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.