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Education for sexual morality : moral reform and the regulation of American sexual behaviour in the nineteenth century Vertinsky, Patricia Anne

Abstract

The introduction of sex education into the schools in the early years of the twentieth century represented a curious culmination of the hopes and aspirations of nineteenth century moral reformers. Though, for almost a century, they had repeatedly warned that ignorance and silence would not facilitate sexual purity, they had succeeded in developing measures for the dissemination of sexual knowledge which were, in many cases, as stringently circumscribed in content as had been the policy of silence. Under the assumption that the sex education movement can be better understood by giving more attention to the 'old regime', this study surveys the continuing endeavors of nineteenth century moral reformers to preserve a traditional morality in the face of rapidly changing social conditions. The investigation shows that sexual immorality emerged as a social problem after the 1830's in response to changing perceptions of deviant behavior. Changing attitudes toward sexual deviancy were fostered by a perceived increase in prostitution and by a group of moral physiologists who asserted that sexual misbehavior was widespread and harmful to society. According to the moral physiology viewpoint, sexual hygiene was sexual morality, and education for one would result in education for the other. This view became popular and was disseminated by diverse groups of moral reformers, child nurture experts and women's rights advocates through a number of reform activities which are explored in this study. Their efforts, which generally included conditioning techniques and sex instruction, were almost always directed at the family. Only when reformers agreed that parents had shown themselves inadequate to perform their duties of sex education did they attempt to extend their arena of operations to the school. The sex education movement, therefore, represented an exchange of the home for the school as the principal agency of sexual instruction. Despite the change of educational vehicle, the assumptions underlying the objectives of the movement reflected long seasoned and conservative sexual attitudes.

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