Why am I writing about a seventy-year-old sex education manual? Everybody knows they were conservative back then, and that lapses of information were more the norm than the exception. It would be like writing a movie review of a typical sword-and-sandal Bible epic like King of Kings (1961), which features literal enactments of the New Testament. So why bother? The cockeyed ideas in for GIRLS only certainly couldn’t still be with us today. We’re so much more enlightened now. Or are we? Let’s look into it.
What was it like writing nonfiction sex education books in the fifties? It was easy for Frank Howard Richardson, MD. He just turned them into fiction. Literally. His most famous book was for GIRLS only, a guide designed to teach teenage girls about the hormonal changes they were enduring (but couldn’t ignore). It has an ingenious structure: Two adult characters and a gaggle of naïve girls do all the talking for him, and in the mind of the average 13-year old, that made perfect sense. It seemed comforting, natural.
It proved to be a winning tactic. His books formed an immensely popular series in the fifties and sixties. The narrative structure, of course, released him from responsibility for any “accidental” disinformation. After all, what writer ever claimed his or her characters were always right?
For GIRLS only is about the owner of a girls camp known only as Lady, and four girls who spend their summer there (Helen, Nell, Jane, and Mary Ann, if you must know). Lady wants them to learn about their bodies – reproduction and stuff – so she invites an expert, a Dr. Johnson (not the Dr. Virginia E. Johnson of Masters and Johnson) to the camp to discuss the facts of life with the girls. Early on, children as well as adults reveal their naive ideas about their bodies’ workings:
“Should I go in swimming when I’m having my period?” Dr. Johnson answered at once: “I believe the best medical authorities agree that it is best to stay out of very cold water at that time, even though you will see advertisements that say that you need make no difference in your daily life because of this. I also feel that there should be no horseback riding, or very strenuous exertion of any kind, like hiking or mountain climbing, especially for the first day or two.”
It gets worse.
But before I explain how much worse, a word about Dr. Richardson. Unfortunately, it won’t be much more than a word, as the good doctor did not publicize himself. There’s no “About the Author” section anywhere in this book. It has two forewords, and neither mentions anything about Richardson, other than he is “a physician and a father.” In vain I scoured the Internet, trying to locate any information about him: an interview in the Saturday Evening Post, a reassuring photograph, a chatty press release, anything. I read somewhere that he was a Catholic from North Carolina, so possibly the omission of his picture is not surprising. Many Catholics of that period (and some even now) were steered away from self-promotion, as it could change them, wolfman-like, into self-aggrandizers, and worse, purveyors of sinful pride. Not promoted as a child psychologist, he nevertheless wrote many books about the young: The Nervous Child and His [sic] Parents, For Young Adults Only, How to Get along with Children, The Preschool Child and His [sic] Posture, and For Young Adults Only: the Doctor Discusses Your Personal Problems. Memorable for me is his book for BOYS only, mostly because I read it at thirteen and found it totally useless. It never answered one of my burning adolescent questions. (Far worse, there wasn’t a juicy word in it.)
While sex education films were not unheard of in the 50s and early 60s, , it was nearly impossible for you, the average parent, to view one with your children. Here is a typical one.
Many school boards opposed their showing in classrooms, not because they were particularly racy but because they dared broach the subject at all. That unpleasant task fell upon you, the parent. You were supposed to give your adolescent child a book in lieu of actually sitting down and engaging in “the talk.” If they had questions about squirmy subjects such as burgeoning sexual urges, too bad. They’d have to learn about them elsewhere, certainly not from you. You’d given them the book. You were off the hook.
Back to for GIRLS only. Here is some Richardsonian wisdom about petting, then widely thought to be a precursor of something far more deadly: sexual intercourse.
“...it is up to you girls to set up standards so that marriage will never be debased from the sacred relationship God intended it to be. You know now, if you did not know it before, that heavy petting and experimenting can so debase it. So upon you rests the responsibility of keeping motherhood in its rightful place, as the greatest experience a woman can have.”
There is so much wrong with this paragraph it’s hard to begin evaluating it. Even if one ignores the massive assumption that marriage is “sacred,” petting and sexual experimentation certainly don’t debase marriage. They prepare young people for it, teach them the give-and-take of mutual physical affection. And what’s with this elevation of the task of motherhood? What about the women who choose not to be mothers? Are their experiences – rocketing off into space or becoming surgeon generals – somehow lesser?
Here’s another clunker:
Better err on the side of being considered too reserved, than of being too cheap with your kisses . . .Every worth-while boy will respect you for this. The girl is the one that sets the pace. If she does not care how much the boy fondles her, and if she doesn’t care how far he goes, there is no telling to what limits he will go.
The idea that girls are responsible for putting the brakes on a make-out session is not only Victorian, it’s extremely unrealistic. It reminds me of the abstention programs pushed by conservative school boards today, those under the thumbs of religious fundamentalists. It assumes that girls have no urges of their own but merely use sex as a favor to grant animalistic boys incapable of realizing, for example, that they should have brought protection. Condoms, by the way, are never mentioned in Richardson’s books.
Is it possible Dr. Richardson never existed? Could he have been the creation of some Committee for Safe and Sensible Hygiene? It may not be as far-fetched as it seems. The dissemination of hands-off! tactics, designed to convey vital disinformation, stigmas, guilt, and anxiety, may have been too important of a task to have been left to one self-styled sexpert. At the very least, there were probably several editors at work, both religious and secular, busily making sure nothing too clinical or morally untoward slipped by.
An updated and honest revision of the book might contain the following:
Jane spoke up. “Sometimes when I’m home alone in my bedroom and I think of Robbie at school, I get all gooshie between my legs. And when I put my hand down there it feels . . . tingly. Is there something wrong with me?” Dr. Marilyn Johnson folded her arms and smiled. “No Jane, that’s totally normal. It’s called sexual excitation or arousal. And if you continue rubbing down there, it becomes what we call masturbation. Many girls do it to relieve sexual tension. If you stimulate that area long enough, you will get a surprise: a wonderful sensation called an orgasm. That too is normal. But you’ve got to be careful not to do it too often or your homework will suffer!” The other girls giggled nervously.
Why am I not surprised at this next fact? For GIRLS only has no educational pictures. There’s not even a slightly detailed drawing! It’s not like they didn’t exist at the time. The mother of my best friend Steve was an ex-nurse. She stored her amply illustrated textbooks in their basement. About halfway through one was my adolescent favorite: a close-up photograph of the female genitalia, the labia expertly parted by a disembodied gloved hand and surrounded by label flags like “Urethral Opening,” “Vaginal Canal,” and “Clitoral Hood.” I memorized them as fast as I could. They served me well in later life.
Other traits brand for GIRLS only as part of its time. Notably, there are its frequent inducements of guilt and shame, and the way it encourages young readers to be goody-two-shoes, and to tattletale on their wayward peers. Try this experiment. Delve into your distant past, preferably grade school. Remember one incident in which you got into trouble for sexual shenanigans. Did anyone tell on you, causing you to be punished for healthy curiosity? Be honest now.
Equally fascinating is what the book leaves out. See these highlighted and questionable index entries and my suggested insertions.
My neighbor Meredith received for GIRLS only on her thirteenth birthday. And she wasn’t even Catholic! Her parents told her to keep the book “private,” that is, away from Channing, her curious older brother. (Were they afraid he’d learn about menstruation?) It didn’t work. He and I easily swiped this book from Janie’s underwear drawer and during one week spent every afternoon, avidly reading it from cover to cover. I remember giggling uncontrollably.
Not long after we were found out, shamed, and nearly cruelly punished, I uncovered Theodor H. Vandevelde’s 1926 (!) edition of Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique at the local library. There I learned intricate details about the female body, like the behavior of the eager and predictable clitoris and the lubricative Bartholin’s gland. (I prefer the geographic-sounding glandula Bartholini.) Even today, sixty years later, I find men my age who have no idea what, where, or why this gland is. I even know a woman in her sixties, a professional in the medical field, who’d just learned about it. From me.
“Educated people” are not just ignorant of the Bartholin’s gland. In 2019 a survey involving 2000 participants uncovered even more distressing data. Researchers gave participants a short sex-ed quiz that asked them to point out the clitoris on a medical diagram. One-third of both men and women couldn’t find it because they didn’t know what a clitoris was.
Think this is disturbing? Get a load of this: Many states require sex educators to teach abstinence-only curricula or they won’t receive funding for teen pregnancy programs. Abstinence only? When has that ever worked? Donald Trump may be partially responsible. Yet Democrats are not blameless either. They have not been particularly aggressive in confronting the Christian Right on this issue.
These people would probably benefit from a quick page-through of Steve’s mother’s ancient textbooks. Recently I’ve noticed that men and women alike have been blurring the difference between “vulva” and “vagina.” As in, “this bathing suit’s so loose, you can see my vagina.” What, did the garment come with a speculum?
The Committee for Safe and Sensible Hygiene knew about such things, I’m sure. But they wouldn’t tell us.