'Apostles of continence': Doctors and the doctrine of sexual necessity in Progressive-era America

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In the first decades of the twentieth century, a group of doctors under the banner of the social hygiene movement set out on what seemed an improbable mission: to convince American men that they did not need sex. This was in part a response to venereal disease. Persuading young men to adopt the standard of sexual discipline demanded of women was the key to preserving the health of the nation from the ravages of syphilis and gonorrhoea. But their campaign ran up against the doctrine of male sexual necessity, a doctrine well established in medical thought and an article of faith for many patients. Initially, social hygienists succeeded in rallying much of the medical community. But this success was followed by a series of setbacks. Significant dissent remained within the profession. Even more alarmingly, behavioural studies proved that many men simply were not listening. The attempt to repudiate the doctrine of male sexual necessity showed the ambition of Progressive-era doctors, but also their powerlessness in the face of entrenched beliefs about the linkage in men between sex, health and success.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-106
Number of pages18
JournalMedical History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Abstinence
  • Masculinity
  • Progressive Era
  • Sexuality
  • Social Hygiene
  • Venereal Disease

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