Sexual segregation is defined by the act of confining males and females separately. Sexual segregation has historically been employed institutionally to prevent males and females within a population from having contact with each other for moral, ideological, or biological reasons. In institutions dedicated to the care and custody of the “feeble-minded” sexual segregation was employed to inhibit sexual relations and prevent pregnancies in institutionalized girls and women. Most custodial institutions, including training schools, reformatories, and prisons, beginning in the nineteenth century segregated their populations by sex for practical as well as moral reasons.
Sexual segregation is eugenic when it is used to keep the members of a population from reproducing. During the twentieth century some regions, including the majority of Canadian provinces (with the exception of British Columbia and Alberta) favored sexual segregation as a more acceptable or more attainable form of negative eugenics than sexual sterilization. Policies meant to segregate females were more common than those targeting males. In these instances measures were taken to ensure the institutionalization of females diagnosed as mentally deficient for the duration of their child-bearing years. While the term segregation has often been linked to racial segregation, or the practice of minimizing the interactions between two or more ethnic groups, sexual segregation is institutional in practice whereas racial segregation often acts on non-custodial populations at the social and governmental levels.
Origin of Sexual Segregation Sexual segregation of institutionalized populations was originally intended as a moral measure to isolate and protect women from the influences and perceived dangers of men. In the majority of total institutions in the Western world (prisons, religious organizations and traditional mental hospitals or asylums as well as some types of schools) men and boys were believed to pose a serious threat to the virtue of the girls and women. When the threat of feeble-mindedness was constructed as heritable (an assertion that was often supported through the development of family studies), the danger to the population became increasingly centered on the reproductive capabilities of women who were believed to suffer from mental deficiency.
Fecundity of the Feeble-minded Family studies such as those of the Juke and Kallikak families, through which eugenicists endeavoured to show the heritability of mental deficiency and accompanying criminality and immorality, signalled the supposed fecundity of mentally deficient individuals. Family studies such as these claimed that the ratio of increase among families headed by feeble-minded parents far outstripped the rate of reproduction of so-called normal families. Eugenicists cited this proposed increase as evidence that the feeble-minded individual either could not or chose not to limit their family sizes and various solutions were sought. Francis Galton, in his Essays on Eugenics assumed that eugenic policy could be enforced through the regulation of marriage. He reasoned that if couples were required to provide proof of their eugenic fitness before being allowed to wed, the unfortunate problem of the rapidly expanding population of feeble-minded children would be kept in check. What later eugenicists quickly realized was that the individuals and families whose reproduction they sought to supervise were evading any possible system through common-law marriages and casual relationships, meaning that upper- and middle-class eugenicists were confronted with the problem of not only feeble-minded children but possibly illegitimate feeble-minded children.
The feeble-minded prostitute and the moron Compounding the apparent problem of the reproduction of the feeble-minded were the combined assumptions that most prostitutes were feeble-minded and the possibility that some men might not recognize that the women that they were fraternizing with might be feeble-minded. The development of categories of mental deficiency emphasized the substantial danger the female high-functioning moron posed to society.
Controlling Reproduction When confronted with the difficulty of imposing birth control upon families and women judged as unfit within society reformers increasingly sought ways to remove them from society. Through the imposition of standardized intelligence testing and increased surveillance through public health visits and the inspection of school children, individuals assessed as mentally deficient were gradually funnelled into institutions including training schools for the feeble-minded.
Preventing reproduction Once individuals who were perceived as being a threat to society through their reproductive capabilities were institutionalized, there was often substantial debate as to their future freedom. Some regions chose to enforce sexual sterilization and thereby ensure that institutionalized populations could be returned to society at a future date (often after having been trained in some manner of usefulness). Other regions, often due to interpretation of public sentiment, felt that sexual sterilization was too invasive and/or dangerous and instead instituted legislation which ensured the incarceration of individuals assessed as mentally defective for the entirety of their reproductive life.
Incorporated misogyny The image of the high functioning moron that was engrained on the popular imagination was generally female. She appeared as a possibly attractive young lady who lacked a moral compass, a sense of right from wrong, and the ability to abide by social convention or to support herself through “honest” work. Consequently the highly fecund moron was often presented as a prostitute, and the prostitute was often assumed to be a moron. This three-way association of mental deficiency, fecundity, and non-conforming femininity is reflected in the established tendency for the institutionalization of women during their childbearing years which characterizes the sexual segregation approach to negative eugenics.
Conclusion The use of sexual segregation as a eugenic method is both a part of and separate from sexual sterilization. Sexual segregation as a means of dividing institutionalized populations often occurred within institutions that also employed sterilization as a means to an end. However, sexual segregation also serves as its own means and end in regions that did not institute sexual sterilization. Through legislation actively designed to keep women of child-bearing age who were assessed as mentally deficient in custody until all possibility of motherhood had passed, eugenic policy was being enforced in a discrete and gendered way.
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