A socialist guide to sex: The CPUSA and sex education in ‘Health & Hygiene’

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’.