How Americans Learned to Talk About Sex(ual Health)
In honor of women’s history month, Loyal Nana is taking a look at the Social Hygiene Movement, a Progressive Era (about 1900 to 1920) public health movement. During this period, the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) emerged as one of the primary organizations devoted to addressing high rates of STDs (then referred to as Venereal Disease or VD). ASHA was an innovative organization because it prioritized supporting scientific research and pushing past embarrassment to educate the public with phone hotlines, films, libraries, lectures, and special exhibits, avoiding moralism and judgment in order to find effective solutions. ASHA has also been responsible for creating much of the public consciousness around the Kinsey Scale, STDs, and cervical cancer.
The social hygiene movement began as a professionally led refinement of the 1800’s Christian social purity movement, largely led by women, which encompassed things like abolitionism, the creation of sex-segregated prisons, establishing an age of consent, and encouraging moderation in the consumption of alcohol. Heading into the 1900s, moral reformers sought to promote mental hygiene (which became mental health), racial hygiene (which unfortunately promoted eugenics), and social hygiene (‘social’ was a euphemism for ‘sexual’). They strongly emphasized speaking frankly in spite of taboos.
Social hygiene societies from states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Connecticut and cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Spokane formed and banded together as the American Social Hygiene Association in 1914. Establishing their national headquarters in New York, a western office in San Francisco, and a mid-America office in Chicago, John Rockefeller was an initial benefactor and Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, Dr. William Snow, a Stanford professor and secretary of the California State Board and Grace H. Dodge, a New York philanthropist, were some of the prominent figures who sat on the board.
The first crisis on their plate was a high rate of VD in the military during World War I. ASHA’s approach was to provide education about transmission and to design posters and reading materials that emphasized the practical importance of keeping an eye on all aspects of health. They gained national attention for their success in decreasing military VD rates and this enabled them to work with more organizations across the country.
Moving into the 1920s, ASHA created two periodicals called the Journal of Social Hygiene and the Social Hygiene Bulletin as they put resources towards conducting studies on the prevalence of VDs, taking community surveys, and encouraging people to get tested by real doctors. They also formed a Valentine’s Day Committee to promote awareness. In 1934, the New York State Commissioner of Health Dr. Thomas Parran was due to give a national radio address, but CBS canceled it because he refused to remove the word “syphilis” from his script. Newspapers around the country printed the speech in full the next day and the New York Post printed a critique, “Someone ought to take the radio executives by the hand and gently break the news to them that the dear, sweet, smirking Victorian days are dead.” Corporations were cautious but the American public was moving past this taboo. A couple of years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Parran Surgeon General and ASHA started working with the Federal Council of Churches and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers to promote sex education programs at the local level and in schools.
In the 1940s and 50s, ASHA made both missteps and strides. Anxiety during WWII led to forcibly quarantining women to be treated for venereal disease. After the release of the Kinsey Institute’s reports on sexuality during the same decade, ASHA dedicated its annual conference towards understanding the material in the reports, while avoiding the temptation to decry the research as “pornographic.” Heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis signed on to do a public awareness campaign with ASHA to “knock out VD” and it was a huge success. ASHA partnered with the CDC to collect and analyze data and also began looking at the effect that narcotic use had on VD transmission, changing their name to the American Social Health Association to reflect their holistic approach.
The ‘60s and ‘70s brought along the identification of more illnesses and treatments and the term “sexually transmitted disease” came to replace “venereal disease.” The ‘70s also brought along the creation of resource centers (collections of useful information about staying healthy and finding support) and ASHA’s first hotline out of several. In the 1980s the National AIDS Hotline was established, the largest health-related hotline in the world. ASHA changed its name to the American Sexual Health Association in 2012 and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. ASHA continues to collaborate with community and international health organizations to better understand, prevent, and treat a multitude of diseases including cervical cancer, herpes, HIV, hepatitis, and HPV. Promoting awareness and decreasing stigma around reproductive and sexual health remains a priority as ASHA moves forward.