On this day a century ago, a rather frank article about human sexuality appeared in the Times-Picayune. Shocking, even, for a family publication.
Sexuality is not a leisure or part-time activity, it is a way of being.Alexander Lowen
On this day in history, mankind uncovered another distinction that separates humans from other species, while also discovering what links us closer. While sexuality has evolved to be understood from many different perspectives in modern society, those living in 1919 would be dumbfounded at the complexity of human sexuality. This leads us to the article published by Dr. William Edler, Head of the Venereal Diseases Department of the United States Public Health Services based in New Orleans, detailing the idea that humans have evolved to the point where human sexuality is no longer driven by the need to reproduce. Sexuality is more complex than what was previously understood, making this new knowledge a spectacle for those living in the decade.
In order to gain insight as to how this is so fundamental to our understanding of human sexuality, we must look at how it was viewed prior to 1919. In present day, we have labels that are generally associated with a type of sexual act, orientation, etc., however this has not always been the case. In Roman times, sexual behavior was seen as nothing more than the role one played in sex. Since there were no negative connotations associated with most sexual acts, different orientations needing to be labeled had no purpose. This then gave way to those engaging in various sexual behaviors, since they had the freedom to do so. For example, males engaged with one another, age was no boundary, and the amount of lovers one had did not have negative societal perceptions attributed to it. By the fourth and fifth centuries, under the influence of St. Augustine, the view of sex started to shift. By the nineteenth century, those who engaged with others in different age groups began to be shunned for their actions. At this same time, sexual identity was no longer based on the roles being played, but by the genders indulging in the behaviors. This brought about intense conversations and confusion about sexual orientation, attraction, and morality, as terms for different types of relationships were uncoined and simply went unnoticed among the general population. However, as time approached the twentieth century, the world was finally gaining an understanding of the human psyche in terms of sexual behavior.
The article published delves into ideas that soon became fundamentally ingrained into society’s knowledge and perception of sexuality. Dr. Edler explains that humans’ drive for pleasure overrides the instinctual needs like reproduction. He is simply exploring the idea that differing sexual orientations are a result of one’s own desire that is separate from someone else’s. Nature illustrates that animals scout potential mates based on what is better for survival and prolonging superior genes to further grow the population. However, since humans have grown to have one of the biggest species population, the simple need to reproduce has dwindled in terms of survival for the human race. This gives way to all kinds of sexual exploration, which develops into differing sexual orientations and desires. Due to the overwhelming passion that is put into these relationships, Edler explains that lovers will then put themselves in the way of harm. This is not done for the protection of offspring or the survival of potential offspring, but done because of the genuine attraction one has to another. This distinguishes human sexuality from that of any other species, as many other species will not kill or be killed strictly based on emotional ties. Looking at the situation from the perspective of someone living in 1919, this may not have been groundbreaking knowledge, but the knowledge itself sparked many debates and controversy surrounding sex, leading to many political and social movements revolving sexual liberation and legal human rights. An example of this would be the Sexual Liberation Movement of the 1960’s. The movement challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the United States. This was a result of the shifted views that had made different types of sexuality promiscuous and taboo. It is clear that as more knowledge is acquired on the ideas of sexuality and its expression in human nature, the opinions on how sexual behavior should be presented and pursued will constantly shift.
With the general public now aware of this knowledge, the Roaring 20’s became a time for social reformations and sexual liberation, particularly for women. The introduction of flapper dresses gave women a voice on gender equality. This was one of the most promiscuous and revolutionary decades as newspapers drew attention to the new trends, building strength on the platform of sexual liberation for not only women but all genders, and soon, sexualities. A New York Times writer in the 1920s agreed that people were becoming more open and willing to discuss gender imbalance and sexuality. She stated, “The modern young girl is a
delight. She dresses simply and sensibly, and she looks life right straight in the eye; she knows just what she wants and goes after it, whether it’s a man, a career, a job, or a new hat!”. This publication allows insight into the general public’s shifting opinion on how females should behave. For once, women were being enabled to travel down different avenues, establishing their own form of dominance. They no longer were ties down to the wifely duties that were supposed to be done at home, but rather going out and finding jobs. Ladies were starting to get married later in life, leaving their earlier parts for experiencing life on their own. The newfound confidence, even though still being oppressed, allowed women to find a voice and eventually even led to the right for women to vote. Through understanding that women were able to express themselves in a multitude of ways, the evolution of human sexuality and the driving force that it plays in political and social change is showcased.
The views surrounding sexuality have constantly shifted throughout time. This has brought about confusion, animosity, and oppression. However, sexuality is a language everyone is fluent in and they express it throughout their everyday lives. As we discover how this separates us from other species, we also uncover how it makes humans similar. Through examining Dr. Edler’s article, we have managed to see how powerful sexuality is in influencing peoples’ thoughts, words, and actions. On this day in history, we are able to uncover a glimpse of what makes us who we are individually and as a whole.
- Gilkison, Taylor, The Transformation of Gender and Sexuality in 1920s America: A Literary Interpretation (2017).
- Baldock, Kathy. “Sexual Orientation Is a 20th Century Understanding of Human Sexuality.” Canyonwalker Connections — LGBTQ Advocacy, 13 Nov. 2015
- “American Journal of Public Health.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?
- “Quarterly Bulletin.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?
- Edler, William. “Facts About Human Existence Boys and Girls Should Come To Know.” 1 Dec. 1919.