Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Self Abuse” and “Self Destruction”: Frank Talk in Relief Society, 1927

“Self Abuse” and “Self Destruction”: Frank Talk in Relief Society, 1927

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 21, 2011

How accurate is your mental image of our grandmothers’ Relief Society? Do you imagine them gathered around quilting frames? embroidering pillowcases for the bazaar? performing as Singing Mothers? holding a sisters-only testimony meeting? delivering boxes of groceries to a needy family? They did all that, and lots more like it.

But can you imagine them listening intently to, earnestly discussing, a lesson like the one below? While you might find the actual scientific content dated, read this with the idea of its opening a new window into the lives of our grandmothers and their willingness to tackle even the most uncomfortable subjects. Then tell us if you’ve learned anything new about your sisters of an earlier generation.

Social Service

(Fourth Week in April [1927])


Serious and difficult emotional problems are presented by the two adolescent girls, Jane and Henrietta. Both were the victims of unintelligent parents. The basis of these problems is not uncommon in adolescent development because of lack of understanding by their parents; one girl was on the verge of a mental breakdown, and the other was contemplating suicide. Both suffered these serious emotional upsets because of the lack of sex education and guidance.

It will be remembered from the introductory discussion of emotional problems that the individual has three dominant instincts or urges – the ego, or self; the herd, or social; and the sex or love instinct. the three instincts all seek expression, and if thwarted or frustrated cause emotional disturbances. The individual expresses his ego urge by accomplishing certain ends and experiencing the joy and satisfaction of expression. He satisfies his social urge by gaining the confidence and approval of his family, playmates, and friends. In the studies of the emotional problems of childhood, it has been pointed out that the failure to gain normal expression or the failure to gain approval seriously affects the development of the child. His defeats, and unhappiness, and sense of failure deeply affect his emotional life, limiting his development, and making his conduct abnormal.

In our home and school life the tendency has been to ignore inquiry into the other important instinct, sex. The subject has been a taboo. Because sex has been recognized as a compelling life force, but its aspects have not been generally understood, the whole subject has taken on an atmosphere of morbid secrecy.

Sex education is the responsibility of the home. The first questions of the origin and development of life are asked in the home. The relation between parents, the relation between parents and their children, the attitude of brothers and sisters toward one another, and toward their friends, are all phases of sex relationships, and depend on wholesome home guidance to lead the child to normal, healthful attitudes.

The method of sex education will not be the subject of this discussion, for the subject itself deserves special attention and study. The purpose of studying the problems of Jane and Henrietta is to observe the real dangers and pitfalls that endanger adolescents if, through lack of home guidance, they have wrong information concerning sex, and unwholesome attitudes because of their misconceptions.

Jane at nineteen was at the beginning of a mental breakdown. She was suffering from what is known as an anxiety neurosis. This condition was the result of a secret worry that she had tried to crowd out of her conscious life. In spite of her effort to forget her worry, the unconscious mind kept harboring and remembering until she came near a breakdown. All her anxiety, and nervousness, and weeping, and unhappiness, were the result of wrong sex information given her by her mother. She had at twelve, and again at sixteen met an experience not at all uncommon in childhood. Her mother had observed that she masturbated – practiced self-abuse – and had used the unintelligent method of correcting her by telling the child that she would go crazy if she did not stop the practice.

The mother filled the child’s life with fear, shame and inferiority. The girl felt herself unclean and unfit for friendships and love. The shame and self-reproach continued, for at no time was she given frank, sound, sex information.

Her other home guidance was also harmful. Her mother was most rigid and severe in her regulations concerning her friends and social life, and this close supervision intensified her feeling of weakness and impending dangers.

When she was given a frank explanation of the function of sex by the physician she consulted, her danger was past. Her doubts and fears disappeared as soon as the atmosphere of secrecy and accompanying feeling of shame were removed.

Our author states that this practice occurs frequently among children, and should call for attention but not anxiety. The hazard is not the effect on the mind or body, but the fears and anxieties aroused by the method of correction. parents should not express horror or instil fears to meet this behavior difficulty. Sympathetic understanding, patient teaching, and frankness by the parents will lead the child more readily to overcome the practice, and will not undermine his confidence and self-esteem.

Henrietta at sixteen found life dull, and contemplated self-destruction. Her thinking then led her to consider finding pleasure and securing pretty clothes by pursuing a course already adopted by her sister. her poverty, her lack of normal childhood amusement, made the course of abandoning her moral principles seem exciting and attractive.

It is not fair to pass judgment on Henrietta and girls in her position, for the attitude they develop. Youth is a time for amusements and gaieties, and if no wholesome recreation is afforded young persons, it is quite natural for them to seek it in thoughtless and unwise channels.

The developing sex impulse in adolescents needs to be better understood by parents. In homes where boys and girls meet frequently to play and dance and enjoy youth together, there is no great occasion for alarm. Where this harmless, natural association is denied, either by lack of a pleasant home or by too rigid puritanical standards, the frustrated impulse may lead to real difficulties.

Henrietta’s difficulties were both the lack of frank instruction, and the lack of constructive direction. the importance of children gaining their information regarding matters of health, of the life processes, and the ideal of parenthood in a sane, natural way, cannot be over-emphasized. In homes where questions are evaded and the subject of sex physiology and development is left a mystery, the child’s curiosity is not only stimulated but he develops a morbid attitude toward the whole subject. He then gains his information from sources such as his gang, and lurid magazines, and his entire conception of the part of sex in life becomes distorted. It becomes an unspeakable subject, one from which he gains an unwholesome pleasure in discussing and contemplating its unsavory aspects. the very mystery that his parents place upon the subject makes his attitude abnormal, morbid and unwholesome.

The child who receives frank answers to his early questions, and who has his own development explained to him in terms of ideals of parenthood is protected from this unpleasant and harmful speculation. Fore-armed with sound, accurate information from the parents whose sincerity he does not doubt, he will be able to dismiss the misinformation that he will later hear from his crowd or gang. He will also be spared the emotional upset when he finally realizes that his parents have deliberately given him false information.

Henrietta had further difficulty besides the lack of instruction. her home had given her no opportunity for the outlet of her emotional interests. The release of this emotional energy is important to give the individual normal stable personality. The inherent craving of individuals for emotional satisfaction is termed the libido. If the Libido finds expression for its great store of energy in harmless channels, the individual maintains a normal attitude towards life, and normal interests in the affairs of everyday living. If the libido finds no opportunity for release, that is, finds no emotional satisfaction in the daily associations, and in the regular scheme of living, the libido will find an outlet in some other channel, which may have undesirable effects on the person.

In terms of Henrietta her libido found no wholesome outlet. Her natural craving for emotional satisfaction was frustrated. her parents did not realize how important these satisfactions are, until the effect of her barren emotional life was explained to them.

The libido can find expression and satisfaction in many channels. Affection and appreciation in the home are sources of emotional release. Games, parties, outdoor sports, recreation, new clothes, success in work, are all easily recognized as sources of emotional satisfaction, and releases of emotional energy.

Henrietta responded to the treatment prescribed, and her near-sighted plans of securing clothes and pleasures by sacrificing her standards was forgotten. she was not scolded, nor lectured, nor criticized. No attempt was made to change her attitude by discussing her responsibilities and duties. Her thwarted emotional life made an intellectual appeal futile.

The treatment outlined was agreeable work away from home, where she found pleasure in her work and in being with children. her earnings made it possible for her to gain other small pleasures in the way of recreation. her days that had been spent in pent up brooding were now changed to active happy ones.

It is apparent that wholesome activity, recreation and pleasant associations are normal releases of the emotional life. Associations should be varied. there is some danger of too strong attachment between parents and children or two children. A mother, especially a widowed one, might devote herself too entirely to her only son or daughter. Two friends of the opposite sex at too early an age may make emotional ties that are upsetting when the necessity rises for separation. two friends of the same sex may also become too dependent on each other for their later happiness.

There are types of individuals who do not mingle with groups readily or frequently. Such social expression as possible should be encouraged in these persons, but it must be remembered that the emotional energy can find expression in channels other than amusement. Creative work of any kind has been identified with emotional life. Any expression, whether through poetry, painting, music or other create work, gives the person a real emotional satisfaction. This expression through creative effort, known as sublimation is the sex impulse released through other channels.

The program of sex education is based on frank information given by parents to children, and also on the direction of the emotional energy into channels of work, recreation, activity, and of its sublimation to satisfying, useful forms of expression.

References – Challenge of Childhood, Dr. Ira S. Wile, pages 215-227.


1. Why is frank sex information to children important?
2. Why should this information be given in the home?
3. What is meant by the libido?
4. How can the libido find expression in normal channels?
5. What are normal emotional satisfactions for adolescents?
6. What are the dangers of lack of emotional expression?
7. What treatment was outlined for Henrietta?
8. What is meant by sublimation?



  1. Who is this guy Frank and why does he always have to job of talking about this?

    Comment by Carol — February 21, 2011 @ 7:32 am

  2. I’m surprised by both the attitude and the instruction here. I think it’s a remarkably useful lesson, and I’d love to see how it would be received today.

    Comment by Dane — February 21, 2011 @ 8:08 am

  3. … and what’s he doing in Relief Society, anyway?

    Seriously, did this lesson fit your mental image of your grandmother’s Relief Society?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 21, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  4. Thanks, Dane. It seems to fit in with the progressive (and aggressive) attention to social ills by the Relief Society of that era. I think the closest we would ever get today is a generic chastity lesson, with its usual emphasis on “how can we teach this to our families?”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 21, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  5. This is awesome! I’m old enough to remember when R.S. meet twice a week. Even when I entered R.S. the monthly Homemaking tried to give really practical lessons a little like this.
    I think in these days we expect our R.S. members to be more educated and R.S. does not take on the role of educating its members except in spiritual types of things.

    Comment by jks — February 21, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  6. jks, that’s a good point. I hear others reminisce (and find myself reminiscing as well) for the meaty, challenging sorts of lessons I see posted here at Keepa. However, I guess it’s easy for me to forget just how much has changed in the general environment of access to knowledge and education — many church members are capable of discovering as much (or as little) information as they are interested in finding on their own.

    Comment by Dane — February 21, 2011 @ 9:53 am

  7. A little Freudian for my taste, but other than that, Wow. I can’t imagine this lesson being taught, even more surprised that it apparently was taught 80 years ago.

    I’m aware of a local relief society whose members are having issues with internet pornography usage (we usually think of this as a male issue, but . . . . ) The RS President was asked by the Bishop two seperate times to give a “frank” lesson on the subject. The first time, she ignored it entirely. The second time, she gave a vague and nervous lesson about “chastity” that was apparently useless.

    I’m not old enough to have lived through it, but are our Puritanical approaches mostly a reactionary movement to the “Sexual Revolution” of the sixties and seventies? I see talks and lessons from the twenties and thirties and they seem much more progressive than anything I’ve seen from the first couple decades of my life.

    Comment by B.Russ — February 21, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  8. Never would I ever have imagined my mother or grandmother being in such as Relief Society lesson as this one but you know what, good for them for teaching it to the women in the church back then. Yes, it is somewhat dated, but being frank and honest about issues does much more good than bad and generates a level of trust between all who sincerely are involved in the conversation…hence the appeal of Blogs, in my opinion!

    Comment by Cliff — February 21, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  9. We need more frank and honest discussion?

    One of the youth Sunday School teachers in my ward who teaches a large group of 12 and 13 year olds is very much that way — in fact “frank and honest” could probably eventually be engraved on her gravestone. Anyway, yesterday, one of the meek 12 year olds in her class raised her hand and asked, “What’s immorality?”

    The resulting answer was so frank and honest that I think I just heard about a Sunday lesson from my son for the first time in his entire life.

    Comment by Researcher — February 21, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  10. So what profound and age-appropriate answer did she give?

    Comment by Paul — February 21, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  11. Profound, age-appropriate, and to a mixed audience of usually modest tweens!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 21, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  12. I’ve seen a number of references in the first third of the 20th century regarding the responsibility of RS to provide sex education. This however is the first actual document I have seen on the topic. I’m actually pretty impressed with the openness of it all.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 21, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  13. I can’t imagine the word masturbation ever being used in our RS. The roof would fall in for sure.

    Comment by n[r]2 — February 21, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

  14. I think this type of material would be a welcome addition to the bland diet typical of 3rd hour meetings. While jks (#5) points out that members today are better educated and have better access to resources, I still believe that there is real value is discussing actual “how-I-did-this-with-my-family” stuff, and doing so with others that share your general values and outlook on life.

    I say, bring it back!

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  15. This is a very thoughtful and balanced discussion. Tolerant, informative and reassuring with an emphasis on gentle correction instead of the fear and hysteria I’m sorry I was treated to in my early MIA discussions of such topics.

    I can’t answer your question, B.Russ, about how to account for what seems to be a puritanical shift in the discourse within Mormonism, but the frank and open tone of this article reminded me a lot of the pre-code films of the thirties. Those are always amazing social documents which treat sexual issues and social ills in startlingly compelling and sympathetic ways.

    Comment by Mina — February 22, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

  16. Hmm. Apparently my great-grandmother was in bed with pneumonia the day this lesson was taught, because all the women in my family, down to myself didn’t even have Frank to talk to and were completely blindsided by puberty and its consequences. I guess that’s what they invented encyclopedias and schoolyards for?

    And I had supposed everyone else in those days suffered the same, shoot.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 23, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  17. A slightly unfortunate choice of metaphor there, Moniker. One must be so very careful never to use any variation of the word “blind” when talking about this subject.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 23, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  18. When I read this I couldn’t help but imagine a group of little old ladies filing out of the RS room giggling with each other. :-)

    I agree with the sentiments alraedy shared that we could use frank discussions in Priesthood/RS on the subject of sexuality. We avoid and water down meaningful discussions.

    I’m actually not surprized with this post. Given that during the 1920s the RS saw itself in part as a Progressive Era social organization (a number of RS leaders had worked at Hull House), it would seem part of its mission to address issues of sexuality.

    Comment by Steve C. — February 23, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  19. #17 Well, since I still haven’t had “the talk” I got no idea what you’re talking about.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 23, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  20. Moniker, it’s a folk belief (or at least a threat repeated by generations of adults to children) that masturbation will make you go blind.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 23, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  21. I find it interesting that they mention that frequent, healthy, mixed-gender interaction helps to properly channel the drive for sexual urges.

    So different from much of the cultural discourse today.

    Comment by SilverRain — April 19, 2011 @ 9:45 am

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