Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall

Author: David Graham Phillips

Before the Curtain

A few years ago, as to the most important and most interesting subject in the world, the relations of the sexes, an author had to choose between silence and telling those distorted truths beside which plain lying seems almost white and quite harmless. And as no author could afford to be silent on the subject that underlies all subjects, our literature, in so far as it attempted to deal with the most vital phases of human nature, was beneath contempt. The authors who knew they were lying sank almost as low as the nasty-nice purveyors of fake idealism and candied pruriency who fancied they were writing the truth. Now it almost seems that the day of lying conscious and unconscious is about run. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

There are three ways of dealing with the sex relations of men and women—two wrong and one right.

For lack of more accurate names the two wrong ways may be called respectively the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental. Both are in essence processes of spicing up and coloring up perfectly innocuous facts of nature to make them poisonously attractive to perverted palates. The wishy-washy literature and the wishy-washy morality on which it is based are not one stage more—or less—rotten than the libertine literature and the libertine morality on which it is based. So far as degrading effect is concerned, the "pure, sweet" story or play, false to nature, false to true morality, propagandist of indecent emotions disguised as idealism, need yield nothing to the so-called "strong" story. Both pander to different forms of the same diseased craving for the unnatural. Both produce moral atrophy. The one tends to encourage the shallow and unthinking in ignorance of life and so causes them to suffer the merciless penalties of ignorance. The other tends to miseducate the shallow and unthinking, to give them a ruinously false notion of the delights of vice. The Anglo-Saxon "morality" is like a nude figure salaciously draped; the Continental "strength" is like a nude figure salaciously distorted. The Anglo-Saxon article reeks the stench of disinfectants; the Continental reeks the stench of degenerate perfume. The Continental shouts "Hypocrisy!" at the Anglo-Saxon; the Anglo-Saxon shouts "Filthiness!" at the Continental. Both are right; they are twin sisters of the same horrid mother. And an author of either allegiance has to have many a redeeming grace of style, of character drawing, of philosophy, to gain him tolerance in a clean mind.

There is the third and right way of dealing with the sex relations of men and women. That is the way of simple candor and naturalness. Treat the sex question as you would any other question. Don’t treat it reverently; don’t treat it rakishly. Treat it naturally. Don’t insult your intelligence and lower your moral tone by thinking about either the decency or the indecency of matters that are familiar, undeniable, and unchangeable facts of life. Don’t look on woman as mere female, but as human being. Remember that she has a mind and a heart as well as a body. In a sentence, don’t join in the prurient clamor of "purity" hypocrites and "strong" libertines that exaggerates and distorts the most commonplace, if the most important feature of life. Let us try to be as sensible about sex as we are trying to be about all the other phenomena of the universe in this more enlightened day.

Nothing so sweetens a sin or so delights a sinner as getting big-eyed about it and him. Those of us who are naughty aren’t nearly so naughty as we like to think; nor are those of us who are nice nearly so nice. Our virtues and our failings are—perhaps to an unsuspected degree—the result of the circumstances in which we are placed. The way to improve individuals is to improve these circumstances; and the way to start at improving the circumstances is by looking honestly and fearlessly at things as they are. We must know our world and ourselves before we can know what should be kept and what changed. And the beginning of this wisdom is in seeing sex relations rationally. Until that fundamental matter is brought under the sway of good common sense, improvement in other directions will be slow indeed. Let us stop lying—to others—to ourselves.


July, 1908.


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Chicago: David Graham Phillips, "Before the Curtain," Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917), Original Sources, accessed June 14, 2024,

MLA: Phillips, David Graham. "Before the Curtain." Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, Vol. 22, New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917, Original Sources. 14 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Phillips, DG, 'Before the Curtain' in Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Susan Lenox, Her Rise and Fall, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 14 June 2024, from