Chapter XII (pages 209-223), “Sex Education”
Readers, sympathetic so far to the message of instilling a sense of freedom and courageousness in children, might be tempted to revert to “slavery and terror [p. 209]” in the sex realm. Russell says he will stay true to his principles, and treat the sex instinct like any other – though in its mature form, the sex drive is later developing than most other desires. Discussions with children still at the prepubescent stage will be the primary focus of this chapter. The Freudians are right in that bad handling of sexual issues at early ages can lead to harms later in life. Obscenity laws have contributed to poor sex education, as valuable ideas have to be couched in euphemism to escape the censors.
Apparently masturbation by two and three year old children is common – and it is commonly met with horror from adults. The threats of caregivers do not stop the practice, but they do instill apprehension which, though eventually repressed, expresses itself in nightmares or other psychic disorders. The practice of masturbation by young children in itself typically involves no physical or moral harm; it is the anti-masturbation policy that produces trouble. Subtle nudges away from masturbation, such as ensuring that children are quite tired when they go to bed, are unobjectionable, but any direct attention to the practice will likely prove counterproductive.
Children are curious, and that natural curiosity extends to gender differences. Their curiosity can be intensified, however, by the adult practice of shrouding sexual matters in mystery. Kids can see their family naked when such nakedness is, as it were, naturally occurring. The approach towards sex education should be the same as with other types of education: questions must be answered truthfully, and with the same fullness, interest, and matter-of-factness that questions about steam engines would be met with. Children will pick up on any subtle messages that sex is somehow dirty, to the detriment of their future happiness.
Learning about sex from the gossip of school children is likely to instill unhealthy attitudes. Most boys of Russell’s years who were exposed to sex education in that fashion “continued through life to think sex comic and nasty, with the result that they could not respect a woman with whom they had intercourse, even though she were the mother of their children [p. 215].” Nevertheless, many parents seek the cowardly approach of silence on sexual matters – which among other effects, ensures that children will think badly of their parents when the kids realize that their parents had sex. It is cruel to let a child reach puberty without preparation for what lies ahead. Girls and boys both need truthful information. “Sex must be treated from the first as natural, delightful and decent [p. 215].” (Much in this chapter, incidentally, is echoed by Russell later in Marriage and Morals and in The Conquest of Happiness.)
Parents of different religious or ethical persuasions will wish to give their children different guidance on sexual morality. All children, though, should be told about sexually-transmitted diseases, without exaggeration, and about prevention as well as treatment or cure. “It is a mistake to give only such instruction as is needed by the perfectly virtuous, and to regard the misfortunes which happen to others as a just punishment of sin [p. 218].” People should be warned about the seriousness of the decision to have children, and the necessity that babies only be conceived if they are likely to be sufficiently provided for. [Russell's godfather might even have been willing to forbid marriages if the couple could not demonstrate sufficient means to raise a child; see paragraph 15 of Chapter V of On Liberty.] The old, cruel notion that children within marriage are always a blessing is a view that “is now only maintained by heartless dogmatists, who think that everything disgraceful to humanity redounds to the glory of God [p. 219].”
Children must be instructed that they are likely to be future parents, and that they cannot remain ignorant about how to be good parents: their untutored instincts will not be enough to serve well the interests of their children. The idea that motherhood is fully instinctual is wrong and damaging, turning intelligent women away from having children.
“Jealousy must not be regarded as a justifiable insistence upon rights, but as a misfortune to the one who feels it and a wrong towards its object [p. 220].” (Again, Russell echoes (or rather, presages) Marriage and Morals.) Love without possessiveness is uplifting, fulfilling; love with possessiveness is diminishing, enervating. “Love cannot be a duty, because it is not subject to the will [p. 220].” Russell anticipates (or mimics?) that old “If you love something set it free…” line: “Those who shut [love] up in a cage destroy the beauty and joy which it can only display while it is free and spontaneous [p. 220].” The fear of loss creates the loss; be courageous.
Some open-minded adults nevertheless teach their children the traditional morality, with the belief that later, when the children are mature, they can shrug it off. Russell believes this is an error, because our inherited traditions involve directly harmful elements – including the notion that jealousy is justifiable, or that lifelong sexual fidelity to a spouse is the sine qua non of marital bliss. The teaching of sex should be undertaken with a scientific, not a dogmatic, approach, and without any special reverence.