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Title: The Sex Side of Life - An Explanation for Young People
Author: Dennett, Mary
Language: English
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_An Explanation for Young People_




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We have come across so much rubbish on this subject that we drifted
into the conclusion that an honest sex essay for young folks would

Recently there came to this desk a manuscript bearing the title _The
Sex Side of Life_ and the sub-title _An Explanation for Young
People_, written by Mary Ware Dennett. No editor ever confesses that
he reads an article with prejudice, but we will admit that we
expected this MS would be “returned with thanks.” It was reasonable
to suppose that a laywoman would not succeed where physicians had
failed. Even after we had read the introduction we were not
convinced, for we have met several books whose texts do not fulfill
the promises made by the preface. But after reading a few pages of
the essay itself, we realized we were listening to the music of a
different drummer. Instead of the familiar notes of fear and
pretense, we were surprised to hear the clarion call of truth.

Mary Ware Dennett's _Sex Side of Life_ is “on the level.” In the
pages of the _Medical Review of Reviews_, her essay will reach only
the profession, but we sincerely hope that this splendid contribution
will be reprinted in pamphlet form and distributed by thousands to
the general public. We are tolerably familiar with Anglo-American
writings on sexology, but we know nothing that equals Mrs. Dennett's
brochure. Physicians and social workers are frequently asked: “What
shall I say to my growing child?” Mary Ware Dennett, in her rational
sex primer, at last furnishes a satisfactory answer.

  V. R.



In reading several dozen books on sex matters for the young with a
view to selecting the best for my own children, I found none that I
was willing to put into their hands, without first guarding them
against what I considered very misleading and harmful impressions,
which they would otherwise be sure to acquire in reading them. That
is the excuse for this article.

It is far more specific than most sex information written for young
people. I believe we owe it to children to be specific if we talk
about the subject at all.

From a careful observation of youthful curiosity and a very vivid
recollection of my own childhood, I have tried to explain frankly the
points about which there is the greatest inquiry. These points are
_not_ frankly or clearly explained in most sex literature. They are
avoided, partly from embarrassment, but more, apparently, because
those who have undertaken to instruct the children are not really
clear in their own minds as to the proper status of the sex relation.

I found that from the physiological point of view, the question was
handled with limitations and reservations. From the point of natural
science it was often handled with sentimentality, the child being led
from a semi-esthetic study of the reproduction of flowers and animals
to the acceptance of a similar idea for human beings. From the moral
point of view it was handled least satisfactorily of all, the child
being given a jumble of conflicting ideas, with no means of
correlating them,--fear of venereal disease, one's duty to suppress
“animal passion,” the sacredness of marriage, and so forth. And from
the emotional point of view, the subject was not handled at all.

This one omission seems to me to be the key to the whole situation,
and it is the basis of the radical departure I have made from the
precedents in most sex literature for children.

Concerning all four points of view just mentioned, there are certain
departures from the traditional method that have seemed to me worth

On the physiological side I have given, as far as possible, the
proper terminology for the sex organs and functions. Children have
had to read the expurgated literature which has been specially
prepared for them in poetic or colloquial terms, and then are
needlessly mystified when they hear things called by their real

On the side of natural science, I have emphasized our unlikeness to
the plants and animals rather than our likeness, for while the points
we have in common with the lower orders make an interesting section
in our general education, it is knowing about the vital points in
which we differ that helps us to solve the sexual problems of
maturity; and the child needs that knowledge precisely as he needs
knowledge of everything which will fortify him for wise decisions
when he is grown.

On the moral side, I have tried to avoid confusion and dogmatism in
the following ways: by eliminating fear of venereal disease as an
appeal for strictly limited sex relations, stating candidly that
venereal disease _is_ becoming curable; by barring out all mention of
“brute” or “animal” passion, terms frequently used in pleas for
chastity and self control, as such talk is an aspersion on the brutes
and has done children much harm in giving them the impression that
there is an essential baseness in the sex relation; by inviting the
inference that marriage is “sacred” by virtue of its being a
reflection of human ideality rather than because it is a legalized

Unquestionably the stress which most writers have laid upon the
beauty of nature's plans for perpetuating the plant and animal
species, and the effort to have the child carry over into human life
some sense of that beauty has come from a most commendable instinct
to protect the child from the natural shock of the revelation of so
much that is unesthetic and revolting in human sex life. The nearness
of the sex organs to the excretory organs, the pain and messiness of
childbirth are elements which certainly need some compensating
antidote to prevent their making too disagreeable and
disproportionate an impress on the child's mind.

The results are doubtless good as far as they go, but they do not go
nearly far enough. What else is there to call upon to help out? Why,
the one thing which has been persistently neglected by practically
all the sex writers,--the emotional side of sex experience. Parents
and teachers have been afraid of it and distrustful of it. In not a
single one of all the books for young people that I have thus far
read has there been the frank, unashamed declaration that the climax
of sex emotion is an unsurpassed joy, something which rightly belongs
to every normal human being, a joy to be proudly and serenely
experienced. Instead there has been all too evident an inference that
sex emotion is a thing to be ashamed of, that yielding to it is
indulgence which must be curbed as much as possible, that all thought
and understanding of it must be rigorously postponed, at any rate
till after marriage.

We give to young folks, in their general education, as much as they
can grasp of science and ethics and art, and yet in their sex
education, which rightly has to do with all of these, we have said,
“Give them only the bare physiological facts, lest they be
prematurely stimulated.” Others of us, realizing that the bare
physiological facts are shocking to many a sensitive child, and must
somehow be softened with something pleasant, have said, “Give them
the facts, yes, but see to it that they are so related to the wonders
of evolution and the beauties of the natural world that the shock is
minimized.” But none of us has yet dared to say, “Yes, give them the
facts, give them the nature study, too, but also give them some
conception of sex life as a vivifying joy, as a vital art, as a thing
to be studied and developed with reverence for its big meaning, with
understanding of its far-reaching reactions, psychologically and
spiritually, with temperant restraint, good taste and the highest
idealism.” We have contented ourselves by assuming that marriage
makes sex relations respectable. We have not yet said that it is only
beautiful sex relations that can make marriage lovely.

Young people are just as capable of being guided and inspired in
their thought about sex emotion as in their taste and ideals in
literature and ethics, and just as they imperatively need to have
their general taste and ideals cultivated as a preparation for mature
life, so do they need to have some understanding of the marvelous
place which sex emotion has in life.

Only such an understanding can be counted on to give them the self
control that is born of knowledge, not fear, the reverence that will
prevent premature or trivial connections, the good taste and finesse
that will make their sex life when they reach maturity a vitalizing


When boys and girls get into their “teens,” a side of them begins to
wake up which has been asleep or only partly developed ever since
they were born, that is, the sex side of them. It is the most
wonderful and interesting part of growing up. This waking is partly
of the mind, partly of the body and partly of the feelings or

You can't help wanting to understand all about it, but somehow you
find yourself a little embarrassed in asking all the questions that
come into your mind, and often you don't feel quite like talking
about it freely, even to your father and mother. Sometimes it is
easier to talk with your best friends, because they are your own age,
and are beginning to have these new feelings too.

But remember that young people don't know nearly so much about it as
older people do, and that the older ones really want to help you with
their experience and advice; and yet, they, like you, often feel
rather embarrassed themselves and don't know how to go about it I
suppose it is because it is all so very personal and still remains
somewhat mysterious, in spite of all that people know about it.

If our bodies were just like machines, then we could learn about them
and manage them quite scientifically as we do automobiles, but they
are not like that. They are more than machines that have to be
supplied with fuel (food) and kept clean and oiled (by bathing,
exercise and sleep). They are the homes of our souls and our
feelings, and that makes all the difference in the world in the way
we act, and it makes what we have to learn, not limited to science
only, but it has to include more difficult and complicated things
like psychology and morality.

Maybe I can't make this article help you, but I remember so well what
I wanted to know and how I felt when I was young that I am now going
to try. And I will tell you to start out with that there is a great
deal that nobody knows yet, in spite of the fact that the human race
has been struggling thousands of years to learn.

Life itself is still a mystery, especially human life. Human life, in
many respects, is like plant and animal life, but in many ways it is
entirely different, and the ways in which it is different are almost
more important for us to think about than the ways in which it is
similar. In all life, except in the very lowest forms, new life is
created by the coming together, in a very close and special way, of
the male and female elements. You have studied at school about the
plants and you probably have observed certain of the animals, so you
know something about what this means if you do not understand it

But what you want to know most of all is just how it is with human
beings. You want to know just what this coming together is, how it is
done, how it starts the new life, the baby, and how the baby is born.
You want to understand the wonderful sex organs, that are different
in men and women, what each part is for and how it works.

If you feel very curious and excited and shy about it, don't let
yourself be a bit worried or ashamed. Your feelings are quite
natural, and most everybody else has felt just the same way at your
age. Remember that strong feelings are immensely valuable to us. All
we need to do is to steer them in the right direction and keep them
well balanced and proportioned.

Now in order to understand something of why this subject stirs us so,
we must notice in what ways we human beings are _different_ from the
plants and animals. About the lowest form of life is the amoeba. It
looks like a little lump of jelly, and it produces its young by
merely separating itself in two. One part drifts off from the other
part and each becomes a separate live being. There is no male and no
female and they didn't _know_ they were doing it. In the plants a
higher stage of development is reached: there is the male and the
female and they join together, not by coming to each other, or
because they _know_ they belong together, but quite unconsciously,
with the aid of the bees and other insects and the wind, the male
part is carried to the female part--they mix, and at once the seed of
a new plant begins to grow.

Then come to the animals. In all higher forms of animal life, the
male creature _comes_ to the female creature and himself places
within her body the germ which, when it meets the egg which is
waiting for it, immediately makes a new life begin to grow. But the
animals come together without _knowing why_. They do it from instinct
only, and they do it in what is called the mating season, which is
usually in the spring. The mating season happens once a year among
most of the higher animals, like birds and wild cattle, but to some
animals it comes several times a year like the rabbits, for instance.
You doubtless know already that the more highly developed the animal,
the longer it takes the young one to grow before it is born, and the
longer the period when it is helpless to provide its own food and

Now we come to human beings, and see how different they are! They
have no regular mating season, and while there is a certain amount of
instinct in men and women which tends to bring them together, the sex
impulse among highly developed people is far more the result of their
feeling of love for each other than mere animal instinct alone. Many
of the animals make no choice at all in their mating. Any near-by
female will do for the male. But among some of the higher animals the
male has a special instinct for a certain female, and the female will
not tolerate any but a certain male. Most of the animals have
different mates every season, though there are a few kinds where the
male and female, once having mated, remain mates for years, sometimes
even for life. But it is _only human beings_ whose mating is what we
call “falling in love,” and that is an experience far beyond anything
that the animals know.

It means that a man and a woman feel that they _belong_ to each other
in a way that they belong to no one else; it makes them wonderfully
happy to be together; they find they want to live together, work
together, play together, and to have children together, that is, to
marry each other; and their dream is to be happy together all their
lives. Sometimes the dream does not come true, and there is much
failure and unhappiness, but just the same people go right on trying
to make it a success, because it is what they care most for.

The sex attraction is the strongest feeling that human beings know,
and unlike the animals, it is far more than a mere sensation of the
body. It takes in the emotions and the mind and the soul, and that is
why our happiness is so dependent upon it.

When a man and a woman fall in love so that they really belong to
each other, the physical side of the relation is this: both of them
feel at intervals a peculiar thrill or glow, particularly in the
sexual organs, and it naturally culminates after they have gone to
bed at night. The man's special sex organ or penis, becomes enlarged
and stiffened, instead of soft and limp as ordinarily, and thus it
easily enters the passage in the woman's body called the vagina or
birth-canal, which leads to the uterus or womb, which as perhaps you
already know is the sac in which the egg or embryo grows into a baby.
The penis and the vagina are about the same size, as Nature intended
them to fit each other. By a rhythmic movement of the penis in and
out, the sex act reaches an exciting climax or orgasm, when there is
for the woman a peculiarly satisfying contraction of the muscles of
the passage and for the man, the expulsion of the semen, the liquid
which contains the germs of life. This is followed by a sensation of
peaceful happiness and sleepy relaxation. It is the very greatest
physical pleasure to be had in all human experience, and it helps
very much to increase all other kinds of pleasure also. It is at this
time that married people not only are closest to each other
physically, but they feel closer to each other in every other way
too. It is then most of all that they feel _sure_ they belong to each

The sex act is called by various names, such as coitus, coition,
copulation, cohabitation, sex-intercourse, the sex-embrace, etc. But
all these terms refer to the same thing. The first coitus is apt to
be somewhat painful for the woman, as there is usually a thin
membrane, called the hymen, partly closing the vagina which has to be
broken through, but all women do not have it and it varies in size
and thickness with different people.

Without the sex act, no babies could be created, for it is by this
means only that the semen which contains the male part of the germ of
life can meet the ovum or the female part of the germ of life. When
the two parts come together in the woman's body under just the right
conditions, a baby begins to grow--at first so tiny that it could
hardly be seen without a microscope, and finally, after nine months'
growth in the uterus or womb of the mother till it weighs about seven
or eight pounds, it is born, a live human being. The birth process is
called _labor_, and it is indeed labor, for it usually means much
pain and struggle for the mother, although the baby's journey from
the uterus to the world is only a few inches. It takes anywhere from
an hour to two days for a baby to be born. Doctors are learning more
and more how to lessen the pain, and by the end of another generation
it ought to be possible for child-birth to be practically painless
for most women. By that time people will more generally understand
how to have babies _only_ when they want them and can afford them. At
present, unfortunately, it is against the law to give people
information as to how to manage their sex relations so that no baby
will be created unless the father and mother are ready and glad to
have it happen.

Now you must understand something about this intricate sexual
machinery. Plate I shows the woman's organs and Plate 2 the man's.
Both these illustrations are sections, as if the body were cut in two

[Illustration: *Plate One*]

1. Backbone.

2. Rectum, which carries away the solid waste matter from the bowels.

3. Anus, the opening of the rectum.

4. Bladder, which holds the waste water or urine.

5. Ovary, in which grows the ovum or egg.

6. Fallopian tube, which carries the ovum to the uterus.

7. Uterus or Womb, in which the egg or ovum grows into a baby.

8. Mouth of the Uterus, through which the semen has to go to meet the

9. Vagina or Birth Canal, into which the penis fits during the sex

10. Entrance to the Vagina.

11. Entrance to the Urethra, which carries away the waste water or

[Illustration: *Plate Two*]

1. Backbone.

2. Rectum, which carries away the solid waste matter from the bowels.

3. Anus, the opening of the rectum.

4. Bladder, which holds the waste water or urine.

5. Penis, which fits into the vagina, during the sex act.

6. Prepuce, or fore-skin.

7. Scrotum, the bag which holds the testicles.

8. Testicles, in which grow the spermatozoa, or germs of life.

9. Vas Deferens, which carries the spermatozoa to the urethra.

10. Prostate Gland.

11. Seminal Vesicle.

Both 10 and 11 secrete liquids that make part of the semen, and which
nourish the spermatozoa.

12. Urethra, which carries the spermatozoa, also the urine.

13. Cowper's Gland, which secretes a liquid which makes the urethra

14. One of the spermatozoa, or germs of life, much magnified.

Sometimes it seems very distasteful to us that the sex or generative
organs should be placed so near to what we might call our “sewerage
system.” We do not like to have to connect in our thought anything so
sweet and nice as a baby or so happy and precious as the sex embrace
with the waste of our bodies, which we want to be rid of with as
little thought as possible, as it is disagreeable at best, and we
wonder why we were created this way. But we have to remember that the
sex organs are very delicate and they are probably placed where they
can best be protected from injury. It would be hard to think of any
other part of the body that would be safer than just this place. At
any rate there they are, and our duty is to understand them as best
we can, and take mighty good care of them as our most wonderful

Looking at Plate I, you will see that the woman's body provides the
egg or ovum. These grow, many thousands of them, in two small sacs
called ovaries, and every little while (usually every four weeks, but
not always) an ovum ripens and passes out from the ovary through the
fallopian tube (there are two of these, one leading from each ovary)
into the uterus or womb, a process which takes several days. Here it
may be met by the male life element, and if so, it becomes fertilized
and remains in the uterus to grow into a baby. This is called
fertilization, fecundation, impregnation or conception. But if the
egg is not fertilized, it passes from the uterus through the vagina
and out of the body. The ovaries take turns in developing the ovum.

Every twenty-eight days or so a woman, from the time she is about
thirteen or fourteen till she is about fifty, has a slight flow of
blood from the uterus, which is called menstruation. The reasons for
this are not wholly understood, but it is supposed there is an extra
supply of blood provided periodically for the growth of a baby, but
when there is no baby starting to grow, the blood is not needed so it
flows away (about once in four weeks). Often the unfertilized ovum is
carried away with it, but the two things do not necessarily happen at
the same time. Menstruation lasts from three to five days and young
girls sometimes have pain then and feel languid and “unwell.” If so
they should be quieter than usual and avoid cold baths and getting
their feet wet. But menstruation is not an illness, and a girl in
perfect health finds it only a slight inconvenience.

The ovaries not only produce the egg, but they also produce a
secretion that is absorbed by the blood and which is most necessary
in the development of a girl into a woman. It has an almost magical
effect in adding the specially womanly qualities to the body and

Looking at Plate 2, you will see the man's sex machinery. The
testicles are to a man what the ovaries are to a woman. They are two
sacs held in a bag of rather thin loose skin called the scrotum, and
it is here that the sperm (spermatozoa) or germ of life grows. Just
how no one really knows. The spermatozoa are very tiny and the
testicles hold many thousands of them. Under the microscope they show
a sort of head and tail like a pollywog. They are very much alive and
move by a rapid wiggling of the tail part.

Leading from each testicle is a tube called the vas deferens, through
which the sperm goes at the time of the sex act on its way out to
meet the ovum in the woman's body. On the way it is joined by two
other liquids, one secreted by the seminal vesicles (of which there
are two) and the other by the prostate gland. These three liquids
together form the semen, which at the times of sexual excitement is
forced out through the penis into the vagina of the woman.

You will notice that the woman has separate tubes for the urine
(waste water) and the sex function, but the man uses the same tube
for both: that is, in the woman the bladder which holds the urine is
emptied by a separate tube, the urethra, while in the man the urethra
not only empties the bladder, but it also carries the semen.

The use of the seminal vesicles and the prostate gland is to supply a
means of nourishment for the spermatozoa until they reach the ovum,
which may not be for several days after the semen is expelled into
the vagina.

Then there are two small glands called Cowper's glands, which make
the passage in the penis alkaline, as the spermatozoa can only remain
alive in an alkaline secretion and the urine is acid, so always just
before the penis forces out the semen, the secretion from Cowper's
glands goes ahead to protect the sperm from being destroyed by any
remaining traces of the acid urine.

At the end of the penis is a fold or cap of skin, the prepuce, which
the doctor often removes for the sake of the boy's health, a process
called circumcision, and it is a great relief to boys whose prepuce
or foreskin is too tight as to make difficulty in keeping clean. All
Jewish babies are regularly circumcised, a custom dating way back to
Bible times.

There is a constant internal secretion from the testicles of a man
just as from the ovaries of a woman, and it has the same beneficial
effect on the whole being. It makes a boy what we call manly or
virile. The value of the internal secretions of the sex organs in
both boys and girls is so great that for that reason, if for no
other, the whole sex machinery must be kept in perfect health.

Boys have a certain discomfort to bear which is difficult for them
just as menstruation is difficult for girls. But by knowing the
meaning of things and by taking care of themselves, they need not be
seriously troubled by it. Every once in a while as they are growing
up, but before they are old enough to really fall in love and marry
and have children, boys feel a sort of stirring of the sex
organs--sometimes so much so that it makes them quite uneasy and
anxious for relief. The thing to do is to keep as calm as possible
and keep very busy and very healthy. Then the discomfort will not be
too great, and nature will usually bring relief by letting the
accumulated semen pass off during sleep. This is called a seminal
emission, and is perfectly harmless. Sometimes a vivid sexual dream
comes with it, but that too will do no harm, unless a boy lets his
mind dwell on it till the excitement grows unnatural. This emission
may happen every two weeks or so, but it is not a regular thing. Boys
are sometimes alarmed and fear their sex machinery is out of order,
but it is a perfectly natural thing, and only means that the organs
are relieving themselves of the extra secretions that are not needed
till the time comes for the real sex relation.

Boys and girls sometimes get the habit of handling their sex organs
so as to get them excited. This is called masturbation or self-abuse.
It is also called auto-erotism. Such handling can be made to result
in a climax something like that of the natural sex act. For
generations this habit has been considered wrong and dangerous, but
recently many of the best scientists have concluded that the chief
harm has come from the worry caused by doing it, when one believed it
to be wrong. This worry has often been so great that real illness,
both of the mind and body has resulted. There is no occasion for
worry unless the habit is carried to excess. But remember that until
you are mature, the sex secretions are specially needed within your
body, and if you use them wastefully before you are grown, you are
depriving your body of what it needs. So do not stimulate your sex
organs into action _intentionally_. And do not yield to the impulse
to handle the sex organs in order to relieve the pressure which may
occasionally feel overwhelming, unless you find that nature does not
bring you relief during sleep.

Remember always that your whole sex machinery is more easily put out
of order than any other part of your body, and it must be treated
with great care and respect all along. It is not fair to ourselves or
to each other to do a single thing that will make us either weak or
unnatural. Remember that your sex organs have a very powerful, even
if invisible, effect upon your whole being, and up to the time that
you are really old enough to love some one to whom you want to
actually belong, you must _let your sex machinery_ grow strong and
ready for its good, happy work when the right time comes. The sex
organs during your youth do not need frequent exercise in the same
sense that your muscles do. They are active all the time with their
internal secretions which strengthen both you and them.

Don't ever let any one drag you into nasty talk or thought about sex.
It is _not_ a nasty subject. It should mean everything that is
highest and best and happiest in human life, but it can be easily
perverted and ruined and made the cause of horrible suffering of both
mind and body.

There are two very terrible sexual diseases--syphilis and gonorrhea.
They are both frightfully infectious and very difficult to cure.
These diseases are usually acquired by sex contact with a diseased
person, but they can also be gotten by using public drinking cups,
towels, water-closets, or in any way by which an infected moist
article can come in contact with one's skin. The worst thing about
these diseases is that they are such invisible enemies. After the
outside appearance of the disease is gone, they often go reaching
farther and farther into the body, making awful results that hang on
for years. Men who get diseased frequently give the infection to
their wives, often causing them to be so ill that surgical operations
are necessary, by which their sex organs are so crippled that they
can never be mothers; and, worst of all, innocent unborn babies are
infected and come into the world sick or deformed or blind.

Men often get these dreadful diseases by having sex relations with
women who are called prostitutes or “bad women,” that is, they are
women who are not in love with any one, but who make money by selling
their sex relations to men who pay for them. Many prostitutes become
diseased, and there is, as yet, no way for either them or the men who
visit them to be positively safe from infection. But the doctors are
making progress in their study of these diseases, and they are
finding out how to control and cure them, just as they have in the
case of tuberculosis.

But even if presently these venereal diseases, as they are called,
can be entirely cured and prevented, prostitution will still remain a
thing to hate. For the idea of sex relations between people who do
not love each other, who do not feel any sense of belonging to each
other, will always be revolting to highly developed, sensitive

People's lives grow finer and their characters better, if they have
sex relations only with those they love. And those who make the
wretched mistake of yielding to the sex impulse alone when there is
no love to go with it, usually live to despise themselves for their
weakness and their bad taste. They are always ashamed of doing it,
and they try to keep it secret from their families and those they
respect. You can be sure that whatever people are ashamed to do is
something that can never bring them real happiness. It is true that
one's sex relations are the most personal and private matters in the
world, and they belong just to us and to no one else, but while we
may be shy and reserved about them, _we are not ashamed_.

When two people really love each other, they don't care who knows it.
They are proud of their happiness. But no man is ever proud of his
connection with a prostitute and no prostitute is ever proud of her

Sex relations belong to love, and love is never a _business_. Love is
the nicest thing in the world, but it can't be bought. And the sex
side of it is the biggest and most important side of it, so it is the
one side of us that we must be absolutely sure to keep in good order
and perfect health, if we are going to be happy ourselves or make any
one else happy.


Some words were hyphenated inconsistently in the original pamphlet
(child-birth, fore-skin). This eText keeps the original hyphenation.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Sex Side of Life - An Explanation for Young People" ***

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