Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 3, December 23, 2000


Book Review

Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence
in the 20th Century

By Jeffrey P. Moran

Published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2000
ISBN: 0-674-00227-X, 281 Pages
US$ 27.95

Click on the cover to buy this book

Review by David S. Hall, Ph.D.

The Author
Jeffrey P. Moran is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kansas. As a young historian, his research leading to this book should serve him well in the "publish or perish" academic environment. It is a comprehensive summary of a vast and complex subject.

The Contents
Moran looks at the 20th century, wherein adolescence is invented by the renowned G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist and college president. Hall was 60 when his 1904 book Adolescence was published. It was the result of years of research and much creative interpretation. This was a time in the cultural development of the U.S. where the period between puberty and marriage was increasing and youth were becoming aware of their "separateness as a group from adult culture". Hall, a product of the  Victorian era, built his ideas of adolescence on a solid foundation of 19th century morality, i.e. chastity, self-denial, and especially avoidance of "self-pollution".

The end of the 19th century also saw well over half of school age American children enrolled in public or private schools, thus their separation from the adult world was becoming more complete. While puberty was occurring earlier, marriage was occurring later, as late as 29-31 for college graduates. Chastity during this time of life was seen as the great evolutionary factor that led to a higher civilization. The racial and class superiority this proclaimed was not overlooked in this era of high immigration. Moran's description of this interpretation of Darwinism is enlightening. Broadly stated, "repression was the price that the race had to pay to retain its superiority."

In parallel to Hall's work, Dr. Prince Morrow published Social Diseases and Marriage. This book, and Morrow's hard work, attempted to overcome the denial about, and unwillingness to speak about, venereal diseases. While many in that era believed that venereal diseases were the proper wages of sin (not unlike the AIDS crisis of the late 1980's) a movement toward social hygiene was growing to protect the innocent victims, the wives and children of the infected sinners. Along the way, scientists and educators joined forces to use the public education system to do what the family and church were failing to do, provide social hygiene education. This was not sex education, but fear based measures, suppression of sexual materials (Comstock, et al), and suppression of prostitution (Mann Act). The Victorian idea that a child's pure mind must not be contaminated with any ideas or visions of sex included all of life until marriage. The conspiracy of silence was strong.

The balance of the book documents the century long struggle between those who would provide information about sex and those who would protect the innocent child from moral corruption. Fear based and shame based "sex" education has a long history. We who fight the battles would do well to understand this background. We will see much more of it in the 21st century.