From Censorship to Insufficiency: Sex Education from the Dennett Trials to Today

In an article published the day after her trial, the New York Times described the defendant as a “gray-haired, kindly-looking matron.” When she took the stand in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the 53-year-old grandmother introduced herself as a maker of decorative wall hangings and an occasional writer for magazines.

Maybe it was a sign of the times that such an unusual defendant could be facing an obscenity charge that spring afternoon in 1929. The decade known as the Roaring Twenties shook established conventions as metropolitan centers like Chicago and New York became the birthplaces of modern cultural movements that pushed old boundaries. Showing disdain for the conservative dress and sexual ethos of the past, women in short hair and short skirts, dubbed flappers, were sensationalized for their cavalier attitudes toward sex. Pushing limits further, homosexuals and gender nonconformists earned nods of recognition in everything from stage productions (Mae West’s The Drag) to popular music (Edgar Leslie and James Monaco’s “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”), benefiting from a level of social acceptance that anticipated the 1960s. Meanwhile, the popularity of jazz challenged racial barriers as black and white musicians collaborated on stage and in studios, and as black and white socialites mixed in lively venues like Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

Mary Ware Dennett was a pioneer for sex education — both through her writing and the legal battle she fought.

Amid those changes, some people still weren’t ready for the controversial publication Mary Ware Dennett was in court for distributing, even if that publication had been well received by the medical community and, furthermore, had been sent to such tame and respected clients as the Bronxville school system, state public health departments, and various religious and civic organizations like the Union Theological Seminary and the YWCA. The publication was one Dennett had written 11 years earlier for her two sons, then 11 and 14 years old. She wrote it after realizing that, without it, they wouldn’t receive the sex education they needed: “When my children reached the age when I wished to supplement what had been taught verbally, I sought something for them to read.” After searching “some sixty volumes,” Dennett decided to give up and write her own material.

The result was a small pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,” and it soon found a life beyond its original purpose. Her sons’ friends, their parents, and Dennett’s friends took an interest in her frank writing about the “physiological, scientific, moral, and emotional aspects of sexuality.” Despite some shortcomings, such as giving only brief mention to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), Dennett’s pamphlet appealed to parents and professionals alike for broaching its subject without a sense of fear or stigma — and, just as importantly, for doing it in medically accurate language.

The Sex Side of LifeBefore long, “The Sex Side of Life” was passed from home to home and shared among clergy, counselors, and health care professionals. By 1918, just a few years after it was written, it was published in the respected journal The Medical Review of Reviews, after which Dennett began selling thousands of copies at 25 cents each, shipping orders to individuals and organizations around the nation and the world.

With that success, the pamphlet caught the attention of the U.S. Post Office, then under the direction of a postmaster general, Hubert Work, who was a staunch opponent of birth control and obscenity. Disregarding its legitimate use as an educational tool, Work saw “The Sex Side of Life” as obscene material — worse yet, material that was ending up in the hands of adolescents. In 1928, Dennett was indicted under the Comstock Act, an 1873 law that prohibited sending obscene materials and contraceptives through the mail.

Eighty-five years ago today, on April 23, 1929, a federal district court found the defendant in United States v. Dennett guilty of the charges against her. Though she had “a deep aversion to being spotlighted,” Dennett was now put in the position of being a pioneer for sex education not only through her writing but also through the legal battle that ensued.

Out of necessity, Dennett had prepared for that battle even before her indictment, as postal authorities had already banned her pamphlet and proven themselves intractable with each appeal. A frustrated Dennett had reached out to the ACLU, who ultimately provided her counsel.

Dennett was defiant when she spoke to reporters after her trial: “If a few federal officials want to use their power to penalize me for my work for the young people of this country, they must bear the shame of a jail sentence. It is the government which is disgraced, not I.” She and ACLU lawyer Morris Ernst committed to appealing the verdict.

The next year, Dennett’s appeal went to trial at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and this time the decision was in her favor. The appeal didn’t put the constitutionality of the Comstock Act on trial; in fact, Margaret Sanger and many others who depended on the mail to promote reproductive health would grapple with it for years to come (it was amended in 1971 but still a hindrance thereafter). However, the appeal did question whether Dennett’s sex-education pamphlet fit the definition of obscenity. Simply providing information about sex, the court decided, did not violate anti-obscenity laws.

Sex education was censored in Dennett’s time, but how much better does it fare today?  April is a fitting month to reflect on the state of sex education, not only because of the anniversary of Dennett’s 1929 verdict, but also because it was Dennett’s month of birth. Born April 4, 1872, in Worcester, Massachusetts, Mary Ware could count among her childhood influences her aunt Lucia Ames Mead, a feminist and social reformer. Following in her aunt’s footsteps, Mary became an advocate for women’s suffrage and birth control, in addition to sex education. Dennett’s work for sex education gave us a leap forward, but we have yet to get to where we need to be.

Today, Hubert Work’s attempts to censor Dennett might seem antiquated, but sex education suffers under the political pressure of cultural conservatives and weak support under the law. Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex education to be included in school curricula. Other states can and do include sex education, but the mandates concerning what is covered leave students poorly prepared to make informed decisions about sex. For starters, content that should be included often isn’t. Here are some highlights from the Guttmacher Institute’s most recent report on sex education:

  • Only 18 states and the District of Columbia require that information about contraception is provided.
  • Only 12 states require that information on sexual orientation is provided.
  • Only 13 states require that content is medically accurate.
  • Only eight states require that content is appropriate for the students’ race, ethnicity, or cultural background.

It gets worse from there. Content that should not be included often is. Nineteen states require messaging that stresses that sexual activity should only occur in marriage. Twenty-five states require an emphasis on abstinence. Information on abstinence is part and parcel of comprehensive sex education, but emphasizing it over other options does students a disservice by denying them information that could prevent teen pregnancy and STDs. Emphasizing it exclusively, the evidence indicates, is as good as providing no sex education at all, since it can discourage contraceptive use and is strongly correlated with teen pregnancy.

In Arizona, the weak standards under state law mean that sex education often falls short of being comprehensive and medically accurate. Not surprisingly, less than half of Arizona’s sexually active teens report using a condom or other contraceptive the last time they had sex. A quarter of them contract STDs.

In a state with the nation’s sixth-highest teen pregnancy rate, efforts to improve sex education should be welcome initiatives. But in Tempe, such efforts have been cause for backlash recently, as a group calling itself the Alliance Defending Freedom has raised objections to the involvement of Planned Parenthood in selecting the new curriculum at the Tempe Union High School District. The school board’s task force consulted a Planned Parenthood representative as a subject matter expert. In reaction, the group overstated Planned Parenthood’s involvement and distorted Planned Parenthood’s positions to create controversy over what should be considered a sensible and overdue change. They claim, among other things, that Planned Parenthood employees would teach the curriculum as a way to promote abortion. The claim is completely false. The irony is that quality sex education might be one of the best ways to decrease the abortion rate — by decreasing unintended pregnancies.

Even today, 85 years after United States v. Dennett, sex education lacks the support it needs. Like Mary Ware Dennett almost a century ago, today’s parents are likely to find that their children’s sex education is either absent or substandard. Unfortunately, most parents won’t have the kind of commitment Dennett had to fixing that. What’s more, no parent should need to go to those lengths in the first place.