America's Biggest Problem? Fearless Dr. Mary Calderone Says It's 'Fear of Sex'

updated 01/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1980 01:00AM

The aristocratic woman with the Wedgwood blue eyes, majestic manner and lyrical voice sits comfortably among 17 seminar students at Syracuse University's Institute for Family Research and Education. "You must remember," she says, "that for most people until very recently sex was something you did in bed, preferably in the dark in one position...and fully clothed." The students laugh appreciatively. Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone goes on: "You know, there is a word ending in 'k' which means intercourse. Do you know what it is?" Several in the class give the obvious answer. "How about another?" she asks. "How about 'talk'? That is sexual intercourse. We never talk to each other as nonsexual people. I am not talking to you as a nonsexual person. I am well aware of my sexuality and very happy with it."

What Margaret Sanger did for birth control and Rachel Carson for the environment, Calderone, now 75, has done for sex education. Her work, like theirs, has profoundly changed the quality of life in this century. "She's one of the great figures of our era who opened people's minds," says Dr. Karl Menninger, chairman of the famed Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kans. "Freud did so. Jung did so. Mary Calderone and Margaret Sanger have been the only women."

Calderone rose to national prominence in the late 1950s as medical director of the Planned Parenthood Federation (founded by Sanger) and by 1964 had convinced the AMA that family planning is a matter of responsible medical practice. "It is very hard to believe that was only 15 years ago," she says, "because birth control has come so far." Looking for new challenges, she left that same year to co-found the controversial Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), which serves teachers, therapists and other professionals. By 1968 Calderone was condemned by the John Birch Society as "an aging sexual libertine." She was picketed in Oklahoma: "Tulsa's Shame! Calderone Came!" read one placard. Fears about what sex education might do to schoolchildren spread to some parents and church groups. "I expected someone to take a potshot at me," she says of those early days.

Now Calderone is moving her fight for sexual liberation of the spirit and body into America's homes. SIECUS has launched a fund-raising drive—since the beginning it has received only one government grant of $30,000—to establish Parent Learning Centers to educate adults about their own sexuality and their children's. "Today," says Calderone, "parents are paralyzed and silent with their children about natural sexuality, which is every child's birthright. Before the child ever gets to school it will have received crucial, almost irrevocable sex education and this will have been taught by the parents, who are not aware of what they are doing."

A child, Calderone says, is sexual even before birth: "We know now that the penis erects in the uterus. And when the infant is born, the parents immediately begin to communicate to the child that it is a boy or a girl. For example, fathers are more gentle handling baby girls. Gender identity is fixed by the age of 2. Finally, there is the disapproving attitude of the parents toward the child's discovery that his body is pleasurable. Parents reflect our sexophobic society."

Although masturbation was considered unhealthy and dangerous when Calderone was growing up, many doctors now view it as not only acceptable but desirable. "Parents should not punish the things that are part of being human," she says. "What you do is socialize. You teach that these are private things for the child alone. Then when he's older, sex will be with someone else whom he'll choose. Later, parents can teach children how to give and receive love because that is the real role of the family—not just providing shelter, food, education and recreation."

Mary learned that primal lesson from her father, the renowned photographer Edward Steichen, who was also the brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. "My father brought me up with the idea that I could do anything I want," she says proudly. (As an old man, Steichen once took the floor at a Planned Parenthood meeting that Mary chaired, and blurted out: "I just want everyone to know that's my baby!") "Mary was always Daddy's girl," recalls sister Kate, now 71, "and I was always Mommy's. It was a split family." Sadly, Mary's relationship with her mother, Clara, was the most destructive of her young life, and after age 22 she never saw her mother. "I was a very difficult child," she recalls, "and it scared my mother to death. I am sorry. I cry about it once in a while now because I know she was lonely." Mary finally made peace with those memories last year when her own daughter Lin, 51, a transactional analyst, helped her understand and forgive the fragile Clara.

Mary's life with Father was exciting. She grew up near Paris where he was working, surrounded by the leading young artists of the day. Isadora Duncan asked Steichen to let Mary join her dance troupe. "He said, 'No,' thank God!" Mary laughs.

Like her father, she had a strong personality. At 6 she brazenly told sculptor Constantin Brancusi that he had erred when making L'Oiseau d'Or. "No bird could sing with its head [horizontal] like that," she argued, standing amid the beauty of her father's garden. Brancusi lifted the head in his later bird sculptures.

Returning to America in 1914, Mary lived for five years in the Manhattan home of Dr. Leopold Stieglitz, brother of Steichen's photographic colleague Alfred, while she attended private school. In 1925 she graduated from Vassar and a year later married W. Lon Martin, an actor. "He was a very beautiful young man," she recalls, "but the marriage did him as much harm as it did me." Both pursued stage careers (Steichen took her publicity photographs). Several years and two daughters later the young couple abandoned acting and their marriage. During this period Mary underwent two years of Freudian analysis and worked briefly—and unsuccessfully—as a saleswoman at a Brooklyn department store. In 1934 she took courses at Columbia University Medical School, placing her daughters Nell, 8, and Lin, 6, in boarding school in Massachusetts. Nell died the next year of pneumonia, plunging her mother into the deepest and most bitter emotional crisis of her life. "Nell was very much like me," Mary says. "She looked like me and had a powerful personality. I had to come back the week after she died and take my exams. A week later I had a hysterectomy scheduled. That was some three-week period."

After the operation she was relieved to learn that the doctors had not removed her uterus. She spent that summer recovering at her father's place in Connecticut. "I don't really know what I did except hate the world for taking my child," she says. "Then I felt suddenly that if I reached my hand backward and forward in time, hundreds of thousands of other mothers who had lost children would touch me. I was just one of many."

In 1939 she received her diploma from the University of Rochester Medical School, and three years later took a master's in public health at Columbia. There she met her second husband, Dr. Frank Calderone, who later served as chief administrative officer of the World Health Organization. They married in 1941 and had two daughters: Francesca, 36, who is studying medical anthropology, and Maria, 33, now in veterinary school in Ohio. Last year the Calderones surprised acquaintances by separating. The only comment Mary will make is, "We are not going to be divorced." Says daughter Maria, "I think they still love each other, they just can't live together." Mary, who describes herself laughingly as "a Kinsey zero" (strictly heterosexual), has many male friends. "Just friends," she emphasizes. "Men find me attractive."

When it came to her own children's sex education, Mary admits that it was a typical case of benign neglect. "I had been very damaged by my mother's negative attitude about my masturbation—which didn't stop it, by the way. So I said to myself, 'I won't hurt my children.' I simply adopted a neutral approach. I have talked to my daughters since about this because we are very, very close. And they agree that while I didn't do any harm, I didn't help them either. But don't forget I had two children in the 1920s and two in the 1940s. I didn't get into this field until I was 60."

Her own sexual liberation, she admits, was difficult. To change her thinking and prepare herself professionally, she spent several weekends at group sessions called Sex Attitude Reassessment (SAR). "You are subjected to a barrage of images," she explains. "All the way from bestiality to couplings of heterosexuals and homosexuals. No child porn, however. Then you go write on a blackboard all the words you can think of that are sexual. You do this to desensitize yourself, to realize that talking and saying and thinking are not the things that make sex."

As head of SIECUS, Mary logs 100,000 miles a year lecturing and being interviewed on such subjects as pornography ("It does not produce crime. Lack of it may"), homosexual rights ("I would like gays to be liberated from heterosexual values about them"), sex for the handicapped and elderly ("What we have is a large segment of our society trying to de-sexualize the rest") and abortion ("I would like to see the need for it removed"). In some 100 speeches a year, she offers startling research: e.g., among abused children, approximately 90 percent have been born by cesarean section, and 25 to 30 percent were premature. "Cesarean mothers are knocked out for 24 hours and miss the pair-bonding that takes place in the first two or three hours," Calderone explains.

Inside the human sexuality movement, Calderone is respected not only for her approach to the issues but also for her managerial skills. Says Wardell Pomeroy, co-author of the Kinsey report: "Mary tends to be a very positive person. In committees she will listen to what people have to say. She can command and weld different points of view and different ideas into, some positive whole."

At SIECUS she finds time to edit a bimonthly report, for which she occasionally writes reviews of professional publications. Next summer The Family Book about Sexuality, which she co-authored with Eric Johnson, will be published by Lippincott & Crowell. It has been picked as a Literary Guild alternate.

Mary's major worry these days is raising money for SIECUS. She recently had to cut her staff from eight to five. "It's very discouraging," she admits. "Parents are really ripe to learn now. They hear about sex. They are seeing sex, reading about it. We are at a watershed moment. America's biggest problem is fear of sex."

Off-hours Calderone is developing a new personal life. Six months ago she moved into a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in mid-Manhattan, where she can be found on weekends baking bread (brioche, French peasant and whole wheat) and cooking gourmet meals. "I relax on Sundays and read the paper," she says. "I don't buy it during the week."

As a woman Mary has nurtured both her striking looks and her health. She wears contact lenses and has had a facelift. "I had a youthful body," she explains, "and my face didn't go with it. I felt like two different people. I had everything done from the collarbones up." She also has had operations for bunions and varicose veins. "I am all for preventive surgery."

A byproduct of her French upbringing is frugality. "I don't waste anything, including my time." She shops for clothes by catalogue and wears them for as long as 20 years. She has also streamlined her life to spartan simplicity. "I have two handbags and two pairs of space shoes—black for winter and beige for summer."

Her daughters marvel at their mother's spirit. "This is probably the happiest I have ever seen her," says Francesca. "She doesn't worry anymore about things that are not worth worrying about. She is far nicer than she was when she was 50. She can still be difficult. She can dominate a conversation. But she's gentler. She's warmer. She's more caring. She is going to have a very powerful old age."

With her Brahmin strength, intelligence and drive, Calderone probably would have made her mark in any field. The achievement she seems proudest of is her development as a human being. "I have been growing all my life," she says, "but only in the last two years have I become the person I was meant to be."

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