The time is not long past when the social question was understood to mean essentially the question of the distribution of profit and wages. The feeling was that everything would be all right in our society, if this great problem of labour and property could be solved rightly. But in recent years the chief meaning of the phrase has shifted. Of all the social questions the predominant, the fundamentally social one, seems nowadays the problem of sex, with all its side issues of social evils and social vice. It is as if society feels instinctively that these problems touch still deeper layers of the social structure. Even the fights about socialism and the whole capitalistic order do not any longer stir the conscience of the community so strongly as the grave concern about the family.
All public life is penetrated by sexual discussions, magazines and newspapers are overflooded with considerations of the sexual problem, on the stage one play of sexual reform is pushed off by the next, the pulpit resounds with sermons on sex, sex education enters into the schools, legislatures and courts are drawn into this whirl whirl of sexualized public opinion; the old-fashioned policy of silence has been crushed by a policy of thundering outcry, which is heard in every home and every nursery. This loudness of debate is surely an effect of the horror with which the appalling misery around us is suddenly discovered. All which was hidden by prudery is disclosed in its viciousness, and this outburst of indignation is the result.
Yet it would never have swollen to this overwhelming flood if the nation were not convinced that this is the only way to cause a betterment and a new hope. The evil was the result of the silence itself. Free speech and public discussion alone can remove the misery and cleanse the social life. The parents must know, and the teachers must know, and the boys must know, and the girls must know, if the abhorrent ills are ever to be removed.
But there are two elements in the situation which ought to be separated in sober thought. There may be agreement on the one and yet disagreement on the other. It is hardly possible to disagree on the one factor of the situation, the existence of horrid calamities, and of deplorable abuses in the world of sex, evils of which surely the average person knew rather little, and which were systematically hidden from society, and above all, from the youth, by the traditional method of reticence.
To recognize these abscesses in the social organism necessarily means for every decent being the sincere and enthusiastic hope of removing them. There cannot be any dissent. It is a holy war, if society fights for clean living, for protection of its children against sexual ruin and treacherous diseases, against white slavery and the poisoning of married life. But while there must be perfect agreement about the moral duty of the social community, there can be the widest disagreement about the right right method of carrying on this fight. The popular view of the day is distinctly that as these evils were hidden from sight by the policy of silence, the right method of removing them from the world must be the opposite scheme, the policy of unveiled speech. The overwhelming majority has come to this conclusion as if it were a matter of course. The man on the street, and what is more surprising, the woman in the home, are convinced that, if we disapprove of those evils, we must first of all condemn the silence of our forefathers.
They feel as if he who sticks to the belief in silence must necessarily help the enemies of society, and become responsible for the alarming increase of sexual affliction and crime. They refuse to see that on the one side the existing facts and the burning need for their removal, and on the other side the question of the best method and best plan for the fight, are entirely distinct, and that the highest intention for social reform may go together with the deepest conviction that the popular method of the present day is doing incalculable harm, is utterly wrong, and is one of the most dangerous causes of that evil which it hopes to destroy.
The psychologist, I am convinced, must here stand on the unpopular side. To be sure, he is not unaccustomed to such an unfortunate position in the camp of the disfavoured minority. Whenever a great movement sweeps through the civilized world, it generally starts from the recognition of a great social wrong and from the enthusiasm for a thorough change. But these wrongs, whether they have political or social, economic or moral character, are always the products of both physical and psychical causes. The public thinks first of all of the physical ones. There are railroad accidents: therefore improve the physical technique of the signal system; there is drunkenness: therefore. therefore remove the whiskey bottle. The psychical element is by no means ignored.
Yet it is treated as if mere insight into the cause, mere good will and understanding, are sufficient to take care of the mental factors involved. The social reformers are therefore always discussing the existing miseries, the possibilities of improvements in the world of things, and the necessity of spreading knowledge and enthusiasm. They do not ask the advice of the psychologist, but only his jubilant approval, and they always feel surprised if he has to acknowledge that there seems to him something wrong in the calculation. The psychologist knows that the mental elements cannot be brought under such a simple formula according to which good will and insight are sufficient; he knows that the mental mechanism which is at work there has its own complicated laws, which must be considered with the same care for detail as those technical schemes for improvement.
The psychologist is not astonished that though the technical improvements of the railways are increased, yet one serious accident follows another, as long as no one gives attention to the study of the engineer’s mind. Nor is he surprised that while the area of prohibition is expanding rapidly, the consumption of beer and whiskey is nevertheless growing still more quickly, as long as the psychology of the drinker is neglected. The trusts and the labour movements, immigration and the race question, the peace movement and a score of other social problems show exactly the same picture—everywhere insight into old evils, everywhere enthusiasm for new goals, everywhere attention to outside factors, and everywhere negligence of those functions of the mind which are independent of the mere will of the individual.
But now since a new great wave of discussion has arisen, and the sexual problem is stirring the nation, the psychologist’s faith in the unpopular policy puts him into an especially difficult position. Whenever he brings from his psychological studies arguments which point to the errors in public prejudices, he can present his facts in full array. Nothing hinders him from speaking with earnestness against the follies of hasty and short-sighted methods in every concern of public life, if he has the courage to oppose the fancies of the day. But the fight in favour of the policy of silence is different. If he begins to shout his arguments, he himself breaks that rôle of silence which he recommends. He speaks for a conviction, which demands from him first of all that he shall not speak.
The more eagerly he spreads his science, the more he must put himself in the wrong before his own conscience. He is thus thrown into an unavoidable conflict. If he is silent, the cause of his opponents will prosper, and if he objects with full arguments, his adversaries have a perfect right to claim that he himself sets a poor example and that his psychology helps still more to increase that noisy discussion which he denounces as ruinous to the community. But in this contradictory situation the circle must be broken somewhere, and even at the risk of adding to the dangerous tumult which he condemns, the psychologist must break his silence in order to plead for silence. I shall have to go into all the obnoxious detail, for if I yielded to my feeling of disgust, my reticence would not help the cause while all others are shouting. I break silence in order to convince others that if they were silent, too, our common social hopes and wishes would be nearer to actual fulfilment.
But let us acknowledge from the start that we stand before an extremely complicated question, in which no routine formula can do justice to the manifoldness of problems. Most of these discussions are misshaped from the beginning by the effort to deal with the whole social sex problem, while only one or another feature is seriously considered. Now it is white slavery, and now the venereal diseases; now the demands of eugenics, and now the dissipation of boys; now the influence of literature and drama, and now the effect of sexual education in home and school; now the medical situation and the demands of hygiene, and now the moral situation and the demands of religion; now the influence on the feministic movement, and now on art and social life; now the situation in the educated middle classes, and now in the life of the millions. We ought to disentangle the various threads in this confusing social tissue and follow each by itself. We shall see soon enough that not only the various elements of the situation awake very different demands, but that often any single feature may lead to social postulates which interfere with each other. Any regulation prescription falsifies the picture of the true needs of the time.
We certainly follow the present trend of the discussion if we single out first of all the care for the girls who are in danger of becoming victims of private or professional misuse as the result of their ignorance of the world of erotics. This type of alarming news most often reaches the imagination of the newspaper reader nowadays, and this is the appeal of the most sensational plays. The spectre of the white slavery danger threatens the whole nation, and the gigantic number of illegitimate births seems fit to shake the most indifferent citizen. Every naïve girl appears a possible victim of man’s lust, and all seem to agree that every girl should be acquainted with the treacherous dangers which threaten her chastity.
The new programme along this line centres in one remedy: the girls of all classes ought to be informed about the real conditions before they have an opportunity to come into any bodily contact with men. How far the school is to spread this helpful knowledge, how far the wisdom of parents is to fill these blanks of information, how far serious literature is to furnish such science, and how far the stage or even the film is to bring it to the masses, remains a secondary feature of the scheme, however much it is discussed among the social reformers.
The whole new wisdom proceeds according to the simple principle which has proved its value in the field of popular hygiene. The health of the nation has indeed been greatly improved since the alarming ignorance in the matters of prophylaxis in disease has been systematically fought by popular information. If the mosquito or the hookworm or the fly is responsible for diseases from which hundreds of thousands have to suffer, there can be no wiser and straighter policy than to spread this knowledge to every corner of the country.
The teachers in the schoolroom and the writers in the popular magazines cannot do better than to repeat the message, until every adult and every child knows where the enemy may be found and helps to destroy the insects and to avoid the dangers of contact. This is the formula after which those reformers want to work who hold the old-fashioned policy of silence in sexual matters to be obsolete. Of course they aim toward a mild beginning. It may start with beautiful descriptions of blossoms and of fruits, of eggs and of hens, before it comes to the account of sexual intercourse and human embryos, but if the talking is to have any effect superior to not talking, the concrete sexual relations must be impressed upon the imagination of the girl before she becomes sixteen years of age.
Here is the real place for the psychological objection. It is not true that you can bring such sexual knowledge into the mind of a girl in the period of her development with the same detachment with which you can deposit in her mind the knowledge about mosquitoes and houseflies. That prophylactic information concerning the influence of the insects on diseases remains an isolated group of ideas, which has no other influence on the mind than the intended one, the influence of guiding the actions in a reasonable direction. The information about her sexual organs and the effects on the sexual organism of men may also have as one of its results a certain theoretical willingness to avoid social dangers.
But the far stronger immediate effect is the psychophysiological reverberation in the whole youthful organism with strong reactions on its blood vessels and on its nerves. The individual differences are extremely great here. On every social level we find cool natures whose frigidity would inhibit strong influences in these organic directions. But they are the girls who have least to fear anyhow. With a much larger number the information, however slowly and tactfully imparted, must mean a breaking down of inhibitions which held sexual feelings and sexual curiosity in check.
The new ideas become the centre of attention, the whole world begins to appear in a new light, everything which was harmless becomes full of meaning and suggestion, new problems awake, and the new ideas irradiate over the whole mental mechanism. The new problems again demand their answers. Just the type of girl to whom the lure might become dangerous will be pushed to ever new inquiries, and if the policy of information is accepted in principle, it would be only wise to furnish her with all the supplementary knowledge which covers the multitude of sexual perversions and social malpractices of which to-day many a clean married woman has not the faintest idea.
But to such a girl who knows all, the surroundings appear in the new glamour. She understands now how her body is the object of desire, she learns to feel her power, and all this works backward on her sexual irritation, which soon overaccentuates everything which stands in relation to sex. Soon she lives in an atmosphere of high sexual tension in which the sound and healthy interests of a young life have to suffer by the hysterical emphasis on sexuality.
The Freudian psychoanalysis, which threatens to become the fad of the American neurologists, probably goes too far when it seeks the cause for all neurasthenic and hysteric disturbances in repressed sexual ideas of youth. But no psychotherapist can doubt that the havoc which secret sexual thoughts may bring to the neural life, especially of the unbalanced, is tremendous. Broken health and a distorted view of the social world with an unsound, unclean, and ultimately immoral emphasis on the sexual relations may thus be the sad result for millions of girls, whose girlhood under the policy of the past would have remained untainted by the sordid ideas of man as an animal.
Yet the calamity would not be so threatening if the effect of sexual instruction were really confined to the putrid influence on the young imagination. The real outcome is not only such a revolution in the thoughts, but the power which it gains over action. We have only to consider the mechanism which nature has provided. The sexual desire belongs to the same group of human instincts as the desire for food or the desire for sleep, all of which aim toward a certain biological end, which must be fulfilled in order to secure life. The desire for food and sleep serves the individual himself, the desire for the sexual act serves the race. In every one of these cases nature has furnished the body with a wonderful psychophysical mechanism which enforces the outcome automatically.
In every case we have a kind of circulatory process into which mental excitements and physiological changes enter, and these are so subtly related to each other that one always increases the other, until the maximum desire is reached, to which the will must surrender. Nature needs this automatic function; otherwise the vital needs of individual and race might be suppressed by other interests, and neglected. In the case of the sexual instinct, the mutual relations between the various parts of this circulatory process are especially complicated.
Here it must be sufficient to say that the idea of sexual processes produces dilation of blood vessels in the sexual sphere, and that this physiological change itself becomes the source and stimulus for more vivid sexual feelings, which associate themselves with more complex sexual thoughts. These in their turn reinforce again the physiological effect on the sexual organ, and so the play goes on until the irritation of the whole sexual apparatus and the corresponding sexual mental emotions reach a height at which the desire for satisfaction becomes stronger than any ordinary motives of sober reason.
This is the great trick of nature in its incessant service to the conservation of the animal race. Monogamic civilization strives to regulate and organize these race instincts and to raise culture above the mere lure of nature. But that surely cannot be done by merely ignoring that automatic mechanism of nature. On the contrary, the first demand of civilization must be to make use of this inborn psychophysical apparatus for its own ideal human purposes, and to adjust the social behaviour most delicately to the unchangeable mechanism. The first demand, accordingly, ought to be that we excite no one of these mutually reinforcing parts of the system, neither the organs nor the thoughts nor the feelings, as each one would heighten the activities of the others, and would thus become the starting point of an irrepressible demand for sexual satisfaction.
The average boy or girl cannot give theoretical attention to the thoughts concerning sexuality without the whole mechanism for reinforcement automatically entering into action. We may instruct with the best intention to suppress, and yet our instruction itself must become a source of stimulation, which necessarily creates the desire for improper conduct. The policy of silence showed an instinctive understanding of this fundamental situation. Even if that traditional policy had had no positive purpose, its negative function, its leaving at rest the explosive sexual system of the youth, must be acknowledged as one of those wonderful instinctive procedures by which society protects itself.
The reformer might object that he gives not only information, but depicts the dangers and warns against the ruinous effects. He evidently fancies that such a black frame around the luring picture will be a strong enough countermotive to suppress the sensual desire. But while the faint normal longing can well be balanced by the trained respect for the mysterious unknown, the strongly accentuated craving of the girl who knows may ill be balanced by any thought of possible disagreeable consequences. Still more important, however, is a second aspect. The girl to whom the world sex is the great taboo is really held back from lascivious life by an instinctive respect and anxiety.
As soon as girl and boy are knowers, all becomes a matter of naked calculation. What they have learned from their instruction in home and school and literature and drama is that the unmarried woman must avoid becoming a mother. Far from enforcing a less sensuous life, this only teaches them to avoid the social opprobrium by going skilfully to work. The old-fashioned morality sermon kept the youth on the paths of clean life; the new-fashioned sexual instruction stimulates not only their sensual longings, but also makes it entirely clear to the young that they have nothing whatever to fear if they yield to their voluptuousness but make careful use of their new physiological knowledge.
From my psychotherapeutic activity, I know too well how much vileness and perversity are gently covered by the term flirtation nowadays in the circle of those who have learned early to conceal the traces. The French type of the demi-vierge is just beginning to play its rôle in the new world. The new policy will bring in the great day for her, and with it a moral poisoning which must be felt in the whole social atmosphere.
We have not as yet stopped to examine whether at least the propaganda for the girl’s sexual education starts rightly when it takes for granted that ignorance is the chief source for the fall of women. The sociological student cannot possibly admit this as a silent presupposition. In many a pathetic confession we have read as to the past of fallen girls that they were not aware of the consequences.
But it would be utterly arbitrary to construe even such statements as proofs that they were unaware of the limits which society demanded from them. If a man breaks into a neighbour’s garden by night to steal, he may have been ignorant of the fact that shooting traps were laid there for thieves, but that does not make him worthy of the pity which we may offer to him who suffers by ignorance only.
The melodramatic idea that a straightforward girl with honest intent is abducted by strangers and held by physical force in places of degradation can simply be dismissed from a discussion of the general situation. The chances that any decent man or woman will be killed by a burglar are a hundred times larger than that a decent girl without fault of her own will become the victim of a white slavery system which depends upon physical force.
Since the new policy of antisilence has filled the newspapers with the most filthy gossip about such imaginary horrors, it is not surprising that frivolous girls who elope with their lovers later invent stories of criminal detention, first by half poisoning and afterward by handcuffing. Of all the systematic, thorough investigations, that of the Vice Commission of Philadelphia seems so far the most instructive and most helpful. It shows the picture of a shameful and scandalous social situation, and yet, in spite of years of most insistent search by the best specialists, it says in plain words that “no instances of actual physical slavery have been specifically brought to our attention.”
This does not contradict in the least the indubitable fact that in all large cities white slavery exists in the wider sense of the word—that is, that many girls are kept in a life of shame because the escape from it is purposely made difficult to them. They are held constantly in debt and are made to believe that their immunity from arrest depends upon their keeping on good terms with the owners of disorderly houses. But the decisive point for us is that while they are held back at a time when they know too much, they are not brought there by force at a time when they know too little.
The Philadelphia Vice Report analyzes carefully the conditions and motives which have brought the prostitutes to their life of shame. The results of those hundreds of interviews point nowhere to ignorance. The list of reasons for entering upon such a life brings information like this: “She liked the man,” “Wanted to see what immoral life was like,” “Sneaked out for pleasure, got into bad company,” “Would not go to school, frequented picture shows, got into bad company,” “Thought she would have a better time,” “Envied girls with fine clothes and gay time,” “Wanted to go to dances and theatres,” “Went with girls who drank, influenced by them,” “Liked to go to moving picture shows,” “Did not care what happened when forbidden to marry.” With these personal reasons go the economic ones: “Heard immorality was an easy way to make money, which she needed,” “Decided that this was the easiest way of earning money,” “Wanted pretty clothes,” “Never liked hard work,” “Tired of drudgery at home,” “Could make more money this way than in a factory.” Only once is it reported: “Chloroformed at a party, taken to man’s house and ruined by him.” If that is true. true, we have there simply a case of actual crime, against which nobody can be protected by mere knowledge. In short, a thorough study indicates clearly that the girl who falls is not pushed passively into her misery.
Surely it is alarming to read that last year in one single large city of the Middle West two hundred school girls have become mothers, but whoever studies the real sociological material cannot doubt that every one of those two hundred knew very clearly that she was doing something which she ought not to do. Every one of them had knowledge enough, and if the knowledge was often vague and dirty, the effect would not have been improved by substituting for it more knowledge, even if it were clearer and scientifically more correct. What every one of those two hundred girls needed was less knowledge—that is, less familiarity of the mind with this whole group of erotic ideas, and through this a greater respect for and fear of the unknown. Nobody who really understands the facts of the sexual world with the insight of the physician will deny that nevertheless treacherous dangers and sources of misfortune may be near to any girl, and that they might be avoided if she knew the truth. But then it is no longer a question of a general truth, which can be implanted by any education, but a specific truth concerning the special man. The husband whom she marries may be a scoundrel who infects her with ruinous disease, but even if she had read all the medical books beforehand it would not have helped her.
The situation of the boys seems in many respects different. They are on the aggressive side. There is no danger that by their lack of knowledge they will be lured into a life of humiliation, but the danger of their ruin is more imminent and the risk which parents run with them is far worse. Any hour of reckless fun may bring them a life of cruel suffering. The havoc which venereal diseases bring to the men of all social classes is tremendous. The Report of the Surgeon-General of the Army for 1911 states that with the mean strength of about seventy-three thousand men in the army, the admissions to the hospitals on account of venereal diseases were over thirteen thousand. That is, of any hundred men at least eighteen were ill from sexual infection. The New York County Hospital Society reports two hundred and forty-three thousand cases of venereal disease treated in one year, as compared with forty-one thousand five hundred and eighty-five cases of all other communicable diseases. This horrible sapping of the physical energies of the nation, with the devastating results in the family, with the poisoning of the germs for the next generation, and with the disastrous diseases of brain and spinal cord, is surely the gravest material danger which exists. How small compared with that the thousands of deaths from crime and accidents and wrecks! how insignificant the harvest of human life which any war may reap! And all this can ultimately be avoided, not only by abstinence, but by strict hygiene and rigorous social reorganization. At this moment we have only to ask how much of a change for the better can be expected from a mere sexual education of the boys.
From a psychological point of view, this situation appears much more difficult than that of the girls. All psychological motives speak for a policy of silence in the girls’ cases. For the At this moment we have only to ask how much of a change for the better can be expected from a mere sexual education of the boys.
From a psychological point of view, this situation appears much more difficult than that of the girls. All psychological motives speak for a policy of silence in the girls’ cases. For the boys, on the other hand, the importance of some hygienic instruction cannot be denied. A knowledge of the disastrous consequences of sexual diseases must have a certain influence for good, and the grave difficulty lies only in the fact that nevertheless all the arguments which speak against the sexual education of the girls hold for the boys, too. The harm to the youthful imagination, the starting of erotic thoughts with sensual excitement in consequence of any kind of sexual instruction must be still greater for the young man than for the young woman, as he is more easily able to satisfy his desires. We must thus undoubtedly expect most evil consequences from the instruction of the boys; and yet we cannot deny the possible advantages. Their hygienic consciousness may be enriched and their moral consciousness tainted by the same hour of well-meant instruction. With the girls an energetic no is the only sane answer; with the boys the social reformer may well hesitate between the no and the yes. The balance between fear and hope may be very even there. Yet, however depressing such a decision may be, the psychologist must acknowledge that even here the loss by frank discussion is greater than the gain.
A serious warning lies in the well-known fact that of all professional students, the young medical men have the worst reputation for their reckless indulgence in an erotic life. They know most, and it is psychologically not surprising that just on that account they are most reckless. The instinctive fear of the half knower has left them; they live in an illusory safety, the danger has become familiar to them, and they deceive themselves with the idea that the particular case is harmless. If the steps to be taken were to be worked out at the writing desk in cool mood and sober deliberation, the knowledge would at least often be a certain help, but when the passionate desire has taken hold of the mind and the organic tension of the irritated body works on the mind, there is no longer a fair fight with those sober reasons. The action of the glands controls the psychophysical reactions, so that the ideas which would lead to opposite response are inhibited. Alcohol and the imitative mood of social gayety may help to dull those hygienic fears, but on the whole the mere sexual longing is sufficient to break down the reminiscence of medical warning. The situation for the boy is then ultimately this:
A full knowledge of the chances of disease will start in hours of sexual coolness on the one side a certain resolution to abstain from sexual intercourse, and on the other side a certain intention to use protective means for the prevention of venereal diseases. As soon as the sexual desire awakes, the decision of the first kind will become the less effective, and will be the more easily overrun the more firmly the idea is fixed that such preventive means are at his disposal. At the same time the discussion of all these sexual matters, even with their gruesome background, will force on the mind a stronger engagement with sexual thought than had ever before occurred, and this will find its discharge in an increased sexual tension. On the other hand, this new knowledge of means of safety will greatly increase the playing with danger. Of course it may be said that the education ought not to refer only to sexual hygiene, but that it ought to be a moral education. That, however, is an entirely different story. We shall speak about it; we shall put our faith in it, but at present we are talking of that specific sexual education which is the fad of the day.
Sexual education, to be sure, does not necessarily mean education of young people only. The adults who know, the married men and women of the community, may not know enough to protect their sons and daughters. And the need for their full information may stretch far beyond their personal family interests. They are to form the public opinion which must stand behind every real reform, their consciences must be stirred, the hidden misery must be brought before them.
Thus they need sexual education as much as the youngsters, only they need it in a form which appeals to them and makes them willing to listen; and our reformers have at last discovered the form. The public must be taught from the stage of the theatre. The magazine with its short stories on sex incidents, the newspaper with its sensational court reports, may help to carry the gruesome information to the masses, but the deepest impression will always be made when actual human beings are shown on the stage in their appealing distress, as living accusations against the rotten foundations of society. The stage is overcrowded with sexual drama and the social community inundated with discussions about it.
It is not easy to find the right attitude toward this red-light literature. Many different interests are concerned, and it is often extremely difficult to disentangle them. Three such interests stand out very clearly: the true æsthetic one, the purely commercial one, and the sociological one. It would be wonderful if the æsthetic culture of our community had reached a development at which the æsthetic attitude toward a play would be absolutely controlling. If we could trust this æsthetic instinct, no other question would be admissible but the one whether the play is a good work of art or not.
The social inquiry whether the human fates which the poet shows us suggests legislative reforms or hygienic improvements would be entirely inhibited in the truly artistic consciousness. It would make no difference to the spectator whether the action played in Chicago or Petersburg, whether it dealt with men and women of to-day or of two thousand years ago. The human element would absorb our interest, and as far as the joys and the miseries of sexual life entered into the drama, they would be accepted as a social background, just as the landscape is the natural background.
A community which is æsthetically mature enough to appreciate Ibsen does not leave “The Ghosts” with eugenic reform ideas. The inherited paralysis on a luetic basis is accepted there as a tragic element of human fate. On the height of true art the question of decency or indecency has disappeared, too. The nude marble statue is an inspiration, and not a possible stimulus to frivolous sensuality, if the mind is æsthetically cultivated. The nakedness of erotic passion in the drama of high æsthetic intent before a truly educated audience has not the slightest similarity to the half-draped chorus of sensual operetta before a gallery which wants to be tickled. But who would claim that the dramatic literature of the sexual problems with which the last seasons have filled the theatres from the orchestra to the second balcony has that sublime æsthetic intent, or that it was brought to a public which even posed in an æsthetic attitude! As far as any high aim was involved, it was the antiæsthetic moral value. The plays presented themselves as appeals to the social conscience, and yet this idealistic interpretation would falsify the true motives on both sides.
The crowd went because it found the satisfaction of sexual curiosity and erotic tension through the unveiled discussion of social perversities. And the managers produced the plays because the lurid subjects with their appeal to the low instincts, and therefore with their sure commercial success, could here escape the condemnation of police and decent public as they were covered by the pretence of social reform. How far the writers of the play of prostitution would be entirely inhibited in the truly artistic consciousness. It would make no difference to the spectator whether the action played in Chicago or Petersburg, whether it dealt with men and women of to-day or of two thousand years ago.
The human element would absorb our interest, and as far as the joys and the miseries of sexual life entered into the drama, they would be accepted as a social background, just as the landscape is the natural background. A community which is æsthetically mature enough to appreciate Ibsen does not leave “The Ghosts” with eugenic reform ideas. The inherited paralysis on a luetic basis is accepted there as a tragic element of human fate. On the height of true art the question of decency or indecency has disappeared, too. The nude marble statue is an inspiration, and not a possible stimulus to frivolous sensuality, if the mind is æsthetically cultivated.
The nakedness of erotic passion in the drama of high æsthetic intent before a truly educated audience has not the slightest similarity to the half-draped chorus of sensual operetta before a gallery which wants to be tickled. But who would claim that the dramatic literature of the sexual problems with which the last seasons have filled the theatres from the orchestra to the second balcony has that sublime æsthetic intent, or that it was brought to a public which even posed in an æsthetic attitude! As far as any high aim was involved, it was the antiæsthetic moral value.
The plays presented themselves as appeals to the social conscience, and yet this idealistic interpretation would falsify the true motives on both sides. The crowd went because it found the satisfaction of sexual curiosity and erotic tension through the unveiled discussion of social perversities. And the managers produced the plays because the lurid subjects with their appeal to the low instincts, and therefore with their sure commercial success, could here escape the condemnation of police and decent public as they were covered by the pretence of social reform. How far the writers of the play of prostitution prostitution prostituted art in order to share the commercial profits in this wave of sexual reform may better remain undiscussed.
What do these plays really teach us? I think I have seen almost all of them, and the composite picture in my mind is one of an absurdly distorted, exaggerated, and misleading view of actual social surroundings, suggesting wrong problems, wrong complaints, and wrong remedies. When I studied the reports of the vice commissions of the large American and European cities, the combined image in my consciousness was surely a stirring and alarming one, but it had no similarity with the character of those melodramatic vagaries.
Even the best and most famous of these fabrications throw wrong sidelights on the social problems, and by a false emphasis inhibit the feeling for the proportions of life. If in “The Fight” the father, a senator, visits a disorderly house, unlocks the room in which the freshest fruit is promised him, and finds there his young daughter who has just been abducted by force, the facts themselves are just as absurd as the following scenes, in which this father shows that the little episode did not make the slightest impression on him. He coolly continues to fight against those politicians who want to remove such places from the town.
In “Bought and Paid For” marriage itself is presented as white slavery. The woman has to tolerate the caresses of her husband, even when he has drunk more champagne than is wise for him. The play makes us believe that she must suffer his love because she was poor before she married and he has paid her with a life of luxury. Where are we to end if such logic in questions of sexual intercourse is to benumb common sense? England brought us “The Blindness of Virtue,” the story of a boy and a girl whom we are to believe to be constantly in grave danger because they are ignorant, while in reality nothing happens, and everything suggests that the moral danger for this particular girl would have been much greater if if she had known how to enjoy love without consequences.
The most sensational specimen of the group was “The Lure.” It would be absurd to face this production from any æsthetic point of view. It would be unthinkable that a work of such crudeness could satisfy a metropolitan public, even if some of the most marked faults of construction were acknowledged as the results of the forceful expurgation of the police. Nevertheless, the only significance of the play lies outside of its artistic sphere, and belongs entirely to its effort to help in this great social reform. The only strong applause, which probably repeats itself every evening, broke out when the old, good-natured physician said that as soon as women have the vote the white slavers will be sent to the electric chair. But it is worth while to examine the sermon which a play of this type really preaches, and to become aware of the illusions with which the thoughtless public receives this message. All which we see there on the stage is taken by the masses as a remonstrance against the old, cowardly policy of silence, and the play is to work as a great proof that complete frankness and clear insight can help the daughters of the community.
The whole play contains the sad story of two girls. There is Nell. What happened to her? She is the daughter of a respectable banker in a small town. A scoundrel, a commercial white slaver, a typical Broadway “cadet” with luring manners, goes to the small town, finds access to the church parlours, is introduced to the girl, and after some courtship he elopes with her and makes her believe that they are correctly married. After the fraudulent marriage with a falsified license he brings her into a metropolitan disorderly house and holds her there by force. Of course this is brutal stage exaggeration, but even if this impossibility were true, what conclusion are we to draw, and what advice are we to give?
Does it mean that in future a young girl who meets a nice chap in the church socials of her native town ought to keep away from him, because she ought all the time to think that he might be a delegate of a Broadway brothel? To fill a girl with suspicions in a case like that of Nell would be no wiser than to tell the ordinary man that he ought not to deposit his earnings in any bank, because the cashier might run away with it. To be sure, it would have been better if Nell had not eloped, but is there any knowledge of sexual questions which would have helped her to a wiser decision? On the contrary, she said she did elope because her life in the small town was so uninteresting, and she felt so lonely and was longing for the life of love. She knew all which was to be known then, and if there had been any power to hold her back from the foolish elopement it could have been only a kind of instinctive respect for the traditional demands of society, that kind of respect which grows up from the policy of silence and is trampled to the ground by the policy of loud talk.
The other girl in the play is Sylvia. Her fate is very different. She needs melodramatic money for her sick mother. Her earnings in the department store are not enough. The sly owner of a treacherous employment agency has given her a card over the counter, advising her to come there, when she needs extra employment. The agency keeps open in the evening. She tells her mother that she will seek some extra work there. The mother warns her that there are so many traps for decent girls, and she answers that she is not afraid and that she will be on the lookout. She goes there, and the skilful owner of the agency shows her how miserable the pay would be for any decent evening work, and how easily she can earn all the money she needs for her mother if she is willing to be paid by men. At first she refuses with pathos, but under the suggestive pressure of luring arguments she slowly weakens, and finally consents to exchange her street gown for a fantastic costume of half-nakedness.
The feelings of the audience are saved by the detective who breaks in at the decisive moment, but the arguments of the advocates of sexual education cannot possibly be saved after that voluntary yielding. Sylvia knows what she has to expect, and no more intense perusal of literature on the subject of prostitution would have changed her mind. What else in the world could have helped her in such an hour but a still stronger feeling of instinctive repugnance? If Sylvia was actually to put her fate on a mere calculation, with a full knowledge of all the sociological facts involved, she probably reasoned wrongly in dealing with this particular employment agency, but was on the whole not so wrong in deciding that a frivolous life would be the most reasonable way out of her financial difficulties, as her sexual education would include, of course, a sufficient knowledge of all which is needed to avoid conception and infection.
She would therefore know that after a little while of serving the lust of men she would be just as intact and just as attractive. If society has the wish to force Sylvia to a decision in the opposite direction, only one way is open: to make the belief in the sacred value of virtue so deep and powerful that any mere reasoning and calculation loses its strength. But that is possible only through an education which relies on the instinctive respect and mystical belief. Only a policy of silence could have saved Sylvia, because that alone would have implanted in her mind an ineffable idea of unknown horrors which would await her when she broke the sacred ring of chastity.
The climax of public discussions was reached when America had its season of Brieux’ “Damaged Goods.” Its topic is entirely different, as it deals exclusively with the spreading of contagious diseases and the prevention of their destructive influence on the family. Yet the doubt whether such a dramatized medical lesson belongs on the metropolitan stage has here exactly the same justification Nevertheless, it brings its new set of issues. Brieux’ play does not deserve any interest as a drama. With complete sincerity the theatre programme announces, “The object of this play is a study of the disease of syphilis in its bearing on marriage.” The play was first produced in Paris in the year 1901. It began its great medical teaching in America in the spring of 1913. Even those who have only superficial contact with medicine know that the twelve years which lie between those dates have seen the greatest progress in the study of syphilis which has ever been made. It is sufficient to think of the Wassermann test, the Ehrlich treatment, the new discoveries concerning the relations of lues and brain disease, and many other details in order to understand that a clinical lesson about this disease written in the first year of the century must be utterly antiquated in its fourteenth year. We might just as well teach the fighting of tuberculosis with the clinical textbook of thirty years ago.
How misleading many of the claims of the play are ought to have struck even the unscientific audience. The real centre of the so-called drama is that the father and the grandmother of the diseased infant are willing to risk the health of the wet nurse rather than to allow the child to go over to artificial feeding. The whole play loses its chief point and its greatest pathetic speech if we do not accept the Parisian view that a sickly child must die if it has its milk from the bottle. The Boston audience wildly applauded the great speech of the grandmother who wants to poison the nurse rather than to sacrifice her grandchild to the drinking of sterilized milk, and yet it was an audience which surely was brought up on the bottle. It would be very easy to write another play in which quite different medical views are presented, and where will it lead us if the various treatments of tuberculosis, perhaps by the Friedmann cures, or of diphtheria, perhaps by chiropractice or osteopathy, are to be fought out on the stage until finally the editors of Life would write a play around their usual thesis that the physicians are destroying mankind and that our modern medicine is humbug. As long as the drama shows us human elements, every one can be a party and can take a stand for the motives of his heart. But if the stage presents arguments on scientific questions in which no public is able to examine the facts, the way is open for any one-sided propaganda.
Moreover, what, after all, are the lessons which the men are to learn from these three hours of talk on syphilis? To be sure, it is suggested that it would be best if every young man were to marry early and remain faithful to his wife and take care that she remain faithful to him. But this aphorism will make very little impression on the kind of listener whose tendency would naturally turn him in other directions. He hears in the play far more facts which encourage him in his selfish instincts. He hears the old doctor assuring his patient that not more than a negligible 10 per cent. of all men enter married life without having had sexual intercourse with women. He hears that the disease can be easily cured, that he may marry quite safely after three years, that the harm done to the child can be removed, and that no one ought to be blamed for acquiring the disease, as anybody may acquire it and that it is only a matter of good or bad luck. The president of the Medical Society in Boston drew the perfectly correct consequences when in a warm recommendation of the play he emphasized the importance of the knowledge about the disease, inasmuch as any one may acquire it in a hundred ways which have nothing to do with sexual life. He says anybody may get syphilis by wetting a lead pencil with his lips or from an infected towel or from a pipe or from a drinking glass or from a cigarette. This is medically entirely correct, and yet if Brieux had added this medical truth to all the other medical sayings of his doctor, he would have taken away the whole meaning of the play and would have put it just on the level of a dramatized story about scarlet fever or typhoid.
Yet here, too, the fundamental mistake remains the psychological one. The play hopes to reform by the appeal to fear, while the whole mental mechanism of man is so arranged that in the emotional tension of the sexual desire the argument of the fear that we may have bad luck will always be outbalanced by the hope and conviction that we will not be the one who draws the black ball. And together with this psychological fact goes the other stubborn feature of the mind, which no sermon can remove, that the focussing of the attention on the sexual problems, even in their repelling form, starts too often a reaction of glands and with it sexual thoughts which ultimately lead to a desire for satisfaction.
The cleverest of this group of plays strictly intended for sexual education—as Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” or plays of Pinero and similar ones would belong only indirectly in this circle—is probably Wedekind’s “Spring’s Awakening.” It brought to Germany, and especially to Berlin, any education which the Friedrichstrasse had failed to bring. To prohibit it would have meant the reactionary crushing of a distinctly literary work by a brilliant writer; to allow it meant to fill the Berlin life for seasons with a new spirit which showed its effects. The sexual discussion became the favourite topic; the girls learned to look out for their safety: and it was probably only a chance that at the same time a wave of immorality overflooded the youth of Berlin. The times of naïve flirtation were over; any indecency seemed allowable if only conception was artificially prevented. The social life of Berlin from the fashionable quarters of Berlin West to the factory quarters of Berlin East was never more rotten and more perverse than in those years in which sexual education from the stage indulged in its The central problem is not whether the facts are distorted or not, and whether the suggestions are wise or not, and whether the remedies are practicable or not. All this is secondary to the fundamental question of whether it is wise to spread out such problems before the miscellaneous public of our theatres. No doubt a few of the social reformers are sprinkled over the audiences. There are a few in the boxes as well as in the galleries who discern the realities and who hear the true appeal, even through those grotesque melodramas. But with the overwhelming majority it is quite different. For them it is entertainment, and as such it is devastating. It is quite true that many a piquant comic opera shows more actual frivolity, and no one will underestimate the shady influence of such voluptuous vulgarities in their multicoloured stage setting. Yet from a psychological point of view the effect of the pathetic treatment is far more dangerous than that of the frivolous. A good many well-meaning reformers do not see that, because they know too little of the deeper layers of the sexual imagination. The intimate connection between sexuality and cruelty, perversion and viciousness, may produce much more injurious results in the mind of the average man when he sees the tragedy of the white slave than when he laughs at the farce of the chorus girl. Moreover, even the information which such plays divulge may stimulate some model citizens to help the police and the doctors, but it may suggest to a much larger number hitherto unknown paths of viciousness. The average New Yorker would hear with surprise from the Rockefeller Report on Commercialized Prostitution in New York City that the commission has visited in Manhattan a hundred and forty parlour houses, twenty of which were known to the trade as fifty-cent houses, eighty as one-dollar houses, six as two-dollar houses, and thirty-four as five- and ten dollar houses. Yet the chances are great that essentially persons with serious interests in social hygiene turn to such books of sober study. But to cry out such information to those Broadway crowds which seek a few hours’ fun before they go to the next lobster palace or to the nearest cabaret cannot possibly serve social hygiene.
Worst of all, the theatre, more than any other source of so-called information, has been responsible for the breakdown of the barriers of social reserve in sexual discussions, and that means ultimately in erotic behaviour. The book which the individual man or woman reads at his fireside has no socializing influence, but the play which they see together is naturally discussed, views are exchanged, and all which in old-fashioned times was avoided, even in serious discussion, becomes daily more a matter of the most superficial gossip. When recently at a dinner party a charming young woman whom I had hardly met before asked me, when we were at the oysters, how prostitution is regulated in Germany, and did not conclude the subject before we had reached the ice cream, I saw the natural consequences of this new era of theatre influence. Society, which with the excuse of philanthropic sociology favours erotically tainted problems, must sink down to a community in which the sexual relations become chaotic and turbulent. Finally, the theatre is not open only to the adult. Its filthy message reaches the ears of boys and girls, who, even if they take it solemnly, are forced to think of these facts and to set the whole mechanism of sexual associations and complex reactions into motion. The playwriters know that well, but they have their own theory. When I once remonstrated against the indecencies which are injected into the imagination of the adolescent by the plays, Mr. Bayard Veiller, the talented author of “The Fight,” answered in a Sunday newspaper. He said that he could not help thinking thinking of the insane man who objected to throwing a bucket of salt water into the ocean for fear it would turn the ocean salt. “Does not Professor Münsterberg know that you can’t put more sex thoughts into the minds of young men and women, because their minds contain nothing else?” If the present movement is not brought to a stop, the time may indeed come when those young minds will not contain anything else. But is that really true of to-day, and, above all, was it true of yesterday, before the curtain was raised on the red-light drama?
How is it possible that with such obvious dangers and such evident injurious effects, this movement on the stage and in literature, in the schools and in the homes, is defended and furthered by so many well-meaning and earnest thinking men and women in the community? A number of causes may have worked together there. It cannot be overlooked that one of the most effective ones was probably the new enthusiasm for the feministic movement. We do not want to discuss here the right and wrong of this worldwide advance toward the fuller liberation of women. If we have to touch on it here, it is only to point out that this connection between the sound elements of the feministic movement and the propaganda for sex education on the new-fashioned lines is really not necessary at all. I do not know whether the feminists are entirely right, but I feel sure that their own principles ought rather to lead them to an opposition to this breaking down of the barriers. It is nothing but a superficiality if they instinctively take their stand on the side of those who spread broadcast the knowledge about sex.
The feminists vehemently object to the dual standard, but if they help help everything which makes sex an object of common gossip, it may work indeed toward a uniform standard; only the uniformity will not consist in the men’s being chaste like the women, but in the women’s being immoral like the men. The feministic enthusiasm turns passionately against those scandalous places of women’s humiliation; and yet its chief influence on female education is the effort to give more freedom to the individual girl, and that means to remove her from the authority and discipline of the parental home, to open the door for her to the street, to leave her to her craving for amusement, to smooth the path which leads to ruin. The sincere feminists may say that some of the changes which they hope for are so great that they are ready to pay the price for them and to take in exchange a rapid increase of sexual vice and of erotic disorderliness. But to fancy that the liberation of women and the protection of women can be furthered by the same means is a psychological illusion.
The community which opens the playhouses to the lure of the new dramatic art may protect 5 per cent. of those who are in danger to-day, but throws 50 per cent. more into abysses. The feminists who see to the depths of their ideals ought to join full-heartedly the ranks of those who entirely object to this distribution of the infectious germs of sexual knowledge.
Some stray support may come to the new movement also from another side. Some believe that this great emphasis on sexual interests may intensify æsthetic longings in the American commonwealth. No doubt this interrelation exists. No civilization has known a great artistic rise without a certain freedom and joy in sensual life. Prudery always has made true æsthetic unfolding impossible. Yet if we yielded here, we would again be pushed away from our real problem. The æsthetic enthusiast might think it a blessing for the American nation if a great æsthetic outburst were secured secured, even by the ruin of moral standards: a wonderful blossoming of fascinating flowers from a swampy soil in an atmosphere full of moral miasmas.
To be sure, even then it is very doubtful whether any success could be hoped for, as a lightness in sexual matters may be a symptom of an artistic age, but surely is not its cause. The artist may love to drink, but the drink does not make an artist. An æsthetic community may reach its best when it is freed from sexual censorship, but throwing the censor out of the house would not add anything to the æsthetic inspiration of a society which is instinctively indifferent to the artistic calling. Above all, the question for us is not whether the sexual overeducation may have certain pleasant side effects: we ask only how far it succeeds in its intended chief effect of improving morally the social community.
In fact, neither feminism nor æstheticism could have secured this indulgence of the community in the new movement, if one more direct argument had not influenced the conviction of some of our leaders. They reason around one central thought—namely, that the old policy of silence, in which they grew up, has been tried and has shown itself unsuccessful. The horrible dimensions which the social evil has taken, the ruinous effects on family life and national health, are before us. The old policy must therefore be wrong. Let us try with all our might the reform, however disgusting its first appearance may be. This surely is the virile argument of men who know what they are aiming at. And yet it is based on fundamental psychological misapprehensions. It is a great confusion of causes and effects. The misery has this distressing form not on account of the policy of silence, but in spite of it, or rather it took the tremendous dimensions of to-day at the same time that the dam of silence was broken and the flood of sexual gossip rushed in.
We find exactly this relation throughout the history of civilized mankind. To be sure, some editorial writers behave as if the erotic calamity of the day were something unheard of, and as if it demanded a new remedy. The historical retrospect leaves no doubt that periods of sexual tension and of sexual relaxation, of hysteric erotic excitement and of a certain cool indifference have alternated throughout thousands of years. And whenever an age was unusually immoral and lascivious, it was always also a period in which under the mask of scientific interest or social frankness or æsthetic openmindedness the sexual problems were matters of freest discussion.
The periods of austerity and restraint, on the other hand, were always characterized also by an unwillingness to talk about sexual relations and to show them in their animal nakedness. Antiquity knew those ups and downs, mediæval times knew them, and in modern centuries the fluctuations have been still more rapid. As soon as a moral age with its policy of silence is succeeded by an immoral age, it is certainly a very easy historical misconstruction to say that the immorality resulted from the preceding conspiracy of silence and that the immorality would disappear if the opposite scheme of frankest speech were adopted. But the fact that this argument is accepted and that the overwhelming majority hails the new régime with enthusiasm is nothing but an almost essential part of the new period, which has succeeded the time of modesty.
Sexual discussion and sexual immorality have always been parts of one circle; sexual silence and moral restraint form another circle. The change from one to the other has come in the history of mankind, usually through new conditions of life, and the primary factor has not been any policy of keeping quiet in respect or of gossiping in curiosity, but the starting point has generally been a change in the life habits. When new wealth has come to a people with new liberties and new desires for enjoyment, the great periods of of sexual frivolity have started and brought secondarily the discussions of sex problems, which intensified the immoral life. On the other hand, when a nation in the richness of its life has been brought before new great responsibilities, great social earthquakes and revolutions, great wars for national honour, or great new intellectual or religious ideals, then the sexual tension has been released, the attention has been withdrawn from the frivolous concerns, and the people have settled down soberly to a life of modesty and morality, which brought with it as a natural consequence the policy of reverence and silence.
The new situation in America, and to a certain degree all over the world, has come in, too, not through the silence of the preceding generation, but by the sudden change from agricultural to industrial life, with its gigantic cumulation of capital, with its widespread new wealth, with its new ideas of social liberty, with its fading religion, with its technical wonders of luxury and comfort. This new age, which takes its orders from Broadway with its cabarets and tango dances, must ridicule the silence of our fathers and denounce it as a conspiracy. It needs the sexual discussions, as it craves the lurid music and the sensual dances, until finally even the most earnest energies, those of social reform and of hygiene, of intellectual culture and of artistic effort, are forced into the service of this antimoral fashion.
Some sober spectators argue that as things have gone to this extent, it might be wise to try the new policy as an experiment, because matters cannot become worse than they are to-day. But those who yield to the new advice so readily ought again to look into the pages of history, or ought at least to study the situation in some other countries before they proclaim that the climax has been reached. It may be true that it would not be possible to transform still more New York hotels into dancing halls, since the innovation of of this fashion, which suggests the dancing epidemics of mediæval times, has reached practically every fashionable hostelry. Yet we may be only at the beginning, as in this vicious circle of craving for sensual life and talking about sexual problems the erotic transformation of the whole social behaviour is usually a rapid one. The Rococo age reached many subtleties, which we do not dream of as yet, but to which the conspiracy against silence may boldly push us.
Read the memoirs of Casanova, the Italian of the eighteenth century, whose biography gives a vivid picture of a time in which certainly no one was silent on sexual affairs and in which life was essentially a chain of gallant adventures; even the sexual diseases figured as gallant diseases. In the select American circles it is already noticeable that the favourites of rich men get a certain social acknowledgment. The great masses have not reached this stage at present, which is, of course, very familiar in France. But if we proceed in that rapid rhythm with which we have changed in the last ten years, ten years hence we may have substituted the influence of mistresses for the influence of Tammany grafters, and twenty years hence a Madame Pompadour may be dwelling not far from the White House and controlling the fate of the nation with her small hands, as she did for two decades when Louis XV was king.
History has sufficiently shown that these are the logical consequences of the sensualization of a rich people, whose mind is filled with sexual problems. Are we to wait, too, until a great revolution or a great war shakes the nation to its depths and hammers new ideas of morality into its conscience? Even our literature might sink still deeper and deeper. If we begin with the sexual problem, it lies in its very nature that that which is interesting to-day is to-morrow stale, and new regions of sexuality must be opened. The fiction of Germany in the last few years shows the whole pathetic decadence which results. The most abstruse perversions, the ugliest degenerations of sexual sinfulness, have become the favourite topics, and the best sellers are books which in the previous age would have been crushed by police and public opinion alike, but which in the present time are excused under scientific and sociological pretences, although they are more corrupt and carry more infection than any diseases against which they warn.
What is to be done? In one point we all agree: Those who are called to do so must bend their utmost energy toward the purification of the outer forms of community life and of the public institutions. Certain eugenic ideas must be carried through relentlessly; above all, the sexual segregation of the feeble-minded, whose progeny fills the houses of disorder and the ranks of the prostitutes. The hospitals must be wide open for every sexual disease, and all discrimination against diseases which may be acquired by sexual intercourse must be utterly given up in order to stamp out this scourge of mankind, as far as possible, with the medical knowledge of our day. Every effort must be made to suppress places through which unclean temptations are influencing the youth. Parents and doctors should speak in the intimacy of private talk earnest words of warning. The fight against police corruption and graft must be relentlessly carried on so as to have the violation of the laws really punished.
Many means may still seem debatable among those who know the social and medical facts. Certainly some of the eugenic postulates go too far. It is, for instance, extremely difficult to say where the limit is to be set for permissible marriages. There may be no doubt that feeble-mindedness ought not to be transmitted to the next generation, but have we really a right to prevent the marriage of epileptics or psychasthenics? Can we be surprised then that others already begin to demand that neurasthenics shall not marry? Even the health certificate at the wedding may give only an illusion of safety, as the health of too many marriages is destroyed by the escapades of the husband, and it may, on the other hand, lead to a narrowing down under the pressure of arbitrary theories, producing a true race suicide. The question whether the healthy man is the only desirable element of the community is one which allows different answers. Much of the greatest work for the world’s progress has been created by men with faulty animal constitutions whose parents would never have received permission to marry from a rigorous eugenic board.
But whatever the sociological reasons for hesitation may be, the state legislators and physicians, the police officers and social workers have no right to stop. They must push forward and force the public life into paths of less injurious and less dangerous sexual habits and customs. Their success will depend upon the energy with which they keep themselves independent of the control of those who do not count with realities. The hope that men will become sexually abstinent outside married life is fantastic, and the book of history ought not to have been written in vain. Any counting on this imaginary overcoming of selfish desire for sexual satisfaction decreases the chances of real hygienic reform.
It would even be an inexcusable hypocrisy of the medical profession if, with its consent, one group of specialists behave as if sexual abstinence were the bodily ideal, while thousands of no less conscientious physicians in the world, especially those concerned with nervous diseases, feel again and again obliged to advise sexual intercourse for their patients. We know to-day, even much better than ten years ago, how many serious disturbances result from the suppression of normal sexual life. The past has shown, moreover that when society succeeded in spreading alarm and in decreasing prostitution by fear, the result was such a rapid increase of perversion and nerve-racking self-abuse that after a short while the normal ways were again preferred as the lesser evil.
And the reformers will need a second limitation of their efforts. They cannot hope for success as long as they fancy that reasoning and calculation and sober balancing of dangers and joys, of injuries and advantages, can ever be the decisive factor of progress. They ought not to forget that as soon as this whole problem is brought down to a mere considering of consequences by the individual, their eugenic hopes may be cruelly shaken. However distressing it is to say it frankly, by mere appeal to reason we shall not turn many girls from the way which leads to prostitution, nor many boys from the anticipation of married life.
The girl in the factory, who hesitates between the hard work at the machine for the smallest pay, without pleasures, and the easy money of the street, with an abundance of fun, may in the regrettable life of prosaic reality balance the consequences very differently from the moralist. She has discovered that the ideal of virtue is not so highly valued in her circles as in the middle classes. The loss of her virtue is not such a severe hindrance in her life, and even if she yields for a while to earn her extra money in indecent ways, the chances are great that she may remain more attractive to a possible future husband from her set than if she lived the depressing life of grief and deprivation.
The probability of her marrying and becoming the mother in a decent family home may be greater than on the straighter path. It is, of course, extremely sad that reality takes such an immoral way, but just here is the field where the reformers ought to keep their eyes wide open, instead of basing their appeals on illusory constructions about social conditions which do not exist. And if the boys begin to reason, their calculations may count on on a still greater probability of good outcome, if they indulge in their pleasures. More than that, the fate of certain European countries shows that when it comes to this clear reasoning, the great turn of the selfish man is from the dangerous prostitute to the clean girl or married woman, to the sisters and wives of his friends, and that means the true ruin of home life.
What is the consequence of all? That the fight ought to be given up? Surely not. But that instead of relying on physical conditions, on fear of diseases, on merely eugenic improvements and on clever reasoning, the reform must come from within, must be one of education and morality, must be controlled, not by bacteriology, but by ethics, must find its strength not from horror of skin diseases, but in the reverence for the ideal values of humanity.
We must not deceive ourselves as to the gravity of the problem. It is not one of the passing questions which are replaced next season by new ones. State laws and interstate laws may and ought to continue to round off some of the sharp edges, institutions and associations may and ought to succeed in diminishing some of the misery, but the central problem of national policy in the treatment of the youth will stay with us until it has been solved rightly; illustrative instruction cannot be such a solution.
We must see with open eyes where we are standing. The American nation of to-day is no longer the America of yesterday. The puritanism which certainly was a spirit of restraint has gone and cannot be brought back. The new wealth and power, the influx of sensuous South European and East European elements, the general trend of our age all over the civilized world, with its technical comfort and its inexpensive luxuries, the receding of religion and many more factors have given a new face to America in the last fifteen years. A desire for the satisfaction of the senses, a longing for amusements, has become predominant in thousandfold shades from the refined to the vulgar. In such self-seeking periods the sexual desire in its masked and its unmasked forms gains steadily in importance and fascination.
America, moreover, is in a particularly difficult situation. This new longing for joy, even with its erotic touch, brings with it many valuable enrichments of every national life, not least among them the spreading of the sense of beauty. But what is needed is a wholesome national self-control by which an antisocial growth of these emotions will be suppressed. Our present-day American life so far lacks these conditions for the truly harmonious organization of the new tendencies. There are many causes for it. The long puritanic past did not allow that slow European training in æsthetic and harmless social enjoyments. Moreover, the widespread wealth, the feeling of democratic equality, the faintness of truly artistic interests in the masses, all reinforce the craving for the mere tickling of the senses, for amusement of the body, for vaudeville on the stage and in life.
The sexual element in this wave of enjoyment becomes reinforced by the American position of the woman outside of the family circle. Her contact with men has been multiplied, her right to seek joy in every possible way has become the corollary of her new independence, her position has become more exposed and more dangerous. And in addition to all this, the chief factor, which alone would be sufficient to give to the situation a threatening aspect: American educationalists do not believe in discipline. As long as the community was controlled by the moral influence of puritanism, the lack of training in subordination under social authority and obedient discipline was without danger, while it strengthened the spirit of political liberty. But to-day, in the period of the new antipuritanic life, the lack of discipline in education means an actual threat to the social safety.
In such a situation what can be more fraught with dangers than to abolish the policy of silence and to uphold the policy of talking and talking about sexual matters with those whose minds were still untouched by the lure. It means to fill the atmosphere in which the growing adolescent moves with sultry ideas, it means to distort the view of the social surroundings, it means to stir up the sexual desires and to teach children how to indulge in them without immediate punishment. Just as in a community of graft and corruption the individual soon loses the finer feeling for honesty, and crime flourishes simply because every one knows that nobody expects anything better, so in a community in which sexual problems are the lessons of the youth and the dinner talk of the adult, the feeling of respect for man’s deepest emotions fades away. Man and woman lose the instinctive shyness in touching on this sacred ground, and as the organic desires push and push toward it, the youth soon discovers that the barriers to the forbidden ground are removed and that in their place stands a simple signal with a suggestive word of warning against some easily avoided traps.
From a psychological point of view the right policy would be to reduce the external temptations, above all, the opportunities for contact. Coeducation, for instance, was morally without difficulties twenty years ago, but it is unfit in high schools and colleges for the eastern part of the nation in the atmosphere of to-day. Moreover, the æsthetic spirit ought to be educated systematically, and above all, the whole education of the youth ought to be built on discipline; the lesson by which the youth learns to overcome the desire and to inhibit the will is the most essential for the young American of to-morrow.
The policy of silence has never meant that a girl should grow up without the consciousness that the field of a girl should grow up without the consciousness that the field of sexual facts exists in our social world; on the contrary, those feelings of shame and decency which belong to the steady learning of a clean child from the days of the nursery have strongly impressed on the young soul that such regions are real, but that they must not be approached by curiosity or self-seeking wilfulness. This instinct itself brought something of ideal value, of respect and even of reverence into the most trivial life, however often it became ruined by foul companionship.
To strengthen this instinctive emotion of mysterious respect, which makes the young mind shrink from brutal intrusion, will remain the wisest policy, as long as we cannot change that automatic mechanism of human nature by which the sexual thought stimulates the sexual organs. The masses are, of course, in favour of the opposite programme, which is in itself only another symptom of the erotic atmosphere into which the new antipuritanic nation has come. That mechanism of the nervous system furnishes them a pleasant excitement when they read and hear the discussions and plays which bristle with sexual instruction. The magazines which, with the best intentions, fight for the new policy, easily find millions of readers; the plays with their erotic overflow and the moral ending are crowded, and mostly by those who hardly need the instruction any longer.
A nation which tries to lift its sexual morality by dragging the sexual problems to the street for the inspection of the crowd, without shyness and without shame, and which wilfully makes them objects of gossip and stage entertainment, is doing worse than Munchausen when he tried to lift himself by his scalp. It seems less important that the youth learn the secrets of sexual intercourse than that their teachers and guardians learn the elements of physiological psychology; the sexual sins of the youth start from the educational sins of the elders.
It is easy to say, as the social reformers and the vice commissioners and the sex instructors and many others have repeated in ever new forms, that “all children’s questions should be answered truthfully,” and to work up the whole sermon to the final trumpet call, “The truth shall make you free.” Yet this is entirely useless as long as we have not defined what we mean by freedom, and above all what we mean by truth. If the child enjoys the beautiful softness of the butterfly’s coloured wing, it is surely a truth, if we teach him that seen under the microscope in reality there is no softness there, but large ugly bumps and hollows and that the beautiful impression is nothing but an illusion. But is this truth of the microscope the only truth, and is science the only truth, and is there ever only one truth about the concrete facts of reality? Does truth in this sense not simply mean a certain order into which we bring our experience in the service of certain purposes of thought? We may approach the chaos of life experience with different purposes, and led by any one of them we may reach that consistent unity of ideas for the limited outlook which we call truth. The chemist has a right to consider everything in the world as chemical substances, and the mathematician may take the same things as geometric objects. And yet he who seeks a meaning in these things and a value and an inner development may come to another kind of truth. Only a general philosophy of life can ultimately grade and organize those various relative truths and combine them in an all-embracing unity.
No doubt the physician’s scientific discoveries and observations are perfectly true. Man is an animal, and anatomical and physiological conditions control his existence, and if we want to understand this animal’s life and want to keep it healthy, we have to ask for the truth of the physician. But shame upon him who wants to educate youth toward the view that man as an animal is the true man! If we educate at all, we educate in the service of culture culture and civilization. All building up of the youthful mind is itself service to human progress. But this human progress is not a mere growth of the animal race. It has its total meaning in the understanding of man as a soul, determined by purposes and ideals. Not the laws of physiology, but the demands of logic, ethics, æsthetics, and religion control the man who makes history and who serves civilization. He who says that the child’s questions ought to be answered truthfully means in this connection that lowest truth of all, the truth of physiology, and forgets that when he opens too early the mind of the boy and the girl to this materialistic truth he at the same time closes it, and closes it perhaps forever, to that richer truth in which man is understood as historic being, as agent for the good and true and beautiful and eternal.
Give to the child the truth, but that truth which makes life worth living, that truth which teaches him that life is a task and a duty, and that his true health and soundness and value will depend upon the energy with which he makes the world and his own body with its selfish desires subservient to unselfish ideals. If you mean by the truth that half-truth of man as a sexual creature of flesh and nerves, the child to whom you offer it will be led to ever new questions, and if you go on answering them truthfully as the new fashion suggests, your reservoir will soon be emptied, even if the six volumes of Havelock Ellis’ “Psychology of Sex” are fully at your disposal. But the more this species of truth is given out, the more life itself, for which you educate the child, will appear to him unworthy and meaningless. If the truth of civilized life is merely that which natural science can analyze, then life has lost its honour and its loyalty, its enthusiasm and its value. He who sees the truth in the idealistic aspect of man will not necessarily evade the curious question of the child who is puzzled about the naturalistic processes around him. But instead of whetting his appetite for unsavoury knowledge, he will seriously influence the young mind to turn the attention into the opposite direction. He will speak to him about the fact that there is something animal-like in the human being, but will add that the true values of life lie just in overcoming the low instincts in the interest of high aims. He will point to those hidden naturalistic realities as something not overimportant, but as something which a clean boy and girl do not ask about and with which only the imagination of bad companions is engaged. An instinctive indifference and aversion to the contact with anything low and impure can easily be developed in every healthy child amid clean surroundings. Why is the boy to live and to die for the honour of his country? Why is he to devote himself to the search for knowledge? Why is he to fight for the growth of morality? Why does he not confine himself to mere seeking for comfort and ease and satisfaction of the senses? All which really creates civilization and human progress depends upon symbols and belief. As soon as we make all those symbols of the historic community, all the ideals of honour and devotion, righteousness and beauty, glory and faithfulness, mere matters of scientific calculation, they stare us in the face as sheer absurdities; and yet we might again misname that as truth. Then it is the untruth which makes us free, it is the non-scientific, humanistic aspect which liberates us from the slavery of our low desires.
Certainly there will always be some wild boys and girls in the school who try to spread filthy knowledge, but if the atmosphere is filled with respect and reverence, and the minds are trained by inner discipline and morality, the contagion of such mischievous talk will reach only those children who have the disposition of the degenerate. The majority will remain uncontaminated. Plenty of lewd literature in the circulars of the quacks and even in the newspapers will reach their eye and their brain, and yet it will leave not the slightest trace. The trained, clean mind develops a moral antitoxin which at every pulse-beat of life destroys the poisonous toxins produced by the germs which enter the system. The red lanterns will never be entirely extinguished in any large city the world over, but the boy who has developed a sense of respect and reverence and an instinctive desire for moral cleanliness and a power to overcome selfish impulses, will pass them by and forget them when he comes to the next street corner. But the other, whose imagination has been filled with a shameless truth and who receives as his protection merely a warning which appeals to his fear of diseases, may pass that red lantern entrance at first, but at the next block his tainted imagination will have overcome the fear, and with the reckless confidence that he will know how to protect himself and that he will have good luck he, too, like the moth, will feel attracted toward the red light and will turn back. We can prohibit alcohol, but we cannot prohibit the stimulus to sexual lust. It is always present, and the selfish desire, made rampant by a society which craves amusement, will always be stronger than any social argument or any talk of possible individual danger. The only effective check is the deep inner respect, and we must teach it to the youth, or the whole nation will have to be taught it soon by the sterner discipline of history. The genius of mankind cannot be deceived by philistine phrases about the conspiracy of silence. The decision to be silent was a solemn pledge to the historic spirit of human progress, which demands its symbols, its conventions, and its beliefs. To destroy the harvest of these ideal values, because some weeds have grown up with them, by breaking down the dams and allowing the flood of truth-talk to burst in is the great psychological crime of our day. There is only one hope and salvation: let us build up the dam again to protect our field for a better to-morrow.