Theresa Tingey / Student Health Education Centre
The sex positive movement has promoted safe, consensual and open sexuality for decades. Proponents of this ideology celebrate the healthy and pleasurable aspects of safe sexual activity among consenting adults. In an article for “Health Promotion Atlantic,” Lisa Tobin of Planned Parenthood Metro Clinic of Halifax explains that sex positivity includes having an open-minded, inclusive and comprehensive definition of sexuality, viewing sexual health as a human right, and focusing on both the positive as well as some of the possible negative consequences of sexual activity to allow people to make their own informed decisions about sexual activity. Though many would agree nowadays that this perspective is more than reasonable, the sex positivity movement has not been without its share of opposition.
One particularly interesting and ardent opponent of this idea of sex positivity was John Harvey Kellogg, of Kellogg’s cereal. Besides building a breakfast empire, Kellogg also wrote about his very conservative views concerning sexuality in his books “Plain Facts about Sexual Life” and “Plain Facts for Old and Young,” which were published in the late 1800s. For example, Kellogg was especially concerned with masturbation. He believed that masturbation degraded the moral integrity, physical and mental health of both male and female practitioners and resulted in cancer, urinary tract infections, impotence, epilepsy, loss of vision and even death. Modern scientists, however, would tell you that not only does masturbation not cause these illnesses, regular masturbation has been linked to decreases in the risk of prostate cancer, increases in libido and mood and possible immune system benefits.
In any case, Kellogg supported some especially drastic procedures to dissuade people from masturbating. Such procedures involved applying carbolic acid to a female’s clitoris, circumcising males without anesthesia and literally suturing male genitals in place to prevent erection. In each case, Kellogg suggested that to truly discourage masturbation, individuals were to associate pain with otherwise pleasurable sexual activities. He even designed corn flakes to decrease interest in sex through his flawed notion that their high carbohydrate content would reduce sex drive. Interestingly, the creator of Graham Crackers, Rev. Sylvester Graham, also shared this belief that a bland diet low in protein would minimize libido.
Kellogg was just one of many opponents of masturbation around in the Victorian era. At this time, females were also discouraged from riding bicycles, as the combined activities of straddling the saddle and vigorous pedaling were thought to lead to sexual arousal and masturbatory tendencies in females. Special bicycles were even created that had a depression in the seat to avoid contact with a female’s genital area. Again, the reasoning behind this ridiculous modification was that bicycling would not only arouse women, but that this arousal was immoral and should be prevented.
Though we’d like to think we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, some ideas concerning sexuality and positive sexual behavior still seem taboo. It was not until 1973, for instance, that homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Moreover, as of January 2013, same-sex marriages had only been legalized in 9 states.
This brings up some of the important reasons for having positive attitudes towards sex and sexual practices. Not only does this mindset support equal rights, it advocates for creating spaces for talking about safe sexual practices. Having non-judgmental and open-minded conversations that use inclusive language to discuss sexuality can help people express themselves in ways that are not only enjoyable, but are also safe and respectful of their partners.
So next time you eat a bowl of cereal or ride your bike to campus, maybe consider some of the ways that you can have a more positive attitude towards sexuality. You can also stop by the SHEC office in MUSC if you have any questions, comments or concerns about your own sexual health.