General Articles


Says this psychologist: We can do very little about sex perverts — but we can stop creating more of them by banishing harmful taboos

J. D. KETCHUM January 15 1948
General Articles


Says this psychologist: We can do very little about sex perverts — but we can stop creating more of them by banishing harmful taboos

J. D. KETCHUM January 15 1948


Says this psychologist: We can do very little about sex perverts — but we can stop creating more of them by banishing harmful taboos


THE GENUINE alarm caused by a series of recent sex crimes against children in various parts of the country has had one valuable result: people are now talking about treatment of sex offenders as well as their detection and punishment. But those who pin their faith on psychiatric help are due for disillusionment; adult sex perverts require long and intensive treatment and “cures” are seldom obtained. Dr. C. M. Hincks, director of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (Canada) has said: “Perversion is one of the most difficult of all problems to treat successfully.” Indeed, there is little that we can do about our present crop of perverts except to find ways to make them less dangerous and that is not easy. Confining everyone with some sex aberration to an institution would be impracticable and unjustifiable, for thousands would be involved, the great majority of whom would never become criminals. The popular faith in sterilization is no better founded; after the age of puberty even castration has little effect ön the sex impulses. Whatever legal and administrative changes are made (and some are obviously needed) the problem is going to be with us for a long time.

One thing, however, we can do, if We want to: we can stop breeding more perverts,least at the rate we are now doing it. But it will fake something like a revolution in public attitudes'to do this, for these are the root of the whole problem.

Almost all sex abnormalities are the direct product of society’s attitudes toward sex; we manufacture perverts by our muddleheaded, emotional and contradictory treatment of everything concerned with human reproduction. We have built and maintained a formidable wall of taboos around

the subject, yet at the same time we are the most sex-centred and sex-ridden society that human history has known. And these are merely two aspects of the same thing, for our obsession with sex is directly due to the wall of taboos that surround it. We are so accustomed to this wall that we seldom see it clearly or reflect on its nonsensical character; perhaps a fanciful illustration will make the situation clearer.

“Nice People Don’t Eat’’

SUPPOSE it were human eating, not human mating, that was tabooed. Mouths, teeth and tongues would be kept strictly concealed and never referred to directly except in medical circles and by Latin names. The fig leaves on statues would be shifted to the lower part of the face and children’s dolls would present a blank surface from nose to chin. That we need food to live would be kept out of decent conversation; “nice” people would try rot. even to think of it. Shame and secrecy would surround the removal of tonsils and similar operations; respectable people would blush if caught visiting the dentist. Children’s innocent questions about eating would be brusquely dismissed or evasively answered; when it could no longer be avoided, parents would reveal the repulsive facts to them in a solemn and embarrassed interview, starting with how the wheat draws its sustenance from the soil. Farmers would be forbidden to pasture cattle within a hundred yards of a highway, you would be fined if your dog were seen gnawing a bone on the street and garbage would be removed secretly between midnight and dawn. Makers of “nutrient substances” would have to confine their advertising to the beauties of Canada and forest conservation; mention of their products (in small type and by

technical names) would be permitted in some provinces but banned in Quebec.

What would happen? First, the simple fact of eating would assume a vastly exaggerated importance. Our whole society would be marked by burning interest in the topic, incessant thought and speculation about it. Adolescents would have guilt y day dreams of Gargantuan banquets, endless “off-color” stories on the subject would circulate among the vulgar, and the churches would be in perpetual commotion about allusions to food in movies and plays, t races of immoral “eating parties” left in parks and on beaches, the public display of forks and spoons in disreputable shops, and the steadily decreasing size of the facial veil.

Secondly, the atmosphere thus created would make it exceedingly hard for any child to grow up with sane, healthy attitudes toward the food requirements of his body. The flat contradictions between the warnings of his parents and the wisecracks of his friends, between the Sunday-school lessons and the posters at the nearby movie, would confuse and upset him. He would tend either to defy the taboos and indulge in forbidden food vices, or else to develop a deep horror of eating which would make him recoil from even its permitted forms. In most cases the glutton and the “food prude” would struggle for mastery within him all his life; guilt feelings, born of his childhood indulgence in secret gum chewing, would haunt him later and prevent satisfaction in normal, adult eating.

And finally, these mental conflicts, so universally aroused, would piovide us with a large crop of “food perverts.” Crude drawings of mouths and obscene words like “bite” and “swallow” would be scrawled on walls; Peeping Toms would peer into the heavily curtained cubicles where resjwctable citizens were furtively nibbling their quota of proteins and carbohydrates; solitary pedestrians would 1M* terrified by exhibitionists deliberately exposing their mouths and some perverts, unable to control their pent-up desires, would abduct children, lustfully force them to swallow food, and kill them to escape detection.

It is a fantastic picture, but recognizably true as regards sex. In obedience to an antiquated code of propriety we try to ignore sex, to keep it dark, while at the same time it is stimulated and exploited in every direction by our advertisers, fict ion writers, movie producers and all who seek a sure-fire response. Scarcely a child grows to mat urity without serious and prolonged conflict on the subject and where development is badly distorted we get perverts and sometimes dangerous criminals.

That is how taboos work. Sex suppression leads to preoccupation with sex, unnatural fears give rise to fascinated interest. Scarcely anyone who picks up this magazine will skip this article, for scarcely anyone has escaped the taboos. The social problems which these inconsistent attitudes heap up for us are all too familiar.

Look how they obstruct any intelligent treatment of venereal diseases. For decades the medical profession has stressed t he dest ruct ive inroads of these highly communicable diseases and effective cures have long been available. But even today we can hardly bring ourselves to allow these plagues to be wiped out. We don’t want to think of such things, we prefer to forget them, and so we actively or passively resist such

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educative campaigns as are slowly overcoming tuberculosis.

Again, we are always deploring the publicity given to sex crimes, but who is responsible for it? A sox murder gets far more attention from the press than an ordinary murder simply because editors know that the public’s feverish interest in the subject will cause every word to lx? read. Detailed reports 01 sex crimes are indeed dangerous, for no one reads them so intently and eagerly as do perverts with similar inclinations. Some of these may he so stirred by the printed accounts that they will try to duplicate the act; that is one reason why such crimes often occur in waves. Discretion on the part of editors is certainly desirable, but it is our tastes, after all, that they are catering to.

What Causes a Taboo?

Where do we get all these taboos and how are they perpetuated? Historically they are a mixture of many elements, some very old, others surprisingly recent. There is a basic residue from primitive times when powerful emotions such as sex were regarded with awe as manifestations of dread supernatural forces. Some aspects date hack to the period when women were merely valuable pieces of property which had to be rigidly guarded against male marauders. Neither of these elements has any rightful place in the modern world. There is also a strong infusion of early religious doctrines glorifying celibacy and stressing the sinfulness of all sexual contacts. This emphasis tot) seems at last to be disappearing, at least in most churches.

But none of these factors fully accounts for the shamefaced, unreasoning attitudes which hamper us today, for these are in the main only about a hundred years old. The great writers

who lived before the 19th century were strikingly free from them—that is why Chaucer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Congreve and Swift are not admitted to our high schools until they have been sent, to the cleaners. This hypocritical squeamish ness reached its peak as part of the pseudogentility and sham delicacy which penetrated the middle classes during the Victorian era and then seeped through much of the population. Prudishness became a mark of respectability and “good breeding,” a class distinction like the binding of little girls’ feet in China, and it has had precisely the same distorting and paralyzing effects.

There is thus nothing either valid or venerable about this mealy-mouthed tradition; why, then, do we keep it up? The answer is that few of us can help doing so, since taboos always tend to perpetuate themselves. The deep fear and avoidance connected with them are passet! on by parents to their children, passed on so early and with such intensity that they become part; of the child’s make-up, something that he can never entirely get rid of and will almost inevitably pass on to his own children. Drastic punishments for early sex curiosity are one sure way of keeping such taboos alive. Here is what hapj>ened to two university students:

Case 1 (Girl) One of my earliest memories of Dad is when I was about five. I went in swimming with three or four little hoys, all of us with no clothes on. The next thing 1 remember is being pulled up the hill by Dad who was hitting me with a switch all the way. I was terribly scared and sobbed and sobbed. 1 wished I could die so that Dad would he sorry.'

Case 2 (Boy) I got my first knowledge of sex at seven, when an older girl persuaded me to explore our bodies. Our parents found out. I was taken home and remember my mother saying as she tended my second brother, less than a year

old: “How can you have the heart to look at this innocent little child, you filthy boy, you?” From then on sex was a subject strictly taboo, something awful about which I could never approach my parents.

Such treatment (and it is still frequent) is the surest way to make the children concerned just as intolerant when they become parents. And it is handed out because the parents absorbed their own attitudes in similar ways. Needless to say, people who are so emotional about sex are incapable of giving any helpful instruction to their children and often omit it altogether. This is just as well, since they invariably make a mess of it and the children will ultimately pick up information somehow.

Case 3 (Girl) I was strictly brought up and never allowed to play with boys. Modesty was stressed a great deal to me and strictly observed at home. I received all my sex information in dribs and drabs from everywhere. My mother told me nothing; she was an absolute Victorian in that respect. She did not think that you should trouble a young girl’s mind with that sort of thing. But not long after I started to go out I went off the deep end for two years, unknown to her, of course. Later I became wise to myself and broke away from these boys.

Neglect may, as here, have unfortunate results, hut these are not nearly as harmful as when taboo-ridden parents pass on their own attitudes in attempts at sex instruction. What they say makes little difference; their difficulty and embarrassment in saying it are what the child notices and these arouse the familiar attitudes of shame and fear. 4 (Girl) When I was 10 Mom summoned up all her courage to tell me about menstruation. She

was in the cellar doing her washing at the time and she was terribly embarrassed. I couldn’t see why she should be, but Mom has always found matters pertaining to sex disgusting and t hat made me shy about it too. I have never felt free to speak to her about such problems.

Case 5 (Boy) Late one afternoon my father called me into the sitting room. He was nervous and his voice trembled. He tried to tell me some general facts about sex, how babies were born and so on. Not so much by what he said, but by his intonation, he impressed me that these matters were disgusting to him. After he had finished, the whole room was charged with his relief. For months afterward the grim picture haunted me, that some day it would be my awful duty to tell my children these horrible facts.

Love—and Sex

That is how taboos perpetuate themselves. All these students had difficult sex conflicts later and two showed abnormal tendencies for a time. But all acquired some insight into their problems and will be able to deal less harmfully with their own children.

This is no place to discuss the complex processes that underlie definite perversions, but the root of many if not all of them is suggested by the above cases. Every child’s first experience of deep love is for his parents, but the parents, while encouraging love, often emerge as the ruthless foes of sex, speaking of it with fear and disgust, punishing every early manifestation of it. There may thus develop in the child a split, a divorce, between love and sex; they belong together biologically, but for him they are as wide apart as the poles, as different as day and night.

Boys are more affected by this than girls, partly because the terrifying warnings they receive are against themselves, their own impulses, while girls are primarily warned against men. And most boys ultimately solve the conflict by rejecting parental definitions in

favor of those they learn from the gang and elsewhere. Where this fails, however, the man faces a serious problem. He can love only “nice” girls, those who are somehow like his mother, but he cannot think of sex in connection with them. His sex desires are therefore deflected toward objects as unlike the mother as possible—his own body, prostitutes, immature girls, or other men and boys. He may control these desires all his life, or he may become an occasional or habitual pervert; sometimes, if he has not learned respect and consideration for others, he may turn into a sex criminal.

This basic conflict explains why exaggerated and overprolonged motherattachments are often related to homosexuality and other perversions; the boy cannot break away from the mother and the taboos for which she stands.

Case 6 (Boy) The mother, separated from her husband, devoted herself to her only son, letting nothing interfere with their constant, intimate companionship. The boy did not mix well with other boys, but instead developed crushes on some of them, worshipping them from afar. At 20 his homosexual tendencies were still powerful, but with good insight he was able to adjust himself and has since married happily.

Case 7 (Boy) The mother was left a widow with three children. She was a selfish, domineering person and the two elder soon revolted, left home and married early. She then concentrated on the youngest boy, bathing him until he was 16, and spending long hours sitting on his bed talking to him. Often she said lovingly, “ You'll never go oil and leave Mother, will you?” In high school the boy was already homosexual and by university his habits were so well established that change seemed unlikely.

Too close and long dependence on the mother is undesirable for many reasons, but it is a sexual hazard only where the mother is also the carrier of the old taboos—when her prim avoidance of the subject, or her anxious

warnings against "bad habits” and “loose women,” make her a symbol of opposition to all that sex implies. Unfortunately our Victorian prejudices produce too many such mothers.

If the taboos were universally accepted and observed they might cause little difficulty, IV r human beings can adapt themselves to all sorts of self-imposed strait-jackets. But in our changing and mixed society they are dangerously harmful. Sex criminals are only one result of them; far more disastrous are the thousands of “normal” cases in which sex life has been made permanently unsatisfactory by furtive guilt and anxiety laid up in early childhood.

Knowledge is Protection

Some people fear that any lifting of the taboos would bring an orgy of selfindulgence, or that children who have not been well-frightened about sex would be easy prey for seducers. Both fears are groundless. The sex drive seems so irresistible, so “explosive,” simply because it is kept under constant pressure; with saner treatment it becomes as manageable as any other desire. And there is no one so proof

against the blandishments of the seducer as the boy cr girl w'hc is freed from fear or itching curiosity about sex. The cool remark, “No, thanks, I know nil about that and I’m not interested,” has balked many a pervert.

How can we adults help lighten the dangerous pressure on sex, help civilize this motive that we have made so wild and treacherous? We can look frankly into our own attitudes, try to understand what has made them so dishonest and emotional, and determine not to pass them on to our children. That is hard to avoid, but many parents have succeeded in becoming more mature in their outlook, in discussing sex unconcernedly with their children and in treating any manifestations of early curiosity, not as matters for severe punishment, but as something to be expected and of relatively small importance. Their children are appearing among us in increasing numbers; they are not haunted by nameless fears of sex, handle the inevitable problems of adolescence smoothly and intelligently, and look expectantly forward to full satisfaction in marriage.

Indeed, in view of the tremendous change that has taken place since the beginning of the century, one might

think that the battle has been won. Sex 1 education has even got into some of our

high schools—though usually,, through v fear of the parents, through the back ’ door. But the improvement is not fast enough; the number of perverts shows e that the taboos are still strong, e In many of these same schools child1 ren learn the “science” of biology from / charts that depict the human body with a perfectly smooth surface from the t waist down. What must these young3 sters think of the minds of their elders? s No wonder they look on sex as a matter e of whispered stories, blushes and giggles, i of “hot” movies,” “bad” words and secret, forbidden experiments. We 3 deplore this atmosphere, but it is our / taboos that create it. e Overstimulation of sex results from e its suppression; the hush-hush attitude gives birth to the smutty attitude; the y prude is father to the pervert. As we / get rid of the one we will be freed from f the other and our children will grow up f in a world no longer preoccupied with , sex and no longer in terror of sex crim1 inals.

We shall know that world is here s when most adults merely glance at the 3 title of this article and pass on to somet thing more interesting. ★