Talking about sex in literature.

Today was one of those rare days in English class — I walked in with at least one exact idea of what I wanted to talk about.

The tenth graders had just started reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and I knew that at some point we were all going to turn to page 11 and give a good look at Janie under the pear tree.

To English majors this may seem like a yawn — I forgot about the passage myself until I was prepping a few years ago, and my roommate’s high school copy had the section underlined with the word “orgasm” scribbled in the margins. But now I make a point of hitting that page each time I teach the book.

Moreover, this is my fourth year working with this text, and it has been my consistent experience that I kind of have to lead my students by the hand to this passage, make them stand in front of it. Usually I read it out loud and then wait.

Light bulbs go off above maybe half of the class. A few smirk knowingly. Maybe a hand goes up, but often it goes back down in nervousness.

I have to say it first. “Have your minds turned to sex yet?”

Some students will be relieved. Others will still be puzzling over it, trying to fit the text into their schema for what a sexual scene is supposed to look like. Is the boy under the tree with her? Is Janie masturbating? What’s going on?

My students are not prudes. They get a comprehensive sex education in health class. Plus, they’re teens — it’s not like they can’t pick up on innuendo. But what I love about this passage is that it brings life to sexuality. It’s the pedagogical inverse of classic sex ed materials — cross-sections of genitalia and so on. Stop worrying for a moment about what sex is. What is it like? And why does it matter to our main character so much? What is the meaning of sex in life?

We can’t answer all of these questions, certainly not definitively. But the fact that we try, as a class — boys and girls together, no less — brings me a special teacher joy. That we can little sidetracked by embarrassed blushes and dumb jokes, but not totally derailed. That it’s pretty complicated, but we can reach for bigger ideas and deeper understandings. This is what I want them to know, about sex and literature both.

(And then, after ruminating on all this today, I came home and read about Sex and Society at Friends Select, a profile which will likely echo on the internet for a while. I had many thoughts after reading, but here’s the kicker: my old roommate’s book with the notes was from her freshman year in that teacher’s English class.)


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