Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bored by Sex

Not THAT kind of sex. Literature-classroom sex, the wordy two-dimensional substitute for the real thing.

Although I’m firmly committed to the law of chastity, I don’t think I’m a prude. I think it’s possible and at times necessary to discuss sex publicly and that it can and should be done with both maturity and candor. For example, I don’t think youth or adults are well served by chastity lessons that consist mostly of the vague injunction “Don’t do it.” And of course, sex really _is_ part of literature. I once taught a literature class at BYU and noticed halfway through the semester that in one way or another it had come up in every single text (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Marx, Ibsen…) we had studied. I finally threw up my hands and facetiously told the class that the chance to read about sex is the whole reason to major in literature instead of math.

But just how much sex do we need to find? In some academic contexts it comes to seem relentless, and also adolescent. And Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse (tee-hee—sex in the Bible!) Between-the-lines lesbian encounters in Jane Austen (ha, ha—sex in the most virginal classics!). Phallic symbols in John Donne’s religious poetry (what an erotically charged blasphemous juxtaposition!). At some point just by neglecting a text’s esthetic, historical, sociological, religious, and linguistic features, we’re pornographizing it, and at its worst, the method starts to reduce all texts to pop-up fig leaves. Pull and titter.

If I became this obsessed with eating (an arguably more central human activity than sex), majored in literature and gastronomy studies, could not stop finding hidden digestive processes in literature to the exclusion of every other feature, and talked incessantly about liberating the suppressed polymorphous desires of my own esophagus, I would rightly be referred for psychological help. The name for this kind of obsessive attachment is a fetish. Collectively, as a culture, we have a sex fetish. Seeing sex to the exclusion of all else relentlessly strips it of the complex human context that makes it meaningful in the first place. It reduces sex to porn. The problem isn’t just sexual excess; it’s sex as mere titillation. Bereft of any meaningful connections to the rest of life, sex becomes a series of mechanical postures, a porn manual.

It’s always been a minority of critics who read sex this intensively (and they certainly have given the newspapers exciting things to report about the MLA convention!) I’m also happy to say that from what I can see, excessively sexualized interpretation has already passed its heyday. Maybe all interpretive approaches become more interesting once the initial flurry surrounding them has died down, and we can see what’s worth salvaging.

In the meantime, I’m bored. Oh, Mr. Literature Professor, can we talk about something else, please?


Blogger Starfoxy said...

My husband took a music theory class that suffered from a similar problem. Apparently death in opera or similar mediums is supposed to be a metaphor for sex and especially climax.

Either way, I anticipate lively conversation on this post... ;)

2/07/2006 09:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Mark IV said...

I first heard a recording of Liebestod in a classroom at BYU and the professor apologized to us in advance for any embarassment.

2/07/2006 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Ziff said...

Does Freud have anything to do with this hyper-sexualization of literature? I know you've told me that Freudian analysis is (was?) a common form of literary criticism. So I wonder if they're related, since Freud was so interested in interpreting sexual content in overtly non-sexual narratives (dreams and dream elaborations).

2/07/2006 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Kaimi said...


Let me start by comparing you to an economist (and yes, I know that such a comparison is the greatest possible insult to a literature student). But the shoe fits: just yesterday Tyler Cowen compared pornography to gastronomy, and now you're doing the same. (See http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/02/why_is_gastrono.html ). I expect that soon you'll be running least-squares regressions and talking about marginal utility. You might as well give in to the dark side now; your final fall is clearly just a matter of time.

Now that that's out of the way, on to your substance. I appreciate your point, but I think you've overcooked slightly (or perhaps left out a few ingredients), and as a result the dish just doesn't quite come together. You jump effortlessly from "in one way or another [sex] had come up in every single text (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Marx, Ibsen…) we had studied" to "by neglecting a text’s esthetic, historical, sociological, religious, and linguistic features, we’re pornographizing it," with only a passing nod to the limitation "in some academic contexts. . ."

The obvious rebuttal is that one should discuss issues of sex when they appear -- in Shakespeare, etc. -- without the level of undue emphasis on sex that might result in " neglecting a text’s esthetic, historical, sociological, religious, and linguistic features." (And in fact, neglecting to talk about sex when it is present is as bad as neglecting other aspects of a text.) The amount of attention that sex deserves as a topic is clearly going to vary from text to text; one hopes that sex would receive more attention in a discussion of Lysistrata than in a discussion of Antigone.

I'm unconvinced that your argument is supported by your relatively innocuous facts. Why not focus on finding a reasonable middle ground, rather than castigating demons and bugbears who may in fact exist, but whose existence is not established within the contours of your post? (Or if there are more frightening demons extant, why not trot them out for a sufficiently horrid public viewing before making your case?)

2/07/2006 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

Gentle Reader,

I thought I would take the liberty of providing some context for Eve's post. Eve has the honor of attending a fine American institution with a long and proud history of studying sex. Should Eve choose, she could get her minor in sexuality. Should Eve choose, she could devote her academic career to "uncovering" the hidden sexual metaphors in every text ever written, from _City of God_ to _Goodnight Moon_.

I am persuaded that some texts, possibly right here on our own bloggernacle!, are "about" things other than sex. Eve may have reason to feel fed up with an approach which fails to account for those other things.

However, this sort of behavior is not peculiar to Eve's university. One can only hope, gentle reader, that your own experience with graduate programs in literature has been less single-minded in its focus.

2/07/2006 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Ivan Wolfe said...

I got rather tired of this once too.

I had a professor who found sex in everything!

Noses extend away from the body, so anything to do with smell was a sexual metaphor.

Anytime food appeared? Well, it enters the body doesn't it?

etc. etc.

I got a low grade in that class for "failure to participate in class discussion." I talked to the professor, but he declared me a prude. Oh, well.

2/07/2006 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

Starfoxy and Ivan Wolfe, I'm glad to hear others have had similar experiences.

Mark, I'm afraid I'm pretty opera ignorant, to my husband's ongoing chagrin, but I'm guessing Liebestod has some, um, exciting content?

Ziff, I think you're probably right. I don't know Freud at all well, but from what little I do know, I've found some of his ideas interesting. The things about stages of sexual development aren't my favorites (and don't even get me started on Freud and women, but you've already heard me rant and rave a lot over the years, so I'll spare you a repeat of that one).

Kaimi, You are obviously in league with my husband, who has an MBA and adores, ADORES discussions of marginal utility (He's also been trying to use Jedi mind tricks on me for years to get me to go to law school, come to think of it....). He and our favorite brother Ziff here also love to talk about regressions. But I was taught as a YW to Stand for Truth, Righteousness, and the Liberal Arts. (Close enough, right?)
I will not succomb!

As far as my content goes, I don't think I explained myself very well. When I was teaching Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, etc. at BYU, I got increasingly nervous as sex kept coming up in text after text, not because I thought the sex wasn't there or shouldn't be discussed but because some students seemed rather uncomfortable with it. One student was a General Authority's son-in-law, and I had a vision or two of my lowly little grad-student-teaching-assistant butt bouncing across the ASB lawn. That's the context I should have provided for my hands-raised gesture of resignation and comment to the class that sex is the whole reason to study literature. It was my feeble attempt to make light of their discomfort.

I actually agree with your moderate approach. I don't think we should shy away from the sex that is there. For what it's worth, I love Lysistrata. It's such a fun play to teach to show students that the Greeks aren't just a bunch of stuffy pompous long-dead bores. It's what I think of as a canon-buster; my hope is that it could prompt students to think classic literature might be contoversial, rowdy, and even uproariously funny.

"I'm unconvinced that your argument is supported by your relatively innocuous facts. Why not focus on finding a reasonable middle ground, rather than castigating demons and bugbears who may in fact exist, but whose existence is not established within the contours of your post? (Or if there are more frightening demons extant, why not trot them out for a sufficiently horrid public viewing before making your case?)"

Um, well...I see your point, and I thought about giving more graphic examples, but I kinda don't want to go to far on what I hope is a family-friendly blog. (Maybe, at least when it comes to blogging, I'm a prude after all).

Kiskilili, your post is making me laugh until I cry. I can't wait to get my bawdy little hands on _Goodnight Moon_. My only regret is that everyone here can't actually hear the wonderful tone of voice in which you make these kinds of remarks. (OK, I'll quit gushing over my sisters now.)

2/07/2006 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger Ziff said...

You do realize what "Goodnight nobody. Goodnight mush." means in Goodnight Moon, don't you?

2/07/2006 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ziff said...


I have it on good authority that you secretly love least squares regressions (and maximum likelihood even better).


Thanks for being the first to mention the wonderful Marginal Revolution. Now I can refer to it to my heart's conent without being blamed for being the first to sully this most holy blog with economics talk.

2/07/2006 10:49:00 PM  
Blogger Kaimi said...


I appreciate your desire to keep the blog family-friendly. I didn't mean to come across as encouraging otherwise; however, I was struck by what seemed like an incongruity between your innocuous examples and your apparent . . . what's the word I'm looking for? distress? I'll just say, the amount of energy you dedicated to the issue. It struck me that if your concern really _was_ all about the (relatively mild) bawdiness in Shakespeare, then you were making a mountain out of a molehill.

However, given your (and Kiskilili's) elucidations, I'm quite happy to revise that opinion and note that your concern is painted in somewhat broad brush strokes for decorum's sake.

2/08/2006 02:23:00 AM  
Blogger Kaimi said...


I see my job here as standing at the gate and holding it open for the barbarians.

It's only polite, after all. If I were a barbarian, I would certainly want someone holding the gate open for me.

2/08/2006 02:25:00 AM  
Blogger Seraphine said...

Eve, I have to deal with a little discomfort, but not too much (at my university, it has more to do with my students being uncertain about how I will react than because of my students being prudes). I'm glad I don't have to deal with too much discomfort on this subject with my students (like you did at BYU). Your Lysistrata comments actually remind me of a funny teaching experience.

Last semester we were doing Emily Dickinson, and we were reading a relatively ambiguous poem (of which there are many), and I had my students decide what they thought it was about (and then they had to find evidence from the poem to support their claim). A few of the groups decided that the poem was about sex; the rest of the class laughed and looked at me to see what my reaction would be. I let them run with it, and then I had a student who raised her hand and asked if there really could be sex in Emily Dickinson (because of 19th century conventions of womanhood, Dickinson's reclusive nature, etc). I had them read a poem I hadn't originally assigned, and they all agreed that there's sex in Dickinson.

It ended up being a really great lesson about the assumptions we make about literature based on our incomplete knowledge about an author or culture. While with Lysistrata, you're dealing with assumptions about classical cultures, with Dickinson, you have to deal more with students wanting to interpret everything in her poetry based on what they know about her life.

2/08/2006 06:49:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Kaimi, I can definitely see how you'd come to that conclusion--I didn't make myself very clear. I completely agree with you that Shakespeare's bawdiness is mild. Your comments about Shakespeare and Lysistrata and s's great story about Emily Dickinson are reminding me of something I didn't adequately consider in my original post: that teaching sex in the text can be a great way to show students who think all Great Literature is remote and dull that it can be hilarious. I'm thinking of Theodore Roethke's "I Knew a Woman" and certain of John Donne's poems my husband loves to quote laughingly at as other examples.

2/08/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Ziff, I'm falling all over myself in self-righteous indignation to see my most holy sex thread polluted by economics. Please remove your grimy cold calculating fingers from the keyboard and run a least squares regression on _Goodnight Moon_, post haste. I cannot continue to live without knowing just how dirty "Goodnight nobody. Goodnight mush" is.

Kaimi, I agree that it's polite to hold the door open for the barbarians, but the danger in this family is that you'll let us all out of our cages to roam the Bloggernacle en masse, and we'll start howling at the moon and scribbling graffiti on all the lovely gates of civilization you've so painstakingly erected.

2/08/2006 10:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Mark IV said...

Eve, you are right, Liebestod contains some exciting, overwrought, and even climactic moments. Tristan and Isolde are lovers who set the gold standard against which all other heavy breathers are to be measured. Sorry for the econ reference. :-)

I guess I was just lucky in my literature classes. In a Shakespeare class once, the teacher defused the issue by taking an hour and introducing us to the Bawd of Avon, where she addressed the issue of sex and naughty words in Bill's work. She got it all over with at once, and the topic didn't get raised obsessively after that.

Probably the oddest/funniest experience I've had occurred in the library at BYU. I was energetically studying part 2 of Faust, but my RM german wasn't good enough to get the meaning of some of the passages. I had to use my German/English dictionary to follow the dialogue between Faust and Lilith because they were using words I hadn't learned in the MTC. I remember the moment I finally "got" what was going on. I didn't know whether to laugh or feel guilty, after all, that was the Harold B. Lee library.

2/08/2006 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

Mark, Thanks for the explanation. And it's OK about the economic metaphor--the more I think about it, the more I'm going to have to throw up my hands and admit that there's at least as much economics in literature as there is sex. I constantly hear people say and say myself that we "buy" or "don't buy" given claims or interpretations. Just today in my philosophy class everyone kept talking about how certain theories "cash out." And of course writers like Austen and Dickens are thoroughly economic. You could probably write a whole economics dissertation just on Dickens. (But don't tell Ziff! He's supposed to be working on _Goodnight, Moon_.)

Your story about figuring out erotic dialogue in German in the middle of the HBLL made me laugh and brought back some funny and embarrassing mission memories. In my greenie city, at a Homemaking Meeting, I was saying something or other and waving my hands around wildly in a desperate attempt to communicate when--evidently--I made an obscene gesture. All of the women laughed and laughed, but they were too embarrassed to show or tell me what bad thing I'd done with my hands, so I never did figure it out. I just got a lot more nervous about using my hands to communicate after that.

2/08/2006 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger chosha said...

"Between-the-lines lesbian encounters in Jane Austen"

o_O? Okay... (Actually I would have sexual encounters of any kind in Jane Austen would be pretty between-the-lines. :)

I'm clearly not reading the right literature, because I don't think I've got enough sex in mine, haha. Now the amount of sex in rap lyrics right now, on the other hand, is boring me stupid.

2/09/2006 06:17:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home