(When) Should Children be Told the Facts of Life?

In my latest research into everyday lives in the 1960s using women’s magazines as my main source, I have noticed repeated references to the facts of life and different debates about the extent to which children should receive sex education. During the week I stumbled across the 2006 main report from the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, and was intrigued to see what this modern report said about ‘Learning About Sex’ (the title of chapter three).

The authors note, ‘a number of studies have found that many Irish adults have a less than adequate understanding of the basic facts of life’.[1] This is certainly compatible with the bewilderment expressed by teenagers — most of whom would now be in their sixties — in the sources I’ve read from the 1960s. The recurring letters to various magazines, particularly as the 1960s wore on, asking for basic information points to the near-absence of sex education. A lack of adequate eduction in schools, coupled with parents’ reluctance to discuss such matters with their children, resulted in a generation of teenagers who had a patchy or non-existent knowledge of the facts of life. This is confirmed in a 1996 study which found that only 15% of those surveyed aged 55 to 60 had received any form of sex education.[2] The authors of the 2006 report made a similar finding:

ISSHR Report
The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships: Main Report, p. 54.


When the sample group in the study were asked about the nature of sex education that young people should now receive, at least 92% favoured education on the subject of sexual intercourse, sexual feelings, contraceptions, safer sex and homosexuality.[3] These are all themes that emerged in the letters and articles I have read (though homosexuality is the least prominent), and about which people — both teenagers and adults — grappled for information. Yet, although these very public requests for guidance indicated that there was something lacking, there was still a debate about whether children should be taught the facts of life. As one woman wrote,

Dear Editor, although I appreciate your articles on sex education, I submit that the present trend is to give to our children too much, rather than too little, instruction in the so-called facts of life.[4]

And there was also a debate not about when children should be told, but rather, if they should be told. But while such debates were happening, the children, but more particularly teenagers, who were being discussed in an abstract way, were showing real signs of ignorance, worry, despair and confusion. Though one of the more extreme examples, the following extract from a letter sent to Angela Macnamara in 1968 captures this reality:

I am nearly 15 and very ignorant about the facts of life. A few weeks ago a boy who works with me waited for me one night and pulled me into a room and kept on trying to kiss me. I admit I was aroused but didn’t give in. I’m so frightened I might be pregnant because of the feeling I got…[5]

In the absence of adequate information in schools and in many homes around Ireland, magazines arguably played an important role — readership strategies are something that my current project will be investigating in far greater detail. Ten per cent of the respondents to the questionnaire that formed the basis of the 2006 report who were under forty, reported that books, magazines and friends were the most common ‘other source’ of information for their knowledge (the main source being sex education at school, followed by education in the home).[6] For an older generation, it is reasonable to assume that a significantly higher number would have spoke of the importance of magazines during their formative years.

Many of the teenagers who wrote to the advice columnists in publications such as Woman’s WayWoman’s Choice and Woman’s View were encouraged to purchase such titles as My Dear DaughterTowards Maturity or Girls Growing Up. The problem, of course, was that such books were not free. Even if they did have the money, they still had to undertake the very public act of going to a bookstore, selecting the title from the shelves and paying for it at the till. The potential embarrassment involved in such a transaction was sure to put plenty off. Moreover, for those living in rural Ireland, access to a bookshop was not convenient, and typically when titles were recommended, it was the name of Dublin sellers that was provided.

Even if teenagers did manage to source the recommended reading, not all found them particularly insightful.

I am really ignorant about the facts of life. I am 17, and afraid to go to a dance, or make a date, as I don’t know how a person could become pregnant. This is my main problem, and even though I have read My Dear Daughter (books 1 & 2), I find there is not much about it there.[7]

Magazines were more affordable, and there was no potential embarrassment in buying one. Plus they were also more easily sourced: letters to the various publications indicate they were being read by country women, and hand-to-hand passing also increased circulation beyond the official figures. Even if a teenager did not have the pocket money to purchase a magazine, there was a strong possibility — particularly with Woman’s Way, which had a significant circulation, making it Ireland’s best-selling women’s magazine — that his/her mother would buy them and leave copies around the home. Magazines were thus far more accessible than the formal facts of life guides.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 16.42.21

But how useful were they, once in the hands of a teen — especially if advice columnists were simply recommending facts of life guides? The columnists always supplemented their suggestions with further information. And while they did not have the space to provide detailed information, regular readers could piece together vital information. In addition to the advice columns, the magazines typically carried health columns also that gave guidance on topics such as menstruation and fertility. Moreover, the magazines provided a interactive format that the guides simply couldn’t. If a reader could not find the answer to their specific question in a manual or guide, they could  outline their circumstances in a letter to the magazine in the hope of getting a response. And even if their letter was not printed, similar letters may have provided the answer, perhaps giving reassurance or even confirming their fears. The magazines were also useful beyond the letters page. Publications such as Women’s Choice ran multi-part series on reproduction, etc.

Of course, while all of this was useful, it was far from ideal. And even when sex education was taught in schools, it was taught through a religious and moral lens. The result was that boys and girls entered adulthood with a hazy knowledge of the facts of life, and, more worryingly, that children did not have the necessary language when needed to tell an adult that they had been sexually abused. In fact, when formal sex education — the Relationships and Sexuality Education programme or RSE, which includes understanding feelings and personal safety — was introduced in schools in 1997, it was largely in response to the increase of reported child sex abuse [8].


[1] Richard Layte et al, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships: Main Report (October, 2006), p. 50

[2] M. Wiley & B. Merriman, Women and Health Care in Ireland (Dublin, 1996), quoted in Layte, Main Report, p. 53

[3] Layte, Main Report, p. 66

[4] Woman’s Choice, 3 December 1968.

[5] Letter to Woman’s Way, 5 January 1968.

[6] Layte, Main Report, p. 57.

[7]  Letter to Woman’s Choice, 12 November 1968.

[8] Layte, Main Report, p. 52.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

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