The Not-So-Mysterious Female Orgasm, Medieval Clitorises, and the Definition of Sex

A couple of weeks ago, I read the following exchange, posted on the facebook page of a social group to which I belong. One of the social group women reported how her daughter replied to a question put to her class during PSHE:

Teacher: “What can a woman do to not get pregnant when having sex?”
Child: “Not do it with a man?”

I enjoyed this. And the comment was still in my mind when I read this article, published in the Guardian yesterday. The headline – which is a fair representation of the way this particular bit of ‘news’ was reported everywhere else – is the awe-inspiringly confidence-inducing claim, “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved”. While biting back the uncharitable question to whom this phenomenon is supposed to be a mystery, I was still left with the suspicion that this ‘solution’ might not be quite as groundbreaking as it was represented. I’m not that likely to pay attention to this kind of news story – only in part because I get irritated with the intersection between science and misogynistic guesswork, and mostly because I’m absent-minded – and I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen several versions of the ‘female orgasm mystery solved’ storyline over the years. I’ve seen theories about production of oxytocin and bonding, about muscle movements aiding the movement of semen, and about identification of a physically well-matched partner. Strangely, though – mysteriously, even – no matter how often one of these theories hits the headlines (and hit the headlines they do, because it’s Weird Sex Facts About Women, innit), it always seems to have dribbled wetly out of the popular consciousness and been scooped up by the tissue of collective memory loss by the time the next one comes along.

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of socio-cultural vested interest in preserving the idea of female orgasms as 1) mysterious and 2) almost totally useless, isn’t it?

But, to the article itself. “The purpose of the euphoric sensation has long puzzled scientists,” it begins confidingly, “as it is not necessary for conception” – at this point, just to be a pedant, I will point out that male orgasms are not, strictly necessary for conception, as anyone who has googled the perils of the pull-out method will be aware. But I understand where they’re going, until the sentence continues, “… and is often not experienced during sex itself”.

Now, since my mum occasionally reads this blog, this would be the point at which I deny all knowledge of the meaning of the word “sex” and take recourse to the dictionary. Or, I would if I didn’t already know what a wide range of them, and a wide range of irritated feminist academics who write about language, say. Defining “sex” as “the activity during which a man ejaculates” is remarkably common, and remarkably convenient for the hetero-patriarchy. As this blog over on (Re)Marks on the History of Sexuality fascinatingly explains, for prolonged periods of time extending well into living memory, people have found ways of defining “sex” such that it excludes acts that the participants in those acts – notoriously including Bill Clinton – would much prefer to think of as “not sex”. The child’s comeback to her teacher quoted at the top of this post illustrates how unconsciously we accept this interpretation in everyday life: although few polite, politically-correct people in Western Europe would, if asked, consciously define “sex” as something only heterosexual and/or male people can have, the default assumption is that “sex” involves a male orgasm. And thus, the Guardian can casually make the assumption that, whatever defines “sex itself,” it is not a female orgasm.

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Not the Female Orgasms. Image from Besancon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 0457, f. 273v (Avicenna, Canon medicinae)

The idea that female orgasms – and, indeed, female anatomy, notably the clitoris – are the subjects of ever-more-recent discovery, is a popular one. Certainly, the biographical apocrypha surrounding a remarkably diverse catalogue of rather prudish and/or sexist Historical Men include stories of how John Knox, or John Milton, or Charles Dickens, or Todd Akin, had unfortunate sexual experiences of their female partners shaking, juddering and trembling during intercourse and withdrew in profound concern for said female partner’s wellbeing. In reality, though, the literature discussing female orgasms goes back a long way. I know this, because one of the perks of my job is that I’ve spent the last few days reading up on medieval men’s medical and didactic descriptions of how to bring a woman to orgasm. They’re (un?)surprisingly sound, and matter-of-fact.

Medieval authors also discussed the topic from an anatomical standpoint, and identified several (mostly fairly bizarre) roles for the clitoris and other ladyparts. The author Galen – a huge authority, who clearly deserves to be credited as the original inventor of the concept of vajazzling – claimed that the labia were worn “for the sake of ornament,” but that they also (unlike vajazzling) served a practical purpose: to keep the uterus from becoming too cold. Galen interprets the euphemistically named ‘nymph’ (clitoris – the term was used by other medieval medics, too) as another kind of miniature heating element, also designed to keep women’s bits from getting too cold. For a malfunctioning clitoris, he prescribes some necessary manual stimulation designed to result in the all-important heating effects of orgasm, whilst also warning against the potentially scandalous involvement of a man in this manual stimulation. To avoid any hint of deviancy, one should (of course) engage the services of a responsible and skilled woman, such as a midwife.

These prescriptions concerned what we might think of as ‘normal’ medieval women, but – according to Karma Lochrie, whose book Heterosyncrasies is my source for much of this post – authors rarely turned a hair when they came to discuss what the more prudish amongst us would probably like to think of as unusual medieval women. Early Modern writers, later on, would interpret lesbianism as a disorder with biological origins, an innate deviancy whose identifying symptom was an abnormally large clitoris. But in medieval writings, there are a number of medical texts that describe, in quite pragmatic terms, the problems arising for women with over-sized clitorises, as there are for women who did not menstruate, and for women whose bodily functions and high sex drives fell into the category these writers interpreted as ‘masculine’. Such phenomena were seen as temporary conditions, conditions that could occur in otherwise perfectly unremarkable women, conditions within the realm of the treatable spectrum of usual ailments.

This history places the contemporary ‘discovery’ of an evolutionary reason for the female orgasm back in its proper place. As a piece of scientific research, it is potentially interesting, but represented as a super-modern “solution” to something presumed to be a long-standing source of amazement and disbelief, it is part of the ongoing patriarchal narrative that insistently defamiliarises the female body and excludes female sexuality from consideration. This is not to suggest that medieval medical writers were atypically humane and feminist, but rather the reverse: a suggested ‘cure’ for a woman suffering from the results of an over-large clitoris is, horrifically and predictably, excision, or what we would now know as female genital mutilation, a practice still recommended by some doctors in the West well into the twentieth century.

The Guardian piece reporting on the ‘solution’ to the ‘mystery’ of the female orgasm is presented as a new and hyper-modern development, an insight that elevates a useless quirk of female physicality to the dubious status of a once-useful bit of obsolete muscle tissue. But, it historical terms, it is this article itself that is – deliberately, by design – obsolescent. It is intended to make a splash on the front page, lingering, weakly swimming in our minds, for a few days, before dying out of our memories. Then, we are to expect the next sensational discovery of a rationale for the inexplicable aspects of female biology – and another, and another – while the need to explain the existence of a Y chromosome carrying tiny fragments of genetic data, will never arise. Such a question would not fit with the narrative of the patriarchy.

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Karma Lochrie’s book, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a fantastic read, for many reasons other than its amazing and absorbing discussions of medieval women’s sexuality. It is very academic, and largely focussed on medieval texts, but it is very much worth reading for people outside academia, and outside medieval studies.

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New Chaucer Society 2016, Mile End Jewish Cemetery, and a ‘European’ England

 

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Novo Cemetery at QMU, Mile End

I’m writing this quickly, having just made it to the New Chaucer Society Conference at Queen Mary, University of London. NCS is a big conference by medievalists’ standards, and there is a huge number of talks I just won’t get to see, despite wanting to, because of the tight timetable. And there are a lot of people I want to see, many of whom are coming in from the US or parts of Europe or even Australia. We see each other rarely – only really at conferences like this. Of course, you can chat on facebook, and leave friendly comments, and even read each other’s work, comment on it and co-author to an extent, but there isn’t yet any technology that recreates what it’s like having everyone who works on the same topic in a room, talking together.

NCS is the first conference I’ve been to since the UK voted to leave the EU and – for many reasons – I was wondering how and whether this would feel different. And before I made it to the conference venue, I spent the day wandering around Hampton Court – which is probably one of the least diverse areas, racially, economically and in every other possible way, that you could hope to land up in. You can absolutely imagine that, were you to transport the current inhabitants back to 1515, they would be making sucked-lemon faces about the appalling things successful politicians do with new money and wincing at the look of red brick. We went round the flower show, which was lovely and gentle and also absolutely full of the sort of people who’ve taught their children not to double-take more than once, and who consequently give you anxious smiles before asking mummy why those ladies are holding hands.

The campus of Queen Mary is a contrast. Located in Mile End, it’s a collection of modern, concrete-and-glass buildings, on either side of a busy road, with an unexpectedly beautiful view of Regent’s Canal.

Even more unexpectedly, tucked into the middle of the campus between several concrete blocks, in an unpromising piece of concrete that had the look of unfinished building works, I came across the old Jewish cemetery that was here before the university. I knew that Mile End was a historically Jewish area of London, and that its roots go back centuries, but I did not know of the existence of this graveyard. The stones are intact, and though many are covered in lichen, some are readable – and more would be readable if I read Hebrew. I saw memorials for Esther, wife of Solomon Haim da Costa Andrade; to Isaac Cohen Belifante; to Moss Comes da Costa. Could you find more Jewish – and Portuguese – names?

The Sephardi Jewish community in Mile End – Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, who had come to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – found the need for a new cemetery in 1733, and secured the land for the so-called ‘Novo’ Cemetery in what is now the middle of the Queen Mary campus, a listed site for English Heritage. To find a site like this in the middle of a university is unusual: it disrupts your sense of past and present, of current purpose and former dedication. The stones, with their arresting names and dates, demand attention and reflection. Time is required, so that the fact of their continuing presence can be taken in. Looking at this cemetery, you are forced to remember a multi-cultural, multilingual past, which was so far from being on the fringes of society that it left its mark in stone and marble: a monument to centuries of community that puts modern ideas of ‘Englishness’ to shame.

Coming across this cemetery so unexpectedly, in the middle of a very modern university campus, made me think how Queen Mary proves the need for pan-European, cosmopolitan, wide-reaching interactions between people. I’m hugely looking forward to this conference – and to meeting all the colleagues who come from outside the UK – but, just as much, I plan to enjoy the idea of this conference taking place in sight of the shadows of a thriving community of England’s immigrants whose history dates back so many centuries.

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A quick rant about Tories who tell me what ‘Christians’ think of Marriage

I’m absolutely certain someone other than me has already deconstructed what Andrea Leadsom – potential Tory PM – has said about her views on gay marriage, with much greater eloquence, restraint, and theological authority than I can bring to bear on the subject. But what the heck. Following Leadsom in the fine tradition of speaking when you really should shut up, I’m going to talk about this anyway.

So, the background for people who’ve been hiding in bunkers since Brexit and/or American readers. Hi there! Here’s a quick and dubiously accurate summary of the situation. A few days ago, pig-botherer David Cameron resigned, catapulting a motley group of bigots, idiots, and the sort of people who think admitting to a lack of charisma is beguiling and delightful, into a race to avoid getting the job. One amongst them is Andrea Leadsom, who has decided to share her views about her voting record on gay marriage. You can watch here.

Leadsom opens with that thoughtful and sensitive approach Tories always use to show their deep commitment to morality: that is, by reducing the whole issue to a question of economics. “I believe that the love of same-sex couples is every bit as valuable as the love of opposite-sex couples,” she explains earnestly, in a way that suggests she thinks ‘love’ is something roughly equivalent to the output of the British Steel Industry, only slightly less important for the GDP. Lest you fear that Leadsom is being misinterpreted, and by the word ‘value’ actually means something warm, fuzzy and dangerously socialist like ’emotionally, spiritually or morally important’, check out her stance on maternity pay and the minimum wage.

The meat of the speech comes when Leadsom explains that many Christians subscribe to the belief marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that to allow gay marriage is to ‘hurt’ these many Christians, even though she herself, of course, doesn’t hold in any such reactionary belief. Or rather, as she puts it, “I don’t actually agree with them, to be specific, I don’t agree“. So, despite disagreeing with many Christians that gay marriage is wrong, it’s pure concern for their hurt feelings (oh, and the authority of the Anglican Church, that shaky and tottering edifice, propped up by no rights or privileges whatsoever) that caused Leadsom to momentarily act like a homophobic bigot.

Whew, thank goodness we cleared that up.

Leadsom’s speech is a master class in making sure you’re shifting the blame in multiple directions at once, as she hedges “Marriage – in the Biblical sense – is very clearly, from the many many Christians who wrote to me …”. I am not, as yet, familiar with the theological school of thought that advocates you read the Bible, attend to its message, and then think ‘nah, no idea what that means, I’ll rely on any idiot who’ll write me a letter about it and trust to them instead’. Just for Jem Bloomfield, I could make a St Paul joke here, but I won’t. The issue is that Leadsom is trying so, so very hard to make it clear she both is and isn’t in favour of bigotry, that she manages to make it sound as if she’s a Christian who doesn’t actually subscribe to what she sees as Christian doctrine, and a defender of the authority of the Church of England who nevertheless prefers to listen to the unofficial views of anyone with a pen and a ready line in homophobia.

Not all of the confusion is cynically created, I will admit: Leadsom also seems fairly confused at points in her speech, notably when she explains “Civil partnerships are called marriages as well, as you know, as in registry offices, marriages are still marriages …”. Interestingly, this is the same mix-up – whether it comes from dishonesty or actual lack of understanding – that sees Leadsom try to give letters written to her by constituents the status of authoritative statements on Anglican doctrine. It’s a confusion of ordinary language – wherein, yes, I have heard people refer to their civil partner as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ – and language that has the status of law. In law, civil partnership is not “called marriage as well”.

At this point, I admit, I’m so irritated by the debate that I don’t really want to get into the absurdity of Biblical justifications against gay marriage. Just look at the pretty picture.

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What bugs me more than the theological tangles, is the way Leadsom seems genuinely certain that what will convince people of her genuine piety and her genuine compassion for the unfortunate deviants, is to claim she has absolutely no argument of her own. She’s a self-proclaimed Christian, who relies on chance letters from constituents to help her interpret the Bible, and a defender of the legal and religious rights of the Anglican Church who purports not to understand the distinction between casual conversation and legal proclamation.

I suspect Leadsom knew it would play rather less well to say “I subscribe to the official line of the Anglican Church, who have not yet come round to gay marriage, even though quite a lot of them do seem quite keen, quite often, and they did have that thing with women priests that did make quite a lot of people look like shocking old bigots a few years later.” So, instead, she claims her approach is the populist approach, the approach that defends the anonymous ‘many many Christians’ who want marriage to be marriage ‘in the eyes of God’.

I have to admit, now, that I am particularly pissed off by this argument, and that it is reasonably topical for me. I’m Anglican. I suspect (forgive me the hubris) I have as good a grasp of Anglican theology as Andrea Leadsom. I have a lot of friends who are Anglican – and who belong to other Christian denominations – who are also hurt about gay marriage. But they’re hurt because of people like Leadsom. Why, exactly, are we the kinds of Christians who don’t seem to matter here?

There is a long-repeated theme to the way Leadsom hides behind the fiction of ‘many Christians’. It’s the same excuse that’s trotted out to hide all kinds of bigotry in all kinds of contexts. We just don’t want to hurt people – you know, the people who believe these things. The devout, Christian magnates of the eighteenth century, who argued that the Bible really wanted the slave trade to flourish. The sincere, pious Christian men who campaigned against women priests and the emancipation of women. These nice, churchgoing, Bible-reading letter writers, who feel a little bit queasy at the idea of consenting adults who want to participate in the sacrament of marriage. It is always, you see, the people like this who are seen to be ‘hurt’. And that’s because chipping away your bigotry does hurt. It’s not actually about having your well-cushioned social status confirmed, so you can go about your business moneylending in the temple and claiming a monopoly on the idea of spiritual ‘value’. It’s about accepting that there are also Christians ‘hurt’ by the idea that marriage is something not to be extended to them.

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“She Should Not Gaze On a Man”: Distrusting the Female Gaze, 1300-2016

Earlier today, a friend of mine posted a picture, which had been put up in the gym her daughter uses at school. The poster was made as part of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. It aims to improve numbers of girls and young women doing sports, which is a health issue. All sounds great, right? Only problem – and what made my friend’s daughter angry – is, here’s the picture:

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Now, the reasoning behind the text isn’t completely absent. Surveys of teenage girls – apparently – claim that they rate worries about their appearance as a significant reason not to want to do sport. But the poster manages to shoot itself in the foot. Taken in isolation, it only reinforces the idea that appearance (and specifically, a very particular performance of femininity) is crucial. Yes, the nails may be temporarily hidden, but let’s never forget they’re perfectly buffed and painted. Until I see the wording of the survey in question, I’ll take its results with a pinch of salt anyway – ask any group if they’re worried about their appearance, and you’re liable to prime them to believe they should be. But what bothers me most about this poster is the way it doesn’t trust you – the viewer – to decode its messages without verbal text.

That may seem rather trivial. It isn’t.

The image purports to draw its drama from the tension between what we see (the boxing gloves) and what’s hidden (the manicure). But the messages the manicure would send are right there in plain sight. The girl in the picture looks to be wearing heavy mascara and earrings already. She is already visibly performing the kind of femininity that is commercialised and dependent on modifying your appearance. The poster doesn’t just send the message that you need to be pretty while doing sport. It also conveys its own anxiety about the need to control the way women will view this image and its text. Oh, damn, they might not understand the girl is pretty without her pretty nails on show! Better make sure she’s blinking off the mascara too. The makers of the image don’t really have the confidence in their (young, female) audience to understand the caption and the juxtaposition of the visible and the hidden that it requires in order to function. The undermining effect is doubled: we get the message that we’re supposed to think being pretty matters, and we get the message, too, that the people who made this image don’t really think women are capable of decoding anything terribly visually complex.

It’s deeply depressing that a campaign that sets out to be feminist – or at least, woman-friendly – ends up reiterating the same old messages. But it’s also telling that even this message is tangled up with assumptions about the way women relate – or fail to relate – to the messages in visual culture.

For some years now, I’ve been hearing MRAs claim that objectification has now (against all evidence) become an entirely male-gendered problem.  Women, so the story goes, have begun to act as sexual aggressors. The conspicuously dull Cosmo centre-fold has single-handedly done more harm to men than centuries of misogyny did to women. Poor, timid Daves and Steves must now contend with in the oestrogen-heavy atmospheres of the woman-dominated nail salon, mothers’ meeting or rape crisis centre, wincing each time a loud, drunk woman called Sonia hoiks up her skinnies over her bum crack and pinches his nipples suggestively. You get the picture.

It’s not a new idea. Back in the thirteenth century, Robert of Blois writes sternly that women should police their excessively visual desires:

She should not gaze at a man, as the sparrowhawk gazes at the lark.”

This is exactly how I picture a predatory woman: taloned, feathered, and slightly inclined to shit on her perch if the going gets tough.

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Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 42r.

Medieval literature, theology and scientific writing is full of claims about women’s intensely visual orientation, their affinity – both as a result of nature and as a result of (lack of) education – for pictures and images. Some writers claimed that medieval women were innately more fixated on sex than men, and more easily sexually stimulated – perhaps especially by physical and visual material – than men; others stressed the predatory nature of women’s visual activities.

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I imagine it as something similar to Evil Willow’s eyes in Buffy, but with extra wimple action.

Women’s responses to visual culture were, as a result, heavily policed. Their sight itself was held to have profoundly powerful, sexual, and dangerous power. The Franciscan Peter of Limoges offers a delightfully piece of pseudo-science:

“It seems probable that some kind of poisonous rays are given off when a woman looks at a man lustfully, for then a libidinous vapour arises from the heart of a woman up to her eyes. From then on, the vapour infects her visual rays … whence the infection enters the heart of the man.”

These writers’ monitory attention to women’s visual energies are, plainly, an excuse for policing women’s actions, thoughts and identities more generally. Relating sight to a whole network of stereotypes of women as more earthy, physical and embodied, these writers represent women’s visual attention as a source of danger, a source of excessive sexual desire.

It’s a delightful irony that, in modern-day culture, women’s relationship to visual imagery is policed in precisely the opposite direction – rather discrediting the pseudo-scientific language of both medieval and modern commentators. Contemporary pop culture pieces on sexuality insistently claim that women are “just not very visual,” “less visually stimulated,” “less image-focussed”. Even when one slightly suspects what may be meant is “not interested in the kinds of images you, scientific reviewer, imagine might be sexy,” the claim gains tenure through endless repetition.

An example from pop culture – or rather, the responses to this example that I saw – illustrates the way this claim functions to push women into accepting themselves as the non-default viewer, the viewer who cannot be expected to respond properly to visual material.

A friend linked to one of those repeatable quizzes that claim to identify something improbably complex about your psyche, your cognitive processing or your life history: in this case, your sexuality. This particular quiz was based on those images that trick your eyes, the ones we’ve all played with at school. Instead of the standard eye-trick images of an elderly woman and a young girl, or a vase that’s also two faces, what you saw was more along these lines:

The title of the article from which this came was “Can this quiz really tell your sexual orientation based just on images,” and the answer, I think we can safely say, is no. But you don’t really need to know the accuracy of the quiz in order to recognise – as you begin to click through it – how it is supposed to work. You, the viewer, should respond by seeing naked women everywhere, even in the most mundane images of voluptuous mountain ranges, suggestively curvaceous architecture and vaguely pubic trees. Should you achieve this mighty feat, you’ll discover you are, in fact, attracted to women. Or as the quiz result puts it, ‘straight’.

Of course, the quiz doesn’t need to work to hold our attention (and we probably know, not very deep down, that there’s no reason it should work). We are supposed to recognise, as we click through this quiz, the message that sexual attraction to women’s bodies is a powerful visual force that literally determines the way in which viewers see and interpret the world. We’re not supposed to notice – or respond to, or find our reactions are shaped by – the objectifying dynamic here through which women’s bodies are quite literally represented as part of the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation. But that’s part of the message too. It’s a message that reinforces the idea that women cannot be trusted to act as the default viewer, the viewer who needs no guidance to arrive at his interpretation, the viewer who is not hampered by nagging doubts about objectification.

The images I’m looking at – the poster campaign, the pop quiz – are a problem not just because they objectify. They’re a problem because they come with an ingrained narrative about women’s visual processing that teaches us to distrust what we see, that teaches us that we are not reading images the way the viewer should read them, that teaches us we cannot be trusted to make the ‘correct’ interpretation.

 

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Please Vote Remain

I’m currently polishing up the (final, I hope) draft of my book. Amongst other things, it’s about the way in which people buy into certain ideas of ‘Englishness’ for strategic reasons, and in particular, the ways in which people exploit the rhetoric of their own powerlessness in order – paradoxically – to police and perpetuate conservative social and economic structures. Although I’m writing about fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, it feels uncomfortably close to the bone today.

I can’t express the reasons to vote Remain better than anyone else you’ll hear. Many will stick in my mind, but in particular this piece by Jenni Hill, the series of heartbreaking posts by my fellow medievalist Sjoerd Levelt, and the conversations I’ve been having with my partner, who is the only person in her working group – a group who are working to find a cure for TB as incidence of the disease rises in the UK and elsewhere – eligible to vote in the current election. I can understand the fears and feelings that make people want to vote ‘leave’. I can understand the dogged optimism that convinces people it will somehow be alright if we do – that we won’t, against all predictions, crash economically and culturally. That we won’t give credibility to the sort of politics that clamours for the UK to leave because it harks back to a twisted image of British rule. I can understand it, but I don’t share it.

Please vote. Please vote ‘Remain’.

 

 

 

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This Poem is Not ‘Relatable’: Carol Ann Duffy and Tory Grammar

The other day, I – glibly, I admit, and probably leaning a little bit on educational capital – characterised Carol Ann Duffy’s poem for Orlando as ‘terrible’.

And I stand by that. Duffy can write gorgeous, brilliant poetry – I love the opening parts of Wenceslas, for example. I love the way its half-rhymes on ‘wherein’ and ‘Swan’ chime against the full rhymes on ‘river’ and ‘forever’, and ‘parboiled and oiled’. I love the way the syntax builds, from gently meandering phrases loaded with nouns, to a brisk procession of culinary verbs. I like the way the ‘sing a song of sixpence’ picture of a pie full of birds is juxtaposed with the arcane terminology of a medieval cookbook and with an echo of Dylan Thomas. And in pointing out that I like these things I am, I know, tacitly setting out my credentials to criticise, too.

I could say that Gay Love is, beneath its apparent hectoring simplicity, a sophisticated piece of unexpected tensions. I could say that the doggerel-like, jingling rhyme scheme that hammers through the poem reflects the very ubiquity of homosexuality that Duffy depicts, or that its distribution in internal rhymes and across lines of varying lengths reflects the irregularity of queerness, or the disruptive transgression of established form so beloved of undergraduates who’ve read too much Foucault. I could probably cobble together an argument that the depiction of the only three unambiguously gendered women in the poem – the writer, introduced anonymously, because god knows we’ve enough known and named women writers in English Lit), the ‘calm’ doctor (it’s ok: she’s only taking your pulse, we’ll leave the hard science to the Man Person) and the ‘actress’ (does anyone really use ‘actress’ any more) – is in fact an ironic exposé of internalised sexism. I take the point (made in response to my previous post) that it is only my own searing misogyny that interprets the un-marked gender of butcher, baker, candlestick maker and children as presumptively masculine. I could even claim with a straight face that ‘baling the gold hay’ is a well-known rural gay men’s euphemism for cottaging and that mockery of it would be to appropriate and erase the queer farming community.

But it would be a struggle. Because, truthfully, I think the rhyme scheme is leaden, that the syntax – unfortunately – works with beautiful mimetic effect only when describing the anxieties of the closeted politician, that the imagery is trite and reactionary, and that the last line isn’t particularly original or clever.

Jem Bloomfield, discussing the predictable backlash against that last line, argues that comments reveal ‘the woeful state of public discussion of poetry – lurches between “it has A Meaning” and “means whatever you feel like”.’ This, I think, is spot on. When I’ve mentioned disliking this poem over the last few days, a fair few people have immediately assured me that Duffy’s message is tolerance. That the poem ‘means’ good things. That when Duffy chose to celebrate an oh-so-British-middle-class set of establishment and salt-of-the-earth figures, she was just choosing ‘representative’ people. Or she didn’t really mean to imply that we should only tolerate homosexuality because doctors, farmers and scientists are useful to us. Or that to criticise the poem is ‘overthinking’ because the ‘message’ is positive. Technical details – the focus on the nitty-gritty of the poem – just get in the way of talking about the ‘meaning’.

I mention all of this, partly as a context for that original glib comment, but partly also because I think it illustrates a wider oddity about the way we look at language and literature. Recently, I have been – for my sins – thinking about the way English is taught. I have a fair amount of ongoing cynicism about the motivations behind the current government’s reforms of Humanities teaching, and I do think these reforms have a more-than-incidental relationship to wider issues.

I wasn’t one of the people who jumped up and down in fury when I learned that the new requirements for primary school children include a hefty amount of formal grammar teaching. On the face of it, this didn’t seem particularly awful to me. I could even see the case for teaching quite young children to identify things like modal verbs or subjunctive moods. Why not? Some of them, as my friend pointed out, referring to her daughter, might actually enjoy it. But what I did wonder about – as I trawled through reams of government guidelines talking earnestly about graphemes and phonemes and fronted adverbials – was how carefully this vocabulary set itself up as precise, pseudo-scientific in its Latin and Greek roots. It evokes, too, the formal grammar training I associate with a certain kind of education – the kind of education that taught grammar in English via Latin, and (longer ago) imposed Latin grammatical structures onto English. It is, in short, an educational programme that evokes the same kind of ‘Englishness’ Duffy depicts in her poem: class-bound, Establishment Culture Englishness.

But when we look at the literature side, there’s something peculiar going on. Children are allowed to read (and write) ‘narratives’ or even down-to-earth ‘stories’. They’re encouraged to talk about ‘events’ and ‘themes’. What, not a whisper about the distinction between fabula and syuzhet? Colour me shocked.

It would be cynical to suggest that the reason children aren’t taught heavy theoretical vocabulary to use for describing literature is that there’s no history of associating this kind of formal study with socially privileged Englishness, as there manifestly is with the study of grammar. It would be worse than cynical to observe that ‘grapheme’ and ‘phoneme’ sound pleasantly Classical, suggestive of the clinical precision of scientific terminology or the nostalgic memory of Upper VI A doing Latin prep for Oxbridge entrance. By contrast, even anglicised from фабула and сюжет, the vocab on the lit side speaks a little too plainly of its origins on the other side of the Iron Curtain and offers the worrying reminder that there is still a place called Europe out there somewhere, and its not all made of Classical ruins to put on postcards.

The simple terminology on the lit side is, unfortunately, not a sign of incongruous common sense breaking into the document. There’s nothing wrong with calling a story a story; there’s nothing wrong at all with some recommendations, for example the suggestion that children might think about what themes go into the making of a fairy tale, or how narratives could be told differently from different speakers’ perspectives.

But there isn’t very much of this. The guidelines stress the importance of teaching children to interpret literature as a way of talking about morality or identity: to think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or to ‘identify with’ the emotions of characters. Listening to students – even students at university studying English literature – you could come to the conclusion that Chaucer and Shakespeare both set pen to paper for the sole purpose of providing readers in 2016 with a ‘relatable’ moral lesson, a kind of literary message in a bottle. Generally (because our focus is strongly on ‘identifying’ with characters in literary texts) this will be a message mysteriously in keeping with the mores of twenty-first-century British society. If we follow this line of thinking, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is providing something akin to documentary reportage of the Woman Question circa 1389, and the literary aspects of the text – its genre, its style, its rhetorical tropes, its prosody – are all somehow excluded from the experience. Technical details, once again, just get in the way.

It seems to me that this odd imbalance – the hyper-precise, rigorous approach to English language, and the impressionistic, moralising approach to English literature – sets up students particularly inadequately. I’ve been told that the precise teaching of grammar is something I should welcome, as a lit specialist, something that will produce students who can understand exactly how a poem is put together, and what it means. I’m not convinced. If we teach children that all literature must be ‘relatable’ without giving them the tools to identify why and how it communicates, we’re pushing them to accept writers’ world views uncritically, to discount the nuances and tensions and subtextual implications, and to believe the ‘right’ reading is a simple, moral lesson.

 

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We are Not Orlando: Spurious Community Building and the Failure to Name the Problem

We are all queer now.

Or at least, that is how it seems, if you’ve been following the media lately. The only acceptable response to the shootings in Orlando has – rapidly – become not horror, sorrow, shock or sympathy, but a declaration that you, the speaker, are part of the tragedy too. For once, I was impressed by Owen Jones, who insistently attempted to keep the discussion of the headlines on Sky News focussed on the political point: that this shooting was motivated by homophobia, and that homophobia is not a problem the West has solved. But almost everywhere else, and stunningly quickly, I saw people hurrying to concentrate on the personal, not the political. There is a hashtag, #WeAreOrlando. An article by Melissa Harris-Perry urged straight women to feel guilty that spaces ‘safe’ for them were not ‘safe’ for gay men (not that being a straight woman protected MP Jo Cox, shot at close range in her constituency on Thursday). A piece by Laurie Penny describes how the author’s own emotions built to catharsis at a vigil in London:

I don’t cry in front of other people, she explains. The tears clot in my heart and I have to go somewhere private to dig them out. But, somehow, the experience of coming together on a London street to think about forty-nine dead men and women in America provided catharsis. Embracing her housemate, Penny remembers: We cuddled, and she said “It’s OK to be us. It’s OK to be us.” And I said, “I know.”

Love wins, Penny concludes – though how, I’m not quite sure. How are we going to change things? What are we going to do?

The last straw, for me, was this poem, written by Carol Ann Duffy, about Orlando. I do understand that, as poet laureate and as a lesbian, she is probably more or less required to do this, and I can’t imagine writing poetry to order is particularly easy. But, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a terrible poem – not just as a tribute to the dead, but as a message, too. The writer, the priest, the farmer, the teacher, the politician, the doctor, the scientist, the judge and the actress – so we are assured, in rhymed doggerel – are gay.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
Our children, are gay.
And God is gay.

Ok, we get it. Everyone is gay, even ordinary people. Most of them, we note, are also male, except the actress and the doctor. Goodness, what did she do to be included in the pantheon? Duffy’s doctor is ‘calm’; her politician is neatly dressed in a suit and tie. It’s a list of safe establishment figures, of people neatly tucked away in the closet. This comes across – rather appallingly, in my view – as a list of people whose respectable occupations ought to persuade you it’s in your own interests to tolerate homosexuality.

None of them seem to bear much resemblance to the forty-nine people who died in Orlando, who also seem – if you’ll excuse me – rather different from Laurie Penny. Or me. Yet we are – once again – being pushed the idea that the only way to respond to this attack is to rewrite it in our own image, to write over it with images that look more like us, to clamour over it with the insistence that it’s not just them, it’s us, too. This is spurious community-building. It might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t respect the memory of the dead.

Yesterday, I came across this article (shared, if I remember rightly, by Dorothy Kim), about the Veracruz shooting, in a gay club in Veracruz, Mexico, on May 22nd. Didn’t read about it at the time? No, nor me. We weren’t encouraged to take that event and make it into a performance of personal emotion, to appropriate it as a way to demonstrate how virtuously outraged we are, how close we feel to the tragedy. And it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to work out why that was.

Meanwhile, one of the first things I heard when Jo Cox was shot yesterday, was an outburst of angry reactions against women who referred to this as ‘male violence’ or ‘violence against women’. And I’m disturbed by this dynamic. We declare ‘we are Orlando’; we declare that we, too, are the victims. We erase the differences between us and them, the differences that left them dead and us living. Yet, when it comes to naming perpetrators, we – like Owen Jones’s co-panelists on Sky News – become strangely defensive; strangely quiet. We don’t want to talk about the fact that homophobia and misogyny are rooted in a system of ongoing oppression that can’t be wished away by waving a rainbow flag.

There’s a spurious sense of community here, I think: or rather, a sense of community that is clearly genuinely felt, but which doesn’t meaningfully unite either in recognition of the victims of Orlando – who have been overshadowed, and their particular, individual experiences glossed over – or in opposition to the structural power that produced the conditions that made their murder possible, that made the murder of Jo Cox possible. At the most basic level, the victims of Orlando – the victims of Veracruz – and Jo Cox all died because someone decided their lives were expendable, worth less than the life of the shooter, less than the life of a man with a gun.

So, what can we do? I don’t think I have a good answer (and it wouldn’t be my place to have one, either). But there are things that I think can help. I read. I listen to people like Prof. Cath Andrews, who lives and works in Mexico, and often publicises incidents of violence against women and marginalised groups, which otherwise don’t make it into English-language media. Likewise, I listen to Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy, both medievalists who relate history to modern structural problems, with a particular focus on marginalised groups. I listen to Karen Ingala Smith, who continues (against considerable aggression) to document the kind of violence Jo Cox faced, and to show that these are not one-off acts of madness, but patterns of violence against women. I listen to Carissa Harris, who describes how she teaches her students about the histories of sexuality, race and gender. This list of people is a personal list. That’s the point. Rather than pretending our responses are universal, we should be acknowledging that they are personal. They’re partial. By acknowledging that specificity, we can respect the individuality of the victims of hate crimes, and we can also – I believe – better identify the hidden structures of power and violence that characterise the perpetrators of these attacks. We can learn to see them, to name them – and ultimately, I hope, to fight them.

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MP Jo Cox (centre)

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In memoriam

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