Ironically and somewhat cruelly, feeling ‘different’ is perhaps the universal characteristic of puberty. Nevertheless, it has historically constituted a major problem for sex educators and young adults (and continues to plague the thoughts of these same parties today.)
Early sex ed authors like Scudder and Wood-Allen made references in their writing to what was “normal,” hastening to chastise young readers for succumbing to certain irregular behaviors while reassuring them that certain others were par for the course. “Self abuse,” the Victorian euphemism for masturbation was regarded as strictly wrong and abnormal, whereas the tendency of girls to frequently rest as they entered puberty was encouraged. “Nocturnal emissions,” or wet dreams, was a matter of debate. The head trip resulting from all of these overprecise and often contradictory messages must have been considerable for young readers. Many of these authors’ tips were both medically inaccurate and in direct opposition to their readers’ pubescent inclinations.
Since the turn of the century, both formal and informal sources of information have continued to construct and distribute an archetype for the “normal” teenager. Doctor’s endorsements appeared frequently as the forward of many early sex manuals. Such medical seals of approval were considered necessary because they confirmed that these books were non-pornographic, and assured that the advice they contained was accurately descriptive of the correct and average pubescent experience. This fabricated experience of puberty remained remarkably unchanged until the end of World War II, and even then ads like this 1950s print ad for Tampax tampons contributed to a generalized collective sensibility on how puberty should look, feel, and progress.
This ad, for example offers an image of a “normal-” seeming girl, looking over her shoulder apprehensively (it is somewhat unclear whether she is concerned that she is being watched or in fact closely regarding someone else with her dark, discerning eyes.) In all respects she embodies the clean-cut ideal desired of young women of her era; her white clothing suggesting purity and chastity (a concern for women considering tampon use), her subtle jewelry and the abstract artwork behind her hint at her respectable class, social status, and give the sense that she is cultured and well-read. Her posture, poised and attentive, gives her an air of superiority and the ad’s tagline “Why Do You Think You’re Different?” may have attracted readers because it was a familiar refrain from puberty or because it was a genuine and pressing query. The copy goes on to suggest, rather abruptly, that this normal young woman has no reason other than her ‘refusal to accept the facts’ why she should not try Tampax’s product. Tampax, an informal sex guide in the tradition of sex education literature, capitalizes on both the adolescent proclivity towards anything not “different” and contributes to a selectively “normal” image of young women.
The fact remains however, that sex education developed out of a desire among adult authors to inform adolescents and respond to social ills and moral leniency that they had perceived in society. These adults were not experiencing puberty themselves and, despite their efforts, may not have been entirely intimate with the prevailing sexual practices and concerns of their young readers. From their stern, unrelenting caution against certain behaviors and beliefs, it is apparent that sex ed authors were however, aware at the time of their writing that these practices existed. The resulting literature opposed two conceptions of normalcy: that which was being prescribed by educators and that which was actually being practiced. Though sex ed books were continually updated to address new concerns and scientific discoveries, by nature of the fact that they developed as a response to young adults’ changing mores and evolving sexual decorum, sex educators have been and for the most part continue to proceed at a lag behind the actual, practiced sexual modes of any given generation.