The Body in Folklore Keynote: The Body in Sex Ed, the Classroom, & Alt Ac

The Body in Folklore Keynote: The Body in Sex Ed, the Classroom, & Alt Ac May 15, 2016

Welcome to part 4 (of 5) of my folklore conference keynote speech. I recommend reading the intro, part 1part 2, and part 3 first. Click here to get to part 5, the conclusion.

Starting off with sex education, here’s a bit of background on my work, both as scholar and educator/writer. In 2010 I began blogging for, having already opted to take a PhD minor in gender studies. I didn’t really think of myself as a sex educator, though; rather, I was an academic who researched gender and sexuality and happened to be good at explaining these concepts and this body of research to anyone and everyone: my undergrad students, my blog readers, and also any of my friends or acquaintances who wanted to talk relationships and sex with me (this is a common theme I’ve noticed in the personal narratives of sex educators, by the way: they were also “that person” in their circle of friends who was knowledgeable and approachable when it came  to sex topics).

By 2014, however, I’d decided to claim the title of sex educator. I incorporated this shift into my plan of moving from a wanna-be full-time academic to a proud alt-ac (or alternative academic) with a focus on sex ed. Now I’m active in the sex ed world, attending conferences and workshops, blogging at my own sex ed blog and elsewhere, helping lead a local sex-positive discussion group, and appearing on podcasts and at events. Yes, it’s a long, slow slog to accumulate enough paying work and connections to make this a full-time-ish gig that does more than just pay me in prestige, networking opportunities, or small chunks of change (I have a blog post coming up at Conditionally Accepted on this very topic; part 1 is here)…but as an academic, that’s not unfamiliar territory for me.

Anyway: long story short, I’m a sex educator, I’m doing the work, and I love it. In terms of cultural shift, it’s been… interesting. Among other things, this means that I hang out with people who talk about energy orgasms, and the scholar in me is like “citation please!” But on the whole, I love that my new career community is full of people who are questioning dominant norms and values that govern our understandings of our sexualities, our gender roles, our bodies, and more.

One major concern to sex educators – and, I would argue, all educators – is the neo-liberal construction of the body as belonging to rational consumers with complete agency. Very few folklorists have researched this intersection, with the exception of Did You Hear About the Girl Who?: Contemporary Legends, Folklore, & Human Sexuality By Elissa Henken and Mariamne Whatley. Henken and Whatley found that many of the beliefs, legends, stereotypes, and folk medicine texts circulating among contemporary American teens reinforce a worldview of victim-blaming and shaming…which is exactly what neoliberalism does.

I won’t subject you to Foucault’s version of neoliberalism. Instead, I’ll quote from a Guardian article: “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers…Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone…The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.”

And this brings us to pizza.

If you haven’t seen Al Vernacchio’s TED talk on the baseball vs. pizza metaphor for sex, go watch it now. Briefly, he argues that the dominant metaphor for sex as playing baseball – scoring, running the bases in a given order – is both sexist and heterosexist. He proposes eating pizza as a replacement, since we eat pizza when we want to (rather than at an ascribed time), we stop when we’re satisfied (rather than focusing on penetrative sex and male orgasm), and before we do it, we talk about it (rather than assuming that everyone knows the rules).

Now, I’m going to interject what is probably one of the more important points of my talk, and I don’t want it to get lost as an aside. The folk metaphor of sex as baseball vs. sex as pizza is good to think with, but it also indicates a major contribution that the study of folklore can make to the study of the body: we’re basically crowd-sourcing this stuff. We have the chance to make a unique contribution to understandings of sexual bodies, sexual acts, and hot topics like consent, assault, rape culture, and more. As Diane Goldstein observes in her presidential address to the American Folklore Society, the narrative turn in recent decades benefits us. It frames folklore as a central concern to understanding everything from HIV and public health to immigration and asylum in relation to the law. I wonder if our participation in the turn toward the body has the same potential, to make folklore studies a household phrase, a valued form of specialist knowledge.

Moving to the college classroom more generally, I would ask: how do we think of student bodies? Passive recipients of knowledge? This is just another instance of mind-body dualism, wherein our desire to reach the minds of others might cause us to ignore their bodies.

Statistically speaking, you [my original audience of conference attendees] have students who’ve been sexually assaulted in your classes; all of us do, but are any of us familiar with how trauma alters the brain and body? Seriously, educate yourself on trauma if you haven’t already. I’ve got a workshop report on trauma here that’s a decent starting place.

Finally, I’d like to speak to the alt ac experience. There’s more discourse about adjunct wages and access to health care, which is good, but we still need to be asking: how are adjuncts literally supposed to feed themselves; afford food, rent, gas? When the job has little job security, but we’re still supposed to be producing research and teaching, what happens to academic freedom? And what toll does this take on our bodies?

Here, I think of Zora Neale Hurston, whose folklore research is less well known than her creative writing. She engaged with bodies, documenting hoodoo practices in the African-American South in the 1920s and 30s. Like today’s adjuncts, she scrambled to get funding for her work and had to jump through bizarre hoops to put food on the table. I think that if Hurston were working today, she’d have a Patreon account, to supplement what her upper class patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, doled out. As Elaine Lawless writes, Hurston had to appeal to Mason for every travel expense related to research. She was “required to itemize every expenditure, down to her sanitary napkins” (162). If that’s not an example of the body’s primacy in the economy of the university, I don’t know what is.

We are made even more vulnerable because of mind-body dualism. An overwhelming number of contingent faculty and staff are women, people of color, and other minorities, often those associated more with body than with mind. As Joanna Frueh observes in her book Monster/Beauty: “Mind is sexed male and overarches body, makes body disappear. Body is an attribute, something smaller than mind. Professors must be large of mind, for supposedly that is the source of their power” (180). Great thinkers from Adrienne Rich to Jane Gallop and bell hooks have noted this: that women have to prove they are thinkers and not just those who are bodies. As hooks observes in Teaching To Transgress, “The person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body” (137). This applies both to teachers who embody norms and can ignore the cultural standards they effortlessly meet, and to those with job security, whether tenure-track faculty or administrators, who are able to do their jobs without worrying about hunger or medical bills in quite the same way as the contingent. Lacking power to deny their bodies, both in terms of appearance and in terms of physical needs, many adjuncts are thus doubly left out in the cold.

In all these, we see bodies demanding more and more to speak and be seen and heard. Adjunct issues about wages and literally putting food on the table; students wanting campuses to be safe for sexual assault survivors; and yet there’s a backlash, a demand that we conform to the ideal of the neoliberal body. We must accept responsibility for anything and everything that happens to us. Clearly, this is only one way to view the world, and it is a way that prioritizes the desires of those already in power.

Scholars in other fields are beginning to come forward about the high levels of sexual harassment and assault they’ve faced as grad students, adjuncts, and professors. Broadly ran an article focusing on the experiences of female astronomers, stating: “The UK and Europe…are only just starting to wake up to the problems faced by female scientists, and some of the world’s most respected universities continue to offer jobs to known bullies and harassers.”

Those of us in folklore have a reputation for being nice, and I would imagine it’s similar for adjacent disciplines. But I have to wonder: what would it look like for us to turn the lens inward, to consider how bodies and sexualities and genders and relationships are treated in our field? To share a brief personal narrative, when I started grad school I received at least one warning from a well-intentioned older female peer about who to not get stuck alone in elevators with at conferences. I’m given to understand that these warnings still exist, in what has become known in the folkspeech of alternative sexuality communities as the broken stair metaphor.

I documented an instance of this folkspeech at Catalyst Con, a sex-positive conference by and for sex educators, therapists, activists, as well as the informed public. The instructors on a panel about victim-blaming, shaming, and silence in sexuality communities described an anecdote whereby you’re new to a group of friends, and you’re at someone’s house for a party. You go downstairs to the basement to fetch something…and take a nasty fall, because no one warned you about the broken stair. They just assumed that everyone would work around it, and there’s no need to fix it, right? The sex-positive blogger Pervocracy also explains this concept in a blog post called the missing stair.

Academia is full of broken stairs.

Here I’d like to draw together these themes and argue that one of the major tasks we face as scholars and activists today is to tease apart the threads of worldview, folk belief, and folk ideas that link marginalized groups with various stigmatized ideas, as expressed in mind-body dualism, neoliberalism, and other nasty –isms like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on.

I urge you to join me in challenging the dominant worldview, expressed in folklore and other aspects of culture, that imposes values upon bodies and bodily actions. As folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other scholars of culture, we have the tools to identify, document, and analyze the beliefs enacted in the social realms we inhabit. Our training gives us not only the toolkit but also the authority to say, “Wait a minute, hold on, I think you’re making an assumption here, and I have the letters behind my name to back this up” when someone makes a claim about who is a suitable or unsuitable teacher. Or what type of student body is appropriately docile. Or what type of behavior is appropriate in a colleague.

This is a responsibility that we have thanks to our training and our expertise. Diane Goldstein says basically the same thing: “By not intervening in the sometimes wrong-minded public treatment of vernacular culture, I believe we become complicit in that treatment” (138).

I know from my research that there are many adult sexual behaviors that are deemed deviant or inappropriate, but are actually pretty common worldwide: casual sex, swinging, taking nude selfies, sex work, or engaging in consensual non-monogamy or kinky behavior. But if you’re paying attention to the news, you’ll know that teachers get fired and written up for this kind of stuff. It only apparently matters when a teacher (or politician) does it.  Certain sexual minorities that were formerly stigmatized, such as same-sex attraction, have been less despised recently in the university. But…those identities can still get teachers into trouble. This is due to the assumption that people who engage in these acts have spoiled identities, to borrow a phrase from Irving Goffman. New research coming from sociologists and psychologists studying these groups, such as Curtis Bergstrand and Jennifer Sinski on swinging, Dr. Zhana Vrangalova on casual sex, and Elisabeth Sheff on polyamory, demonstrates that people in these folk groups aren’t psychologically or morally abnormal. Being sexually active, in any fashion so long as it’s consensual, doesn’t mean that you’re unprincipled. But heaven forbid these folks teach our children, even when the children in question are over 18.

Basically, we’re dealing with sympathetic magic here, specifically, the law of contagion. It’s no surprise that a recent news piece on Monica Lewinsky incorporates the quote, “the shame sticks to you like tar” in the title. That is exactly how shame and stigma work, and we know this thanks to Frazer, for all that his exoticizing view of other people’s bodies was problematic.

Dealing with “inappropriate” topics (like structural racism/sexism) or engaging in stigmatized behavior bears the risk of marking you, the scholar or student, as an inappropriate person. Rape culture means that any attempt to come forward and report an assault or harassment you’ve experienced could bring with it stigma. Merely raising the topic might get you labeled a loud-mouthed feminist, like me. And this is all of interest to folklorists; this is all in our purview, since we study stereotypes, how language is imbued with meaning, how gossip reinforces worldview, and so on. We’re implicated in these topics and how they’re represented publicly, like it or not. The examples I’ve given here are related to sexual minorities because that’s what I study, but the same could be said of immigrants and refugees, as people who suffer from ill-informed stereotypes and misguided policies impacting them disproportionately because they deviate from hegemonic norms.

Whether you think of yourself as an activist or not, this matters to us, and we can shape this dialogue. The more you believe that you deserve what you get – whether it’s an STI, or a sexual assault, or a crummy part-time job, or being fired from that job– the more you can be manipulated into accepting what happens to you as normal, natural, and inevitable. Whatever realm of folklore or culture you’re working in, something in your work touches on this relationship between belief and access to power. And we make it a better world when we articulate these connections, both to other scholars and to the general public.

Next is up is the final installment of my speech: the conclusion with an epic bibliography.



Frueh, Joanna. Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001.

Goldstein, Diane. “Vernacular Turns: Narrative, Local Knowledge, and the Changed Context of Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore 128.508 (2015): 125-145.

Gordon, Olivia. “For Female Astronomers, Sexual Harassment Is a Constant Nightmare.” Broadly. Web. Accessed 8 April 2016.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Lawless, Elaine. “What Zora Knew: A Crossroads, a Bargain with the Devil, and a Late Witness.” Journal of American Folklore 126.500 (2013): 152-173.

Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” The Guardian. Web. Accessed 17 April 2016.

Ronson, Jon. “Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar.'” The Guardian. Web. Accessed 17 April 2016.

Vernacchio, Al. “Sex Needs a New Metaphor. Here’s One.” TED Talk. 2012.

Whatley, Mariamne, and Elissa Henken. Did You Hear About the Girl Who?: Contemporary Legends, Folklore, & Human Sexuality. New York and London: New York University Press, 2000.

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