Chapter 8 (pages 93-117): “The Taboo on Sex Knowledge”
Just as, in general, proper conduct is aided by knowledge and hindered by ignorance, “[s]exual morality…must be such as to commend itself to well-informed persons and not to depend upon ignorance for its appeal [p. 93].” Of course, one person might want to keep another ignorant so that the second person does not understand his or her own best interests.
Traditionally, sexual ignorance was imposed upon women in service of male domination, but eventually women themselves came to view ignorance as important in inculcating virtue, so kids of both genders were kept ignorant. Russell (quoting from the Guardian) cites the 1929 conviction of Mary Ware Dennett for sending obscene literature through the mails; her highly regarded pamphlet explaining the fundamentals of sex to schoolchildren motivated the prosecution. But is it desirable to keep children ignorant about sex?
The recent tradition is that kids don’t see their parents naked, nor their opposite sex siblings. They are told not to touch their sex organs and hushed when they talk about them. They get the facts, garbled, from other kids, and these facts are regarded as dirty. Kids then understand that their parents behaved in this dirty fashion, which must be shameful, too, given the efforts taken to conceal it. “They learnt also that they had been systematically deceived by those to whom they had looked for guidance and instruction. Their attitude towards their parents, towards marriage, and towards the opposite sex was thus irrevocably poisoned [p. 98].” Sex and marriage become cruel and unsatisfying.
Moralists hope to keep girls ignorant until marriage, and to convince boys “that masturbation invariably leads to insanity” and sex “with prostitutes invariably leads to venereal disease [p. 99].” The moralists continue: “Unfortunately, unless great pains are taken, the sexual act tends to be associated with pleasure, but by sufficient moral care this can be prevented, at any rate in the female [p. 100].”
Checking a child’s interest in sex stifles his entire scientific curiosity – what other matters that he is curious about will bring a reproof? Perhaps only those that are not very interesting. Women’s educational development is hurt more, since their sex curiosity is more forcefully repressed. Meanwhile, the sex lies about storks and such lead kids to question their parents’ reliability more generally. “The effects of the conventional treatment of sex in dealing with the young are therefore to make people stupid, deceitful and timorous, and to drive a not inconsiderable percentage over the border line into insanity or something like it [p. 103].”
The shielding of kids from sex knowledge makes them even more curious about it, and engenders the idea that some things are obscene. Tell them what they want to know and they will not obsess over sex.
Russell relates (pp. 105-106) his experience with his own young children and other children at his school [Russell and his wife founded a school in 1927 -- RBR], where sex and excrement are spoken of in the same manner as other topics. His children are interested in where babies come from, but they are more interested in trains. Children who come to the school at ages 6 or 7 already believe in indecency, and when first given license to speak about sex, use the privilege to excess. When they find that the topic does not draw rebuke, they tire of it.
Russell says that the biologically close connection between sex and excretion means that adults dealing with kids “shouldn’t be too fastidious as regards the excretory processes [p. 107]” – lest sex be tainted with some of the disgust engendered for excretion. When kids are old enough to understand, “it should be explained that the reason for these precautions [around excrement] is merely sanitary and not that there is anything inherently disgusting about the natural functions concerned [p. 107].”
Russell turns to obscenity law in the US and Britain, and notes that an obscene book is one that the magistrate finds objectionable. [To some extent this is still the case, except that Russell’s other point (pp. 108-109), that this determination is made without any regard to the potential useful purposes of the material, does not reflect the current US standard, where any publication with serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific merit could not be suppressed as obscene – RBR] Russell mentions the British action against Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex as an example of how serious scientific work is suppressed by obscenity law. Ellis’s case studies illustrated the poverty of existing approaches to sex education, but the law prevents us from having the data that would allow us to make better judgments.
Russell next (page 110) brings up the suppression of a novel with a homosexual theme. Homosexuality between men is illegal in England (that is, it was illegal in 1929) – how can it be possible to argue to change this law, if any attempt to do so will be suppressed as an obscene utterance? “And yet every person who has taken the trouble to study the subject knows that this law is the effect of a barbarous and ignorant superstition, in favour of which no rational argument of any sort or kind can be advanced [pp. 110-111].” Likewise, it is hard to discuss legally laws about incest.
The British law will allow the discussion of sex if it is couched in language that only the highly educated will understand: “Mrs. Sanger’s pamphlet on birth control, which is addressed to working women, was declared obscene on the ground that working women could understand it [p. 111].” But the books of Marie Stopes are legal, because they are within the purview only of the educated. Birth control can only legally be taught to the well-to-do. “I commend this fact to the notice of the Eugenic Society, which is perpetually bewailing the fact that wage-earners breed faster than middle-class people, while carefully abstaining from any attempt to change the state of the law which is the cause of this fact [p. 112].” [This reminds me that Russell’s godfather J. Stuart Mill had a run-in with the police as a teenager for disseminating birth control information to the working class -- RBR.]
Russell is against obscenity laws, on two grounds: (1) any such law will eliminate good material along with bad (and simultaneously let much of the bad get by); and (2) the harm from pornography would be minor “if sex education were rational [p. 112].” In providing evidence for the first point, Russell notes (p. 114) the “courageous campaign” waged by Russell’s Marriage and Morals publisher, Horace Liveright [great name] on behalf of a play dealing with female homosexuality. With respect to the second point, Russell notes again that the suppression of pornography will stoke interest in it. When young, most well-to-do men have come across pornography, and the conventional types suggest that these images did not harm themselves but would harm others. Russell goes on to argue that what is commonly seen by men stops being a prod to lust, so that if nakedness were the norm “women would be forced, as they are in certain savage tribes, to adopt clothing as a means of making themselves sexually attractive [p. 115].”
“The more prudes restrict the permissible degree of sexual appeal, the less is required to make such an appeal effective [p. 115].” Most interest in pornography is stoked by the notions of indecency foisted upon the young. The remaining part is physiological and will arise from one cause or another in any case.
Russell recognizes (page 116) that few will agree with him on the undesirability of any legal controls on obscene publications.
“It is good for children to see each other and their parents naked whenever it so happens naturally [p. 116].” To avoid nakedness is to cloak it with mystery, making it seem indecent. Russell also praises the healthful properties of nakedness in sunlight and water, both for kids and adults. If it were common, it would make our perceptions of beauty coincide more closely with health. “In this respect the practice of the Greeks was to be commended [p. 117].”