The “It” Man

Max J Exner

If Clara Bow was the “It” girl, Max Joseph Exner was the “It” man. Variously described as a “specialist in sex education,” “a public health officer with the YMCA” and “a prominent member of the social hygiene movement,” Exner was a YMCA conference speaker at Silver Bay in 1919 and 1921, and for many years a summer resident.

The Springfield College roommate of William Naismith, the inventor of basketball, Exner took the sport to Shanghai in 1908 as National Physical Director for the YMCA. But even then he may have had an ulterior motive. Writing about the onset of puberty in The Rational Sex Life for Men (1913), he noted, “It is the time when the young man needs especially to keep a strong grip on himself and resort to vigorous physical exercise and other powerful interests in order to divert sexual energy and the attention into other channels.”

Exner noted that young men who engaged in self-abuse would lose their health, their athletic prowess, their academic standing, and coarsen their feelings. In The Physician’s Answer (1913), he exhorted readers to keep themselves pure with married life in mind:

“There is but one normal sex life for the young man… and that is the life in which his sex problem is left wholly to the care of nature, in which his sex impulses are controlled and transmuted into finer stuff by resolute will and high ideals of life as a whole.”

For those who had already fallen prey to their darker urges, Exner held out this hope:

“In most cases if the individual stops the habit entirely—there can be no successful tapering off—keeps his mind clean, thoroughly develops his body, and lives a regular, wholesome life for six months, a year or two years as the case may require, nature will restore physical vitality and strength of will; and the individual will come into the position where self-respect is regained.”

The consequences were otherwise dire:

“Some years ago, the writer attended a YMCA meeting in which the speaker was discoursing on the power of Christ to deliver men from sin. In the rear of the house a tall, old man in ragged clothing, his face distorted in the agony of despair, cried out: ‘You don’t know what you are talking about. What can He do for me, a man sixty years old and a masturbator?’”

What a show-stopper. Exner wrote, “It had been the old story of alternate struggle and defeat until the habit had become so deeply rooted in his life as to dog his steps to the grave.”

“Petting,” not surprisingly, was also hazardous. Writing in The Question of Petting (1926), Exner maintained that petting was “a cultivation of a low order of love,” and added, “In petting, each is assuming responsibility for creating for the other, as well as for himself, a serious problem in self-control.”

Consorting with fast women or prostitutes was even worse.

“Not only is the seeker after illegitimate sex pleasure denied that which he seeks, but he is visited with the most terrible of retributions—the loss of the capacity for genuine love. Fear of gross physical consequences to himself and his future family should be a strong deterrent to an unchaste life.”

As for the “gross physical consequences,” the Mexican Border War and World War I created huge challenges. In April of 1917, Exner wrote:

“In all the European armies at the present time vice and its consequences constitute one of the most serious of army problems… during the first eighteen months of the war, one of the great powers had more men incapacitated for service by venereal diseases… than in all the fighting at the front.”

The problem was just as great along the border with Mexico, where Exner traveled to research the situation in person.

Max Exner with Soldiers

“It was my privilege to spend seven weeks among the troops on the border and in Mexico. I visited all the principal military camps; I dealt with a large number of men individually and intimately with regard to their personal sex problems… and I observed all the vice districts in company with competent guides.”

His findings on prostitution and venereal disease were daunting.

“The chief medical officer of one of the divisions told me that, a few days before, a prostitute came to a medical friend of his in the city for treatment. She was found to be in the active stage of syphilis, and during the previous two days had had sexual relations with 120 men.”

However, Exner was ultimately frustrated by the lack of official enthusiasm for his ideas and ideals. “Whenever I suggested the possibility of attacking not only the results of prostitution, but prostitution itself, I was looked upon as too idealistic, or as a dreaming, unpractical reformer.”

Friend or Enemy

All he could do was speak and write. His “Friend or Enemy” pamphlet had a circulation of more than two million copies among soldiers along the border with Mexico and in France. Exner sought “to lift the whole subject into a fine, inspiring atmosphere.” He wrote that, “Passion must be spiritualized.”

He may have been discouraged at times by the enormity of the challenge. Hopefully, his home life brought him some solace. He married Elizabeth Wells of Wisconsin in 1899 and they had four sons: Donald, Max Jr., Robert and Willard. The family had a camp at Silver Bay at least until 1925, and both Max Jr. and Willard were Silver Bay Emps in 1929.

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Titles by Max Exner:

The Physician’s Answer: Medical Authority and Prevailing Misconceptions about Sex (1913)

The Rational Sex Life for Men: An appeal for the single standard, with wise advice regarding the control of the sex instinct (1914)

Problems and Principles of Sex Education: a Study of 948 College Men (1915)

Friend or Enemy. To the Men of the Army and Navy (1916)

“Prostitution in its Relation to the Army on the Mexican Border.” Journal of Social Hygiene (1917) pp. 205-219

The Question of Petting (1926)