Sex education is tricky stuff. We’ve heard some about it already here on Nursing Clio. And many of us awkwardly shuffled through it one way or another in public school. The only real “talk” I remember from my parents was a noticeably scientific explanation from my microbiologist father, which pretty much cleared up my curiosity at the time, I recall.
The public school side of it was mostly anatomy (kept separate, of course you had to imagine how they went together), images of sexually transmitted diseases, and 5-pound bags of sugar we had to take care of like they were infants. I guess the idea was that if any of us thought about having sex we were supposed to remember the weight of that bag of sugar and see those slides dancing in front of our eyes. In short, the curriculum seemed designed to teach abstinence without saying the word.
Now I don’t usually sit around reminiscing about sex education, but I’m a bit of a nerd, you see, and one of the topics I’ve been drawn to time and again is how public schools have tried to grapple with these issues they clearly find wildly uncomfortable. Moreover, what do the curricula they choose and the messages they send to students suggest about the society around them? And what better way to bring together my love of all things campy and all things history than to look at adolescence, education, and sex in the 1940s and 1950s using educational films?
So that’s what we’re doing today, using one film in particular. It’s a little on the long side for these types of films, some 3,000 of which were created in the mid-twentieth century, but overall it’s pretty representative. Family life education films and textbooks are a great source for looking at mid-twentieth century American ideas about gender, sexuality, adolescence, and marriage. (And they tend to be funny, which is hardly a bad thing.)
Without further ado, then, if you have about 20 minutes now, I’d suggest giving this video a watch. If not, you should definitely save it for later and keep reading (you won’t be lost for the plot).
There’s a lot going on in this video — we could talk for ages just about the way gender is portrayed — but I’m going to focus on how it deals with sex and marriage. As I said, it’s pretty representative of other material from the time. These short films and textbooks worked to teach students that a successful marriage was one that included “children and a happy home life” and that one could only achieve that through careful training. Family life educational films aimed to turn young Americans towards a specific view of marriage: one based on a rational approach to marriage, distinct definitions of normal masculinity, femininity, and gender roles, and sexual behavior focused on reproduction.
It’s perhaps surprising, given our common assumptions about the 1940s and 1950s as sexually repressed, that family life educators believed it was important to teach young adults about sex to assure “sexual adjustment” in marriage. But when we look closer at the time period, it’s clear that this attention to “sexual adjustment” was not unique to family life education at all. These educators, along with doctors and many others, believed that young adults’ sexual decisions, habits, and understandings played a critical role in social stability.
A lot of people in the 1940s and 1950s were worried — as they have been at many other times in history — about young adults and sex. These concerns went well beyond moral approbation. Family life educators in the 1940s and 1950s were part of a nation-wide conversation about the future of America. Educators, social scientists, and others saw a future of national decline and social disorder resulting from increasing divorce and desertion rates and a perceived increase in juvenile delinquency. In response to these concerns they worked to incorporate family life education into public education.
So what were people supposed to do? How could we avoid the coming divorce catastrophe?
That’s where movies like Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence came in. The audience (students) learned that Mary’s mother spoke to her about sex plainly and without embarrassment. When Mary chatted with her friends about sex later she was portrayed as well informed. The questions her friends asked reflect educators’ concerns about parents who didn’t discuss sex with their children. One girl wondered if “kissing [has] anything to do … [with] having babies,” and another pointedly asked Mary if she was afraid of having a child. Mary calmly responded that she was not afraid, because birth is a natural process.
Family life textbooks reinforced a similar message. Educators were encouraged not to treat sex as something sinister or embarrassing, but to treat it plainly and in scientific terms, with the goal of defining sex as a “constructive, up-building force in successful marriage and satisfactory family life.”
It was in some ways a big step for educational films such as this one to encourage frank discussions about sex rather than to condemn it or ignore it completely. More often than not, sex education in family life courses took a moderate position. It dealt with some questions, and passed over others entirely. They almost never actually described what sex was.
Education about sex generally focused on its role in reproduction — often using disembodied models and illustrations of sexual anatomy, which served to further desexualize the material. Family life education encouraged development of heterosexual interests, but not activity (at least not outside of marriage). It encouraged, instead, heterosocial behavior in preparation for more serious dating, engagement, and finally marriage and children. In the end, as one textbook stated, the purpose of family life education was to “lead to a wider acceptance of the fact that marriage is not complete without children.”
Portrayals of relationships, marriage, and families in educational films aimed to teach a generation of American teens what “normal” marriage, gender roles, and sexuality looked like. Films promoted an approach to marriage based on distinct definitions of normal masculinity, femininity, and gender roles, and of heterosexual behavior focused on reproduction.
Here we’re looking at only a sliver of their curriculum to think about how they approached topics like sex and marriage. What I’d like to suggest, is that the way we think about these sorts of supposedly personal, private matters are — and have been for a long time — intensely public. Our definitions of marriage, our instructions about what kinds of physical affection are appropriate when and where, and our advice about how to act as a teenager actually say quite a bit about even larger issues like gender equality.
Family life educators described their work as a “frank attack on the divorce evil” and juvenile delinquency, which they identified with “broken homes.” This focus on what they perceived to be a contemporary crisis was by no means new to the mid-twentieth century.
Marriage often has a tendency to stand in for society as a whole — very often (and this continues today) the “health” of Americans’ marriages are treated as a miniature version of society as a whole. Many Americans, still finding ways to deal with World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War, turned to family life education as a means to secure the society they knew and understood for the future; and in the hopes that this would guarantee happy, fulfilling lives for their children.
As you can imagine, this is just scratching the surface, so I’m curious: What do you make of all this? Do you see similarities today? Differences? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
For Further Reading
Susan K. Freeman, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
Jessamyn Neuhaus, “‘Shake This Square World and Blast Off for Kicksville’: Teaching History with Post-WWII Prescriptive Classroom Films.” History Teacher 44, no. 1 (November 2010): 35–50.
Carolyn Herbst Lewis, Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
The film: Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence. Digitized 16mm. Crawley Films for McGraw-Hill Text Films, 1953. http://www.archive.org/details/SocialSe1953.
1. Judson Landis and Mary G. Landis, Building a Successful Marriage, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall Sociology Series (New York, NY: Prentice-Hall, 1953), 2-3.
2. Lester A. Kirkendall, “Sex Education in 9 Cooperating High Schools,” The Clearing House 18 (March 1944): 387-391.
3. Susan K. Freeman, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 69-71; quote from Landis and Landis, Building a Successful Marriage, 398.
4. Elizabeth Force and Edgar M. Finck, Family Relationships: Ten Topics Toward Happier Homes, A Handbook for Administrators and Teachers Who Use the Accompanying Study Guide (Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, 1948), 1.
This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
I’m not sure about comments in the larger picture, but I do have some questions about the film itself. Mary and Bob seem to be getting married at the age of 17, to universal joy. Recipe for a good marriage, or a great marriage? Also, Mary learned at a tender age about babies because her mother was visibly pregnant, and Mary was promised she could help with this child. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that she has any siblings. What happened to the baby? Finally, I was sort of hoping we’d learn that the reason Bob’s mother was so unable to control his lustful appetites was because she didn’t have a husband to teach the boy the manly facts. I thought it was highly unlikely that Bob would spontaneously stop going out with girls so he could spend more time with his mother and textbook. Is this a phase of adolescent development of which I am not aware?
Also this movie was totally uninformative. It told us that our parents should tell us stuff, and that normal people are dating someone new every week. What about us non-daters who would rather die than discuss this with our parents?
Emily, you bring up some great questions (and I wish I had the answers). I’d been wondering too what ever happened to the baby Mary’s mother is pregnant with — there is actually negative evidence later in the film, as Mary’s mother sets the table for only 3 people. My instinct would be to chalk it up to poor writing and a lack of interest in continuity.
The fact that Mary and Bob seem to be getting married pretty young is also interesting — and actually not particularly representative of the typical FLE advice at the time, which recommended early 20s (with boys about 2 years older than girls, so they could get their careers in order first).
As for Bob, I’ve been waffling on what his actions are supposed to teach viewers. On the one hand, we see how in the end, as @sjkentlyn points out, Bob turns out very well. There is certainly the implication that a father would have curtailed his carousing (these movies are generally consistent about mothers teaching girls and fathers teaching boys) but at the same time the movies takes a “boys will be boys” kind of approach — as if this is behavior that’s to be expected, if not encouraged.
This presents a rather troubling example of the various gendered double standards that seem to exist everywhere, though. Bob can drink with his friends, neck in cars, and implicitly engage in whatever other “unseemly” behavior he wants and still be “marriageable” and happy — but what if Mary had done the same? In the film she “passes” her test when one of her boyfriends gets a little fresh, but what if she hadn’t. Whenever I watch these films I wonder the most about the girls characters like Bob go out with during their “wild” years (before they’re tired of parties and can get down to their schoolwork). These girls are often neglected by the plot but leave the audience assuming their lives won’t turn out as happily as Mary’s. So these characters are essentially there for the Bobs of this film world to act out their “boys will be boys” urges on and then go on to … what?
And yeah, the “a different girl/boy every week” advice always gets me — it is quite consistent throughout these films, though.
I was actually struck by some of the more positive aspects of this film which I wasn’t expecting. Bob’s mother, even though solo, did a good job of parenting – no doubt due to the fact she was a widow (probably a war widow and thus doubly sanctified) – rather than a divorcee, but they didn’t seem to feel compelled to marry her off so little Bob could have a ‘normal’ family life. Admittedly there was the requisite male role model (before that term gained currency) in the good old coach – but the homoerotic undertones of all that back slapping was a bit fun.
I also thought the girls had more independence and autonomy than I expected. One of Bob’s girlfriends was driving the car!!!! Even now, I won’t be convinced that feminism has done its job until I see a car ad featuring a heterosexual couple with the female-bodied person in the driver’s seat. Yes their boy-craziness was pathetic, but they did actually have a degree of choice in mate selection and that’s a comparatively recent historical development, at least among the property-owning classes.
And I found the film refreshingly honest about teenage lust, even if maintaining a heroic naivety, and helping parents not to panic about it. It was far less hysterical and far more sex-positive than I would have expected of that era, and in some ways more progressive than similar material we had to suffer through in Australia in the early ’70s.
But OMG, how times have changed, especially with regard to women. Sometimes I forget how profoundly the changes in the role of women have affected all of Western social structures and institutions, much as many would prefer it go back to the imagined ideal of the ’50s. I hope and pray it’s gone too far for that to ever happen – but has it, do you think?
sjkentlyn, I’m glad you mentioned that this film isn’t entirely negative. You bring up a good point, here, in that while these films (and the curricula that they were part of) encouraged stereotypical behaviors and didn’t leave a lot of room for difference, they were progressive in some interesting ways — particularly in their encouragement to discuss sex openly (though they don’t do this themselves), and we can’t assume this perspective was an easy sell. They’re also surprisingly calm about masturbation.
On the other hand, as I mentioned in my response to @emily’s comment above, this progressive outlook is itself rather gendered. Bob is given much more leeway than Mary.
I think you’re quite right, that there are many (men and women) would who like to go back to this imagined ideal. And I’m really happy to see the word “imagined” here, because these films represent more of what their makers hoped to be reality than what necessarily was reality — just as people today are often nostalgic for a reality that never existed. I also hope we’ve come too far, but I can’t tell you how often I get cranky because it seems the past I study keeps invading the present.
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