TEE PRICE OF PRUDERY.
THERE is an uneasy feeling spreading over the whole country and the United States. It concerns an unmentionable disease, a disease that is worse than the Bubonic Plague because the plague does not claim the unborn generations. This disease flourishes because men and women are too “modest” to discuss means of checking it. It comes from
—“prudery;” and we feel that it is aiding a good cause when we reprint Dr. C. W. Saleeby’s article in the March Forum.
Addressing a meeting of clergymen some time ago, he says, the present writer endeavored to trace back to the beginning the main cause of infant mortality, and endeavored to show that that lay in the natural ignorance of the human mother.
In the discussion which followed, an elderly clergyman insisted that the causes had not been traced far enough back, maternal ignorance l>eing itself permitted in consequence of our national prudery.
Ever since that day one has come to see moro and more clearly that the criticism was just. Maternal ignorance is a natural fact of human kind, and destroys infant life everywhere, though prudery be or be not a local phenomenon. But where vast organizations exist for the remedying of ignorance, prudery indeed is responsible for the neglect of ignorance on the most important of all subjects. Let it not be supposed for a moment that in this protest one desires, even for the highest ends, to impart such knowledge as would involve sullying the bloom of youth. It is not necessary to destroy the charm of innocence in order to remedy certain kinds of ignorance; nor are prudery and modesty identical. Whatever prudery may be when analysed, it seems perfectly fair to charge it as the substantial cause of the ignorance in which the young generation grows up, as to matters which vitally concern its health and that of future generations. Let us now observe in brief the price of prudery thus arraigned.
There is, first, that large proportion of infant mortality which is due to maternal ignorance. The nation has had the young mother at school for many years; much devotion and money have been spent upon her. Yet it is necessary to pass an Act ensuring, if possible, that when she is confronted with the great business of her life —which is the care of a baby—within thirty-six hours the fact shall be made known to some one who, racing for life against time, may haply reach her soon enough to remedy the ignorance which would otherwise very likely bury her baby. Prudery has decreed that' while at school she should learn nothing of such matters. For the matter of that she may even have attended a three-vear course in science or technology, and he a miracle of information on the keeping of accounts, the testing of drains, and the principles of child psychology; but it has not been thought suitable to discuss with her the care of a baby. How could any nice-minded teacher care to put such ideas into a girl’s head? Never having noticed a child with a doll we have somehow failed to realize that
Nature, her Ancient Mother and ours, is not above putting into her head, when she can scarcely toddle, the ideas at which we pretend to blush. Prudery on this topic, and with such consequences, is not much less than blasphemy against life and the most splendid purposes towards which the individual, “but a wave of the wild sea,” can be consecrated.
This question of the care of babies offers us much less excuse for its neglect than do questions concerned with the circumstances antecedent to the babies’ appearance. Yet we are blameworthy, and disastrously so, here also. Prudery insists that boys and girls shall be left to learn anyhow*. That is not what it says, but that is what it does. It feebly supposes not merely that ignorance and innocence are identical, but that, failing the parent, the doctor, the teacher, and the clergyman—and probably all these do fail—ignorance will remain ignorant. There are others, however, who always lie in wait, whether by word of mouth or the printed word, and since youth will in any case learn—except in the case of a few rare and pure souls— we have to ask ourselves whether we prefer that these matters shall be associated in its mind with the cad round the comer or the groom or the chauffeur who instructs the boy, the domestic servant who instructs the girl, and with all these notions of guilty secrecy and of misplaced levity which are entailed ; or with the idea that it is right and wise to understand these matters in due measure because their concerns are the greatest in human life.
After puberty, and during early adolescence, when a certain amount of knowledge has been acquired, we leave youth free to learn lies from advertisements, carefully calculated to foster the tendency to hypochondria, which is often associated with such matters.
It is the ignorance conditioned by prudery that is responsible later on for many criminal marriages; contracted, it may be, with the blind blessing of Church and State, which, however, the laws of heredity and infection rudely ignore. Parents cannot bring themselves to inquireinto matters which profoundly concern the welfare of the daughter for whom they propose to make what appears to be a gooqi marriage. They desire, of course, thathe? children shall be healthy and whole-mind-
ed ; they do not desire that marriage should be for her the beginning of disease, from the disastrous effects of which she may never recover. But these are delicate matters, and prudery forbids that they should be inquired into; yet every father who permits his daughter to marry without having satisfied himself on these points is guilty, at the least, of grave delinquency of duty, and may, in effect, be conniving at disasters and desolations of which he will not live to see the end.
Society, from the highest to the lowest of its strata, is afflicted with certain forms of understood and eminently preventable disease, any public mention of which by mouth or pen involves serious risk of various kinds. Prudery, again, is largely responsible for the continuance of these evils at a time when we have so much precise knowledge regarding their nature and the possibility of their prevention. Medical science cannot make distinctions between one disease and another, nor between one sin and another, as prudery does. Prudery says that such and such is vice, that its consequences in the form of disease are the penalties imposed by its inexorable god upon the guilty and the innocent, the living and the unborn alike, and that therefore our ordinary attitude towards disease cannot here be maintained. Physiological science, however, knowing what it knows regarding food .and alcohol, and air and exercise and diet, can readily demonstrate that the gout from which Mrs. Grundy suffers is also a penalty for sin ; none the less because it is not so hideously disproportionate, in its measure and in its incidence, to the gravity of the offence. These moral distinctions between one disease and another have little or no meaning for medical science, and are more often than not immoral.
It would be none too easy to show that the medical profession in any country has yet used its tremendous power in this direction. Professions, of course, do not move as a whole, and we must not expect the universal laws of institutions to find an exception here. But though they do not move, they can be moved. It is when the public has been educated in the elements of these matters, and has been taught to see what the consequences of prudery are, that the necessary forces will be brought into action. Meanwhile, what
we call the social evil is almost entirely left to the efforts made in Rescue Homes and the like. It is much more than doubtful whether Rescue Homes—the only method which Mrs. Grundy will tolerate— are the best way of dealing with the problem, even if the people who worked in them had the right kind of outlook upon the matter, and even if their numbers were indefinitely multiplied. Everyone' who has devoted a moment’s thought to the question knows perfectly well that this is merely beginning at the end, and therefore all but futile. I mention the matter here to make the point that the one measure which prudery permits is just the most useless, ill-devised, and literally preposterous with which this tremendous problem can be mocked.
The two forms of disease to which we must refer are appaling in their consequences, both for the individual and the future. In technical language they are called contagious ; meaning that the infection is conveyed not through the air as, say, in the case of measles or small-pox, but by means of contact with some infected surface—it may be a lip in the act of kissing, a cup in drinking, a towel in washing, and so forth. Of both these terrible diseases this is true. They, therefore, rank like leprosy, as amongst the most eminently preventable diseases. Leprosy has in consequence been completely exterminated in Anglo-Saxon countries, but though venereal disease—the name of the two contagions considered together—diminishes, it is still abundant everywhere and in all classes of society. I declare with all the force of which I am capable that, many and daily as are the abominations for which posterity will hold us up to execration, there is none more abominable in its immediate and remote consequences, none less capable of apology than the daily destruction of healthy and happy womanhood, whether in marriage or outside it, by means of these diseases. At all times this is horrible, and it is more especially horrible when the helpless victim is destroyed with the blessing of the Church and the State, parents and friends; everyone of whom should ever after go in sackcloth and ashes for being privy to such a deed.
The present writer, for one, being a private individual, the servant of the pub-
lie, and responsible to nobody smaller than the public, has long declined and will continue to decline to join the hatefuj conspiracy of silence, in virtue of which these daily horrors lie at the door of the most honored and respected individuals and professions in the community. More especially at the doors of the Church and the medical profession there lies the burden of shame that, as great organized bodies having vast power, they should concern themselves, as they daily do, with their own interests and honor, without realizing that where things like these are permitted by their silence, their honor is smirched beyond repair in whatever Eyes there be that regard.
I propose, therefore, to say that which at the least cannot but have the effect of saving at any rate a few girls somewhere throughout the English-speaking world from one or other or both of these diseases, and their consequences. Let those only who have ever saved a single human being from such horrors dare to utter a word against the plain speaking which may save one woman now.
Something is known by the general public of the individual consequences of the first disease. It is known by many, also, that there are babies being born alive but rotted through for life. Further, it is not at all generally known, though the fact is established, that of the comparatively few survivors to adult Ufe from amongst such babies, some may transmit the disease even to the third generation. There is a school of so-called moralists who regard all this as the legitimate and providential punishment for vice, even though ten innocent be destroyed for one guilty. Such moralists, more loathsome than the disease itself, may be left in the gathering gloom to the company of their ghastly creed.
The public knowledge of the first of these diseases, though far short of the truth, is not nearly so inadequate as that “the second. “No worse than a bad cold is the kind of lie with which such youth is fooled. The disease may sometimes be little worse than a bad cold in men, though very often it is far more serious, it may kill, may cause lasting damage to the coverings of the heart and the mints, and often may prevent all possibility of future fatherhood.
These evils sink almost into insignificance when compared with the far graver consequences in women. Our knowledge of this subject is comparatively recent, being necessarily based upon the discovery of the microbe that causes the disease. Now that it can be identified, we learn that a vast proportion of the illnesses and disorders peculir to women have this cause, and it constantly leads to the operations, now daily carried out in all parts of the world, which involve opening the body, and all that that may entail. Curable in its early stages in men, it is scarcely curable in women except by means of a grave abdominal operation, involving much risk to life and only to be undertaken after much suffering has failed to be met by less drastic means. The various consequences in other parts of the body may and do occur in women as in men. Perhaps the most characteristic consequence of the disease in both sexes is sterility ; this being much more conspicuously the case in women, and being the more cruel in their case.
Of course large numbers of women are infected with these diseases before marriage and apart from it, but one or both of them constitute the most important of the bridegroom’s wedding presents, in countless cases every year, all over the world. The unfortunate bride falls ill after marriage ; she may be speedily cured ; very often she is ill for life, though maj'or surgery may relieve her; and in a large number of cases she goes forever without children. One need scarcely refer to the remoter consequences to the nervous systm, including such diseases as locomotor ataxia, and genral paralysis of the insane ; the latter of which is known to be increasing amongst women. Even in these few words, which convey to the layman no idea whatever of the pains and horrors, the shocking erosion of beauty, the deformities, the insanities, incurable blindness of infants, and so forth, that follow these diseases, enough will yet have been said to indicate the supreme importance of publicity.
There is no need to horrify or scandalize or disgust young womanhood, but it is perfectly possible in the right way and at the right time to give instruction as to certain facts, and whilst quite admitting that there are hosts of other things which we
must desire to teach, I maintain that this also must we do and not leave the others undone. It is untrue that it is necessary to excite morbid curiosity, that there is the slightest occasion to give nauseous or suggestive details, or that the most scrupulous reticence in handling the matter is incompatible with complete efficiency. Such assertions will certainly be made by those who have done nothing, never will do anything, and desire that nothing shall be done; they are nothing, let them be treated as nothing.
It is supposed by some that instruction in these matters must be useless because, in point of fact, imperious instincts will have their way. It is nonsense. Here, as in so many other cases, the words of Burke are true—Fear is the mother of safety. It is always the tempter’s business to suggest to his victim that there is no danger. Ofteu and often,, if convinced there is danger, and danger of another kind than any he refers to, she will be saved. This may be less true of young men. In them the racial instinct, is stronger, and perhaps a smaller number will be protected by fear, but no one can seriously doubt that the fear born of knowledge would certainly protect many young women.
There is also the possible criticism, made by a school of moralists for whom I have nothing but contempt so entire that I will not attempt to disguise it, who maintain that these are unworthy motives to which to appeal, and that the good act or the refraining from an evil one, effected by means of fear, is of no value to God. In the same breath, however, these moralists will preach the doctrine of hell. We. reply that we merely substitute for their doctrine of hell—which used to be somewhere under the earth, but is now who knows where —the doctrine of a hell upon the earth, which we wish youth of both sexes to fear ; and that if the life of this world, both present and to come, be thereby served, we bow the knee to no deity whom that service does not please.
How then, should we proceed ?
It seems to me that instruction in this matter may well be delayed until the danger is near at hand. This is not really education for parenthood in the more general sense. That, on sane eugenic principles, can scarcely begin too soon; it is, further, something vastly more than mere
instruction, though instruction is one of its instruments. But here what we require is simply definite instruction to a definite end and in relation to a definite danger. At some stage or other, before emerging into danger, youth of both sexes must learn the elements of the physiology of sex, and must be made acquainted with the existence and the possible results of venereal disease. A father or a teacher may very likely find it almost impossible to speak to a boy; even though he has screwed his courage up almost to the sticking place, the boy’s bright and innocent eyes disarm him. Unfortunately boys are often less innocent than they look. There exists far more information among youth of both sexes than we suppose; only it is all colored by pernicious and dangerous elements, the fruit of our cowardice and neglect. Let us confine ourselves to the case of the girl.
Before a girl of the more fortunate classes goes out into society, she must be protected in some way or another. If she be, for instance, convent bred, or if she come from an ideal home, it may very well be and often is that she needs no instruction whatever, because she is, in fact, already unapproachable by the tempter. Fortunate indeed is such a girl. But those forming this well-guarded class are few, and parents and guardians may often be deceived and assume more than they are entitled to. At any rate, for the vast majority of girls some positive instruction is necessary. It is the mother who must undertake this responsible and difficult task before she admits the girl to the perils of the world. Further, by some means or other, instruction must be afforded for the ever-increasing army of girls who go out to business. It is to me a never ceasing marvel that loving parents, devoted to their daughter’s welfare, should fail in this cardinal and critical point of duty, so constantly as they do.
This paper may be read not by the girl who is contemplating marriage, but by one or both of her parents. If the reader be such a one I here charge him or her with the solemn responsibility which is theirs whether they realize it or not. You desire your daughter’s welfare; you wish her to be healthy and happy in her married life; perhaps your heart rejoices at the thought of grand-children; you con-
cern yourself with your prospective sonin-law’s character, with his income and prospects; you wish him to be steady and sober; you would rather that he came of a family not conspicuous for morbid tendencies. All this is well and os’ it should be; yet there is that to be considered which, whilst it is only negative, and should not have to be considered at all, yet takes precedence of all these other questions. No combination of advantages is worth the dust in the balance when weighed against either of these diseases in a prospective son-in-law: infection is not a matter of chance, but a certainty, or little short of it. Everything may seem fair and full of promise, yet there may be that in the case which will wreck all.
It follows, therefore, that parents or guardians are guilty of a grave dereliction of duty if the> neglect to satisfy themselves in time on this point. Doubtless, in the great majority of cases no harm will be done. But in the rest irreparable harm is often done, and the innocent, ignorant
girl who has been betrayed by father and mother and husband alike, may turn upon you all, perhaps on her death-bed, perhaps with the blasted future in her arms, and say, “This is your doing: behold your deed.”
It is just because public opinion is so potent, and, like all other powers, so potent either for good or for evil, that its present disastrous workings are the more deplorable. The power is there, and it means well, though it does disastrously ill. Public opinion ought to be decided upon these matters; it ought to be powerful and effective. We shall never come out into the daylight until it is; we shall not be saved by laws, nor by medical knowledge, nor by the admonitions of the churches. Our salvation lies only in a healthy public opinion, not less effective and not more well-meaning than public opinion is at present, butinformed where it is now ignorant, and profoundly impressed with the importance of realities as it now is with the importance of appearances.