the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Sex Ed: How Far We (Haven’t) Come

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It’s not every day you experience a sexual time warp.

The book’s title was enough to pique anyone’s interest: “Sex Questions and Answers: A Guide to a Happy Marriage,” published in 1950 by Whittlesey House, an imprint of McGraw-Hill Book Company. Its authors are Fred Brown, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital, and Rudolf T. Kempton, Ph.D., chairman of zoology at Vassar College.

I stumbled across the book a few years ago as I researched my own book about modern sex attitudes in the South. I found it to be a telling and yet mind-boggling read of how far we have – or in some cases haven’t – come in 60 years. It focuses on myriad topics, from how a woman should please her man to adultery, masturbation, fetishes (lesbianism is considered such in the book) and how a baby is born.

It reminded me of a recent post by my WomanUP colleague, Mary Curtis, who heard a lecture by Debra Herbenick, a research scientist and sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind. According to Mary, “The undergrads she teaches still ask basic questions about how to avoid getting pregnant, having never gotten the message from schools or parents.”

The same was true in the age of Eisenhower, as is the ongoing 21st century debate about how to keep desire burning in a relationship.

The authors of “Sex Questions and Answers” conceived the idea in 1945 when they taught at the Army’s American University in Shrivenham, England. G.I.s studying psychology wanted a frank discussion about sex. The open forum on sex problems continued for three hours. The doctors set out to collect answers to 1,126 sexual questions from 22,000 men and women over six months to compile the book.

The top five topics of concern? Birth control, orgasm, sterility, craving for sex, and homosexuality and masturbation almost tying for fifth place.

The answers to the questions are archaic, humorous and at times, pitifully ignorant. Take this passage in the book’s introduction: “Questions about orgasm in the woman revealed widespread ignorance of the symptoms which characterize this condition.”

Who knew an orgasm was a condition with symptoms? Like arthritis or lupus?

The book begins innocently, offering Anatomy 101 and basics about babies – procreation, sex of the baby and birth – with antiquated sketches of sex organs. But it’s Chapter Three – Problems of Sexual Adjustment – that kick starts the crazy time-traveling roller-coaster ride. Note: The authors do not mean sexual positions. No, they answer perplexing questions with lengthy answers:

Q: “Is a man abnormal if he likes art and dislikes sports?”

The best line from the long answer: “There are many men who have a feeling for fine paintings, flowers and the gentler aspects of life if this sensitivity had not been squelched early in life by an insecure father who insisted that these represented ‘sissy’ interests.”

Q: “If a man is a virgin when he marries, can he make his wife happy?”

The authors confess that they believe few men are dumb enough not to know the basics of sex even if they haven’t had it. Men in most cases will have had enough conversations and reading “to have intensified his desire for sex experience with his beloved.”

It’s hard to imagine any 21st century man pondering this virginity question around wedding vows for a nanosecond.

The authors also discuss “love play,” aka foreplay, on the virginal wedding night. After stroking and caressing this or that, the husband should not be dismayed if the new bride isn’t adjusting. Leave it to the husband to fix that. “Erogenous preferences may not reveal themselves in the first week of marriage because shyness and inhibition, which the husband can resolve, are still operating.”

Whatever to do about those rare souls in post-war society who might prefer ambition to marriage with 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs? The fret: “Is there anything wrong with a man or woman who puts off marriage in order to build a career?”

Well, is there? Perhaps. Men get a generous pass because they are “serious-minded” and they “may suppress their sexual promptings because other goals occupy a higher position on their scale of values.”

The authors offer women some leeway in answering the question about career and marriage but reference studies from the era: “Some writers have regarded the career woman as a species of monster who evades her womanly destiny but this is nonsense.”

There’s a lot of truth when the good doctors write, “The hostility which many men feel toward career women is often based upon a distrust of their own masculinity and a painful feeling of inferiority which a successful woman (who demonstrates that she has no need for dependence upon the male) arouses in them by making them feel unnecessary.”

What woman hasn’t had that thought a time or two?

But don’t get too comfortable. We’re still in the 1950s, mind you. The authors address the orgasm problems, why men who know all about sex are unable to bring their wives to a climax, and sexually transmitted diseases (or venereal diseases, as such was called then) and douches as birth control.

The last chapter centers on homosexuality and “variations in sexual expression.” Perhaps this is not surprising considering the book is dedicated to “the G.I.s of the European Theater, whose interest expressed itself in so many questions that we were encouraged to write this book in the hope that the answers might be helpful to a wider group.”

The authors write, “Homosexuality is an embarrassing subject for most people. We notice the absorbed intensity with which our military audiences reacted to open discussions of this perplexing and tabooed topic.”

Then as now, with the ongoing debate about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, homosexuality is a lightning rod. Some of the answers are dated, but not entirely. Take a glance at the Web site Bible.org, and you might wonder if some of the information it contains comes from parts of this book.

In the 1950s, the military was often the first time men had been in close contact with other men for extended period of time. Society, the authors insist, must cease to view homosexuality as a disease, although a gay man is consistently called an “invert.”

Does he hate women? No, of course not, but he may think “that any person without a penis must have lost it at one time.” Huh?

The G.I.s seemed especially concerned with whether gay relations would result in insanity and whether homosexuality could be cured. Sadly, these are common questions even today in conservative churches, especially in the South.

Homosexuals may have nervous breakdowns from having to deal with the strains of their “cravings.”

The authors are progressive enough not to call homosexuality a disease, as they did orgasms. But it is an emotional disorder — and the person to blame? The mother, of course.

During adolescence, it’s not unusual for men to engage in homosexual activities, and the authors state that male readers will recall incidents at the “old swimming hole.” What incidents? Is this an inside 1950s joke? The authors leave it hanging, saying that most boys can move past a “normal homosexual state to the socially approved heterosexual stage.”

Where’s Kinsey when you need him?

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Written by suziparker1313

March 6, 2011 at 10:19 pm

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