Published On: Sat, Nov 17th, 2012

Birds And Bees And Joeys

Birds And Bees And JoeysI’m not sure I can advise you on sex education for your child. It might be time to get around to that at my own house. My seven year old was recently asked “do you have a girlfriend?” To which he shook his head quite sadly, and replied “I’m not ready to be a father yet.” Might be time to buy some books to slip into his reading, I think….  So while I can’t offer anything about what to say, I can advise on what not to do.

In the Victorian period and well into the twentieth century, it was felt children should be both innocent and ignorant – they should not know anything about sex in any form at all. It was felt that even basic knowledge of biology might be somehow “contaminating.” And it was thought that a little bit of knowledge might encourage experimentation and exploration: it was best, many believed, to be entirely unaware of the body and its function. The end result? Many of us will have grandmothers and perhaps mothers who went into marriage entirely ignorant about what would happen on their wedding night. Most were similarly uninformed about menstruation, with their first period arriving as a terrible shock!

By around the 1930s, there began to be ideas that – perhaps – children should be educated just a little bit about sex and their bodies. It was pretty controversial stuff, and many disagreed, wanting to maintain that childhood innocence. But radicals pushed on, wanting basic sex education for children, adolescents and even adults.

So what caused this big shift in thinking about sex education?

It probably occurred for a few reasons. First and probably foremost, there was a big scare about sexually transmitted diseases, in those days known as venereal disease or VD. It was thought that perhaps a little more knowledge about sexual matters might slow the spread of serious diseases like syphilis and gonorrhoea. Second, it was thought that sex education might help girls to protect themselves from “dangerous men”. If they knew the aims of seduction, they might better be able to escape a worrying situation. Thirdly, and more in the abstract, it was felt that if men and women, and girls and boys really understood the sanctity and importance of sex, they might not commit sexual perversions. Advocates of sex education felt it would solve the “problems” of masturbation, homosexuality and premarital sex. It was a pretty simplistic argument, and we might find it all rather unconvincing, but in the end it was convincing enough for the radicals and the progressives of society.

So from the 1930s, there were a host of attempts at sex education. Mostly, sex ed consisted of published books and guides, to be distributed to children and teens. Very very few schools offered sex education: instead, it was left to small booklets and pamphlets to pass on this important information.

These were written by both progressives (who wanted to better the Australian race by stemming VD), or conservatives (who wanted to stop sexual activity outside of marriage). Many were published by religious organisations, to spread the faith as well as knowledge about sex. But whoever wrote them, their content was generally surprisingly similar. Sex education for children and teens sought to contain sex within heterosexual marriage.

What kind of info was given to children, then? In reality, not a lot. Though there was a lot of discussion about the benefits of sex education, no one really wanted to give children too much knowledge! A lot of the time, when I have been reading this early sex education, I have thought to myself that if I didn’t already know how sex occurred, I really wouldn’t have been able to follow these early sex ed books. You could certainly read them, and be none the wiser….

Often, the mother was advised to skirt the issue. If a child asked, “Where did I come from?”, the mother was told to evade: “You were part of me”. The aim was to stop curiosity, without giving away actual biological information!

Others used lots of euphemisms to tell children. The “birds and the bees” were popular – and in Australia, one writer produce an adorable story of the kangaroo and the joey. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story – there was no hint that the relationship between a human mother and her baby was very different to that of a joey in her mother’s pouch. There was no explanation of how the joey came out of the bag and into the pocket, just as there was no information about how a human child was birthed.

In fact this was an advantage – sex educators tended to suggest it was best if children could not relate the stories of animals directly with their own bodies. Again, it was all about giving a little information, without really giving away facts. And let’s not forget these were the lucky ones – many children didn’t even have this much sex education.

So, in 2012, perhaps we need to be a little less elusive, a little more factual. And tune in next week for how ideas about sex education for adolescents have changed …

Dr. Lisa Featherstone 2012
University of Newcastle
Copyright 2012

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Dr. Lisa Featherstone is  an Australian historian primarily interested in the history of bodies, especially the history of sexuality and the history of reproduction. She is published widely on sexuality, masculinity, childbirth, race and medicine, and child health. Her book, Let’s Talk About Sex (2011) explores a range of Australian sexualities in early twentieth century Australia.

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