Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. By Susan K. Freeman. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, June 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-252-07531-5, $25.00. 220 pages.
Review by Jennifer Aerts Terry, California State University, Sacramento
In Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s, Susan K. Freeman explores the nature of sex education in post-World War II America. Freeman posits that the democratic impulse of American society in the 1940s and 1950s influenced the development of sex education curriculum by encouraging dialog-based courses. These courses solicited students’ input, which in turn contributed to the shaping of more liberal courses than what was offered either previously or in later decades. Further, she explains the pedagogical shift away from a purely biological approach to a psychological focus which encouraged introspective analysis. Though, she asserts, formal sex education during this era continued to reinforce heterosexual gender roles and relationships as normal social practices, these classes gave female adolescents the vocabulary and cognizance to challenge contradictory societal messages and confront male dominance, subsequently influencing women’s liberation in the 1960s.
Sex education programs were not new developments in the post-World War II era. They originated in the turn of the twentieth-century social hygiene and purity movements that sought to clean up cities, assimilate immigrants, and regulate Americans’ sexual behavior. The curriculum, medically grounded and morally rigid, took a clinical approach aimed mainly at combating venereal disease and premarital pregnancy. Freeman likens this approach to modern-day conservative curriculum that places topics regarding sexuality in essentially positive or negative categories. Yet, Freeman explains, in the years following the war and preceding the moral backlash against the sexual revolution, American attitudes and behaviors took a more liberal slant in that sex education programs promoted physical relationships between young men and women as normal and desirable. In fact, students were given the impression that a desire to do otherwise was unnatural and immature. In this regard, Freeman adds her voice to those of Stephanie Coontz and Joanne Meyerowitz in further complicating our understanding of post-World War II sexual behavior, challenging the notion that Americans were more conservative in their attitudes and behaviors than in later eras. This liberal attitude toward physical relationships led to frank and open classroom discussions that placed an emphasis on “emotional satisfaction” rather than physical pleasure (145). Though widely supported and welcomed in a number of communities, she also points to continued opposition from the Catholic Church.
It was within this liberal atmosphere that students (with the focus of this study primarily on teenage girls) participated in a variety of activities, discussions, and question and answer sessions. Freeman does not view students as “a submissive captive audience” controlled and indoctrinated by educators as in earlier decades (xi). Rather, the democratic, frank atmosphere of the classes welcomed adolescents’ questions, comments, and perspectives, thus shaping the curriculum as it went. On this point, Freeman emphasizes the importance of dissenting opinions, questions, and arguments made by students, since that is where one might truly see a deviation from the curriculum. Based on examples drawn from preserved student journals, assignments, and educators’ recollections, it does indeed appear that discussions were student-centered, and at times, diverged from planned curriculum, but Freeman provides little evidence of dissent or what would have been termed deviant inquiry. Unfortunately, without concrete evidence, comments such as, “Other questions were no doubt voiced, although teachers ignored or minimized them in promoting sex education,” and, “Inquiring students nevertheless posed questions that educators might have wished to avoid” (98), leave the reader wondering about the nature of those questions. Further, the bulk of examples support the notion that adolescent girls were indeed inquisitive but mostly compliant with educators’ principles.
Though a great deal of significance was placed on one’s conduct in dating situations and potential encounters with the opposite sex, sex education in the 1940s and 1950s was much broader than simple dos and don’ts of sexual relationships. The courses Freeman studied were relationship-centered and carried names such as Family Life Education, Human Science, and Human Relations. In addition to potential romantic relationships, these courses encouraged boys and girls to consider platonic interactions and personal decorum in a variety of social settings. The promotion of gender roles arises as a common theme among these courses. Here, Freeman connects sex education classes with the social construction of femininity versus masculinity. Boys and girls were conditioned, albeit in what was considered a progressive and enlightened manner, to accept and adopt gender roles and hierarchies as a means of conforming to proper society. As further evidence, Freeman highlights extracurricular activities such as dances, dating, and outlets of student expression such as high school yearbooks as places where societal constructs were reinforced by the students themselves. This, she suggests, was an extension of sex education. Yet it was also in these extracurricular activities that a degree of rebellion and dissent was evidenced through non-conformist behavior, as a variety of examples attest.
Freeman’s work differs from other scholarship on sex education in her bottom-up approach; she focuses on and draws attention to the students, rather than on the educators’ intent and curriculum development. Sex Goes to School is a valuable addition to scholarship on girls’ studies in that it highlights the role schools, and teenagers themselves, played in the enforcement of rigid social messages regarding gender roles and responsibilities that permeated post-World War II America. While Freeman’s assertion that this education somehow empowered girls and influenced them in the later women’s movement is intriguing, this is not made completely clear and could bear further investigation. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book that could prove useful in history and women’s studies courses.