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Biography - Esther Emerson Sweeney

The 1940’s and 1950’s had an important impact in the transition to modern public health education and courtship practices in America, especially through the rising influence of science in popular culture. During this time, the emerging public education movement, including agencies such as the American Social Hygiene Association, heavily influenced changing ideas of American courtship and sexual behavior. Popular culture included new advice literature and an emerging scientific authority that also impacted public perceptions of sexuality and health. Esther Emerson Sweeney emerged as one such voice of scientific reasoning in the advice literature influencing adolescences of this time. Her publication pamphlet, "Dates and Dating" especially impacted courtship and dating practices of the 40's and 50's, and her other publications through the American Social Hygiene Association, addressed related issues such as sexual health. Her contributions along with other scientific voices of the time period contributed to the emerging controversy and discussion on sexuality and paved the way for modern public sexual education.

By the late nineteenth century the social hygiene movement began to grow as did aspects of social work and public health. By the twentieth century these movements had advanced into public schools, and America saw the beginning of sexual education through pamphlets, film, books, and posters. The American Social Hygiene Association, an influential group involved in this movement, was founded in 1913 and eventually renamed the American Social Health Association (ASHA). The organization began as a means to fight prostitution and battle the spread of venereal disease through education. It actively engaged in this movement during both World Wars and eventually grew to include many social welfare programs. [1] Sweeney began her career with ASHA in March 1945 and first worked as the Assistant Director of Public Information and Extension. In November 1948 she took over as Director of the Division. Sweeney’s background included a strong scientific education as a registered nurse, and she earned a degree of social work from Fordham University. Before working for the ASHA, Sweeney was employed with the New York City Department of Welfare, the National Travelers' Aid Association, and as Director of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Travelers' Aid Society for over ten years. [2] Sweeney’s position in ASHA allowed her to publish numerous works in the Journal of Social Hygiene concerning public health instruction, such as a "Proposal for the Establishment of a Five-year Project of Public Information about the Continuing Hazards of the Venereal Diseases," circa 1953-1954. Sweeney also authored "News from the States Communities" in the Journal of Social Hygiene from 1948-1950 which relayed the latest developments across the country on public health education. Her work, "Partners in Sex Education", in 1952 advocated supplementing parental discussion of sex through church and school programs and government agencies. She also worked on many dual authorships with Roy E. Dickerson, such as a curriculum resource for youth leaders called "Preinduction Health and Human Relations", which dealt with spiritual and mental health development and had several chapters featured in the Journal of Social Hygiene in 1953. Sweeney's pamphlet, "Dates and Dating", published in 1948, however, held an especially influential place in community education and groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Associations across the country who widely used it to discuss courtship and marriage among high school students. [3] This pamphlet presents a perfect example of the beginnings of public health education and especially the strategies used to communicate with youth.

The momentous events and results of the World Wars fueled growth in the public education movement. The end of WWI marked a change in commonly held beliefs and standards of sexuality that influenced courtship and public knowledge. Discussion on these historically taboo topics now became commonplace and an effort emerged in popular culture to educate the general population. [4] Social hygiene education in the U.S. by this time had grown to include government agencies and programs for high schools and colleges, and by the end of WWII a slow shift began from education based solely on morality towards including actual scientific explanations. In the midst of these new approaches, however, a fear of the "breakdown of the family” emerged in American society and resulted in a new tone for advice literature. As a result of this fear, institutions such as the ASHA broadened their focus to include psychological advice on marriage and sexual relations and “family life education” was created. Popular culture exploded with courses or paraphernalia on dating and personal health, marriage and sexuality in order to teach adolescents. This new approach, based on the prevention of difficult issues such as divorce or premarital sex, still included overall moral tones which placed sex firmly in the context of marriage. [5] Although sexual education was not specifically the organization’s objective, articles such as “Dates and Dating” published at an appropriate time, helped established a balance between morality and sexual behavior.

By the late 40’s and early 50’s this family life education created new ideas for courtship practices, and dating became seen as a tool for marriage and a specific process for finding the right marriage partner. The belief that scientific knowledge could help courtship and dating influenced a huge audience through popular media and attempted to turn mate selection itself into a science. Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat, states that “professionals had declared themselves the new arbiters of convention and morality, translators and preachers of their own ‘science of family living.’”[6] Sweeney’s pamphlet, “Dates and Dating”, for example, targeted female American youth and suggested advice on beauty, fun, and dating. Sweeney placed an emphasis on “wholeness” as attractiveness. She advised young women to work on being spiritually, mentally, and physically well rounded. Sweeney also suggested that fun and recreation should be learning experiences that lead to personal growth. She emphasized the importance in the balance between a social life and comfort with oneself to become an attractive potential partner. Next the pamphlet stresses, in a tone common during this era, the importance of planning and preparation through dating for the goal of marriage. Sweeney also gives general guidelines for proper behavior during courtship, and suggests the use of technical training or professional advice in courtship. At the same time she also stressed the need for personally learning from dating experiences and the issue of compatibility in choosing a mate. Sweeney does briefly mention sexual activity such as petting, but urges caution and suggests ways to prevent this situation during dating and points out that sexual activity can only bring happiness through marriage. [7]

Sexual behavior was a chief concern for teens during this generation and with popular culture emphasizing sexuality more than ever before, many people were upset at how this might affect youth’s views on sexuality. In general advice books discussed the three most common types of sexual behavior kissing, necking, and petting and they addressed the issue of when or if these types of behavior were acceptable. Kissing, as opposed to petting was generally accepted if the couple were seriously considering dating. Necking was technically considered caresses above the neck, such as shoulder leaning, and could be acceptable between serious partners. Petting was considered caresses below the neck and involved kissing, necking, and fondling and was often associated with low morals. [8] Obviously this type of sexual behavior was not new, but now it became more publicly discussed and defined. [9] The competitive aspect of dating resulted in a greater emphasis on sexual activity, and teens walked a fine line between participating in too little or too much intimacy. [10] Premarital sexual experience during this time did increase dramatically, and in the generation of the 50’s especially, it was apparent that hell or pregnancy no longer threatened youth enough to influence them towards abstinence. Petting as sexual behavior was seen as a problem and came with the possibility of great physical repercussions. [11] Boys petted because others did and girls petted because they wanted popularity or the ability to attract dates. It was, however, the general consensus by experts, that petting in unmarried couples could only cause frustration. Sweeny states that since sex is a “physical and emotional union of two persons” then necking and petting only create frustration and only the conditions of marriage, which are “social approval…ethical sanction,” offer freedom from anxiety, guilt and “secretiveness”. [12] Scientific authorities, including figures such as Sweeney, significantly influenced such views of sexual behavior and this translated into the advice literature available for teens during this time.

In regards to the three types of generally discussed sexual behavior, scientists and academic authorities took an aggressive stance. In general by the 1950’s, ideas on behavior became somewhat less strict, and sexual behavior was viewed as “natural for sexually mature human beings.” Activities such as kissing and necking were done in preparation for mating but did not ensure happiness. Therefore, books urged the importance for youth of learning to differentiate between sexual stimulation, which was accounted to the reproductive drive, and sexual satisfaction, which resulted from love. A Public Affairs Pamphlet by Ralph Eckert, stressed that this differentiation was obviously difficult for teens to recognize in a time when sex was so commercialized. They emphasized that the feeling that accompanied sexual behaviors should always be aimed towards thinking about love and sex in marriage. [13] Petting continued to be classified scientifically as an immoral practice in unmarried couples. It was aggressively portrayed negatively by scientists and said to arouse and then stifle powerful instincts, running the risk of developing nervous disorders. Influential scientists such as Alfred Kinsey even contributed to the petting debate. Sexual Behavior of the Human Male was published in 1948, and although it did not specifically deal with courtship it did offer the statistic that supposedly 88% of men were addicted to petting and that the chance a woman was a virgin when she married in those days was 50%. [14] It is important to point out, however, that within the scientific community many people disagreed on ideas of sexuality as well as how those should be presented to the public. Sweeney, for example, criticized Kinsey’s statistics and a Milwaukee Journal article on October 22, 1950, reported her remarks. In this article Sweeney stated that “many people were shocked by Dr. Alfred Kinsey for advocating the theory that moral standards be changed because of the large proportion violating them…[and] she called for schools and churches to provide more than a namby-pamby guidance to morals.” [15] Yet a few experts claimed that petting monogamously had its benefits, such as practicing the beginnings of lovemaking and being an option for exploring a partner without premarital sex. Science claimed that although biological nature deeply impacted sexual relations, humans as an advanced species, could base sexual relations on affection. Still, biological make up made it possible for the removal of affection from sex. Paul Landis, in a book published in 1954 titled, Your Dating Days: Looking Forward to a Happy Marriage supported this claim and stated that, “our biological nature is concerned only with reproducing the species, not with our happiness, sex impulses must be controlled, just as temper tantrums must be controlled.” [16] Therefore science confirmed that dating was a proper, wholesome social function, as was sex for reproduction in marriage. The problem was that teens needed information on the appropriate amount of kissing, necking, or petting in order to protect their personal and family health.

The growth of modern sex education and public health traces back to developments in the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this time period changing ideas of gender roles, dating expectations and courting etiquette and sexual behavior emerged, all greatly influenced by popular culture including advice literature produced by scientific authorities. The growth of the public health education movement, including groups such as the American Social Hygiene Association perpetuated strong scientific influence and demonstrated that expert knowledge and its relationship with the media was important in influencing courtship and sexual behavior. Sexual behavior, while always historically present in courtship, now became publicly discussed and scrutinized and public education grew to include sexual advice based on science and expertise. Sexual behavior experts, for example, attempted to use Darwinian analogies for innate biological natures and the importance of sex in marriage to define and control kissing, necking, and petting. In the 1940's and 1950's public education on sex, when not concerned with stopping the spread of infection, was placed solely in the context of marriage. Publications of authors such as Sweeny display the important transition toward a more free discussion on sexuality and health which began occurring in public health education. Today public health and sex education is a thriving if controversial aspect of most American public schools and the authority of science and “common knowledge” continues to translate into popular culture. Sweeney’s contributions exhibit the rising power and role of women in the science of family living, courtship, disease prevention and sexual health in the 1940’s and 1950’s and helped shape the future growth of public health education.

1. Social Welfare History Archives, “American Social Health Association Records, 1905-1990”, University of Minnesota, http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/xml/sw0045.xml.

2. Shenehon, Eleanor, “National Events.” Journal of Social Hygiene: (November 1948): Volume 34, Number 8 pg. 385.

3. Southard, Helen F., “Family Life Education in the YWCA.” Journal of Social Hygiene: (November 1951): Volume 37, Number 8 pg. 340.

4. Moran, Jeffrey P. 2000. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 76.

5. Ibid.,120-124, 131, 138.

6. Bailey, Beth L. From Front Porch to Back Seat. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988. 122.

7. Sweeney, Esther Emerson. American Social Hygiene Association. Dates and Dating. New York, New York: 1790 Broadway, 1948.

8. Murray, Alfred L. Youth’s Courtship Problems. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1940.71.

9. Bailey, Beth L. From Front Porch to Back Seat. 80, 94-95.

10.Turner, E. S. 1954. A History of Courting. London: M. Joseph. 255, 2721.

11. Murray, Alfred L. Youth’s Courtship Problems. 55.

12. Sweeney, Esther Emerson. Dates and Dating. 34

13. Eckert, Ralph G. So You Think It’s Love. New York: Public Affairs Committee. Public Affairs Pamphlet no. 161, 1950. 23.

14. Turner, E. S. 1954. A History of Courting. 258-259, 279.

15. “Kinsey Report Parley Target: Women are Critical,” The Milwaukee Journal, Oct. 22, 1950, pg.6

16. Landis, Paul H. Your Dating Days: Looking Forward to a Happy Marriage. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954. 20.
Theresa Koenigsknecht

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