: Norton, 1977.

Sanger, Margaret. My Fight for Birth Control. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931.

Secondary Works

Bates, Anna Louise. Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.

Beisel, Nicola. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Broun, Heywood, and Margaret Leech. Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord. New York: Literary Guild of America, 1927.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Vol. 1, Education of the Senses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

Prioleau, Elizabeth Stevens. The Circle of Eros: Sexuality in the Work of William Dean Howells. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1983.

Stoehr, Taylor. Free Love in America: A Documentary History. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Walters, Ronald G., ed. Primers for Purity: Sexual Advice to Victorian America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Paul Hadella