If you grew up anywhere in the world besides an tiny, experimental Swedish boarding school run by sex researchers, it’s likely that the cerebral (that is, non-experiential) side of your erotic education was cobbled together from any number of unreliable sources – peers, media, strangers on the street, and, at rare intervals, your perpetually embarrassed and terrified elders. For most Americans my age, “media” meant music, the Internet, television, and movies, but a few of us were old-school nerds who learned – and would later have to unlearn – a great deal from books.
I hate to think I might be fanning the flames of censorship by writing this, but books can be just as bad a source for sex education as Jay-Z songs and RedTube. Sex scenes in novels tend to be idealized, disturbing, confusingly symbolic, or some combination of the three. Nonfiction is no panacea either: you just don’t know if a voracious, independent reader is going to end up in the attic with Ready, Set, Grow!…or a biography of Caligula and a box of Freud’s old case studies. What’s more, the philistinism of American society encourages parents of bookish teenagers to adopt policies of either blanket censorship or a total lack of oversight and discussion. The “My Weird Early Experiences With Sexuality In Literature” post has now become a staple of book blogs, and get ready because I’m about to jump on that crazy train.
1. Suicide as Afterplay: Madame Bovary, Sophie’s Choice, The Virgin Suicides, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Anna Karenina, etc.
As Tammy Wynette once sang, sometime’s it’s hard to be a woman. It’s especially hard to be a woman in classic literature, where having a penis in your vagina will send you into a tailspin of insanity that ends with your horrific demise by your own hand. Think of Juliet, who hits a home run with Romeo and ends up offing herself within the week (but not before five other people go down with that ship.) Think of Sophie Zawistowski – she had a lot in her trauma bank, what with the Nazis killing her kids and her bad-news boyfriend telling her it was all her fault, but it took Stingo’s dick to drive her completely over the edge. Anna Karenina took that stupid Bruno Mars lyric about wanting to jump in front of a train for your lover way too seriously; Madame Bovary had a similar infidelity problem but chose rat poison. In The Virgin Suicides, which actually has “suicides” in the name, no less than four teenage girls kill themselves for crazy sex guilt reasons, all under the collective male gaze that serves as the novel’s narrator. “AND THEN SHE KILLED HERSELF FIN” is basically a stock ending for works of fiction where women feed their kitties. Shakespeare was progressive in that he made sure to go back and slaughter the men.
Of course, a woman who has sex isn’t always driven to suicide: sometimes she just gets a lifelong shunning (The Scarlet Letter), a nasty case of consumption (Effi Briest), a death sentence for robbery (Moll Flanders), or a death sentence for infanticide (Faust). They don’t let you have any fun.
I read many of these works when I was 13-14-15-16. In other cases, I knew the plot but hadn’t read the book, but a message is a message. The movies suggested that people cuddled after sex, but I knew better; you were supposed to get up, go to the bathroom, and slit your wrists, the literary way. Okay, so I wasn’t quite that literal, but I was convinced that my G-spot was a kind of abscess of madness that would explode and infect my brain if it was ever punctured by a man-rod.
The real lesson: Give your daughter books by women writers (besides Margaret Atwood)
2. Better Sedition Through Humping/Better Sedition Through Abstinence: 1984 and Brave New World
1984: though the date has passed, George Orwell’s chilling portrayal of life under a totalitarian regime still resonates in an age of terrorism.
It also has sex in it. There’s nothing graphic, but the affair between Winston Smith and Julia is a huge part of the plot, and Orwell gets in many points about how dictatorships mess with people’s erotic selves, forcing the energy of love to serve some higher (and grimmer) national purpose. 1984 suggests that sex is dangerous – we remember what happens to Winston and Julia – but dangerous in a revolutionary way, not a sad way. Under the right circumstances, sex is a political statement: “I’m going to get some and you bastards can’t stop me!”
Brave New World, which I read around the same time as 1984 because I was on a dystopia kick, shows us the opposite situation. The evil empire in Huxley’s novel lulls its citizens into complacency by letting them have tons of hedonistic sex all the time. Sex isn’t dangerous and revolutionary: it’s stupefying. Self-discipline is the path to freedom.
How to proceed with these two very different visions of the politics of eros? I did what any girl would do – I sniffed out totalitarian behavior in everyday life, which in my case meant school. My classmates were very 1984, very boot-stomping-on-a-human-face-forever, in their tactics of intimidation, their slut-shaming, their racism, their homophobia, their ideological rigidity, and their constant monitoring of one another. However, they were totally Brave New World in their tendency to have lots of sex and take lots of drugs, and to talk about it at the expense of an array of important topics.
I still hear liberals declaim about about how hard we have to fight to keep an open attitude towards sex. I still hear conservatives argue that being modest and self-possessed is the real rebellion. What is the truth? Both of these, and neither.
The Real Lesson: Teenagers are the worst.
3. God Says What?: The Bible
Teenagers everywhere are indeed the worst, but the teenagers at my school had an excuse: they, like the Hebrew National hot dog people, answered to a higher authority. It showed in the fact that they wore “Jesus Died For MySpace in Heaven” T-Shirts unironically.
My experience of the Bible comes less from reading the Bible than from having the same parts of it quoted at me over and over. Sure, when I was a kid I learned the Old Testament stories and was in awe of their dark grandeur, and it was my understanding that Jesus was love. But once I was a teenager, forget it. It was 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (the one with the “homosexual offenders”) all the way down. Never mind that I’m being asked to take a dubious community organizer’s 2,000-year-old mail, much of which may be apocryphal anyway, as the inerrant word of God – how do you wank endlessly about Paul’s views on the buttsex and the wimminz whilst ignoring his strict rules about money and gossip? In the 1920s it was alcohol, in the 1950s it was rock-n-roll and race mixing, and now it’s the buttsex. Get over yourselves.
By the time I could read the Bible with my own eyes again, my formative years were over. Though I will proudly defend the literary and even archetypal-cultural value of this text, I have given up any attempts to make the ancient rules of sexual morality laid down in it make sense. We learned in #1 that sex ruins characters’ lives. Forgive me, Christian friends who might be reading this, but sex ruined the Bible, too.
The Real Lesson: The first person to suggest a reading from 1 Corinthians at my wedding gets poked in the eye.
4. Protect Me From What I Want: Lolita
Confession: writing the part about the Bible made me cringe a little, because I knew I was saying things every center-leftist woman my age has said on Facebook at least six times. I just had to bring it up because I’m from the South. Yawn! Anyway, onto something juicy: Nabokov.
I read Lolita when I was fourteen. This was a bad move. See, I thought girls in their early teens were super cute and desirable, because I was a girl in my early teens with two eyes and an ambiguous sexual orientation. And here was this clearly wicked character, Humbert Humbert, who lusted after girls in their early teens, just like I did! Oh my God! The evil within my soul! I did not understand that Humbert’s own advanced age and manipulative, despicable behavior were what made him a villain; all I got was that finding a fourteen-year-old girl hot = ultimate evil. It didn’t help that To Catch A Predator was on and the entire country had pervertmania. It also didn’t help that Google searches for “I’m a lesbian what do I do?” and “I’m bisexual what do I do?” turned up right-wing propaganda about the supposed link between homosexuality and pedophilia. It definitely didn’t help that Nabokov’s delicate hand with language and determination to challenge the reader resulted in Lolita having some genuinely exciting scenes.
All I could think was, “I must be like Humbert. I must be evil. Chris Hansen’s gonna send me to the gas chamber.” I really believed this. I tried to get help from professionals, and though they told me not to worry they put some mortifying notes in my medical records. None of them thought to ask what I had been reading, or why I was worried about pedophilia (they should have made the effort on principle; Obsession with pedophiles can be a sign a girl’s been molested. Such irresponsible therapists!)
Even though my age of attraction kept pace with my own age as I got older, I panicked about this off and on until I was seventeen years old. Of all the books on this list, Lolita had the most unpleasant effects. It’s one of the only books I would quietly keep away from a teenager, unless I had the opportunity to sit down with said teenager and have a frank discussion about what really happens between Humbert and poor Delores.
The Real Lesson: Vladimir Nabokov was a pervert.
5. I Vant To Suck Your Bloooood: Endless Love
In a wedding-themed episode of the splendid sitcom 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) misquotes 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as such:
Love isn’t judgmental. Love is patient. Love is…weird, and sometimes gross. Love is elusive, and you found it, so treasure it.
Weird and sometimes gross, indeed. While my peers were starting to dig the Twilight series and all things vampire, I was getting acquainted with a whole different breed of sanguinary passion in this 1979 novel.
Endless Love is not well-known nowadays. If you say “Endless Love,” people will remember the duet Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie recorded for the terrible movie based on this book, but probably not the book itself.
The plot’s pretty simple: boy meets girl, parents split boy and girl up, boy tries to burn down girl’s house, boy gets sent to a mental hospital for two years, boy runs over girl’s father with a car, boy and girl reunite for 40 solid pages of period sex in a seedy hotel room, boy goes to prison. Wait, what? They had sex for 40 pages? Yes, they did. How do you even write a 40-page sex scene? You fluff it out with lots and lots of details about the volume, consistency, and appearance of the girl’s menstrual blood, that’s how. This was a really weird book for a thirteen-year-old to read. In my parents’ defense, I got it out of the library and they thought it was just another ratty old teen thing like My Darling, My Hamburger. So did I, until I got to the smut.
It was the first genuine smut I’d ever read. I read the scene in question three times: twice in a sensuous delirium, and once in dawning incredulity and alarm. Before you accuse me of hating on period sex, know that I’d gotten my first period two or three months before I read this book – I was still freaked out by the idea that I could have babies. Period sex was a scandal. I wasn’t traumatized, exactly, but I do remember getting an abstinence message. Sex was so literally filthy that its practitioners had to flee in shame from maids after splattering hotel rooms with their horror-movie gore.
The True Lesson: The 1970s were a strange time.
6. Love in the Time of TB: The Magic Mountain
Let me get two things straight:
- Thomas Mann was not!
- The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of great intelligence, beauty, and humanity.
After the lurid vicissitudes of Endless Love, it may induce whiplash to consider The Magic Mountain. Mann’s enduring though intimidating bildungsroman follows a wealthy young man named Hans Castorp through seven years at a mountaintop tuberculosis sanitarium in pre-WWI Switzerland. There is sickness, death, philosophy, dry Germanic humor, rivalry, food, politics…and eros, for Hans falls madly in love with a Russian woman named Clavdia Chauchat.
Hans’ infatuation with Clavdia is far from simple. It’s all bound up with illness, with death, and even with Hans’ boyhood obsession with a male classmate. It’s also never consummated, although Clavdia does tell Hans that she reciprocates his feelings. It is this lack of simplicity, as well as Mann’s aching (and obviously well-informed) descriptions of what it’s like for a shy man to fall in love, that held the lesson for me the first time I read this book so many years ago. I learned that human sexuality is much more than jiggly jugs and bulging pecs – it can be a sensual awareness that diffuses sweetly to all the corners of perception, to melting snow, to the shape of a woman’s grey eyes, to an image on an x-ray plate, to the strains of Bizet’s Carmen, to science, to religion, to art, to our lives in our bodies. Of course WWI descends on them all like a thunderclap, and of course it is a melancholy book in the end, but the quote “Writing is the soul of paper” was never truer.
In blunt terms, The Magic Mountain taught me nothing about sex. There is a great deal of smoke but almost no fire, so to speak. Yet I remain convinced that this novel was important to my erotic education, and that it counteracted certain pernicious influences detailed on this list with its subtle mental caresses.
The True Lesson: Everything is more profound when you have mild altitude sickness.
7. Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms: The City and The Pillar, Annie on My Mind, Keeping You a Secret, Middlesex, Geography Club, The Year They Burned The Books, Rubyfruit Jungle, Giovanni’s Room, and many more
Any LGBT under-18s who are reading need to know something: there was an interval of eight whole years between San Francisco’s inspiring though disastrous 2004 experiments with same-sex marriage and the 2012 release of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” And growing up during that interval sucked. See, anything and everything gay became a hot topic, but the atmosphere was not yet supportive. Imagine being twelve years old and hearing the adult democrats in your life, supposedly so open-minded, blaming “those people shoving their tongues down each other’s throats” for the defeat of John Kerry (historical note: John Kerry was to blame for the defeat of John Kerry.) And the conservatives? It seems like they went from suppressing discussion of these issues to launching a fucking nationwide crusade overnight. The media ran with it – I remember news specials along the lines of “Evangelicals Ascendant: How The Religious Right Is Going To Decide Everything Forever.” These were the kind of hasty conclusions the news media is always drawing, but there’s nothing like going to middle school in Knoxville, Tennessee at the height of the Bush administration to make you feel like Evangelical Christians are poised to march on Poland. I had to start questioning my sexuality at age eleven because of the homophobic death threats and rape threats I received. I was afraid for my life.
This was a cultural matter, so gorgeous, cerebral works offering theories about what it means to be attracted to someone of the same sex were not going to cut it. I needed books about how LGBT people – that is, people who had those identities – related to their society. Unfortunately, the boom in upbeat LGBT YA lit was two shakes of a lamb’s tail after my time. If a contemporary gay teen protagonist got the girl/guy, then they would find self-acceptance and the tolerance of others beyond their grasp. If they learned to accept themselves and could live openly, they would lose the girl/guy in the end. Older LGBT literature was much worse in this regard; Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar ends with the misery-crazed antihero raping an old flame, the point being that the crippling shame of being gay will eventually undermine the capacity for love in even the sweetest, most sentimental individuals (alas, I would not find E.M. Forster until I was much older.) Nonfiction books on the subject had frightening titles like A New Civil War, and they were full of equally frightening hate crime stories and job discrimination statistics.
This got demoralizing after awhile. Yet I wonder if I would have dismissed today’s cheerful LGBT media as boring fluff if I’d had access to it – I was the kind of teenager who thought Baudelaire’s The Albatross was the greatest thing ever. Perhaps I was doomed to make myself miserable about any quirk I happened to possess, Evangelical hegemony or no Evangelical hegemony.
The True Lesson: It gets better.
8. Your Body is Bad and You Should Feel Bad: The Good Girl Revolution
I should point out that a lot of books on this list ended up screwing with my head not because they had horrible messages, but because I was unable to put them in proper context at the time I read them. Madame Bovary would not be a classic if it were just a hysterical morality tale about how being a slut will kill you. In a similar vein, The Good Girl Revolution by Orthodox Jewish feminist Wendy Shalit is not a reactionary rant about how all the bobbysoxers are filthy whores these days. It’s actually about how girls would be better off if they focused on their studies and platonic social lives instead of the local boys’ opinions of their tits. This is something most of us can get behind.
However, The Good Girl Revolution is written from a narrow personal perspective. City slicker Shalit continually refers to children’s “natural modesty,” which is something anyone who has fond memories of running naked through the Appalachian countryside knows is complete and utter bullshit. She only addresses the sexual minority experience once, in a short riff on how Our Bodies, Ourselves is irresponsible for telling lesbians that fisting is fun when it will really tear up your vagina like a cheese grater. She talks about how Orthodox Jews provide a model about how people everywhere should live – I wouln’t even see Orthodox Jews in real life until I went to New York at age eighteen! The fact of the matter is that The Good Girl Revolution is probably an awesome book…for someone who isn’t me.
At a sensitive time, it can be disheartening for a girl to read a feminist treatise that claims to speak for her but doesn’t. Age sixteen was a very sensitive time for me – my parents were going through a contentious divorce, I was afraid of my own sexual energy, I was gaining weight from what would turn out to be polycystic ovarian syndrome, and I was deeply concerned about my relations with the Unknowable (that is, religion.) My outlook was so skewed that after breaking up with my first boyfriend, I cordially thanked him for not date-raping me.
Shalit’s book made “modesty” sound so very good and smart and safe. I adopted it as an ideal. It did not transplant well. How did you let people know you were gay or bisexual if you were supposed to be a modest girl who never talked about sex in public? Modesty message board answer: you’re going to burn in hell. What if you couldn’t integrate yourself into the religious system of your forefathers? You’re going to burn in hell. What if the abstinence-only sex education class you were forced to take was so misogynistic and insulting that you stormed out in disgust? Destination: hell! God, it all made me feel so worthless.
In the end, Wendy Shalit didn’t make me a young rebel with self-esteem and high standards. She just made me more neurotic than I already was, and that’s quite an accomplishment.
The True Lesson: You just can’t win with some people.
9. A Mind of Its Own: Rabbit Run and similar works
Rabbit, Run, along with Portnoy’s Complaint, Sophie’s Choice, and many other novels by men of Updike’s generation, dealt extensively with the horrific suffering endured by men at the hands of their penises. To be a straight man, I gathered, was to be in constant agony because of women, and because of women’s ignorance of that agony.
I got a bit of a priestess complex from these books. I enjoyed the idea that I had lucked into the kind of power Updike said I had, but I also felt guilty because with great power comes great responsibility. Women were so brutally, magnetically attractive that it took all a man’s might to avoid raping them, so was it not a woman’s duty to ameliorate his suffering by bestowing her gifts upon him? Was not rape simply a redistribution of a woman’s cruelly hoarded riches? You can see where this is going. I couldn’t imagine having intercourse with a man, but I was haunted by the idea that I owed it to someone, as penance for being a woman. My first kiss happened because I thought I owed it to the guy, who would go on to sexually harass me so furiously that he would be suspended for a week.
If this seems to contradict the item about Wendy Shalit…it does. Holding these two un-feminist ideas in my head at the same time, DoubleThink style, contributed greatly to my ongoing befuddlement.
The True Lesson: Feminist literature – I can’t stress it enough.
10. I Don’t Even Know: The Tin Drum and Sexual Personae
Sometimes, a reading experience is so bizarre that you can’t say exactly what you learned from it, even if you’re sure you learned something. Take Camille Paglia. In the dense pages of Sexual Personae, I discovered that my vaginal secretions were a kind of acid that would dissolve all Western art and literature into a “chthonian swamp” if given half a chance:
Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preconception would be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature spuming and frothing, its mad and spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out and smashing in that inhuman mound of waste, rot, and carnage. From the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured into the air from bursting green pods, nature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill. This is the chthonian black magic with which we are infected as sexual beings; this is the daemonic identity that Christianity so inadequately defines as original sin and thinks it can cleanse us of. Procreative woman is the most troublesome obstacle to Christianity’s claim to catholicity, testified by its wishful doctrines of Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth. The procreativeness of chthonian nature is an obstacle to all of western metaphysics and to each man in his quest for identity against his mother. Nature is a seething excess of being.
I just saw the CDC’s 2013 report on STIs. They’re very concerned about chthonian black magic.
The Tin Drum is a novel of which I am deeply, profoundly fond, but I was only fourteen when I read it and it features some seriously freaky German sex:
- The protagonist’s mother, Agnes, kills herself after spending years struggling to navigate a love triangle (does this sound familiar?) Her final death spiral begins after she goes to the seashore and watches a fisherman pull slimy, phallic eels out of a horse’s head.
- A museum guard dies after trying to fuck a ship’s figurehead, which is shaped like an amber-eyed woman and rumored to be cursed.
- Our protagonist has a sexual relationship with the cashier at his father’s grocery store. They’re both in their teens, but he’s a little person with the body of a three-year-old. This led to some highly controversial scenes in the Volker Schlöndorff film that was based on the book.
- Our protagonist has a nurse fetish and eventually gets propositioned by a nurse in a dark hallway. He rolls her up in a carpet and she refers to him as “Satan.” The tryst is abandoned when he can’t get it up.
I was so caught up in my affection for Günter Grass as a writer that I paid no mind to what this and his other weird novels (notably The Flounder) might have taught me about nookie. Yet I can’t imagine that reading these things at such a young age made no impression on my psyche whatsoever. Perhaps The Tin Drum quietly contributed to the sense of mystery, disgust, and ill tidings that I had about sex back then.
The True Lesson: syntax error: variable “lesson” is not defined
11. Insert Tab A Into Slot B: What’s Happening To My Body? and Our Bodies, Ourselves
As we near the end of this ridiculously long post, you may wonder if and when actual sex education occurred.
It certainly wasn’t going to occur at school, so there had to be books. There had to be books with facts in them. Luckily, my mother provided me with The What’s Happening To My Body? Book For Girls and, at a later date, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
While What’s Happening to My Body? was a standard book about puberty (though with an unfortunate title, like something you would scream if you woke up with flippers), Our Bodies, Ourselves provided invaluable information about how actual homo sapiens on actual planet earth have actual sex. Sex on earth may involve all kinds of things literature suggests it wouldn’t, such as condoms, talking, clumsy errors, and, most surprisingly, fun. This is not to say that the book gives no clue as to dangers and consequences – there are whole chapters on dangers and consequences. But the discussions about how sex is accomplished were refreshing, even miraculous, after the deluge of misinformation I’d been enduring for years. We millennials had easy access to information about sex compared to adolescents of previous generations, but that doesn’t mean that the information we got was always useful or correct. Sex ed by osmosis is still a pipe dream, and that’s why books like Our Bodies, Ourselves are so important. Wendy Shalit was wrong!
The Actual Lesson: In spite of everything, libraries are for lovers.
Wow. I can’t believe you read that whole thing. Signing off now, tschüss!