Education Without Sex Taboos

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BOOKS NOVEMBER 16, 1927

Education Without Sex Taboos

 

This subject is part of the larger question: How can we bring up our children without the usual vices and yet without making them feel odd? By the “usual” vices, I mean those which are considered to be virtues and carefully inculcated in a conventional moral training; namely, cruelty, cowardice and jealousy. Before discussing the special problem of sex education, I should like to say a few words on the more general topic.

Take, first, cruelty. Already, because I think it a mistake to give a training in cruelty, I have been obliged to offend all my neighbors beyond hope of forgiveness. This has arisen as follows: Beacon Hill School, which opened on September 21, has two hundred and forty acres of ground, almost all wild woodland. The hunt has hitherto been allowed to pursue the fox over this ground and has asked me to give the same permission, which I have refused. Those who know English county society will realize that in so doing I have committed a worse offense than the advocacy of atheism, pacifism or free love. Yet I could not give the children at the school a right outlook if I deliberately permitted the torture of animals for human amusement.

Pacifism, though less heinous than dislike of foxhunting, is yet a very difficult matter in education. I do not desire to check the bloodthirsty play-impulses of children, but I do desire not to teach them that their most important duty is to kill each other when they grow up. This means that most history textbooks have to be avoided, and that the children have to be brought up without certain nationalist sentiments which are part of the equipment of most normal citizens.

Religion was, until lately, a very difficult matter, but now the number of adults who do not adhere to any Church is sufficiently large to prevent a freethinker from feeling odd. It is still held, even by many who have no religious beliefs themselves, that the young ought to have them, since otherwise they cannot be taught “virtue.” I am myself at a loss to understand how anything which is really virtue can depend upon falsehood. Certainly, for my part, I am not prepared to tell children anything I do not believe. And from what I have seen of the children (now grown up) of other free-thinkers, I should say that they compare very favorably, from a moral point of view, with the children of parsons. I do not think that, on this head, there is any real difficulty.

But sex taboos are a far more serious matter, because they enter into and poison the life of instinct, and because very few adults are really free from them. I believe them to be totally irrational and very harmful. I need not go over the ground covered in psychoanalytic literature, since competent people now recognize that the artificial ignorance of children on sex matters and the severity of the prohibitions imposed upon them are responsible for a great deal of nervous disorder in later life. There is, however, another aspect of the question, which is, in a way, more important, since it concerns normal people and not only those who suffer from nervous disorders. The teaching that everything to do with sex is wicked—which is what a child learns from conventional moral instruction—unfits many people for marriage, some in one way and some in another. Girls who have been strictly brought up become incapable of unrestrained love; though they may believe that marriage is a sacrament, the part of it that seems to them sacred is the prohibition of adultery. Thus jealousy becomes surrounded with all the attributes of virtue, and love is kept like a tiger in the Zoo, as something interesting but too dangerous to be at large. Among well-to-do young women this attitude has given place to another, which is its antithesis, but has the defects of a revolt. Having rejected, superficially but not fundamentally, the view that all sex is sin, they have taken up with the view that sex is a trivial amusement. The poetry, the sense of mystic union, the blossoming and unfolding of all that is best in our nature, which belong to a deep love, are not for them: love, like alcohol, is snatched in an atmosphere of prohibition, trivial, crude and poisonous. The puritan succeeds much more easily in destroying the poetry of what he considers sin than in preventing the acts which he deplores. It was not in an atmosphere of prohibition that Keats wrote:

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cooled a long age in the deep-delvéd earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country-green

Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Such drinking as I have seen in America in recent years would not have lent itself to treatment in verse. And the same thing is true of love, when those who practise it believe in their instincts that they would be better if they did not. I have known men who could not have sexual relations with women whom they respected, who lived platonically with their wives, whom they deeply loved, and had trivial affairs with women whom they despised. All this is a result of bad education in matters of sex.

Coming now to the concrete problem of the education of children, it is, of course, evident that, if the right result is to be produced, they must not, at any age, be left in charge of people whose outlook is wrong. The most highly trained nurses have been taught to deal with masturbation in a manner calculated to produce insanity. And the foundations of deceitfulness in later life are laid when a child is taught, in the name of decency, to be furtive about evacuation. Moreover, the usual motive to which ignorant women appeal in trying to produce what they consider right conduct is terror; thus the child comes to think that acts inspired by fear are better than those inspired by adventurousness. This produces a timorous adult, incapable of independent thought or feeling, and anxious only to escape the censure of neighbors. I think it quite likely that the inferiority of women to men, hitherto, in intellectual and artistic achievement, has been very largely due to the timidity which they acquired from sexual taboos. It is not to be supposed that this timidity is necessarily eliminated from the unconscious when conduct ceases to be such as convention dictates. A very strong instinctive drive, such as that of sex, can break through imposed prohibitions, when weaker impulses, such as that of artistic creation, remain crushed.

Children should not at any age be taught that certain parts of the body are peculiar. In a civilized community, there would be no such thing as “decency,” which is merely an externalization of indecency in thought and feeling. When we were equipping our school, we were looking one day for diagrams suitable for the teaching of physiology. We found some which were admirably made, one showing muscles, one nerves, one veins and arteries and so on. But, unfortunately, in all of them the sexual parts were omitted. To show such things to children is to give them a feeling that there is some mystery about these parts, which causes them to think about sexual matters, and to think in just the wrong way. We all, however virtuous and prudish, think a great deal more about sex than we should do if we had been brought up freely. Some mothers I have known, having learned that they ought to allow their little boys to be with them while they dress, nevertheless ask them to look away while they are washing, thus doing more harm than if they kept the children away altogether. Children should see each other and their parents naked whenever it so happens, and they should observe that their parents do not mind being naked before each other. But they should not see too much affection between their parents, as this gives rise to feelings of jealousy. I fear that in many homes this caution would be unnecessary.

Questions about sexual matters must be answered in the same tone of voice, and with the same manner, as any other questions. It will then be found that the interest in the subject is vastly less than the interest in trains and aeroplanes. I have found in both my own children great interest in the fact that children grow inside their mothers, because they feel that this is a fact about their own early lives. My boy (five and a half) knows that a seed comes from the father into the mother, but the fact does not interest him, and he has not yet asked how it is planted. When he asks, he will be told, but so far he has shown no signs of wanting to know.

I do not believe in teaching children about the “sacredness” of sex or motherhood or anything else. The right attitude seems to me to be purely scientific: the facts are so and so. Like all other facts, they should not be forced on children, but should be told them when they want to know them. The emotions that we may wish them to feel later on cannot, in any case, be felt before puberty, and should arise spontaneously, not as a result of teaching, since taught emotions are not genuine. I do not deny that emotions can be taught by Dr. Watson’s methods; what I am thinking of is the method of moral exhortation.

I have not attempted to deal with the problems which arise after puberty and before the boy or girl is fully adult. These are difficult problems, as to which I have as yet not much experience of modern methods. I know the appalling misery that I went through myself in those years, owing to an old-fashioned education, and I know that the evil effects have pursued me down to the present day. I find that large numbers of men and women say the same thing. There is, therefore, every reason for condemning the methods of the past. But as to the exact method of handling the problems of adolescence, I cannot say that I have as yet any very decided opinion, for lack of sufficient intimate experience.

Whatever restrictions may be necessary in later life as regards sexual behavior, I am sure that the method of the taboo is not the right one for securing them. There should be freedom in thought and speech and feeling; so far as the police permit, there should be freedom to discard clothing, for instance, in bathing. The belief that sex is sinful, which must otherwise exist in the unconscious if not in conscious thought, is a potent source of unhappiness, leading to intolerance, cruelty and mental cowardice. I read in a letter to the newspaper from a religious person that we ought not to expose the body, because God made it. I could not follow the argument, nor understand why it should not involve hiding our noses, which, presumably, God also made. The whole conception that certain things are shameful, and must not be mentioned above a whisper, seems to me a mere relic of barbarism. So far from contributing to human happiness, it causes untold misery. And it produces that very preoccupation with sex which it is supposed to prevent. Men and women brought up without this taboo will think about sex freely and fearlessly, but far less frequently and broodingly than the old-fashioned puritan, who is led by unconscious envy to see sin everywhere.

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