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Sex education is still a controversial subject today in many parts of the world, Even in supposedly liberal societies, the amount of information provided to children on sexual development and birth control can spark protests by conservative groups worrying about "corrupting children". If topics such as sexuality can trigger protests today, you can imagine the difficulties experts lecturing on public health faced back in the 19th century.
Take early health advocate Sylvester Graham, for instance. Though he primarily spoke on the importance of chastity and the evils of masturbation, among other things, his public lectures still drove mobs to protest and verbally abuse the women who dared to attend them. At one Boston lecture on February 26, 1835, a witness described seeing one thousand mobbers confronting Graham "for lecturing to the Ladies alone and not even their husbands admitted!!" Though the women who attended defended themselves as best they could, men protested Graham's frank talk on chastity as an attempted infringement on their marital rights as husbands.
The fact that Graham insisted on segregating his lectures by gender made them even more suspicious since they were unable to hear what he was telling women. Still, enough information leaked out to spark outrage. Instructing women to limit sexual contact and deny men the unlimited access they had taken for granted was upsetting enough. That some women even went so far as to ask advice on birth control during the women-only lectures infuriated them. While the "rhythm method" is favoured by conservatives today, recommending it to women during the 19th century bordered on obscenity.
And the controversy was only just beginning.
Marriage Manuals and Free Love
Along with public lectures on sexual health, "marriage manuals" became bestsellers despite attempts at controlling the information they contained. Since some of these books also included information on birth control, the subject was often explosive, especially since the "Free Love" movement was also gaining traction during the middle years of the 19th century. A major theme in anarchist literature, Free Love often meant a total rejection of traditional values such as marriage and chastity. More commonly seen in Europe, Free Love also had its share of American supporters.
It was one particular supporters, Robert Dale Owen, who wrote the first American pamphlet on contraception in 1831. The son of prominent social reformer, Robert Owen, Robert Dale Owen embraced his father's views on social democracy. For him, giving women advice on how to control their fertility was part of that vision. His pamphet, Moral Physiology; or, A Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question, contained frank talk about vaginal sponges and the value of coitus interruptus in preventing pregnancy. Shockingly for that time, Owen also argued that unmarried women should have access to birth control information as well. He was still a man of his time, though, and argued against birth control methods for prostitutes or in casual sex.
One of Owen's Free Love colleagues was even more controversial. Frances ("Fanny") Wright was a Scottish heiress and an ardent feminist who became an American citizen in 1825. Along with being a dedicated social reformer and abolitionist, she was also part of the American Popular Health Movement for promoting health care advice. For Wright, that meant providing women with information about how their bodies worked and controlling fertility. While much of her advice seems tame today, it certainly shocked "polite society"and many conservatives denounced Wright and the message that she tried to convey. Long after her death, "Fanny Wrightist" was a slur that later women had difficulty overcoming.
Even male freethinkers faced legal opposition due to the Free Love association. American physician Charles Knowlton generated a firestorm of controversy when he published a book titled The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People in 1830. Though the first edition of the book was only shown to Knowlton's patients in Ashfield, Massachusetts, it was the second edition of the book published in 1832 that would generate controversy due to its wider circulation. Along with being an all-purpose guide to sexuality (including advice on impotence and other sexual problems, the also described different birth control methods. Much as with Fanny Wright's message, Knowlton's insistence that women should be allowed to take charge of their own fertility was enough for him to be charged with obscenity.
A local minister, Mason Grosvenor, began a campaign against accused Knowlton of contributing to "ifidelity and licentiousness". The resulting legal storm would lead to Charles Knowlton being sentenced to three months "hard labour" and a heavy fine. Not being satisfied with the light sentence Knowlton received, Grosvenor filed another complaint against the doctor in Franklin County. After two acquittals, the charges were dropped and Grosvenor left town. As for the book's publisher, Abner Kneeland, he would later be tried for blasphemy with Knowlton's book being part of the evidence against him.
Despite Knowlton's legal victory, the battle for public sex education was hardly over. Though his book enjoyed modest success in the years after Knowlton's death in 1850, other countries still regarded it as obscene. Which was part of the problem for governments that attempted to ban the book. The publication of Knowlton's book in the United Kingdom led to a high-profile trial in 1877 of the book's two publishers, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant. The trial publicity turned Fruits of Philosophy into a best-seller (though the readers may have been disappointed that the book was not as obscene as the press led them to believe). Annie Besant would go on to publish her own birth control manual, along with becoming one of the guiding forces in the Theosophy movement.
Back in the United States, things were just beginning to heat up. Dr. Frederick Hollick's public lectures on the "Origin of Life" in Philadelphia generated a new storm. Not only was he speaking openly and frankly on the topic of human sexuality to a mixed-gender audience, but he actually had a paper-mache model of a naked woman on stage to demonstrate some of his points. Not only was the model anatomically correct, but Hollick could systematically remove the outer layers as he lectured on the "generative act". He also described the importance of frequent sexual pleasure for all mature humans, men and women alike. Needless to say, this was enough to set off the conservatives who, much as they did with Knowlton, accused Frederick Hollick of immoral behaviour.
Not that this reduced the popularity of Hollick's lectures. Though newspaper editorials at the time reported on how "many have fainted away at first view of Hollick's manikins", he gave twenty-six lectures in Philadelphia alone over a five-year period. Joining the popular lecture circuit, Hollick also lectured in Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, throughout Massachusetts and even on a steamship heading to New Orleans (the other passengers insisted).
In 1850, Hollick published his own "marriage manual", The Marriage Guide, or Natural History of Generation, which covered all the material he gave in his public lectures but more accessible for a wider audience. Along with graphic descriptions of sexual anatomy, complete with diagrams and pictures, Hollick also wrote about formerly taboo topics such as sexual ecstasy and autoeroticism. He also wrote another book, The Diseases of Woman, Their Causes and Cure Familiarly Explained: With Practical Hints For Their Prevention, And For The Preservation of Female Health in 1847.
Though both books established Hollick as a major authority on human sexuality and sexual health, he was also targeted by Philadelphia's district attorney who charged him with obscenity. The fact that Hollick was a freethinker and a supporter of Robert Owen likely worked against him as well. Not that Hollick was entirely enlightened considering that he was openly racist and supported slavery on the grounds of white superiority. As for his views on sexuality, he was ahead of his time in some ways and very much a man of his time in others. That included the evils of masturbation or self-abuse (which he argued caused baldness, epilepsy and impotence). Still, his emphasis on the right of women to control their fertility was part of the "first wave" of feminism that was already underway in many parts of the world.
Ultimately, the rising interest in public sex education would be basically placed on hold with the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861. The war years would transform American society more completely than anyone could have imagined.
To be continued
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