Friday 10 April 2009

The birds and the bees on DVDs

The Joy of Sex Education (2009), various directors (BFI Video)

Sex education is one of those topics that seems to pop up in the news as a ‘current affairs’ issue on an almost seasonal basis. Young boys becoming fathers, statistics about teenage pregnancy, outbreaks of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), the nanny state, single mothers, feral youth, cycles of poverty, moral decay – they can all lead to a heated rehashing of arguments about sex education. Identified in crude ways as a ‘soft target’ and an ‘easy fix’ solution for a host of ‘social problems’, we are told that there is too much of it and, at the same time, that there isn’t enough of it, and that it should start earlier.

But if you want to think about the issue in an original, and it must be said, far more entertaining way, watch these films. The BFI’s release of 17 sex education films made between 1917 and 1973 provides an opportunity to sit back and take the long view. These films are in turn courageous (censorship was a recurring problem), pious (you learn more about marriage than sex), tragic (they remind us of the desperate shame of illegitimacy and show us hospital wards full of blind children resulting from hereditary syphilis) and sometimes mystifying even when they aim to inform (did you know that mold was ‘most particular about who it marries’?). They are also sometimes very, very funny.

While individually interesting, viewed together they provide a remarkable snapshot of images of personal and intimate life in Britain in the twentieth century and of changing aspirations and representations of the good life. They also provide an important record of government and quasi-government attempts at informing and regulating sexual behaviour.

The dominant recurring theme is that sex education is not about pleasure and empowering individual choice but about damage limitation – in particular stopping the spread of disease. So in ‘Whatsover a Man Soweth’ (1917) we are taken on a tour of a VD clinic (‘venereal disease’ being the old-fashioned term for what are now called STDs), and shown in such graphic detail the consequences of untreated syphilis that the film was censored. In ‘Any Evening After Work’ (1930) we see a farm labourer being sacked because the illness has made him unfit for work. And in ‘Ellie and Lyle’ (1967), a health advisor, while treating an infected young man, takes on the role of a detective as he hunts down the source of infection through the city. In a cops and robbers style, with a map of the city behind his desk, he announces: ‘We want to know how you got it… That’s my business’. 

But the most often mentioned risk associated with VD – referred to in both these films and in ‘Trial for Marriage’ (1936) and ‘Love on Leave’ (1940) is that a man might pass on the infection to his wife and subsequently to his (unborn) children. Here the threat is not just disease but tarnished reputation. The message attached, however, changes subtly over time. In ‘Whatsover a Man Soweth’ (1917) the recommended way to avoid VD is explicitly moral: ‘live as you would have the girl live who you intend to marry’ and ‘do nothing of which you would be ashamed to tell your sister or mother’. In ‘The Mystery of Marriage’ (1932), marriage itself is portrayed as a natural state (that’s where the mold comes in). And similarly in ‘Learning to Live’ (1964), VD is identified as a consequence of having sex outside of marriage; for many disease and immorality were and still are ‘reassuring’ bedfellows. But in ‘Love on Leave’ (1940) and ‘Ellie and Lyle’ (1967), however, while health experts sing the benefits of marriage, at the same time they let the viewer know that treatment is effective, freely available and confidential.

The tension between providing factual information in a neutral way, while at the same time not appearing to condone the breaking of traditional moral codes, was often strategic as much as principled. And the restraints that the film makers were under is made clear in the excellent short articles and individual film notes in the pamphlet included with the DVDs.

Alongside VD, the other great deterrent to sex that dominates the films is the risk of pregnancy. Here the focus turns to women. In ‘Brenda’ (1973) the tragic ‘heroine’ is seen handing over her child for adoption with the voice over solemnly saying: ‘one unthinking moment – two lives ruined’. In this film and in ‘A Test for Love’ (1937), where a respectable young women working in a haberdashery in a seaside town is infected with gonorrhea and is cruelly shunned by her relatives, the women are portrayed sympathetically as victims of callous male behaviour. These are exceptions, however; for in most of the films the images of women fall into those two familiar roles of Madonnas or Whores. In ‘Whatsover a Man Soweth’ (1917) we see heavily clad Edwardian Picadillly street walkers luring innocent soldiers, in ‘Trial for Marriage’ (1936) an ‘arty’ floozy from Chelsea seducing a clean cut betrothed man from the provinces and in ‘Love on Leave’ (1940) we see a pleasure seeking femme fatale.

At the other extreme are the ‘innocent’ and almost totally desexualised women infected with VD by the unfortunate and feckless men who are taught that they can not ‘sow their oats’ with impunity, and that lack of self control threatens family life as much as their own health. A curious twist on this is ‘The People at No 19’ (1949), a kitchen-sink drama in which a wife discovers on becoming pregnant that she has contracted VD from a one-night-stand while her husband was away during the war. With utter sincerity and disbelief at the fact, she shifts responsibility to her husband with the words, ‘But it must be you… You were in the army’. The effect of both world wars on the rates of VD was a motivation for many of the films. Interestingly in light of what is perceived to be acceptable now, one of the solutions proffered for containing men’s natural urges, in ‘The Road to Health’ (1938) and ‘Love on Leave’ (1940), is early marriage. But even in the most progressive film ‘Growing Up’ (1971) where female sexuality is explicitly acknowledged – a woman is shown masturbating – traditional essentialist understandings of gender prevail, as it informs us ‘factually’ that all women have maternal instincts while men are ‘better at giving birth to new ideas’.

One of the unexpected things about the films is that most of them were made to educate adults. Children appear largely as innocent victims of hereditary VD or illegitimacy. The earliest film that tackles educating children is ‘How to Tell’ (1931). Here, around the glow of a warm fire, a respectable young married couple make what appears to be a bold decision to tell their children the truth about ‘where babies come from’ on the grounds that, ‘They shan’t suffer the agony of mind we suffered’. And while many of the films for adults can appear somewhat naïve and almost quaint for a modern audience, social history research has revealed that ignorance about the most basic facts was indeed widespread until relatively recently. Consequently, while the films make abundantly clear that ‘education’ always went hand-in-hand with traditional messages, and was an attempt at social control, they also enabled some people to make informed choices of their own making.

Tim Boon, in one of the articles that comes with the DVD, argues that the films are ‘time locked texts that speak volumes of constrained social universes inhabited by our antecedents only two or three generations ago’. There is some truth in this, but it is too easy to simply view them as evidence of the bad old days before our more sexually enlightened times. This is not to belittle the huge social change in relation to the stigma of illegitimacy or to overlook the fact that pleasure does get mentioned in the later films – most playfully in the last film ‘‘Ave you got a Male Assistant Please Miss?’ (1973). But as Hera Cook makes clear in another of the articles, ‘risk avoidance and encouragement to say “no” to sexual advances remain as central to sex education now as they were in 1910’. The point would be made clearer if this collection included materials made more recently in relation to HIV/AIDS – for initiatives on this were, and remain, strikingly similar to the films here concerned with syphilis. Moreover, the panic about teenage pregnancy demonstrates the continuing linking of sex education with ideas of ‘legitimate’ families.

Perhaps the clearest evidence for questioning the progressive narrative is the fact that this DVD has been classified ‘18’ – not because of the films aimed at adults, but because of the film ‘Growing Up’ (1971) which was made for school children.


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