Sarah Emily Duff

In 1937, the powerful South African National Council for Child Welfare adopted unanimously and without debate a motion that ‘sex teaching’ be provided in schools for whites. A decade previously, Dr JA Mitchell, Chief Medical Officer of the Union of South Africa, had called for the greater availability of sex education for white children at school. ‘Children were not fools,’ he remarked in the eighth annual report of the Transvaal Council for Combating Venereal Disease. It was ‘quite practicable’ to teach them enough to understand the dangers of contracting sexually transmitted disease, for instance: ‘there was no time for false modesty.’ In turn, his recommendations – which also met with a sympathetic hearing – picked up on an earlier conversation about ‘sex hygiene.’ In 1915, The Woman’s Outlook – the official publication of the South African women’s suffrage movement – argued that ‘sex hygiene’ should be taught to girls as the best antidote to ‘immorality.’

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RPH West, ‘Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls’ (Public Health Department of the City of Johannesburg and the South African Red Cross Society, 1934). (Wits Historical Papers, South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD 843 RJ/NA 18).

This discussion about formal sex education occurred within a collection of fairly conservative organisations – even the mainstream campaign for franchise argued for the extension of the vote only to white, middle-class women. Indeed, the purpose of sex education for most of the century was conservative: to police racial boundaries; to define race categories; and to impress upon young readers that the only legitimate sexual activity occurred within monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and for the purpose of procreation.

RPH West, 'Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls' (Public Health Department of the City of Johannesburg and the South African Red Cross Society, 1934). (Wits Historical Papers, South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD 843 RJ/NA 18).
RPH West, ‘Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls’ (Public Health Department of the City of Johannesburg and the South African Red Cross Society, 1934). (Wits Historical Papers, South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD 843 RJ/NA 18).

Forms of social sexualisation had existed in communities throughout southern Africa long before sex education became a topic of concern for missionaries and moralists. But during the 1910s and 1920s, as black and white youth began to move in ever-greater numbers to the country’s cities, various institutions became interested in providing alternative forms of what they described as moral instruction. These young people were now far away from the supervision of parents, as well as the ceremonies and rites that had marked the passage from childhood, to youth, to adulthood.

Also, South Africa was undergoing a period of profound social and cultural change: strikes, political turmoil, and a transforming urban landscape where poor whites and blacks lived cheek-by-jowl in slums, meant that the state and other institutions were increasingly invested in finding ways to impress order on the Union. At least two commissions of enquiry investigated the ‘black peril’ (the sexual threat allegedly posed by black men to white women) in the 1910s, and the 1927 Immorality Act prohibited some forms of interracial sex. Sex education manuals reflected these efforts to define and maintain strict racial boundaries, and to raise conscientious, hardworking adults.

Published overwhelmingly by the missionary presses, sex education manuals for black youth were directed towards the creation of a respectable, Christian, urban African middle class. In God, Love, and Marriage – one of the Church of England’s most popular manuals – readers were provided with rudimentary information about the physical changes accompanying adolescence, and considerably more discussion of what constituted morally continent, sober adulthood. The emphasis of these manuals was overwhelmingly on persuading readers that the purpose of sex was to produce children within families – and on delineating precisely what respectable domesticity was. Urban black families were to be made into compliant, self-regulating subjects, with small families who could be supported by the wages earned by fathers. The manuals did not work to reproduce a work force. The mining industry, for instance, relied on rural, migrant labour from around southern Africa. These men lived temporarily in Johannesburg before returning permanently to households elsewhere. Manuals written by missionaries were aimed, rather, at encouraging the development of a respectable petit bourgeois class of clerks, nurses, and teachers.

RPH West, 'Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls' (Public Health Department of the City of Johannesburg and the South African Red Cross Society, 1934). (Wits Historical Papers, South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD 843 RJ/NA 18).
RPH West, ‘Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls’ (Public Health Department of the City of Johannesburg and the South African Red Cross Society, 1934). (Wits Historical Papers, South African Institute of Race Relations Collection, AD 843 RJ/NA 18).

These manuals were part of a range of interventions – including societies like the Pathfinders and Wayfarers (the equivalents of the Scouts and Guides for African children), prayer unions, and girls’ hostels – aimed at containing the apparently dangerous sexuality of urban black youth. But, as the quotes mentioned at the beginning of this post suggest, there was equal concern about providing formal sex education to white children, and especially to middle-class white children. In 1934, the Red Cross and the Johannesburg Public Health Department published a slim, illustrated pamphlet titled ‘Facts about Ourselves for Growing Boys and Girls‘, written by a teacher called RPH West. With its references to servants, separate bedrooms for siblings, seaside holidays, and trips to the cinema, this is a manual intended for a middle-class readership. But in his Foreword, Johannesburg’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr AJ Milne, concludes that sex education ‘is not only of considerably importance to the future welfare of the country, but is one which has a very direct bearing on the solution of our Poor White Problem.’

The purpose of the manual is to demonstrate to young, white, middle-class readers the importance of marrying and producing families. The manual is preoccupied with race, using the recapitulation doctrine as a framework to understand both sexual reproduction, and the significance of sex to maintain South Africa’s racial order. Popular among nineteenth-century biologists and sexologists, the recapitulation doctrine proposed that every human being goes through – or recapitulates – stages of development akin to human evolution. As all people begin life as a collection of cells, so the theory suggests, mammalian life originated in single cell organisms.

‘Facts about Ourselves’ opens with a discussion of life as a ‘great long ladder’ at the top of which is ‘Man’ and at the bottom ‘is a tiny atom or speck of life called an amoeba.’ Human beings are closest to God because they are self-conscious and able to control their instincts. These instincts are crucial to self-preservation and, equally important to ‘our desire to preserve our race’ which is, argues West, ‘just as strong as our desire to preserve ourselves’:

Nature has put into us this great desire to be the parents of children in order that the race to which we belong may continue in strength and in increasing numbers. … To have children and to do well for them better the race to which you belong, and it is your duty to help your race to progress.

As West notes earlier, ‘“Progress” should ever be our watchword’. With only a single paragraph devoted to a description of sexual intercourse itself, the emphasis of ‘Facts about Ourselves’ is on how white, middle-class children should preserve, progress, and strengthen the race. Chief among these was having children, but, secondly, was avoiding too much contact with Africans. Anxieties about miscegenation and quasi-eugenic concerns about racial contamination fuelled efforts to instill in white readers the view that sexual contact with black others should be avoided. It is worth noting here that ‘Facts about Ourselves’ and other manuals for white children were written and published by public health departments and organisations closely linked to the state. They were, thus, interested in linking the future reproductive labours of white young men and women with the wellbeing of the Union. In contrast, sex education manuals for black children were the products of missionary presses. Missionaries and other religious authors worked towards the creation of a respectable, African Christian class.

Noting that South Africa has a ‘huge population of natives’ who ‘outnumber Europeans by, roughly, four to one,’ West explains to his readers that Europeans are culturally and socially more evolved than Africans, meaning that although their ‘instincts are exactly the same as ours … it is not reasonable or just to expect that they will have the same control over the working of them.’ He advises:

The girls are perhaps asleep or else only partly awake, and their bodies carelessly covered by the bedclothes. The temptation to the native may be far more severe than is ever realised, and any wrong-doing on his part would be very terrible to a girl, while the law visits upon him a very dreadful punishment. Cases of assault have occurred on many occasions, and it is our bounden duty to avoid even the possibility of such a thing. No native should be allowed in a bedroom whilst a girl is in it, whether she is in bed or not.

This warning was produced by ‘black peril’ panic, but it is also intended to impress upon young readers that the future stability and prosperity of the Union lies in their hands: in forming strong, stable white families. Disorder lay in contact with Africans. Sex education in the form of a subject called ‘Guidance’ would be introduced to white schools in 1967, and schools for black pupils in 1981. Its purpose was to provide enough information to persuade adolescents not to have sex before marrying. What this early history of formal sex education suggests, though, is how – through imagining an orderly future for South Africa in the midst of confusing and frightening change – the subject was previously mobilised in creating the racial order which underpinned the segregationist state, and, after 1948, apartheid.


SE Duff - headshotSarah Emily Duff is a Researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research is on histories of childhood, sexuality, and medicine in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa. Funded by a Research Career Advancement Fellowship from the National Research Foundation, her current project investigates histories of sex education in twentieth-century South Africa. Sarah’s monograph, Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Church Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895, was published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan in the new Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood series. She tweets @sarahemilyduff.



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