Asheville Archives: The great debate over sex education, 1912-18

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES: In 1914, the National Educational Association declared its opposition to sex education being taught in schools. In a statement featured in the July 11, 1914, edition of The Asheville Citizen, the organization proclaimed: “Sex instruction placed on the same plane with spelling and arithmetic will rob it of all its sacredness; knowledge will never compel purity.” By 1917, however, courses on the subject did begin to appear in the city. The photo, circa 1938, features Buncombe County Home Economics teachers. Based on the bulletin board, marriage appears to be the topic of discussion. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

As 1912 came to an end, The Asheville Citizen warned against an upward trend. In an editorial published on Dec. 30, the paper declared:

“You cannot have failed to have noticed in the last year or two a growing sentiment, although partially a forced one, in favor of what is termed ‘sex education’ in our school and in the homes. To be brief, we are advised to initiate our children, no matter how young, in the deep mysteries of sexual problems. Ere they have reached their teens we should teach our sons and daughters more than our fathers and mothers knew at maturity. As to the wisdom or unwisdom of such a course, the parent must be the sole judge; he alone can determine the age at which such instruction can be given, but we have no hesitation in stating that the imparting of knowledge may be overdone, and more harm than good accomplished.”

The editorial featured excerpts from a recent book review in The Interstate Medical Journal. The title under consideration was Ira S. WilesSex Education. Published that year, Wiles’ work chastised parents for their unwillingness to discuss sex with their children. “Parental timidity, or shall I say cowardice, has made it difficult for parents to impart the information regarding reproduction or even the difference of the sexes to their children,” Wiles wrote.

The Interstate Medical Journal lambasted Wiles’ book, claiming its unoriginal talking points simply added to a growing list of similar works. “[T]he literature on this subject is so overwhelmingly extensive that repetition has become its hall-mark,” the journal wrote.

Nevertheless, the issue of sex education remained a hot topic, both locally and nationally. “To what extent can sex instruction be given in the public schools?” The Asheville Gazette-News wrote on Sept. 29, 1913. According to the paper, a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Education offered varying opinions on the matter, ranging from “a detailed plan of sex instruction beginning in the elementary schools to a determined opposition to any form of sex education whatsoever.”

The following year, in a July 11, 1914, editorial, The Asheville Citizen applauded the National Education Association’s formal opposition to sex education in the classroom. The association, the paper wrote, “was certainly in its proper sphere when it touched the subject of so-called sex hygiene and publicly declared that the school room is no place for its discussion.”

The editorial continued:

“Few men or women have any patience with or belief in false modesty, and the attitude of the association in regard to this question cannot be looked upon as prudery; rather it is commendable in its desire to put the responsibility of such instruction where it belongs — in the hands of parents.”

To bring sex education into the classroom, the editorial concluded, “is to rob the discussion of its sacredness and make it the subject of flippant and demoralizing remarks.”

Interestingly, a Dec. 6, 1917, article in The Asheville Citizen suggests residents did eventually come around to the idea of sex education. According to the paper, The Citizen’s Free Home Economics School was slated to host a class later that week. Taught by a Mrs. Vaugh, the course promised to cover a variety of topics, including food, health and morality.

Buried deep within the course description, the paper added:

“The lecture will touch on sex hygiene, a question that is much discussed in scientific circles at the present time, and [Mrs. Vaugh] will tell in a plain way what should be told, when it should be told, and the proper answers to give the invariable questions that children will ask at some time or another. … ‘Because I am going to speak so very plainly,’ Mrs. Vaughn explained, ‘I am going to ask that any woman who is afraid of the truth and that does not think that honesty and modesty are the same thing, to please not attend the lecture as she will only receive displeasure from it.’”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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