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Sexual modernism in the 1920s

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Heterosexuality and Americanization: “Social Education” for Immigrant Youth in the 1920s is an easy read that is highly recommended.

Excerpts:

  • In the nativist 1920s, in the wake of successive waves of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, progressives in the United States engaged in tremendous efforts to assimilate immigrants into their vision of American culture. For these white, middle-class, and Protestant reformers, channeling sexuality into marriage was key to this enterprise.
  • These sentiments coincided with sexual modernism—a refashioning of gender roles and the separation of sexual activity from marriage and reproduction—and together the two streams informed progressives’ response to immigrants.
  • An “American Style” marriage, reformers believed, was one solution to the problem of un-assimilated immigrants failing to adjust to modern life in the United States.
  • Factory work, dance halls, dark movie theaters, and amusement parks pulled immigrant daughters out of their homes, away from family chores and Old World influences. Urban leisure activities excited young men and women with the possibility of mixed-sex fun. In response to these changing gender and sexual mores, progressive Americanizers promoted marriage as the only available outlet for sexual behavior.
  • The United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH), a collective of some forty settlement houses in the region developed a “social education” program to address the social and political forces structuring these young people’s lives, and in 1927 the first course ran.
  • Un-assimilated immigrants were viewed as disruptive and unfit for citizenship. Heterosexual marriage, however, became a path to adjustment, for within its confines American values could be instilled and reproduced.
  • The immigrant family, in other words, became a site of social reproduction, a space that could produce ‘American’ values and identities just as it reproduced immigrants’ labor power daily and generationally.  Reinforcing that, family allowed reformers to ameliorate the social and political costs of strained family relationships and disorderly youth.
  • In the interests of Americanization, erotic and gender behavior needed direction. Reformers hoped these efforts might thwart non-marital sex, or, worse yet in their view, “the propensity for those of the same sex.” Ultimately, their deployment of marital heterosexuality in the service of national stability served to further solidify heterosexual norms in the 1920s.

And we are still facing these issues today, nearly 100 years later.

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