Jensen, Robin E. Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870-1924

Article excerpt

Jensen, Robin E. Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870-1924. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010. xxiv+201 pp. $75.00 (hardcover), $25.00 (paperback). ISBN-13: 978-0-252-07766-1.

Prompted by the current state of public sex education in the United States, Robin E. Jensen explores the genesis of "social hygiene" (an early twentieth-century euphemism for sexual education) in Dirty Words." The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870-1924. The goal of the book is to explicate the rhetorical strategies employed by Progressive Era health advocates when campaigning for the dissemination of public sex information. The result is the establishment of an analog to modern society that demonstrates how to overcome the rhetorical standstill the country finds itself in over sexual education. Through a combination of rhetorical history, criticism, feminist studies, and visual analysis, Jensen approaches a number of key questions paramount to the Progressive Era and certainly relevant in the twenty-first century. These questions include: How and why did the United States initiate sex education in the public sphere? What was the major support and resistance to the movement? And why has so little progress been made in keeping the public informed about sex?

Jensen identifies the use of ambiguous rhetoric as the defining commonality between the two eras. She explains the shortcomings of this strategy while emphasizing the success of individuals and campaigns that deviated from the linguistic norm, despite operating in a conservative and often oppressively censorious culture. Jensen's analysis begins by examining the discourse of the four predominant groups involved in advocating (or protesting) the adoption of public sex education: Anthony Comstock and his vice reformers; social purists; free lovers; and social hygienists. She argues that strategically ambiguous rhetoric, utilized for very different ends, links each of these different groups. For Comstock, ambiguity of language allowed him to build "support for vice reformation by appealing to existing understandings of racial hierarchies" (5) and to maintain the White, upper-class, male hegemony. The other social advocates, forced to operate under the restrictive Comstock Law, employed ambiguous rhetoric as a way of circumventing censorship (often obscuring important information about sexual health) and avoiding fines and arrests. Jensen also makes clear the informative messages that escaped Comstock's reprobation were almost exclusively targeted to wealthy White men.

Championing the cause for women was Margaret Sanger who, Jensen argues, used rhetorical evasion rather than strategically ambiguous rhetoric. In promoting socially taboo concepts like birth control and women's sexual pleasure, Sanger claimed that "women in general need each other so they can give voice to their unique experiences and needs" (27). She eschewed topics such as racial intolerance and class strife in an attempt to unite women as one whole.

Jensen also discusses Ella Flagg Young. In Young, Jensen recognizes a distinct migration away from the ambiguous rhetoric that often crippled the impact of the public sex education movement. Jensen argues Young relied on strategically fragmented yet logical and accessible argumentation. Young's arguments focused on the importance of sexual health and were interspersed throughout the educational philosophy that linked learning to citizenship, the credibility and morality of contemporary scientific data, and the relationship between physical health and intellectual acuity. Though it only lasted one year, her rhetorical competence led to the foundation of the country's initial sex education program in public schools in 1913, bringing valuable and predominantly equal health information to male and female students of various races and classes in Chicago. Jensen concludes that "strategically fragmented argumentation initially got Young's foot in the door, but it could not take her any further into the schoolhouse" (66). …