PREVALENCE OF IMPURITY AMONG BOYS: THE AUTHOR'S OWN EXPERIENCE.
Of the perils which beset the growing boy all are recognised, and, in a measure, guarded against except the most inevitable and most fatal peril of all. In all that concerns the use and abuse of the reproductive organs the great majority of boys have hitherto been left without adult guidance, and have imbibed their ideas from the coarser of their companions and from casual references to the subject in the Bible and other books. Under these conditions very few boys escape two of the worst dangers into which it is possible for a lad to fall—the artificial stimulation of the reproductive organs and the acquisition of degraded ideas on the subject of sex. That many lives are thus prematurely shortened, that many constitutions are permanently enfeebled, that very many lads who might otherwise have striven successfully against the sexual temptations of adult life succumb—almost without a struggle—to them, can be doubted by no one who is familiar with the inner life of boys and men.
Of these two evils, self-abuse, though productive of manifold and disastrous results, is distinctly the less. Many boys outgrow the physical injuries which, in ignorance, they inflict upon themselves in youth; but very few are able wholly to cleanse themselves from the foul desires associated in their minds with sex. These desires make young men impotent in the face of temptation. Under their evil dominance, even men of kind disposition will, by seduction, inflict on an innocent girl agony, misery, degradation, and premature death. They will indulge In the most degrading of all vices with prostitutes on the street. They will defile the atmosphere of social life with filthy talk and ribald jest. Even a clean and ennobling passion can do little to redeem them. The pure stream of human love is made turbid with lust. After a temporary uplifting in marriage the soul is again dragged down, marriage vows are broken and the blessings of home life are turned into wormwood and gall.
That a system so destructive of physical and of spiritual health should have lasted almost intact until now will, I believe, shortly become a matter for general amazement; for while evidence of the widespread character of youthful perversion is a product of quite recent years, the assumptions on which this system has been based are unreasonable and incapable of proof.
Since conclusive evidence of the prevalence of impurity among boys is available, I will not at present invite the reader to examine the assumptions which lead most people to a contrary belief. When I do so, I shall hope to demonstrate that we might reasonably expect to find things precisely as they are. In the first and second chapters we shall see to what conclusions teachers who have actual experience in the matter have been led.
There are several teachers whose authority in most matters stands so very much above my own that it might seem presumptuous to begin by laying my own experiences before the reader; but I venture to take this course because no other teacher, as far as I know, has published quite such definite evidence as I have done; and I think that the more general statements of such eminent men as Canon Lyttelton, Mr. A.C. Benson, and Dr. Clement Dukes will appeal to the reader more powerfully when he has some idea of the manner in which conclusions on this subject may be reached. I have some reason, also, for the belief that the paper I read in 1908 at the London University before the International Congress on Moral Education has been considered of great significance by very competent judges. By a special decision of the Executive of the Congress it—alone of all sectional papers—was printed in extenso in the official report. Later on, it came under the notice of Sir R. Baden-Powell, at whose request it was republished in the Headquarters Gazette—the official organ of the Boy Scout movement.
It certainly did require some courage at the time to put my results before the public, for I was not then aware that men of great eminence in the educational world had already made equally sweeping, if less definite, statements. Emboldened by this fact and by the commendations above referred to, I venture to quote the greater part of this short paper.
"The opinions I am about to put forward are based almost entirely on my own twenty years' experience as a housemaster. My house contains forty-eight boys, who vary in age from ten to nineteen and come from comfortable middle-class homes.
"Private interviews with individual boys in my study have been the chief vehicle of my teaching and the chief source of my information. My objects in these interviews have been to warn boys against the evils of private impurity, to supply them with a certain amount of knowledge on sexual subjects in order to prevent a prurient curiosity, and to induce them to confide to me the history of their own knowledge and difficulties. In my early days I interviewed those only who appeared to me to be obviously suffering from the effects of impurity, and, of late years, the extreme pressure of my work has forced me very reluctantly to recur to this plan.
"For several years, however, I was accustomed to interview every boy under my care during his first term with me. Very rarely have I failed in these interviews so to secure a boy's confidence as to learn the salient facts of the history of his inner life. Sunday afternoon addresses to the Sixth Form on the sexual dangers of late youth and early manhood have resulted at times in elder boys themselves seeking an interview with me. Such spontaneous confidences have naturally been fuller, and therefore more instructive, than the confidences I have invited.
"Many people are inclined to look upon the instruction of boys in relation to adolescence as needless and harmful; needless because few boys, they imagine, awake to the consciousness and problems of sex until manhood; harmful because the pristine innocence of the mind is, they think, destroyed, and evils are suggested of which a boy might otherwise remain unconscious. To one who knows what boys really are such ideas are nothing less than ludicrous.
"Boys come to our school from many different classes of preparatory and secondary schools. Almost every such school seems to possess a few boys who delight to initiate younger boys into sexual knowledge, and usually into knowledge of solitary vice. The very few boys who have come to me quite ignorant of these matters have come either straight from home at ten or eleven, or from a school in which a few young boys are educated with girls. Of boys who have come under my care as late as twelve I have known but two who even professed total ignorance on sexual subjects, and in one of these cases I am quite sure that no such ignorance existed.
"In a large majority of cases solitary vice has been learned and practised before a boy has got into his teens. The lack of insight parents display in relation to these questions is quite phenomenal. The few who mention the subject to me are always quite satisfied of the complete 'innocence' of their boys. Some of the most precocious and unclean boys I have known have been thus confidently commended to me. Boys are wholly unsuspicious of the extent to which their inner life lies open to the practised eye, and they feel secure that nothing can betray their secrets if they themselves do not.
"In no department of our life are George Eliot's words truer than in this department: 'Our daily familiar life is but a hiding of ourselves from each other behind a screen of trivial words and deeds, and those who sit with us at the same hearth are often the farthest off from the deep human soul within us—full of unspoken evil and unacted good.' We cannot prevent a boy's obtaining information on sexual questions. Our choice lies between leaving him to pick it up from unclean and vulgar minds, which will make it guilty and impure, and giving it ourselves in such a way as to invest it from the first with a sacred character.
"Another idea which my experience proves to be an entire delusion is the idea that a boy's natural refinement is a sufficient protection against defilement. Some of the most refined boys I have had the pleasure of caring for have been pronounced victims of solitary sin. That it is a sin at all, that it has, indeed, any significance, either ethical or spiritual, has not so much as occurred to most of them. On what great moral question dare we leave the young to find their own way absolutely without guidance? In this most difficult and dangerous of all questions we leave the young soul, stirred by novel and blind impulses, to grope in the darkness. Is it any wonder if it fails to see things in their true relations?
"Again, it is sometimes thought that the consequences of secret sin are so patent as to deter a boy from the sin itself. So far is this from being the case that I have never yet found a single boy (even among those who have, through it, made almost complete wrecks physically and mentally) who has of himself connected these consequences with the sin itself. I have, on the other hand, known many sad cases in which, through the weakening of will power, which this habit causes, boys of high ideals have fallen again and again after their eyes have been fully opened. This sin is rarely a conscious moral transgression. The boy is a victim to be sympathised with and helped, not an offender to be reproved and punished."
I desire to call the attention of the reader to two points in the foregoing extract. I was particular in giving my credentials to state the character and limitations of my experience. Everywhere in life one finds confident and sweeping generalisations made by men who have little or no experience to appeal to. This is specially the case in the educational world, and perhaps most of all in discussions on this very subject. Some men, at least, are willing to instruct the public with nothing better to guide them than the light of Nature. It would greatly assist the quest of truth if everyone who ventures to address the public on this question would first present his credentials.
There is danger lest the reader should discount the significance of the statements I make in the foregoing paper by falling into the error of supposing that the facts stated apply, after all, to one school only. This is not by any means so. The facts have been collected at one school; but those which refer to the prevalence of sex knowledge and of masturbation have reference solely to the condition of boys when they first entered, and are significant of the conditions which obtain at some scores of schools and in many homes. I venture here to quote and to warmly endorse Canon Lyttelton's opinion: "It is, however, so easy to be misunderstood in this matter that I must insert a caution against an inference which may be drawn from these words, viz. that school life is the origin of immorality among boys. The real origin is to be found in the common predisposition to vicious conceptions, which is the result of neglect. Nature provides in almost every case an active curiosity on this subject; and that curiosity must be somehow allayed; and if it were not allayed at school, false and depraved ideas would be picked up at home.... So readily does an ignorant mind at an early age take in teaching about these subjects that there are no conceivable conditions of modern social life not fraught with grave peril to a young boy, if once he has been allowed to face them quite unprepared, either by instruction or by warning. And this manifestly applies to life at home, or in a day-school, or in a boarding-school to an almost equal degree."[A]
[A] Training of the Young in Relation to Sex, p. 1 et seq.
One of the facts which I always tried to elicit from boys was the source of their information, or rather the character of that source, for I was naturally anxious not to ask a boy to incriminate any individual known to me. In many cases, information came first to the boy at home from a brother, or cousin, or casual acquaintance, or domestic servant. In one of the worst cases I have known the information was given to a boy by another boy—an entire stranger to him—whom he happened to meet on a country road when cycling. Since boys meet one another very much more at school than elsewhere and spend three-fourths of their lives there, of course information is more often obtained at school than at home. My own experience leads me to think that in this respect the day-school—probably on account of its mixed social conditions—is worse than the boarding-school.
Before passing from matters of personal experience, it may interest the reader if I give particulars of a few typical cases to illustrate some points on which I have insisted.
Case A.—The father and mother of a boy close on thirteen came to see me before entering the lad. They had no idea that I was specially interested in purity-teaching; but they were anxious to ascertain what precautions we took against the corruption of small boys. They struck me as very good parents. I was specially pleased that they were alive to the dangers of impurity, and that the mother could advert openly to the matter without embarrassment. I advised them to give the boy explicit warning; but they said that they were anxious to preserve his innocence as long as possible. He was at present absolutely simple, and they hoped that he would long remain so. It was a comfort to them that I was interested in the subject, and they would leave the boy with confidence in my care. As soon as I saw the boy, I found it difficult to believe in his innocence; and I soon discovered that he was thoroughly corrupt. Not merely did he begin almost at once to corrupt other boys, but he actually gave them his views on brothels! In a private interview with me he admitted all this, and told me that he was corrupted at ten years of age, when he was sent, after convalescence from scarlet fever, to a country village for three months. There he seems to have associated with a group of street boys, who gave him such information as they had, and initiated him into self-abuse. Since then he had been greedily seeking further information and passing it on.
Case B.—A delicate, gentle boy of eleven, an only son, was sent to me by an intellectual father, who had been his constant companion. The lad was very amiable and well-intentioned. A year later he gave me particulars of his corruption by a cousin, who was three years older than he. Since that time—particularly of late—he had practised masturbation. He had not the least idea that it was hurtful or even unrefined, and thought that it was peculiar to himself and his cousin. He knew from his cousin the chief facts of maternity and paternity, but had not spoken to other boys about them. He was intensely anxious to cleanse himself entirely, and promised to let me know of any lapse, should it occur. In the following vacation he developed pneumonia. For some days his life hung in the balance, and then flickered out. His father wrote me a letter of noble resignation. Terribly as he felt his loss, he was greatly consoled, he said, by the knowledge that his boy had died while his mind was innocent and before he could know even what temptation was. It is needless to add that I never hinted the real facts to the father; and—without altering any material detail—I am disguising the case lest it should possibly be recognised by him. I have often wondered whether, when the lad's life hung in the balance, it might not have been saved if Death's scale had not been weighted by the child's lowered vitality.
Case C.—A boy of fourteen came to me. He was a miserable specimen in every way—pale, lethargic, stupid almost beyond belief. He had no mother; and the father, though a man of leisure, evidently found it difficult to make the lad much of a companion. I felt certain from the first that the boy was an exceptionally bad victim of self-abuse; And this I told his father, advising him to investigate the matter. He was horrified at my diagnosis, and committed the great indiscretion of taxing the boy with self-abuse as though it were a conscious and grave fault. The father wrote during the vacation saying that he found I was entirely mistaken: not, content with the lad's assurance, he had watched him with the utmost care. As soon as the boy returned to school I interviewed him. He admitted readily that he had long masturbated himself daily—sometimes oftener. He had first—as far as he could remember, at about six—had his private parts excited by his nurse, who apparently did this to put an irritable child into a good temper! My warning had little effect upon him, as he had become a hopeless victim. He was too delicate a boy for us to desire to keep; and after a brief stay at school, during which we nursed him through a critical illness, he left to finish his education under private tuition at home.
Case D.—This boy came to me at thirteen. He was always a conscientious and amiable boy, but was nervous and dull. By fifteen his dullness had increased, and he complained of brain-strain and poorness of memory. Finally he began to develop St. Vitus's dance. I sent him to our school doctor, who returned him with a note saying that his condition was serious—that he must stop all work, &c. &c. I was in my study when the lad came back, and I at once told him what was the matter. He frankly admitted frequent self-abuse, which he had learned from an elder brother. He had not the least suspicion that the habit was injurious; but was very apprehensive about his future until I reassured him. He wanted me to write at once and warn a younger brother who had fallen into the habit. By great effort he got himself rapidly under control. His nervous twitchings disappeared, his vitality improved, the brain-fag gradually ceased; and when he left, eighteen months later, he was fairly normal. His improvement continued afterwards, and he is now a successful man of business and a married man.
Case E.—This boy entered at twelve. He was very weak physically and highly nervous—owing, his people thought, to severe bullying at a previous school. He was an able boy, of literary and artistic tastes, and almost painfully conscientious. He was very shy; always thought that he was despised by other boys; and was a duffer at games, which he avoided to the utmost. With my present experience I should have known him to be a victim of self-abuse. Then, I did not suspect him; and it was not until he was leaving at eighteen for the University that we talked the matter over, on his initiative. Then I found that he had been bullied into impurity at eleven, and was now a helpless victim. After two years at the University he wrote me that, though the temptation now came less frequently, he seemed absolutely powerless when it did come; that he despised himself so much that the impulse to suicide often haunted him; but that the cowardice which had kept him from games at school would probably prevent his taking his life. With the assistance of an intense and devoted religious life he gradually began to gain self-mastery. It is some years now since he has mentioned the subject to me.
These are merely specimen cases. Cases A, B, and C illustrate my assertions that parents are wonderfully blind; Cases B and E, that quite exceptional refinement in a boy gives no protection from temptation to impurity; Case D, that a boy, even in an extreme case, does not know that the habit is injurious. In respect of their severity, C, D, and E are not normal but extreme cases. The reader must not imagine that boys ordinarily suffer as much as these did.