Sex Classes: 1926, 2011

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Yesterday, in the New York Times Magazine, Laurie Abraham profiled the graphic, frank and nonjudgmental Sexuality and Society class offered at Philadelphia's Friends' Central School. Abraham noted that "this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States."

Yet a look back at sex ed in earlier generations shows that some progress has occurred.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Sex Education for Children (1926)

"In early days," explains Rachelle J. Yarros, "many of the ancient peopje worshipped sex as they did other mysterious forces which they did not understand."

In the more modern Christian world, the same fear has led to asceticism, the basis of which is a feeling that the sex impulse is essentially evil and must be suppressed.

Let us be honest with ourselves and frankly ask this question: How many of us received from our mothers or fathers intelligent explanations of sex or reproduction ? You all know what falsehoods we were told and what chaotic ignorance existed in our minds...

...The more intelligent are beginning to realize the danger of complete ignorance and to feel the need of giving sex information to the child sometime, somewhere, somehow, but they fear that this knowledge, if given not "exactly in the right way" may awaken excessive sex curiosity and lead to disastrous experimentation... I wonder whether this is not simply another manifestation of our own sex taboo...

...The real problem of sex behavior among human beings arises primarily from the fact that they are ready to mate and may have the impulse to do so long before they are psychologically and socially fit. With animals no such problem arises, because they mate strictly according to impulse and pay the penalty, nobody registering the consequences. The human animal has evolved so far from this stage that the primary impulse of sex is not a satisfactory guide to behavior...

...As to the institution of marriage, which has more or less fostered certain ideals of sex relationship and greater protection and care for progeny, it, too, becomes a very important matter for the consideration of those who are interested in all phases of social hygiene. Some radicals claim that the institution of marriage is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. I am a radical myself and admit that all is not well in marriage, but am inclined to believe that the institution is not wholly to blame for the problems that now confront us.

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Mediterranean Family Size - Religious Israeli Jewish Women Win (Lose?)

Women and Demography in the Mediterranean States (2009), by Ariela Keysar, compiles and analyzes demographic data from Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Italy, Greece, Spain, and France.

The general results were unsurprising - lower fertility is associated with women's greater participation in the workplace and educational, civil and social equality. More surprising, however, is that family size has decreased across the board, even in the most religious countries (based on questions about the importance of God and religion in people's lives).

For example, Morocco has the lowest rate of female literacy and education, and also relatively low female workplace participation, nevertheless saw the average number of children per woman decrease from 6.9 at the beginning of the '70s to 2.4 in the last couple of years. The highest current fertility rate is in Syria, which is only 3.1.

This data suggests that somehow, contraceptive technology, education, and use, is penetrating even through both political oppression and religious conservatism. Unfortunately, the scope of the article doesn't include an exploration of the cause and means for this transformation, but it certainly seems encouraging.

The article includes some reflections on Israel:

Israel is a unique example of an advanced country with a modern health system, high educational attainment of women and high level of female labor force participation (Figure 9-8), and yet a high total fertility rate of 2.8. Israeli data are for Jewish women only. DellaPergola showed major differences in fertility patterns by religiosity among Jewish women in Israel. In 2005, the most religious Jewish women had 4.7 children compared with only 1.7 children for secular Jewish women. DellaPergola attributed the large gaps to “powerful differentiation of family norms related to religious norms and religiosity.”

 It's interesting and probably unfortunate that the Israel data only seems to count Jewish women. One advantage of that is that it perhaps offers a clearer picture of the role of religious versus political/civic influences on fertility.

The religious Jewish fertility rate of 4.7 seems incredibly high, considering that no Mediterranean country (but Syria) has a rate over 3. Perhaps in this case, higher levels of women's health care and achievement actually contribute to a higher fertility rate?

For more insight, explore BJPA's resources on Jewish fertility and family size.