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Sexual ReckoningsReview - Sexual Reckonings
Southern Girls in a Troubling Age
by Susan K. Cahn
Harvard University Press, 2007
Review by Lloyd Wells, MD, Ph.D.
Aug 26th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 35)

This is a fascinating book.  In it, Cahn tells the story of a sexual awakening of adolescents in the south over the past century, the social structures which evolved to deal with it, and its explicit and implicit outcomes in more modern times.  It is a story of race and class, and a story of individuals.  It is a sad and sometimes inspiring story.

 In short, the author describes a societal response to female adolescence, as Caucasian girls went to work in an increasingly industrialized society, as they attained more personal and especially sexual independence, and as they increasingly accepted aspects of African-American culture if not African Americans.  Responses were often horrific, including the widespread establishment of reformatories for adolescent girls and young women of both races, segregated facilities, which often treated their inmates abusively.  But this was also a phenomenon being examined by social scientists and other commentators throughout its existence, with positive and negative commentary.

 Before the early twentieth century, poor, Caucasian adolescent girls in the American south (and elsewhere) generally stayed home, worked very long hours in a nearly feudal farming structure, got married young and worked even harder and for longer hours.  With the development of the mill economy, there were opportunities for these adolescents to do something else, and many of them did.  They earned more money, had more leisure time, had more "independence" and to many contemporaries seemed to have become immoral.

 Much of the societal response was a class phenomenon.  As Cahn points out, upper middle class girls were thought to go from dating to betrothal to marriage, while working class girls were viewed as hypersexual, problematic, mentally deficient, and sexually available in exchange for gifts or "nights on the town".  Many of these girls were sent to reformatories or very similar institutions.  Records of these institutions demonstrate families burdened or destroyed by deaths, parental abandonment, little education and extreme poverty.  The girls were given a great deal of moral instruction about how, if they "reformed", their families would be nurturing to them, which was often ultimately disillusioning.  As one teenager said, "But they haven't as much as took time to write hello's since I been here".

 Adolescent development was under study throughout the United States during these years.  Interestingly, many of those who sent girls to reformatories or even sterilized them for having sex spoke in an enlightened way about how it was normal for adolescent women to want to engage in sexual behaviors.  These same experts, however, believed that girls who actually did engage in sexual activities were either perverse or even mentally ill or defective.  (In one definition of mental deficiency, anyone who deviated from the norms of society was viewed to be mentally deficient -- most often at the "moron" stage – a chilling thought.)

 Much of the excessive reaction to growing autonomy and sexual freedom (however limited) of Caucasian working-class adolescent young women had to do with the fear of African-American males, that the young women would become sexually involved with them, and that all the delicate and highly structured fabric of race relations would change abruptly.  Contemporary sociological papers described the fears of white southerners that African-American males would marry their daughters.  Toward the end of the period studied in the book, the civil rights movement was developing strongly, which made this fear seem a likelihood to many.

 The American Eugenics movement, imposed disproportionately on women throughout its history, plays a large role in the book, and one must recall that this was not a phenomenon unique to the South.  Many years ago I worked at the Newark State School , in New York .  Its original name was The Newark State Asylum for Feeble Minded Women of Child Bearing Age, which certainly describes its original rationale.  These institutions were present throughout the nation.  The rationales for sterilization were amazing.  "The moron group" was viewed as a greater danger than "idiots" or "imbeciles" because they were often attractive and, according to one source cited in the book, "breed like mink".  Thus, "normal" people could be contaminated by these morons.  Most of the alleged morons were not tested, and there is good reason to believe that many were of normal intelligence.  Many of the sterilizations were said to be "therapeutic" (because of alleged pelvic disease), and the true number performed in the region and nationally will never be known.

 I greatly enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it.  It is in some ways a sad book, but there are many descriptions of resilience.  I especially like the way that Cahn weaves in similarities and contrasts between the situation for Caucasian adolescents and that of African American young women.

 Sometimes the book is repetitive, but this is a very minor flaw.

 Nationally, as a society, have we made progress?  Are juvenile detention centers and jails that much more enlightened than the reformatories described in this book?  The author recounts an effort by adolescent female residents of one of the reformatories to burn it down.  They were removed to a county jail where they ignited their mattresses, and two weeks later, their chairs.  Cahn quotes editorials about these actions which are remarkably well-disposed toward the teenagers, seeing them as high-spirited and impulsive, like most adolescents.  I doubt many editorials would take this approach in 2008.

 Any reader interested in these issues and their implications from a historical or contemporary framework will find this to be a fascinating book.  I recommend it without reservation.

© 2008 Lloyd A. Wells

Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN


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