Sex Education Without the Sex

I like to dip into previously watched programmes on Netflix whenever I’m too tired to fully concentrate but want to unwind by watching some TV. Recently, I’ve taken to watching Orange is the New Black again.

Early on in episode four of season two, viewers find Poussey, Taystee, Suzanne ‘crazy eyes’, Black Cindy and Janae in the dining hall of Litchfield Prison animatedly discussing female anatomy. To the astonishment of her friends, Poussey (though not actually using the scientific labels) revealed that women urinate via the urethral hole and not the vagina, as the other women thought. Their disbelief prompted her to query, ‘Didn’t ya’ll take sex ed?!’ Later in the episode, Sophia draws a diagram for the women. The day before watching this episode, I happened to be reading sex education guides published in Britain and Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century. Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this!

The term ‘sex education’ is largely contradictory, though, when referring to the Irish / Catholic produced books and pamphlets. For authors such as Aidan Pickering and Eustace Boylan, the point of education was not about giving information, but rather about training the will.  Their works — Sex Instruction in the Home and What is Chastity? respectively — emphasised purity and abstinence.[1] Similarly Jerome O’Hea advised in his guide, ‘To fit a child for life it is necessary also to train its will’, and he wrote how training was needed in self-denial, self-discipline and self-restraint. [2]

But to come back to my original point, and why I thought of the manuals as I watched OITNB: authors such as Pickering were utterly opposed to any physiological discussion of the male and female bodies. Of secular sex education guides, he commented, ‘You would be appalled to see the anatomy charts of the sexual organs and the growth of the unborn child published for use in schools with boys and girls of twelve and thirteen’.[3] The reality of encouraging children to refer to those parts of the bodies as ‘private parts’[4] and discouraging them from learning the scientific terms was really brought home to me while watching these grown women, utterly astonished to learn about a part of their body they never knew existed.

Sex education without the sex could only ever lead to confusion, misunderstandings and dangerous inaccuracies. The act of intercourse and conception as described by O’Hea was so vague that it was ultimately useless:

When a man and woman love each other so much that they want to give their whole lives to each other in marriage and to have their love blessed by God and strengthened by Him, the very giving of themselves to each other completely in marriage as husband and wife, causes a tiny baby to start growing deep down inside its mother. It is the result of their love.[5]

This is in stark contrast to guides such as What Should I Tell My Child?, published by the Central Council for Health Education in Britain — the type of publication to which Pickering was so opposed. This guide, contemporary to Pickering’s, unapologetically explained, ‘the father passes his sperm to the mother by placing his penis in a little opening (the vagina) in her body between her legs’.[6] With such vague guides being published and circulated in Ireland, as I’ve previously written here, it’s hardly surprising that letters appear in the 1960s women’s magazines I’ve been researching from teenagers and even married women confused about how pregnancy occurs. I strongly suspect that this would be the case if the letters pages of other decades were also analysed.


[1] Aidan Pickering, Sex Instruction in the Home (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1960); Eustace Boylan, What is chastity? How to Give the Instructions (Dublin: Clonmore and Reynolds, 1954).

[2] Jerome O’Hea, Sex and Innocence: a Handbook for Parents and Educators (Cork: Mercier Press, 1949), p. 49.

[3] Pickering, Sex Instruction in the Home, p. 5.

[4] Pickering, Sex Instruction in the Home, p. 22.

[5] O’Hea, Sex and Innocence, p. 27.

[6] Central Council for Health Education, What Shall I Tell my Child? (London: Central Council for Health Education, 1952), p. 9.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

2 thoughts on “Sex Education Without the Sex

  1. Great post, and I absolutely agree. The emphasis on fidelity and moral issues is indeed still evident in later publications, even in government-issued material.
    There are also some interesting letters to magazine agony aunts from the late 1970s which reflect women’s morally-conflicted mindset on matters of sex and pregnancy.
    Thanks for sharing this!

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