This is the second part of a series of blog posts on the Communist Party of the USA’s health journal from the 1930s, Health and Hygiene. This post is dedicated to the coverage of sex and birth control issues in the journal. The first post can be found here.
Sex and masturbation
Although sex education, particularly influenced by the purveyors of eugenics and social Darwinist birth control, was widespread in the United States in inter-war period, it wavered between pragmatism and upholding traditional Christian morality, including abstinence before marriage and from masturbation. The journal tried to counter this moral view of sex with a progressive and ‘matter of fact’ attitude towards sex and masturbation. The journal pronounced that many sexual ‘difficulties’ related back to the ‘morality taught to us in childhood’, which was ‘derived from religion’ and thus, ‘Questions about sex are lied about or completely repressed.’ Although many people may have moved away from religion in their adult life, the journal proposed that many were still unconsciously wedded to these beliefs. For example:
We may no longer believe that God will punish us for masturbation but we continue to believe that our masturbation has weakened our body and injured our sex organs.
The purpose of this morality was to make people compliant in the face of capitalism and bourgeois authority. The journal argued that ‘guilt feelings aroused by sex makes people timid before authority and afraid to fight for their rights.’ Therefore the fight against capitalism entailed a fight against conservative attitudes to sex, with the debut issue of the journal stating:
Just as we must fight to overthrow the present vicious economic system so we must fight against the wrong attitudes to sex [that capitalism] has implanted in us.
This Christian morality was blamed for sexual ‘frigidity’ in women and couples not enjoying sex after marriage, but the journal still warned against sex before marriage. When a young woman wrote to the journal in January 1936, saying her fiancé ‘think we should have sex relations before we get married’ and that she often thought ‘he is right and that it is only prejudice that keeps me from it’, the journal’s psychiatrist replied:
it might seem at first that it would be wiser for you to have sexual relations with your friend before you marry. This is not the case. Sexual relations are a part of life and cannot be isolated from it. To be satisfactory they must be part of an acceptable relationship.
The journal suggested that ‘[e]ven when we have consciously emancipated ourselves from [traditional feelings about sex], they continue to linger on, as unconscious feelings of guilt’. This could, the journal warned, bring on sensations of guilt for the young women, especially if found out by family and friends. The journal warned that her fiancé may also change his mind if they had pre-marital sex:
your friend, though he had the best intentions in the world, might easily, as a result of his own unconscious feelings of guilt about sex, feel that you had degraded yourself by having such an affair with him, and this might endanger his love for you.
Despite this warning against sex before marriage, the journal featured several articles discussing ‘frigidity’ in women, which argued that women needed to feel liberated from traditional views about female sexuality and be more willing to enjoy sex for sex’s sake within the realm of a heterosexual and monogamous marriage. According to an article in the journal from March 1936, 1 in 4 married women in America ‘get so little pleasure from sexual relations that they can be called frigid.’ This concept was borne out of the fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States in the inter-war period and proposed that women had internalised traditional morality that denied that women had ‘sexual curiosity, desire or knowledge’. The journal suggested that to overcome this ‘frigidity’, the woman had ‘to “let go” sufficiently to enjoy sexual relations’, while the role of the man in developing a sexual relationship was downplayed. As the journal stated, ‘[t]he husband’s skill and technique are factors to a certain extent, but their importance has been exaggerated.’
As well as being taught from an early age that ‘only men and “immoral” women [had]… sex desires’, the journal’s psychiatrist pointed to another range of factors that they claimed caused ‘frigidity’. These included ‘improper methods of birth control’, such as the withdrawal method where ‘[t]he women’s uncertainty that the man will withdraw in time, especially when combined with a fear of pregnancy, may be of decisive importance.’ Another factor was the linkage of sex with large families and poverty, with the journal suggesting that to some young women, ‘Sex becomes synonymous with children one cannot afford to have, and a deep fear of pregnancy may result.’
An article published a few months later concluded that the combination of a husband’s encouragement, along with possible help from a psychiatrist, could help a married woman to overcome her frigidity. It stated:
Such a woman responds to gentleness, kindness, and affection during the daily round of life as well as during sexual relations. Encouraging her to express herself, giving her the feeling that her place in her husband’s affections is secure, encourages her to discard these relics of childhood. Tact and patience on the husband’s part will often result in the gradual development of an adult reaction to sex.
In an exhibition of the journal’s Communist Party origins, it put forward the Marxist argument that women’s frigidity came from her inferior status within the capitalist system and the ‘solution to this problem… can only be a social one.’ The journal surmised:
Individual women may be cured, but most of them continue suffering and a million new cases crop up for the few that are helped. Just as our society creates frigid women, so a rational society could create normal ones. Women’s inferior position and their sexual exploitation are merely parts of the larger exploitation on which our society is based.
Sexual ‘weakness’ in men and their attitudes to sex were handled differently by the journal, and much less column space was dedicated to this issue. While a female reader was explicitly discouraged from partaking in pre-marital sex, the journal discussed a man’s sexual history without any criticism, writing:
When he was about seventeen or eighteen he had his first sexual experience and at this time ejaculated almost before he began intercourse. However, after a few experiences of this kind his ability improved and he had no further trouble except on rare occasions. He continued more or less regular sexual relations with different girls.
‘Weakness’ in this case was ‘rapid ejaculation’, or is better known today as premature ejaculation. The cause of this, the journal suggested, was that the man was ‘anxious and over-anxious to please [his wife], to be an ideal mate for her.’ The solution to premature ejaculation was, according to the journal, was to stop ‘worrying about not being the ideal’ and to be himself, alongside some possible help from a psychiatrist.
More room was dedicated to the topic of masturbation over the run of the journal. Famous psychiatrist and former member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Frankwood E. Williams wrote a substantial article on the subject for the journal in November 1935 (less than a year before he died). Williams stated that there was ‘nothing surprising’ and ‘nothing unhealthy’ about masturbation, especially by adolescents and unmarried people. Psychiatrists were particularly concerned of the supposed mental and physical effects of sexual frustration and the journal advocated masturbation to relieve this tension. Williams wrote that people who engaged in masturbation should not feel guilty for doing so, but at the same time warned about masturbating ‘too frequently’, cautioning that for some ‘masturbation may become a permanent substitute for normal sexual intercourse.’ As humans were seen as social animals, Williams argued in the journal that sexual intercourse was preferable to masturbation and that it should be preferably only undertaken by married people ‘when the wife is absent or ill, or intercourse for any reason is at the time impossible.’ Williams’ main argument that it was anxiety and guilt caused by people worrying about masturbating that did the damage, concluding, ‘it is not the masturbation which is harmful, but the worry it produces.’ Like other discussions of female sexuality in the journal, discussion about female masturbation saw it as ‘more complicated’, but did acknowledge that ‘[m]asturbation interests women as well as men’.
Birth control and abortion
By the 1930s, the concept of birth control had won acceptance amongst a significant number of Americans, although, as today, a vocal moral minority campaigned heavily against the promotion of birth control, especially to adolescents and unmarried people. At the same time, birth control became for many synonymous with eugenics and social Darwinism, which the Communist Party and the journal’s editors strictly condemned. The journal strongly advocated for knowledge of effective birth control methods to be provided to all women and called for the repeal of all anti-birth control laws. This was portrayed as a class issue:
While the wealthy upper classes have been able to obtain the necessary information wherever and whenever they desired it regardless of the laws, those who have the greatest need for birth control information – the low-income classes – have been unable to obtain it.
The journal enthused that a number of birth control centres were being opened by workers’ organisations, but warned against other centres or clinics run by religious organisations or for profit. With regards to the former, the journal criticised the Catholic Church for its promotion of the ‘rhythm method’ as an effective method of birth control. ‘There is not enough scientific evidence’, the journal’s Eric Matsner stated, ‘to prove that the average woman can rely on this method.’ But in a later issue, the journal conceded:
most women will prefer not to rely on the “safe period” as a method of birth control… However, the “safe period” does work in some cases, and for a woman whose religious scruples will not allow her to use other methods, it may be recommended as better than no method at all.
With regards to the latter, the journal warned:
The public should be on guard against a number of so-called “birth-control clinics” which have been opened by commercial firms. The interest of these firms is naturally not in the reliability of the advice given, but in selling their products.
From this, the journal also warned against birth control methods and ‘abortion’ pills being peddled by many, which were ineffective, costly and possibly dangerous. Writing on birth control methods, Matsner that a suitable doctor needed to consulted for the preferred method of birth control to be effective, which was the insertion of a diaphragm (not mentioned by name in the journal). Matsner wrote:
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the woman who buys a contraceptive device at the drug store and attempts to fit herself runs a great risk of becoming pregnant. Only a physician, and a qualified one at that, can prescribe the size and type of contraceptive she needs. Yet a company that is doing a nation-wide business through drug stores sells its contraceptive device with the claim that “one size fits all normal women”.
With regards to abortion, in an article by Vivian Terry written in June 1935, the journal noted that there were ‘many medicines on the market that are supposed to bring on menstruation’, but Terry stressed:
All of these preparations, regardless of the name given to the product or the claims made for it, or the testimonials to substantiate these claims, are worthless. There is no drug, or combination of drugs, which when taken by mouth will with certainty produce abortion.
There were some pills that could cause miscarriages, but these pills only worked by causing ‘generalized poisoning’ of the woman who had taken them.
The journal also lamented that at this time, there was a difficulty, even with doctors, in determining pregnancy and that many women became needlessly worried if their period was late. Because the ‘optimum time’ for an abortion is ‘between three and four weeks after a missed period’, the journal suggested that many women were avoiding getting an accurate diagnosis from a doctor and thus, ‘if the menstrual period is a week late they rush directly to the abortionists who emphatically assure them that they are pregnant and advise an immediate operation.’ The journal noted that it was estimated that around 150,000 abortions were performed annually in the United States and acknowledged that many women attempted to obtain one for a myriad of reasons, ‘whether it be heart disease, kidney disease, disease of the nervous system and so forth’. But the journal did not advocate making abortion legal so it could be properly regulated, instead proposing:
since abortions in the United States are still illegal and must be performed secretly at terrific expense and danger to the patient, the only solution to the problem is the use of scientific methods of birth control.
Eugenics and sterilisation
While many who advocated for birth control in the United States did so on the basis of eugenics, the journal was steadfast in its criticism of eugenics and the sterilization of ‘undesirable’ sections of the population. The journal argued that eugenics was based on faulty science from its very foundations:
The eugenicist starting from the crude notions that like produces like entertain the fallacy that superior children must come from superior parents. They have the notion that if the people with brains stopped breeding the next generation would all be morons… The eugenicist… is convinced that the genius ought and therefore does come from parents of what they call the better class; that morons come from morons, that good people come from good people, that criminals come from criminals, etc. None of these thins are so.
Believing that ‘heredity is all important and environment negligible’, the journal called those who advocated eugenics as ‘propagandists for the exploiting class’. The reason that eugenicists called for the eradication of certain races, classes or political groups was, the journal suggested, because these were the groups of people that the ruling class and eugenicists feared. The eugenicists pushed for sterilization of these groups under the vague terms of ‘degenerate, feeble-minded, criminal [or] insane’, but the journal argued that this was ‘fake science’. Arguing that sterilization was ‘a fascist attack on workers’, the journal proclaimed:
Eugenicists are attempting to maintain the domination of a decaying class… Behind the hypocritical moral tone and all the mystical hokum about class and race superiority is a typical fascist attempt to obscure, disrupt and divide.
The journal highlighted that the Nazi regime had, since January 1934, been using sterilization (as well as castration) against undesirable people and that these methods were being used around the world, partially inspired by the Nazis. The journal emphasised that the United States had been sterilizing ‘the so-called unfit’ since 1907 and that 12,000 people had been sterilized by 1932. It reminded readers that eugenicists were ‘irrational’ and talked ‘nonsense with a purpose’, concluding:
We must fight the attempt of the eugenicists to divide us on the basis of color, class, or race.
Stay tuned for the next section on vegetarianism, smoking and cosmetics tomorrow!