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Jeffrey Moran has written an informative and entertaining book with an accessible style of writing that displays a non-intrusive sense of humor. The book is not polemical, nor for the most part argumentative, but rather it summarizes the way in which perceptions of adolescent sexuality and general social attitudes toward sex have changed through the last century, in particular the way adolescent sexuality has been seen as a problem to be met by some definite action on the part of society.
He offers cultural analysis in addressing the history of this subject and attempts to place the personalities and motivations of prominent writers on the subject in their historical context which enables the reader to suspend present-day criticism of what are now severely outmoded points of view in order to better understand what these early sex educators thought they were doing and why.
Beginning with G. Stanley Hall and the "invention" of adolescence, and the conflation of a conventional Victorian morality with sexual activities which informed the positions taken by political pressure groups and social purifiers in the early years of the twentieth century, Moran moves on to the shift to professional sex educators. In the opening chapters of the book, Moran manages to present nineteenth century attitudes, with their concerns for the social regulation of sexuality in terms of sexual hygiene, moral chastity and social respectability, in such a way as to acknowledge how painfully mistaken this is likely to appear to a twenty-first century reader whilst at the same time in no way diminishing the clarity with which he presents the sincerity of those social reformers and sex educators in the task they set themselves.
Similarly, when dealing with a social/sexual reforming view which sought to de-eroticize sex by presenting it as, variously, impersonal, spiritual, and procreative, Moran is able to acknowledge how deeply strange, even absurd, this is likely to seem to his readers without ever failing to convey just how seriously this was believed by the social reformers in question. He is able to tread this fine line because Moran himself writes without any political ax to grind and the book is all the better for it.
Moran observes how these early sex educators, although their methods were seen by traditionalists (who favored a Victorian attitude of silence and secrecy) as being part of the liberalization of social attitudes toward sex, were very often illiberal in their stated aims; how the purpose of sex education was often socially reactionary. He then charts the shift in approach, after an increase in adult sex education (through fear of sexually transmitted diseases) during the first world war and the radical liberalization of attitudes toward sex during the 1920's especially amongst young women, from an approach which emphasized an idea of moral rectitude to one which appealed to personal sexual fulfillment within a well-adjusted human relationship. This shift, however, is revealed in many cases to be an alternative strategy to effect the same outcome: an attempt to suppress sexual activity outside marriage. Even the 'progressive' integration of sex education into many high school curriculum following the second world war, Moran suggests, retained the view of sex as a social problem to be solved by pedagogic regulation, not least because the attitudes of high school teachers were a constraint upon progressive sex education.
The book gives a plausible account of how this idea of personal self-fulfillment was presented in terms of conformity to an idealization of middle-class domesticity, leading sex education to be embedded in a larger 'family life education' which ignored the reality of many people's lives and promoted a conception of social and emotional well-being consistent with the Macarthyite 1950's. Having been embedded in cozy domesticity, sex education rapidly disappeared into it, causing a return to silence on the subject of sex from high school sex educators. This left formal sex education increasingly out of step with a youth culture that, by the mid 1960's, was openly voicing a new morality and pursuing a sexual revolution which overturned the emphasis on the propriety of chastity which had previously been central to sex education, and its double standards regarding such things as virginity before marriage.
Moran relates how, once again, from the perspective of an older generation in panic over the behavior of a younger generation, sex education was viewed as a means to curb adolescent sexual experimentation. A more explicit sex education followed, as did the vigorous conservative backlash to that more explicit education. He then brings the story through the greater libertarianism of the last 30 years, with sex education practices responding to the many cultural/political changes occurring in society, to the present day - notably how the use of sex education as a tool to combat the threat of AIDS retains the instrumentalist attitude which featured so prominently in earlier sex education's attempts to combat sexually transmitted diseases.
In these later chapters Moran's own position becomes more of a presence in the writing and he closes with a criticism of the narrow instrumentalist model of sex education which, in various forms, has persisted through the last century. He notes the absence of any real evidence to support the idea that sex education directly modifies adolescent behavior, whatever modification of behavior is aimed at, and finally leaves us with the thought that, in the contemporary world, it is time to revise the concept of sex education to liberate it from the confines it has inherited from its own history.
Moran's non-judgmental style through most of the book allows the reader the freedom to evaluate his own conclusions for themselves, and the fair-mindedness of this is typical of the book as a whole.
© James Tate 2001
James Tate has degrees from four universities in the United Kingdom, including a Ph.D. from Keele University, all in philosophy. His philosophical interests focus on personal freedom, self-realization, and sexuality. He is currently working as part of a large collaborative project in widening participation in higher education in the South of England intended to make university level education more accessible for social groups who traditionally have been denied this opportunity.