The American Social Hygiene Association

Charles W. Eliot
President Emeritus, Harvard University

The American Social Hygiene Association — a combination of two bodies of national scope and similar purposes which had been in existence but a few years — is a new organization, the motives and objects of which have not yet been clearly and widely made known. To all those who have been active in contriving and establishing this new agency for the promotion of public health and morality, it seems requisite that a clear and comprehensive statement should now be made concerning the objects and aims of the Association. Since its field of work is a very difficult one, in which the best intention might fail to produce any beneficial result, it is desirable to make clear to the public no only the objects and aims of the Association but also the means by which it intends to pursue them; and since active work in this field is apt to excite apprehension or even antagonism in the minds of excellent people, it is quite as desirable to indicate what the Association does not mean to do as to describe action it hopes to take.

With the last thirty years, mankind has gained much new knowledge concerning the sources, causes and modes of transmission of many diseases, and concerning the means of preventing contagion. During the same period, great progress as been

(2) made in the treatment of many diseases against which mankind was formerly defenceless. Among contagious diseases the most destructive to the white race are the diseases called venereal; because they are fearfully poisonous and corrupting, and are caused and spread by vices and animal gratifications in which both men and women have part. Fortunately, more new knowledge has recently been acquired concerning the causes and treatment of these diseases than of any others. The lines of transmission of these diseases and their effects on a second generation have been made known. New tests of their presence in the human body have been invented; and new reliefs, partial or complete, have been brought into use. A considerable proportion — by no means all — of the cases of insanity, general paresis and blindness have been proved to have their origin in venereal diseases. Sterility and ovarian and uterine disorders in women frequently result from them. In short, these vice diseases, now known to be often communicated to the innocent, are without doubt the worst foes of sound family life, and thence of civilization. This remarkable progress of medicine, and especially of preventative medicine, imposes on society new duties and responsibilities with regard to vice. So long as society supposed that nothing could be done to prevent or cure the vice diseases and their horrible consequences, the policy of complete silence in regard to them, and of doing nothing to prevent them or to mitigate the suffering they cause, was at least intelligible, and perhaps justifiable. In the light of present knowledge these policies of silence and inaction are no longer justifiable. In dealing with such portentous evils, society can no longer place first considerations concerning innocency, delicacy, and reticence , any more than in dealing with war. The attack on them must be public and frank; but it should also be high-minded, and free from suggestions which might invite youth to experiment in sexual vice.

The first work to be undertaken by the Association is the work of ascertaining present conditions as regards sexual vice in American cities and towns. These inquiries should be thorough and universal; and the results should be published in

(3) the way most likely to inform the leaders of public thought and action. Important surveys have already been made in this field, but much work remains to be done.

Next, the Association should study the various sorts of police action against vice, the various statutes intended to regulate vicious resorts, to confine them within fixed limits, or to make less public and open the allurements of vice. It is now clearly known that all the preceding police attempts to regulate vice, to prevent the spread of venereal diseases, and to diminish immorality have completely failed alike in the East and the West, in Europe and in the Americas. To exhibit and to publish this record of the total failure of well-meant police measures must be one of the first labors of the new Association.

A third important object of the Association is to devise and advocate effective police procedure and effective legislation with regard to vice. In some American communities improved laws, courts, or police administration have already been secured. The Association should try to make the best experiences of any state, city, or town available, as lesson or example, to all other cities or towns; but this is an operation involving steady watchfulness and labor, and heavy expenditure.

Part of the work of the Association should be contributory to the work of other organizations — such as those that advocate the suppression of disorderly houses and disreputable hotels, the gratuitous treatment of venereal diseases at public expense to prevent or diminish contagion, the substitution of weak alcoholic drinks for strong, the promotion of total abstinence, and the provision of wholesome pleasures, both out-of-doors and indoors. The Association should always be ready to take part in the prosecution of men or women who make a profit out of obscene publications, indecent shows, immoral plays, and prostitution.

The Association out to advocate actively the common use of the recognized safeguards against sexual perversions — such as bodily exercises, moderation in eating, abstinence in youth from alcohol, tobacco, hot spices, and all other drugs which impair self-control, even momentarily. Social hygiene would be

( 4) effectively promoted by reduction or rejection of the drinking and smoking habits in American communities. In the white race the connection between drinking and prostitution is intimate.

One of the most difficult task of the Association — but an indispensable one — is to bring about a serious change in the ethics of the medical profession. The new knowledge about the trailing consequences of the venereal diseases, and of the long-drawn human miseries which result from them, makes necessary an important chance in what has been the ethical practice of that profession. It should now be impossible for the conscientious physician to fail to protect from marriage with a man whom he knows to be diseased the woman whom the diseased man is proposing to marry. Every physician who is called upon to treat a man with venereal disease should have it understood with his patient that his confidential relation to him does not include inaction when his patient proposes to commit that crime. In times past the faithful keeping by the physician of the confidences of his patient has been a fine element in the ethics of the profession; but the recent discoveries in regard to the contagion, duration, and far-transmission of venereal diseases have made it necessary to put limits on the physicianís pledge of secrecy, lest he become a silent participant in one of the worst of crimes.

Finally, the Association proposes to take active part in bringing about certain educational changes which will touch first parents, then teachers, then adolescents, and lastly children. In the field of social hygiene, as in almost all the different provinces of public and private morality, improvements cannot be firmly established until the rising generations have been thoroughly imbued with them, and have been brought up under right conditions. In its educational propaganda, however, the Association will necessarily proceed conservatively and gradually. It recognizes the obvious fact that it is quite impossible, even if it were advisable, to introduce instruction in social hygiene into the public schools, except to a small degree, and with great reticence. It believes that instruction in sex subjects should never be given to the two sexes together after the age of puberty,

( 5) and that none but obviously high-minded teachers should even talk with pupils on these subjects. It believes that parents, if adequately informed, are the best persons to teach the elements of parenthood and sex-relations to their children. It knows that the existing normal schools cannot as yet supply any considerable number of teachers competent to deal with these subjects in the elementary and secondary schools. One of the first tasks should be to urge normal schools and colleges to prepare teachers competent to teach the elements of biology in elementary schools, and later the elements of social hygiene to girls and boys in separate classes in the secondary schools. While it endeavors to select books on the various phases of the general subject which it can recommend adults to read, it is inclined to believe that the needed instruction in social hygiene proper can be better given to adolescents orally, with help from photographs, diagrams, and tabulated statistics, than from books. For the present, the Association hopes to do the greater part of its educational work through other organizations — such as menís clubs, womenís clubs, Young Menís and Young Womenís Christian Associations, granges, benefit societies, state boards of health, life insurance companies, and medical societies. It means to carry on its work without impairing modesty and becoming reticence in either young or old; and it hopes to promote by all its activities genuine innocence and purity, and the sanctity of family life.

These being its objects and aims, and its conceptions of public service in the field of social hygiene, the Association invites men and women in every part of the country, who are of this mind, to become members of the Association, and to support its work.


  1. Presidentís address to the annual meeting of The American Social Hygiene Association, New York City, October 9 1914

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