Youth and Sex in Modern Western Societies:
A Historical Introduction

Erwin J. Haeberle

First published in: Sexual Problems of Adolescents in Institutions, David A. Shore and
Harvey L. Gochros (eds.), Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1981, pp. 3-16

In the early seventeenth century, the French court physician Héroart kept a diary describing the education of the young dauphin, the future King Louis XIII. According to this detailed account, the infant prince had his penis frequently rubbed and caressed by his nurse and ladies of the court. As soon as he was able to walk about, he also became used to showing himself to adults, who would play with his penis and kiss it. Between the ages of four and six he was encouraged to go to bed with a number of nurses and ladies-in-waiting and to explore their vaginas. He also joined them when they had sexual intercourse with their husbands and even participated to some extent, for example by whipping their buttocks. Thus, he knew from personal observation how children are made, a lesson that was reinforced when his own father, King Henri IV, showed him the bed in which he had been conceived and then exposed himself to the boy, "stretching out his penis with his hand saying 'Behold what made you what you are.'"

Curiously enough, after the age of seven the prince was given to understand that the period of indiscriminate sex play was over and that he was expected to behave responsibly as an adult. He was dressed in adult clothes, with cloak and sword, and found himself more restricted. However, these new restrictions hardly amounted to sexual repression, because we find his Master of the Robe reporting to have met the dauphin once emerging from a bath with an erection. The alert attendant thereupon promptly proceeded to masturbate the adolescent with his hand - "a remedy which I have seen applied in England."1

Today, such child-rearing practices are certain to be condemned by most 'civilized' people, who may see in them nothing more than proof of the perversity and ignorance of a corrupt royal court. Furthermore, they may congratulate themselves on the educational progress that has made such conduct inconceivable for all classes of society - even aristocrats. However, if indeed one is right in calling this development progress, it can only be said to have taken a very peculiar route. Seen from our present standpoint, it seems at first to have been a regression to another extreme. For example, in the eighteenth century the French and English remedy of masturbation turned into a major cause of mental and physical illness. First an anonymous English pamphlet (Onania or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All its Frightful Consequences in both Sexes Considered, 1710) and then a treatise in French, written by the Swiss Dr. Samuel Tissot (L'Onanisme: Dissertation sur les Maladies produites par la Masturbation, 1760) succeeded in convincing the European public that masturbation was a serious threat to human survival and that drastic steps had to be taken. Thus, by 1787, we find the German educators Oest and Campe winning a pedagogical prize with an essay that proposed a Complete System for the Prevention of Self-Abuse. With Teutonic thoroughness, they elaborate the following twenty theses:

1. One needs to emphasize the physical education, especially the physical toughening of children. 2. One needs to protect the young from solitude and leisure. 3. One must not make them tired or bored with their work. 4. One should protect the young from temptation. 5. One should not let them go to sleep too early or get up too late, lest they lie in bed awake. 6. One needs to ban thick and warm blankets. 7. One needs to prevent boys from putting their hands into the pockets of their trousers. 8. One needs to prevent girls from crossing their legs. 9. One needs to prevent two children from sleeping in the same bed. 10. One needs to prevent any situation in which a rubbing of the sex organs is possible. 11. One needs to prevent several children, whether of different or the same sex, from ever being alone together. 12. One needs to impress the rules of modesty upon the young as early as possible. 13. One needs to protect the young from all sights that might harm their imagination. 14. One must take care to keep the food of the young simple, without too many spices. Neither should they be given warm or alcoholic drinks. 15. Children should take a daily bath in the summer and wash their secret parts with cold water in the winter. 16. One should not give children any premature social and literary education. 17. The few books which are suitable for children must be chosen with care. One must censor not only seductive passages, bnt also those that stimulate the imagination and arouse strong feelings in general. 18. One must prevent children from playing games such as "wedding" or "keeping house." 19. One must train children from the very beginning not to sleep lying on their backs, but only on their sides. 20. One must warn children as early as possible about the horrible consequences of abusing the organs of generation.2

Again, many modem readers may be disturbed by such educational principles and dismiss them as paranoid and totalitarian or, at best, as isolated examples of misguided zeal. However, just as in the earlier French medical diary, the German pedagocial essay reveals more than the personal idiosyncrasies of certain individuals, groups, or classes. Instead, both documents reflect vast social changes that transformed not only the external living conditions in the Western world but also the internal life, the psychology, the consciousness of the Western civilization. Certainly, the contrasts are striking. Our two sources reveal that within less than 200 years, a whole new concept of youthful development had taken hold. Not only had masturbation changed from therapy to disease, but the active encouragement of childhood sex play had turned into its absolute prohibition, and the simple early conferral of adult status on children had been replaced by an elaborate system of delaying social and intellectual maturity. As the prizewinning educators make quite clear, this system included the deliberate and prolonged infantilization of the Young as well as their constant supervision and control. It alienated them from the natural responses of their own bodies and stifled their curiosity. Most important of all, it kept them dependent and thus not only extended the period of childhood but created an entirely new, protected period of life - adolescence. It is important to realize, however, that the pedagogical crusade against masturbation, as indeed the whole sexual component of this increased repression, was not so much a cause as a symptom of the larger sociopsychological transformation mentioned above. This profound if gradual change, which is not easily explained and which escapes the static, ahistorical categories of orthodox sociology as practiced in the United States, was first analyzed and described by Norbert Elias as The Civilizing Process (1939 ).3

By examining and interpreting various literary sources from the Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment (mostly educational tracts and books of etiquette), Elias was able to demonstrate a considerable change in manners, which mirrored a corresponding change in sensibility. An ever-tightening self-discipline inhibited aggressive impulses and led to a growing revulsion toward the natural bodily functions. In fact, beginning in the seventeenth century, expert advice on proper eating and drinking, spitting, farting, urinating, defecating, blowing one's nose, washing, undressing, etc. can be observed becoming less and less explicit and, at the same time, more and more restrictive.

Elias documents that in the Middle Ages people blew their noses simply into their hands without regard for others until, in the thirteenth century, certain authorities on table manners demanded some refinement: "When you blow your nose. . ., turn round so that nothing falls on the table." Only much later, during the Renaissance, did the nobility begin to use handkerchiefs, but they remained rare and conspicuous signs of wealth. Even King Henri IV, the father of Louis XIII, owned only five handkerchiefs. The first monarch to have an abundant supply of them and to promote their general use, at least at court, was Louis XIV. The rules for blowing one's nose became more detailed and refined until, at the end of the eighteenth century, they again appeared terse and cryptic. One senses that the authors were growing uncomfortable with the subject and that they could already assume their readers to have a great deal of knowledge about the correct behavior. Apparently, several decades later all proper discretion could be taken for granted, because then the problem disappeared altogether from the literature.

The preceding example is typical of changing Western attitudes with regard to all other bodily functions, including-the sexual ones. As Western societies became more civilized, they became less spontaneous, more inhibited; disciplined, selfconscious, and self-controlled; in short, more adult. Behavior that once was perfectly acceptable in grown men and women was eventually tolerated only in children and finally extinguished even in them. Thus, our own children and adolescents have become both more innocent and more responsible than most of our ancestors ever were. Conversely, the adults of former centuries, if they could suddenly come to life, would strike us today as childish in their impulsiveness. Their lack of refinement and modesty, their impatience, their sudden changes of mood would be taken as signs of barbarism and immaturity.

It is also rather likely that many adult sexual attitudes of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would be considered immature, irresponsible, and even infantile today. Elias only hints at these matters when discussing "behavior in the bedroom" and "relations between the sexes," but later authors have paid more attention to specifically sexual behavior in the narrow sense. The first important study, devoted to "the child and family life under the Ancien Regime," was written in French by Philippe Ariès in 1960 and translated in English as Centuries of Childhood.4 'Ariès, who apparently did not know Elias's earlier work, and who approached his subject simply as a historian, nevertheless comes to similar conclusions and, indeed, offers ample new illustrating material for their support. He, too, describes the gradual replacement of largely external controls by individual self-control, the transformation of social pressure exerted from without into moral pressure felt from within. This development at the same time created a growing gap between the worlds of adults and children. The historical forces that, over several centuries, eventually produced the inner-directed modern adult also led to the "discovery of childhood" as a special, separate, long period of preparation and inculcation.

Historically speaking, it took a long time before childhood, and later adolescence, could be perceived as delicate phases of a hazardous psychological development. This attitude first appeared in the upper social classes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,

but it was not before the mid-eighteenth century that it began to permeate all of society. Its eventual acceptance seems to have been furthered by two major factors: a change in the family structure and the growth of educational institutions outside the family.

Ariès provides a great deal of evidence that until well into the seventeenth century an intimate, protected family life was unknown. All family activities were part of a larger social life. The family was always open to the community and its influences. Even the wealthy did not live in sheltered private homes but rather in big houses, which were semipublic places, combining unspecified living quarters with guest rooms, servants lodgings, workshops, and offices. In these houses space for various work and leisure activities was created according to need, beds were set up and furniture was moved according to the fluctuating structure of the household. A constant flow of visitors, business partners, customers, officials, relatives, neighbors, and friends kept everyone in touch with the world at large.

Since life in these houses offered no privacy, the relationships between family members were not much closer than those with outsiders. Parents and children kept an emotional distance, addressing each other as "my son," "my daughter" and "Sir," "Madam"(or in French "Monsieur ... .. Madame," and in German "Herr Vater," "Frau Mutter"). Noble children in England called their parents "Mylord" and "Mylady." The use of the now familiar "Papa" and "Mamma," first names, or nicknames did not occur until the late seventeenth century.(After 1800 the English changed their spelling to "Mama," while the Americans used "Momma" and later simply spoke of "Mom" and "Dad.") To the extent that children could command parental attention, it consisted mainly of exhortation and punishment. After all, since infant mortality was high, parents were not very much inclined to grow closely attached to every newborn child. At any rate, even in the seventeenth century, children usually did not spend many years "in the bosom of the family." As infants, they were often given away to wet nurses and later brought up by domestics. Between the ages of seven and fourteen they normally left the house to become servants or apprentices in another household. Sons of noblemen became pages at the court of some other noble family.

This pattern changed only gradually with the emergence of a new type of family, which first became recognizable in the upper and middle classes of the late seventeenth century and went on to dominate the eighteenth century. It is a family type much closer to our contemporary notions than its predecessors, and it has recently provoked a considerable amount of research. For example, it had been described as the "closed domesticated nuclear family" by Lawrence Stone, who, in 1977, published a brilliant and comprehensive study concerning The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.5 Stone once more confirmed the findings of Elias and Aries and offered many new observations about specifically sexual behavior during the period in question. By consulting and interpreting church and court records, public and private documents , letters, and especially diaries, he was able to give us a realistic and startling impression of changing sexual attitudes among our distant forebears.

As far as the care of children is concerned, these attitudes clearly become more protective. As husbands and wives began to cherish their privacy and to cultivate their feelings for each other, boys and girls also turned into tender objects of affection. A new intimacy and emotional warmth began to develop in the increasingly isolated home, which slowly turned into a shelter, a haven secure from the world, an idyllic place free from all evil public influences. In the dawning Age of Enlightenment, children began to be seen as capable of reaching human perfection, provided they recieved the proper guidance and were shielded from the prevailing general social corruption. Of course, this idea at first put more responsibility on the parents, but eventually it also helped to diminish their role. Relatively soon the task of educating the young came to be regarded as so difficult and perilous that it required the full-time work of professionals. Accordingly, Stone also provides evidence for the second great source of change in adult-child relationships: the growth of educational enterprises and institutions, the origin of modem pedagogy.

However, public pedagogy remains a side issue in Stone's work. A more specific and detailed study of education in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was undertaken by the German author Rutschky under the title Black Pedagogy, Sources Relating to the Natural History of Bourgeois Education (1977).6 Rutschky's source collection illustrates how the new educational institutions developed out of monastic precedents and how first university colleges and later boarding schools put more and more emphasis on student discipline. By the same token, the teachers were increasingly held responsible not only for the correct transmission of knowledge but also for the correct moral training of their pupils. This moral training, in turn, eventually came to mean sexual repression.

In accordance with this trend, schools took on a quasi-military character. Like new recruits, the children were considered human raw material, which had to be formed into an effective army of productive citizens. Architecturally, educational institutions began to resemble barracks with large dormitories, washrooms, and latrines. The classrooms, often with windows close to the ceiling, allowed no view of the outside world or any other distraction. The students' benches were neatly lined up in rows facing the teacher, who sat on an elevated podium - an unquestioned higher authority.

Needless to say, such physical arrangements allowed for the total control of children as envisioned by antimasturbation crusaders such as Oest and Campe. Indeed, in the course of time, considerable refinements were introduced. Manufacturers of school benches, for example, offered new models that made any crossing of the legs impossible and, at the same time, gave teachers a clear view of the student's lower body. In the dormitories, the light was left burning so as the aid in the nocturnal supervision and prevention of self-abuse. Cold showers became standard practice in many institutions as did the routine inspection of bed sheets and clothing for "suspicious" stains. In short, from the physical layout and management of space and equipment to the psychological content of the curriculum, the sustained, organized prevention of masturbation became a major, not-so-secret agenda of most schools.

As Rutschky's collection demonstrates, pedagogical writings of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries abound with advice on how to gain the upper hand on children by preventing their "self-abuse" or, at least, by turning it into a problem. The authors recommend not only that children be deliberately misinformed about their bodily functions and the process of reproduction but also that they be infibulated or fitted with chastity belts or similar contraptions. Of course, some of this advice was directed towards parents, but much of it was clearly aimed at professional educators and school administrators. Indeed, it is striking how often in these texts the parents appear as unfit for their task and as unwitting agents of their children's downfall. Over and over again, the new pedagogues criticizes the "excessive" love of mothers who touch, caress, and indulge their young at every opportunity and thereby weaken their moral fiber. Thus, it becomes obvious that the intimacy that arose within the closed, domesticated, nuclear family was seen as a threat by the professional institutions, who began to claim the ultimate control over education. Moreover, in contrast to the simple family home, they were able to marshal an abundant pedagogical arsenal against the spontaneity of the children in their care.

This does not mean that the schools increased or even insisted on corporal punishment. Indeed, very often the opposite was the case. The enlightened educators recognized fairly early that simple negative physical intervention was ineffective and counterproductive in the long run. Instead, every effort was made to gain control over the student's psyche. Frequent moral appeals, the cultivation of informants, intimate counseling sessions, philosophical walks, oral and written essays, confessions, and testimonials were used to discover all secrets of the young soul. The body, on the other hand, was no longer influenced so much by the whip and the rod as by a carefully calculated diet, cold baths, special clothing, furniture, and orthopedic devices. Finally, a special, new educational technology was developed to shape young sensibilities, perceptions, and movements. Beds, chairs, desks, blackboards, posters, games, toys, blocks, balls, sticks, and gymnastic equipment furthered a certain upright posture, measured responses, and a-proper physical bearing. Tests, files, and report cards began to keep track of each student's progress in writing. Furthermore, the whole school year, each semester, month, week, day, and hour was planned and firmly scheduled in advance, with each lesson, exercise, walk, mealtime, and rest period detailed to the minute. In short, potentially (and in many cases actually) the school turned into a total institution. The rise of such institutions in modern times has been exhaustively studied by Michel Foucault, who has written several books tracing the history of insane asylums7 and prisons.8 His findings with regard to these once unknown and now so familiar establishments also largely apply to schools. By analyzing a great variety of original sources (court records, legal codes, pamphlets, reports, medical and criminological textbooks, surveys, statistics, architectural studies, etc.), Foucault was able to show how, beginning in the seventeenth century, the will and ability to control not only the outward behavior but also the inner life of the population grew by leaps and bounds. The founding and rapid development of penal, psychiatric, and pedagogic institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflect the increasing thoroughness and sophistication with which the secular authorities shored up their position. "Proper education" became an essential element in the strategy of domesticating a potentially rebellious populace. People were seen as naturally good, but unruly, and therefore had to be taught early to develop a civilized selfcontrol. This self-control, in turn, was essentially nothing more than the internalized social imperative as defined by the professionals. This is the reason why prisons, asylums, and schools not only expanded but also closed themselves off from society. At first, prisoners, patients, and students had freely received visitors or even had friends or relatives living with them for longer or shorter periods of time, but eventually all contact with the outside world was eliminated. The old universal social obligations of education, spiritual guidance, and punishment turned into pedagogy, psychiatry, and penology new, highly specialized, and pure professional enterprises that were not to be contaminated or diluted by a meddling lay public. Thus, in the schools for example, the traditional, spontaneous, non-guided means of socialization and intellectual stimulation were reduced to a single, well-defined curriculum. Parents, friends, neighbors, and other uncontrollable role models were relegated to the status of outsiders. For the professional educator the ideal child had no relatives, no past, and no social Connections to anything beyond the school walls. It was a tabula rasa.

Numerous original sources show how much the new educators were disturbed by anything contradicting this image, such as unsolicited physical expressions or urges on the part of their students.

Indeed, some pedagogical writings declared all fidgeting, mimicking, yawning, giggling, crying, bragging, daydreaming, and similar behavior to he symptomatic of "pedagogical pathology," i.e. psychological diseases of childhood. These were assumed to be more than three times as common as the physical childhood diseases, their number confirming, ex negativo, the great preponderance of the mind over the body. Accordingly, extensive lists of these pathologies were drawn up, ranging from nervousness and forgetfulness to rudeness and curiosity. Needless to say, there was only one cure: a longer and more intensive education.

This is the context in which the fight against childhood masturbation and the eventual denial of infantile sexuality during the last two centuries must be seen. It is a complex, multifaceted, and confusing, but internally consistent civilizing process in which even seemingly progressive and liberal policies serve the ultimate goal of more effective repression. For instance, when, in the eighteenth century, "enlightened" writers demanded a better education for girls, they usually did so with a simple and strong argument: prevent the fair sex from falling into a life of degradation and crime. Properly educated females would not turn into whores and unwed mothers and would not end up on the scaffold for having aborted or killed their children. The choice was only between the classroom on the one hand and the brothel or prison on the other. The endangered girl's innocence had to be preserved by professionals who protected her against her own destructive sexual impulses. No thought was given to changing social attitudes and institutions or to bettering the legal position of illegitimate children and mothers. In short, nobody was really interested in doing anything constructive about prostitution and infanticide. These evils were invoked only to justify a further extension of pedagogical control.

The double-faced or paradoxical character of sexual repression in the modern age had not always been noticed by all observers. Indeed, that certain steps toward social liberation can, at the same time, also bring greater sexual restrictions is hard to accept for some Anglo-Saxon researchers who are unfamiliar with dialectical thinking. In their mind, the industrial revolution somehow brought on a massive wave of neo-Puritanism and prudery culminating in a Victorian conspiracy of silence about sex, which is now finally in the process of being broken.

However, as Foucault and the other previously mentioned authors have shown, the matter is not as simple as suggested by these cliche's. In fact, in his newest work, The History of Sexuality,9 Foucault argues that, far from being silent on sexual problems, the nineteenth century was exceedingly eloquent and inquisitive, creating a greater awareness of sex than had ever before existed. It then proceeded to manipulate this awareness, thereby expanding and controlling human sexual options at the same time.

By the same token, Foucault does not see the sexual "permissiveness" of our own century as the final triumph of reason over bigotry, but rather as a largely illusionary gain. While it is true that sexual needs have increasingly been recognized, they have also been molded and preshaped by society long before they can be felt by any new individual.

Thus, in Western societies today, the sexuality of the young is still a more dangerous subject than it was in the early seventeenth century. Modern writers such as Sigmund Freud (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905) and Albert Moll (The Sexual Life of the Child, 1912) rediscovered infantile sexuality for our times, but they also found it to be highly problematic. Long overdue recognition created new anxieties. That these anxieties have not resolved themselves even now is proven by the periodic modem crusades against child molesters, incestuous parents, lesbian mothers, homosexual teachers, and child pornographers. Modem parents who dared to follow the educational practices of Henri IV and his court would still be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned in Europe as well as in America.

This traditional, physical, and more obvious aspect of modem sexual repression tends to be neglected or overlooked by many observers of the contemporary scene. Yet, when it comes to practical cases such as the treatment of juveniles in educational, correctional, or psychiatric institutions, direct represssive measures are by no means a thing of the past. Thus, in an indirect challenge to Foucault's belief in the increased subtlety of sexual control, the social historians Aron and Kempf have recently offered a new study of the antisexual syndrome in France. Their still untranslated book entitled The Penis and the Demoralization of the West (1979) again gives us the history of the human body as formed and perceived by modem civilization.10 Examining novels, cookbooks, encyclopedias, health guides, fashions, children's magazines, and especially court records, the authors find ample evidence for the systematic attempt at control through direct physical intervention. As they see it, the nineteenth century bourgeoisie gave themselves political and moral legitimacy by denying their own spontaneous bodily urges and by channeling them into evernarrowing 46 acceptable" outlets. For them the body had become an efficient, profit-generating machine; therefore, the habit of wasting semen through masturbation appeared just as scandalous as the notion of throwing money out of the window. The ferocity with which they persecuted "abnormal" sexual manifestations is understandable only against this background, and so is their concern with the early "normalization" of the young. Children and adolescents were, and still are, the test case for the success of all control strategies. In controlling its offspring, the bourgeoisie tried to control itself, or rather its future. Thus, the meaning of the taboo becomes clear: ultimately, the threat and temptation of infantile and adolescent sexuality helped to keep adult desires in check and to prevent a genuine sexual revolution.

Obviously, such a revolution still has not occurred, and the question of whether it is possible or even desirable must await further study of our present situation before it can find an answer.


1.Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, New York: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 507-509.

2. Rutschky, Katharina, Schwarze Pädagogik, Quellen zur Naturgeschichte der bürgerlichen Erziehung. Frankfurt/M: Ullstein, 1977, pp. 304-315.

3. Elias, Norbert, The Civilizing Process, The Development of Manners, Changes in the code of conduct and feeling in early modern times. New York: Urizen Books, 1978.

4. Ariès, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood. New York: Knopf, 1962.

5. Stone, op. cit.

6. Rutschky, op. cit.

7. Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Pantheon, 1965.

8. --, Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

9. --, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

10. Aron, Jean-Paul and Roger Kempf, Le Pénis et la Démoralisation de l'Occident. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1979.