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Thursday, January 09, 2003

What I Finished Reading Recently:

What a Young Boy Should Know by Sylvanus Stall, D.D.

This book, published in 1897, is part of a larger "Self and Sex Series," a line of "pure books on avioded subjects," that purports to inform young men and women about sex, hygiene and other virtues...and it is, in every way, as quaint as you might imagine.

The tone is set immediately on opening the cover, where you're greeted with a long section of "Commendations from Eminent Men and Women," which are lengthy testimonials, including pictures, from 15 supposedly prominent ministers and doctors, who endorse the book's frank treatment of delicate subject matter. (And my copy is further adorned with a personal dedication, dated June 1, 1903, which reads, "To Oscar -- This is sent with the kindest wishes and heartfelt expression. If you will follow the teachings herein contained, you cannot help but be a success in life, for it will lead you to a high and fun young manhood, and likewise to a high and fun and successful manhood. As ever, your Cousin, Dave.")

In addition to the other quaint features of its age, the book is also constructed in an interesting manner - as a series of personal monologues, from an older man to a young adolescent boy. But instead of being live conversations, or even letters, as you might expect, the narrative is presented as if it were transcripts of a monologue recorded on phonographic cylinders (the precursors to phonograph records). Thus, instead of referring to the book's sections as "chapters," the author labels them "Cylinder 1," "Cylinder 2," and so on. (One can only presume that, even then, the author was trying to appeal to teenage boys' love of gadgets and all things mechanical, electric and/or electronic.)

Of course, since the subject of sex was even more delicate at the turn of the last century than it is in current times, the author starts out slowly -- veerrrrrrrrry, slowly -- spending the first five and a half "cylinders" talking about the general purpose of reproduction, how plants, bird and animals are divinely ordained to reproduce, and how human reproduction is also a part of this divine plan. Finally, in Cylinder 6, the author mentions human sperm and semen, and that female eggs are "fertilized by the requisite and proper bodily contact of the husband." But once he has taken this plunge, he quickly pulls back, and spends the next chapter on more generalities about how childrens' characteristics are inherited from their parents, and how young men and women should preserve their strenghts and virtues, to pass them along to their children.

The second section of the book gets away from purely reproductive instruction, and concentrates instead on "the manner in which the reroductive organs are injured in boys by abuse." And it spends several chapters discussing the evils of masturbation, which is said to "weaken and deaden" the morals, intellect and body of anyone who indulges in it. Then yet another section concentrates on the specific "consequences" of self-abuse, promising that men weakened by masturbation will even have children of "inferior quality." Finally, the book's last few sections are devoted to the topics of hygiene, other important kinds of moral uplift, and the changes that occur in the body during adolescence.

On the one hand, thinking back to the times this book was published in, it's easy to imagine that it probably was one of the more frank discussions of sexual topics on the market for teenagers, and for that it probably should be (and likely was, at least in some circles) applauded. On the other hand, however, looking at it from a modern perspective, it's easy to see -- if this really was the only source of information for a young teen -- why so many myths about sexuality have persisted, with often disastrous results, in our society for so long.

So it's definitely possible to read this work on two different levels. On one, it's a fun curiosity, which provides some easy giggles for both its misinformation and the undercurrent of fear and reticence that pervades the work. And on the other hand, it's also a rather scary document that confirms just how much misinformation and fear people lived with for so long in our society, and a reminder that vestiges of that ignorance still linger as a result of its pervasiveness and longevity.

Ironically, about the time I finished this book, my husband stumbled onto a very interesting website, ScarleTeen ("sex education for the real world"), which might be considered the modern equivalent of "What a Young Boy Should Know." The contrast is striking...and all in all, I can't help being glad that I'm living in an age where ScarleTeen rules and "Boy" has long since disappeared from distribution.

posted by Elizabeth 2:54 PM

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All material © 2002-2004 by Elizabeth Fuller. Please do not reproduce anything you find here without the author's permission.

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