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“Bring Sex Out of the Closet of Fear”: A Psychologist Argues that Sex Education Can Save the American Family

Alfred C. Kinsey published his pathbreaking research on sexual behavior in 1948 and 1953, reporting that premarital and extramarital sexual activity was not uncommon in American life. In fact, Kinsey argued, it had been part of a long-term shift beginning in the 1910s. Alarmed critics in the popular press attacked the study as a threat to the stability of the American family. In an era during which the family symbolized a retreat from Cold War and atomic age political and social tensions, some in the scientific community joined religious figures and cultural commentators in an ideological battle to strengthen the traditional domestic realm. In the following report in the popular magazine Collier’s, a psychology professor characterized his research study as a follow-up to Kinsey that dealt with knowledge and attitudes about sex. Unlike Kinsey’s work, however, this report explicitly served as a prescriptive guide—telling Americans how to avoid infidelity, escape divorce, and gain marital happiness through sex education. In attempting to change so-called “incorrect” attitudes, it presented as fact conclusions not warranted by the evidence offered— that most men wanted wives who were not disinterested in sex but didn’t and flaunt it either or that ultimately “the best sex is in marriage.” In presenting these beliefs as facts, the report revealed ingrained cultural attitudes at odds with ideals of scientific objectivity. These values, however, conformed with efforts to use potentially disrupting sex research findings to strengthen the one socially approved channel for sexual behavior—marriage.

The McHugh Report

This article reports on a unique scientific study into what Americans know and think about sex, what “old wives' tales” they accept as truth, what fears and feelings of guilt interfere with their search for marital happiness. The results are shocking. Even well-educated Americans are tangled in a web of taboos, superstitions and misinformation. The study reveals the failures of sex education in America.

The Sex Knowledge Inventory developed by Dr. Gelolo McHugh of Duke University is a questionnaire that seeks to determine an individual’s knowledge and attitudes about sex and marriage. Dr. McHugh estimates that it has been used by 7,000 ministers, 2,000 doctors and 1,200 other professionals, as well as 600 family-life classes. Each professional person is asked to return a carbon of the answer sheet to Family Life Publications, Inc., Dr. McHugh’s independent research organization. These anonymous replies from every state, Alaska and Hawaii are the basis for this report, which he hopes will prove helpful to all Americans.

What Americans Need to Learn About Sex

by Dr. Gelolo McHuch with J. Robert Moskin

We Americans seem to be the most sex-stimulated people in the world. But the six-year study I have just completed with the aid of hundreds of doctors, ministers and marriage counselors suggests that many of us have surprising gaps in our knowledge and twists in our attitudes about sex.

The results of this study show that our American youth—and many, many long-married couples—urgently need help if they are to avoid sex experience outside of marriage, escape divorce and increase their potential for marital happiness. It is our hope that, by putting our findings into the hands of the public and those devoted to helping us attain marital happiness, many personal disasters can be avoided. Consider, for example, three facts revealed by our Sex Knowledge Inventory study:

•Nearly three out of every 10 unmarried young people falsely believe that interest in and conversation about sex is the best way to predict whether a prospective husband or wife will be a good sex partner.

•About 60 per cent of all married men and women studied fear that a wife’s desire for marital relations will change in middle age.

•Twice as many men as women erroneously blame a wife’s unresponsiveness or failure to find physical happiness in marriage on her husband’s lack of skill as a lover.

The misinformation in these three findings alone contains enough hidden dynamite to shatter thousands of marriages.

This study, in which we have tabulated and analyzed 7,434 returns, is a continuing research project into what Americans know and think about sex. As the late Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey’s research gave us our first statistical information about male and female sexual behavior, it is our hope that the Sex Knowledge Inventory study will offer us, for the first time, organized information about sex knowledge and attitudes in this country. . . .

The most important fact we have learned from our study is that, although researchers like Kinsey have made it possible for people to discuss the need for sex education, not much as yet has been done about it. Kinsey took a bulldozer and plowed up the field; now, you might say, it is necessary to plant a garden.

Many parents are still worried that increased sex knowledge will mean increased sex activity among youngsters growing up. I believe that just the opposite is true. Much adolescent sex activity is actually encouraged by ignorance; the desire to experiment is stimulated by the mystery in which the subject is so often wrapped. Adult ignorance which we, as parents, so often pass on to our children in the form of taboos, guilt feelings and misconceptions will raise the odds against marital happiness later on.

I believe that if we are going to preserve and strengthen the institution of marriage, it will require a tremendous move forward in sex education. Dr. [Jed W.] Pearson [Jr.] says: “Of more than 30,000,000 married couples in the United States, at least one fourth will end in the divorce court. If one adds to these marriage failures the large number of unhappy homes as well as the frustrations and psychosomatic disorders which result from maladjusted marriages, the enormousness of the problem can be easily seen.”

Why is sex so important? Many people wonder if it must loom so large in life, if it must be such a substantial element in marital happiness.

To my mind sex is a God-given force for human good; properly oriented, it is the drive that allows humankind to be re-created and perpetuated, and a medium for the expression of love. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful human force for good.

Beyond this, however, we must face the less pleasant fact that in America today sex is constantly used as a lure. Bosomy billboards seek to sell us products and services. Marilyn Monroe wriggles across the theater screen. Elvis Presley excites millions of youngsters with his contortions.

It is clear from our questionnaires that the condition of American sex education is woefully inadequate to meet the growing attention we pay to the subject and the anxieties this produces. Many Americans—young people especially—gain false and even dangerous misconceptions about sex.

Let’s look at the detailed results of our six-year study. In reading these results and applying them against your own life and concepts, keep in mind two important points. First, there are rarely right and wrong answers to these questions; what we can tabulate are the best answers on the criteria established for the Sex Knowledge Inventory by our Advisory Committee of experts. And, secondly, our sample does not claim to be a precise cross section of the national population. Actually, the people we have studied are, on the whole, better educated than the national average. This would lead us to expect that their answers would represent more correct information and understanding about sex relations than the national average. And yet they are suprisingly uninformed.

APPROACH TO MARRIAGE: What young men and women expect out of marriage can be crucial to their chances of happiness. In addition to unrealized expectations, the burden of overcoming deeply ingrained taboos, superstitious beliefs, feelings of guilt and even disgust mar very many marriages.

One of the most shocking facts revealed by the study is that nearly 30 per cent of the premarried group believes mistakenly that interest in and conversation about sex is the best evidence for predicting whether a prospective husband or wife will be a good partner. This indicates a surprising amount of immaturity, a willingness to substitute symbols for sex. The truth is that a good partner in sex talk is not necessarily a good partner in sex relations at all.

The study shows that there is still substantial belief in the old concept that women are by nature slower to respond and less strongly driven by desire than men. If not for the attitudes of our society and the condition of sex education today, the reverse of this might actually be true. But nearly one in 10 premarried persons still believes that the purpose of sex play is to reduce excitement in the man and increase it in the woman. Inhibitory conditioning may retard the compatibility of American newlyweds, but we know of no biological basis for the old belief that there are great differences between the sexes in the degree of desire. . . .

MARITAL RESPONSIBILITY: According to the study, most American married men blame themselves if their wives fail to achieve complete marital happiness. Men, the study shows, all too frequently feel culpable for their wives' unresponsiveness, while women are much more likely to fix the burden, correctly, on their own attitudes.

For example, nearly 60 per cent of all premarried women correctly said that a woman might best overcome her lack of responsiveness by changing her attitude toward sex. But only 44 per cent of the single men chose that answer.

Even more dramatically, when a wife finds relations painful, 28 per cent of all men blame the husband’s bad technique, but only half as many women (14 per cent) blame the husband. Only 42 per cent of the men studied correctly realize that a wife’s attitude toward sex relations and her fear of pregnancy are usually the ruling causes of feminine unresponsiveness.

The study confirms that this mistaken attitude is quite common today: that the burden of responsibility for a happy sex life rests mainly on the husband and is almost always dependent on his patience and his skill. The truth is that a bride comes to marriage usually even less well prepared than the groom. Unless she has an attitude of willingness and a desire to learn to express her love to him, his knowledge and skill are of little avail. Her inhibitions are not caused by him; they are already present in her attitudes when she marries him. . . .

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MENSTRUATION: Clearly, misconceptions about female biology interfere with the modern American woman’s efforts to take her proper place in the world today. Men in our society are oversold on the biological fragility of women. For example, the study shows that only 29 per cent of single men recognize that a woman is not ill when she is menstruating, while 59 per cent of single women know this fact. . . .


The questions which follow are a sampling of those most frequently asked Dr. McHugh by the thousands of teen-agers to whom he has spoken about sex and marriage. To encourage freedom in asking such questions, Dr. McHugh speaks to parents first and later, at the adults' invitation, talks to the younger group with no parents or teachers present. The questions presented here with a summary of Dr. McHugh’s answers were chosen from those written down and passed up to Dr. McHugh at a meeting sponsored by the council of churches in a Pennsylvania city. They are representative of questions young people ask him most often.

1. Is it right or wrong to joke about sex to the opposite sex?

The trouble with sex jokes is that they often degrade sex or serve merely as an excuse to talk salaciously. Approached in a healthy way, sex can be a subject for humor as much as any other aspect of human relations.

2. Do you think coeducation in sex is important, and why?

The problem in human relations is always to enable people to understand one another. How can men and women learn to be compatible in marriage if each has been isolated in the discussion of such matters?

3. What does a boy first think of when he sees me or one of my girl friends?

What you are really asking is whether girls have to be afraid of boys. The answer is no; males are by nature no more predatory than females.

4. Are boys more interested in girls who show their sex more than others?

No healthy male wants for a life partner a girl who has no interest whatsoever in being womanly. But men also do not want to marry someone who seems to be promiscuous or to flaunt her sex. Very much depends on how tastefully the girl expresses her femininity.

5. How old do you think a person should be before he or she goes steady?

Old enough to have known a variety of members of the opposite sex as friends and companions so that he or she has some real basis on which to choose a partner in marriage.

6. Should girls go out with, or go steady with, boys four or five years older than they are?

So much depends on the girl. If she is socially and emotionally ready for male companions who are likely to be interested in activities and friends quite different from her own, she may be mature enough to overcome such a difference in ages.

7. Do you think a girl of thirteen should be kissed by a boy?

It depends on what each of them is trying to accomplish by kissing. It is a pity that many boys and girls cannot separate expressions of desire from expressions of affection. This is usually not the youngsters‘ fault, but the adults’, who read into childhood behavior what they would be trying to do.

8. Is petting right or wrong?

Human beings are built so that beyond a certain point “petting” creates a biological compulsion to go on. That is why many youngsters are dragged into marriage by involvements they didn’t really mean to get into.

9. At what age do you think a boy is more sex-minded?

Boys and girls become increasingly sexually aware as they approach maturity. However, if they are preoccupied with such thoughts, they do not understand sex well enough to accept it as a normal and wonderful part of mature life.

10. How should a boy get rid of his sexual desire?

He shouldn’t. Sex desire is a normal thing. He needs to understand his heightening sensitivity and the fact that he is going to use this biological drive later on. In the meantime, a youth can learn self-control and to utilize his physical energy in other ways.

11. Is intercourse all right with “steadies” if “proper” precautions are taken?

The possibility of pregnancy is not the only reason for refraining from relations before marriage; in fact, today it is not even the most important reason. Protection from such a possibility does not mean that a young person can escape the emotional impact of sex relations. As I have said before, premarital affairs frequently compel young couples into marriages they do not want by entangling them in emotional commitments they would not otherwise make.

12. At what age do you think a boy and girl should get married so that their marriage lasts?

Readiness for marriage is not directly related to chronological age but rather to emotional and social growth.

13. How do you get started with sex after the marriage or on the honeymoon?

When you are mature enough to be married and have gone through a courtship period, this will not offer a great amount of trouble where there is a sincere desire to express affection. You can get advice from your parents, doctor or minister and there are books that can help anyone facing marriage and worrying about this problem.

14. How much advice about sex should a teen-ager be given by parents?

Every bit their parents are able to give. Many parents are personally well adjusted in marriage but unable to give sound sex education to another person or even to talk directly about sex matters.

15. Should parents pick your friends of the opposite sex?

Training in choice must go along with freedom to choose. In most cases adults should not impose their wills on children or be unwilling to have the child learn for himself. . . .

Many young couples would have entered marriage better prepared if they could have kept their relationship based on friendship for another year or two rather than becoming committed by premarital experience. They would have discovered more about each other’s personalities. In some cases they might not have married.

Sex can force them into marriage. The girl says: I let you do this only because I love you. The boy says: I do this only because I love you. These youngsters thereby make commitments to each other. Quite frequently we will see a young man panic at having to fulfill his commitment—right at the church door. Often this young man and wife are through with each other in a couple of years.

In America we have a misconception that much good comes from the male alone being experienced before marriage. Actually we have nothing to gain by having our young men sexually sophisticated. This puts the wife at a disadvantage, makes her fearful; a bridegroom cannot expect his inexperienced bride to act like an experienced woman. Our studies show that 60 per cent of the girls coming to marriage are unprepared even to the extent of knowing how their bodies function in marital relations. More than 80 per cent do not know how their bodies participate actively in these relations.

These facts do not mean that women should have more premarital experience but that they need more education. And equally, I believe that if young men had more sex education they would require and seek less sex experience.

What our young people must have is a new goal for continence. I tell youngsters I counsel that the best reason to avoid premarital experience is that the best sex is in marriage and it is worth waiting for. I tell them their parents may not be as prudish as they think they are, but that their parents cannot pass along their understanding and appreciation of sex in marriage because of things that have happened to them in our culture. We adults need to bring sex out of the closet of fear.

Man’s most beautiful possession is the concept of family. If we are to grasp today’s opportunity to strengthen the family, we need to create a new and responsible attitude toward sex education in America. Youth today needs a new perspective toward sex, a view that offers a reasonable reason for continence before marriage and an opportunity to replace misconceptions and superstitions with wholesome knowledge. We have an opportunity to help the next generation, and even today’s married generations, approach marriage with greater hope and understanding.

More and more aids are available to help our youth grow up with sound knowledge. New books are being offered to parents. We hope our Sex Knowledge Inventories will be used by more and more teachers, ministers and doctors. Family-life courses in high schools and colleges are increasing. Doctors are exhibiting an increased emphasis on helping premarried couples, and the American Medical Association has recently published an excellent series of pamphlets for parents and youngsters. A large majority of theological schools today have courses in premarital counseling and such religious efforts as the Catholic Pre-Cana Conferences seek to help directly youngsters approaching marriage.

These are the visible signs of progress. Less obvious but even more fundamental is the growing feeling in America today that freedom and responsibility go together where sex and family, love and happiness, are concerned. We hope our work will strengthen this feeling and increase the potential for happiness in many people. 2002–03–07

Source: Dr. Gelolo McHugh with J. Robert Moskin, “The McHugh Report: What Americans Need to Learn About Sex,” Collier’s, November 9, 1954, 36–40.