Samantha Hartley, ‘Risk and care in sex education ideologies of early 20th century America’

Last year, when the Department of Education announced a review into the Relationship, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum in English schools, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expected that the review would ensure schools were not teaching “inappropriate and contested content” (Busby 2023). The RSHE curriculum review was prompted by a petition from more than fifty Conservative MPs, concerned that “children are being indoctrinated with radical and unevidenced ideologies about sex and gender” (Sex education review announced after MPs raise concerns 2023). Contested content is an apt description of the uneasy politics of sex education, in which the veracity of sex and gender identities, the role of caregivers, parents and the education system; diversity, inclusivity and ‘traditional family values’ are all implicated.   

In a post-Trumpian world of alternative facts and post-truths, divisive debates about sex education have thoroughly contemporary ring to them, but high stakes and grave risks in how states and societies govern sexuality are nothing new. Western institutionalised sex education has been shaped by societal consternation for grave but incalculable risk since its origins in turn of the century America. In this article I will apply the concept of incalculable risk to the two most prominent sex education models of early 20th century America, Comstockery and social hygiene, revealing an uneasy intersection of state care and intimate citizenry, not dissimilar to the sex education discourse today.

What is incalculable risk? The concept is likely to be more familiar to students of security studies than anthropology. The incalculable risk paradigm holds that pre-emptive measures must be taken to prevent potentially catastrophic consequences (Arnoldussen 2009: 260). These risks to society may be hard to calculate and predict, but they are always imminent (Diprose 2008). In the post-industrial period, the ‘momentum of innovation’ in society increasingly evades the control of institutions which previously gave security to public life (Beck 1995). The acceleration of technological and scientific capabilities mean that outcomes may not be knowable before they occur. Due to this perpetual unknowability, in which scale and proximity is unpredictable, incalculable risk demands a perpetual state of alertness and pre-emption (De Goede 2008). Human fallibility is a liability which requires governance and care.  ‘In the absence of a single cause of harm (such as God, or a single external enemy) the salient cause of harm is now taken to be unpredictable human agency,’ (Diprose 2008: 141). Disciplinary governance whether institutional or self-surveillance is fundamental to incalculable risk paradigms and inherently linked maintaining order (Rabinow & Rose 2006). Lastly, in incalculable risk scholarship, societal anxiety is heightened around risks of low probability but high consequence, meaning that risks less likely to happen but which present the greater threat to humanity are considered of greatest concern (Giddens 1999: 134).

Incalculable risk has been analysed in varied domains, from legal and philosophical (Baker & Simon 2002; Elward 2002), criminal (Ericson 2007) and public health (Diprose 2008), to biosecurity, the war on terror (Cooper 2006) and international security (Collier & Lakoff 2008). Scholarship has often located the origins of incalculable risk paradigms within the late 20th or early 21st centuries (Cooper 2006). I argue, however, that considering incalculable risk as central to public sex education in early 20th century America suggests a pervasive sense of alarm about the disintegration of societal morality, citizenship and familial roles. Applying a framework of incalculable risk to these two competing sex education philosophies illustrates how the concept of care and governance was very closely linked to preventing imminent catastrophe; in other words, in pre-emption of risks that were hard to predict, imminent and the result of human agency left untended. 

The dominant sex education discourses at the turn of the century were the Victorian ‘Comstockery’ campaign and the social hygiene movement. Although both ideologies were founded on competing approaches to sex education, both sought to remedy the concerns of the day in response to near apocalyptic outcomes if the state’s care for its adolescent sexual citizens was mismanaged. Anthony Comstock promoted the idea that sex for anything other than reproduction was an immoral temptation and any sex education information would irreversibly corrupt society. Comstock was a postal inspector, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and later politician who became known for his determination to suppress any public discourse around sexuality. Comstock successfully campaigned for The Comstock Act of 1873 and subsequent ‘mini-Comstock’ anti-obscenity legislations. These laws criminalised the dissemination of any information relating to sexuality, including pornography, contraception and sexual health publications (Tone 2001:254). Comstock’s rhetoric aligned with prevalent Victorian thought on purity and perversion. Corrupting the purity of youth could be disastrous and immediate, ‘the imagination is defiled and perverted, thoughts are corrupted, the conscience is seared, the heart is hardened and the soul damned,’(Comstock 1909: 404).

A rival to the prudery of Comstock was the social hygiene movement, which campaigned for scientific sex education and awareness programs to prevent venereal diseases. Established by medical doctor Dr Prince Morrow in the early 1900s, it sought to eradicate the ‘conspiracy of silence’ around sexuality through education (Hall 1904: 24–25). Morrow argued that educating citizens about venereal disease would be the most effective way to halt its seemingly unending spread, and to protect the institution of marriage (Moran 2000). The movement was lent legitimacy by scientific breakthroughs, the development of syphilis detection and treatments, and, thanks to advances in rubber production, more widespread adoption of condoms (Hall 1904; Jensen 2010: 26–27). 

In the imaginary futures of Morrow and Comstock, societal dangers resulting from unregulated sexuality were difficult to reliably predict and imminently damaging to society. The acceleration of urbanisation and immigration in early 20th century America meant that traditional family dynamics, Anglo-Saxon race hegemony, and scientific understanding of stages in human development were shifting and evolving. Sex education ideologies, despite their opposing motives and juxtaposing visions, sought to organise and remedy many of the dangers that the new millennium presented. Questions of race and the role of the adolescent were key areas of concern which both Morrow’s social hygienists and Comstock’s supporters sought to address. 

The ‘invention’ of the adolescent as a new type of agent created a need for sexual regulation in early 20th century American society and highlighted the fallibility of the human condition. American society at the turn of the century saw the creation of adolescence as a distinct phase in human development in the western imaginary (Moran 2000: 15). Mass schooling presented an effective means to provide responsible state care and cultivate social mores in young populations. To draw from Foucault, the classroom enabled disciplinary technologies which controlled not only processes of normalisation but also regulated time and bodies (Foucault et al. 2010). As nutritional outcomes improved, children experienced puberty and reached sexual maturity earlier than ever before. The median age of marriage in the USA rose to 26 years old, which created a lengthy sexual probationary period of potential temptation between puberty and marriage (Hall 1904; Moran 2000). Young people’s sexuality urgently required governance and care (Tait 1993). The cause of potential catastrophe was not God, or the state, but that youth might receive the wrong guidance. 

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Free Social Hygiene Exhibit, 1924. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress, retrieved from:

Underlying the social silence around sexuality was a Victorian assumption that children were naturally innocent, and only ‘became interested in sex after exposure to outside influences’ (Jensen 2010: 4). This was central to Comstock’s belief that all sexual materials should be purged from society. For Comstock, obscene materials could drive a child towards a life of debauchery and excessive masturbation, ultimately resulting in insanity or death (Jensen 2010: 6). Adolescent agency was completely at the whim of a virile force and the youth must be sheltered from it to prevent moral catastrophe. Social hygienists also believed that adolescents would respond to their developing sexuality in dangerous and perhaps catastrophic ways if not managed. Fears that promiscuous young men would pass on venereal diseases to their wives and unborn children prompted growing concern that marriage was in decline. As the most malleable social group, adolescents, particularly male adolescents, were critical to raising awareness of venereal disease and halting its spread. Adolescent fallibility remained a prominent threat, but, given the right instruction, reason might prevail. Fear of adolescent fallibility were driving forces for both social hygienist and Comstockery campaigns. 

White racial purity in American society was also under threat to the social order by both Morrow’s social hygienists and advocates of Comstockery. Comstock praised the notion of a traditional, European nuclear family which nurtured childhood innocence. He feared their demise if sex education and rampant sexuality became widespread. His reverence for these institutions has been read as a covert call for the preservation of a white hegemony (Beisel 1998: 39). For Morrow, the sexual literacy of a rational, educated public was very much linked to the so-called science of eugenics. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on the ‘New Woman’ was widely distributed and encapsulates many popular eugenic sentiments of the time. Roosevelt lamented that Anglo-Saxon American women were committing ‘race suicide’ by failing to have large families. Roosevelt implored white women to ‘bear and bring up … healthy children, sound in body and in character, so that the race shall increase and not decrease’ (Jensen 2010: 19). To Morrow’s social hygienists, reproduction was implicitly linked to preventing the decline of white citizens in a country experiencing mass multicultural immigration (Hall 1904). Social anxiety over risks of low probability but catastrophic consequences, made worse by the unpredictable state of being that was adolescence, could amount to the decline of the Anglo-Saxon race and the deterioration of motherhood and social order. 

Early public sex education in the United States demonstrates a pervasive sense of alarm about the disintegration of social morality, of white hegemony, and the socialisation of young people into upright citizens. Societal care for its citizens’ wellbeing, in both Comstockery and the social hygiene movement, was inextricable from governance and control; risk and responsibility. Ideologies of societal guardianship in the face of these incalculably devastating and potentially imminent risks reveal the centrality of care to moral citizenship and visions of a ‘good society’ (Thelen 2015). As has been explored by many anthropologists, these structures of governance and care are often embedded within systems which reproduce state violence and gendered, racial or generational inequalities (Amrith 2017; Buch 2013; Cook & Trundle 2020; Diamond 1995; Drotbohm 2022; Rivas 2003). Whether it is within ideologically opposed visions of sex education in early 20th century America, or the language of catastrophe surrounding RSHE curriculum in current debates, incalculable risk paradigms illuminate valuable questions about ideologies of care. What do they protect and construct, and for whom? Sex education remains contested content indeed. 

Samantha Hartley is studying an MPhil in Social Anthropological Research at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the intersection of reproductive governance and ‘fem tech’ medical technologies. Samantha previously worked for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


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