Do folklore and sex positivity go hand in hand, or does folklore only give us images of rapey fairy-tale kisses and urban legend characters giving each other HIV? Here’s my SexPosCon talk, in which I argue that we can gain a lot by looking at traditional folklore with an eye towards sex-positive takeaways.
This is a lightly-edited transcript of the presentation I made at the Positive Sexuality Conference (#SexPosCon for short), which was put on by the Center for Positive Sexuality in May. I maintain the conversational tone of the talk in this blog post, and also add some links so people can study up if desired. Plus there’s a works cited list at the end, because of course I’m a nerd like that. Enjoy, and please let me know if you have questions!
When I say that I study folklore, many people immediately get mental images of Disney princesses, unicorns, and fairies. And all of those things are fair game for us to study, but they’re only part of the picture. In this blog post, I’m going to define folklore, describe its relationship to sex and specifically sex positivity, and provide some examples of how folklore can support sex positive goals.
In my field, we define folklore as informally transmitted traditional culture. We all have folklore, regardless of whether we call it that. If culture is everything you need to know to function within a society, folklore is the subset of culture that’s passed on through informal or non-institutional channels. This is why folklore is often referred to as oral tradition, though it also encompasses customs like festivals and folk medicine, and material culture such as quilting, traditional recipes, and children’s crafts.
What makes something traditional isn’t just that it’s centuries old, rural, or quaint. Tradition refers to a cultural item or text having continuity in time and space. That’s why I have colleagues studying everything from gender roles in the Grimms’ fairy tales to the Slenderman legends on the internet. Memes, like the Biden memes I’m studying, definitely count as folklore. It doesn’t have to be old, you just have to show that multiple humans have transmitted it.
It’s important to note that sometimes we hear people saying “Oh, that’s just folklore,” in the colloquial sense of something being untrue or made-up. You can swap in fairy tale, myth, and legend for the same connotation, despite them being distinct narrative genres. But since we define folklore by its transmission, rather than its truth value, that opens up a whole other avenue for conversation. We’re not here to play Mythbusters, we’re here to understand why people think a story or folk remedy is compelling enough to pass on.
One more thing about folklore: it always exists in variation, in contrast to fixed cultural forms like literature and pop culture and the law. When a novel is published, or a film is released, it doesn’t generally change. Yes, you might get the author’s updated version of a book, or you might get the director’s cut of a film on DVD, but they’re both official versions of the same product. Similarly, following the law is compulsory, and there are specific procedures for changing it. In contrast, nobody owns folklore. Your version of a joke could vary wildly from mine, and that’s normal and okay.
In much the same way, human sexuality varies, and that’s normal and okay too. And we see varying representations of sex, sexuality, gender roles, and all kinds of related topics in folklore. My folklore mentor Alan Dundes was a Freudian and thus he thought most folklore was about sex. Further, because we’re in the realm of unofficial culture, nothing’s really taboo. So, from Dundes’s perspective, lightbulb jokes are about screwing in more ways than one, Jewish American Princess jokes are about frigidity, and so on. In one of his essays, he suggested that “games, sports, and war form a common continuum” (52) with the shared premise being that these are masculine activities in which the point is to penetrate the other side’s defenses, thus defeating them by emasculating them. I’d like to note that Dundes received death threats over his assertions about the homoerotic subtext of American football, decades before we started having a large-scale discussion about toxic masculinity.
Many folkloric representations of sex and related topics are undoubtedly sex-negative. I’ll give two examples here. One of the main folklore genres that relates to sex is urban legends, or stories that are told as though true and happen in the here and now. For decades now, folklorists have documented urban legends about the dangers of sexuality: the man who sleeps with a strange woman he meets in a hotel bar, and wakes up the next morning with his kidneys stolen, or with AIDS (but usually not both). I sometimes teach a book chapter about one where actor Richard Gere allegedly went to the hospital with a gerbil up his ass because that’s apparently a gay sex thing. Again, folklorists aren’t concerned with whether a given item of folklore occurred or not, we just care why it has cultural currency.
Then there are legends about the crazed killer with the hook preying on teenagers who make out in parked cars, and about the cheerleader who had to get her stomach pumped because she sucked off the whole football team, and about the girl who masturbated with a hot dog, getting it stuck and needing to go to the hospital to get it removed. As Mariamne Whatley & Elissa Henken observe in their book-length study of how these legends reinforce the messages of sex ed curricula, Did You Hear About the Girl Who, many legends present us with a vision of a world that is full of sexual dangers, thus serving a warning function. (I can’t recommend this book highly enough.)
The other main example of sex negativity in folklore comes from that beloved genre, fairy tales, and their transformations by Disney and other pop culture phenomena. Fairy tales, or fictional formulaic narratives about magical transformations and quests, span multiple centuries and countries in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Africa. Despite the persistent association of fairy tales with childhood, they’ve been told by and for adults and thus depict many sexual themes.
Like in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In a 17th-century version of Sleeping Beauty by Basile, for example, the king rapes her while she sleeps…and that doesn’t wake her up. She gives birth to twins, and that doesn’t wake her up. What does wake her up is when one of the babies is looking for something to suckle, and sucks the offending splinter from her fingertip. A quick example of a lesser-known European fairy tale that I’d consider sex-negative is one where a prince rapes a peasant girl, and her magical snake friend winds around his neck, slowly choking him until he…marries her. And that’s the happily ever after. Don’t get me started on the Grimm brothers, that’s another 45-minute lecture.
But we’re here to talk about what’s sex-positive in folklore. I want to briefly mention some customs from within contemporary queer communities that demonstrate resilience. Folklorist Joseph Goodwin has documented gay men’s folklore since the 1980s, pointing out that the uses of jokes, humor, and insider language serve the functions of group cohesion and acculturation. The hanky code is a material example of communication among a marginalized group that protects them from the risks of being seen openly communicating about taboo sexual desires. This is resilience through folklore; this is communities using folk customs to protect themselves.
Despite some of the awful fairy tales I mentioned earlier, there are some tales that are affirming of gender and sexual variance. I’m assuming everyone’s heard of “Mulan”; there’s a European fairy tale that has the same plot, with a woman dressing as a man to take her father’s place in a war. She wins favor with the king, who is oddly attracted to her despite her presenting as a man the whole time. When her gender’s eventually revealed, they marry. Despite hints of homoeroticism, this tale wraps up too neatly to be that interesting. But there’s a variant, told in Greece, Armenia, and the Cape Verde Islands among other places, where the cross-dressed female protagonist is married to a princess (Greenhill and Anderson-Grégoire). In some versions the princess doesn’t mind sharing her bed with a woman, and in others she complains about it to her father, who conspires to send the “new husband” off on a dangerous quest. The protagonist encounters a magical figure who curses them with a sex change, which solves everyone’s problems.
I choose to read this tale as a representation of a successful gender transition, as does my colleague Psyche Ready. The protagonist begins by taking on men’s clothes and men’s work, and ends the tale as a man, thanks to magical intervention. Most versions of this tale do not include negative comments by the narrators about the sexual possibilities of having two women share a bed, or having one of those women become a man. The challenges that the protagonist faces are erected by other characters within the world, reflecting the transphobic social structures that many folks face. This tale functions as an imaginative frame in which to reflect on the complexities of sex and gender, desire and dominant cultural norms. In giving us the space to think through these issues, I’d argue that it’s a profoundly sex-positive example of folklore.
Moving on to another sex-positive example, there is a not-quite-global belief in witches, or supernatural magic-workers who are often demonized for stepping outside religious and patriarchal constraints. Witches in many communities are women, and yet they perform their gender as not-women. One example is how in Scandinavian legends from the last few centuries, witches could steal milk straight from a cow. You’d know if you were eating witch butter because you could stab the butter with a knife, and it would begin to bleed. Witches thus subverted the nurturing role women were supposed to play as mothers giving breast milk, and persecuting women as witches was thus one way to punish any feminine sexuality that deviated from the cultural norms of the time.
Folklorist Americo Paredes collected legends and folktales from Mexico in the 1950s, including an intriguing text called “The Witch Wife.” Other versions exist in New Mexico and Colombia. The tale goes:
They say that in the Nahuatl-speaking district of San Cristobal Las Casas there lived a man and his wife. The woman was a witch and she was deceiving her husband. It was her custom to say some magic words that made the flesh drop from her bones, leaving nothing but the skeleton. Then she would sprout wings, and the skeleton would go out flying through the air. In this shape she would go out every night and frighten people out at late hours. When her husband found out she was deceiving him and that her skeleton was out every night, he decided to punish her. One night he lay awake in bed, pretending he was asleep. He heard noises as his wife got out of bed and went out into the street. He got up too and followed her. Hiding in the shadows he saw how wings sprouted from her skeleton. Then he saw her fly away, making a noise like bones falling apart. When he got over his fright, he went where the flesh was, and he chopped it up into bits with his machete. Then he sprinkled salt over it so it would die. Then he went back and hid in a corner and waited for the skeleton to return. When this took place the skeleton stood before the flesh and said the words to make it come back in place. But the flesh did not obey because it was dead. The despairing skeleton flew away. Many are the people who see this being flying through the air at night, and they say it announces somebody’s death (Paredes 202).
As queer feminist folklorist Kay Turner says of this tale in her 2017 Presidential Address at the American Folklore Society (Youtube link here): “Flight proves a powerful antidote to the female body weighed down and weighted by the determinations of men.” In other words, we see a woman who’s learned to slip off the skin of patriarchy, who quite possibly learned it from a community of women, other witches, previously, who refuses to be owned and transgresses the gender binary by refusing to stay home and be good and be owned. Like her legendary sister La Llorona, our witch wife queers gender by doing femininity badly. She’s punished for it, but that also frees her from the patriarchal demands on her body and her emotional and domestic labor. As a skeleton, or in La Llorona’s case a ghost, these legendary women are narrative examples of women’s agency flying in the face of the patriarchy, in literal and uncanny ways.
A word about cultural appropriation. Ancient Egyptian myths have some fascinating sexual material in their origin stories, but should I go there? And I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that multiple cultures worldwide have gender systems that go beyond the binary. In India, there are the hijras, considered a third gender. In various Native American tribes, there are multiple gender systems with three or four gender options. I mention these because anthropologically, they provide evidence that a strict gender binary is not the global norm, and this is useful. As a person of European descent, it’s not my business to get involved in them other than pointing to them as examples of how limited Eurocentric thinking about gender and sex can be. Obviously I’m not saying that you can only engage with the expressive culture of your ancestors, because that’d be a dull and dismal world. It’s a nuanced issue, which thus requires nuanced thought from us.
The way I’ve been trained to address cultural appropriation, I recommend tuning into whether there’s a power dynamic between the origin culture and the borrowing culture, such as a history of colonialism, imperialism, or genocide. Further, I recommend learning enough to understand whether the origin culture’s story, artifact, or custom is sacred vs. secular, and performed in a domestic and private or more public context (I run through this checklist in regard to belly dancing here). Cultural borrowing is never unambiguous, but in my view it’s less bad when you’re borrowing from traditions that are more secular and more public-facing. Folklore, like all culture, spans these various contexts, and so please take that into account when you’re finding sex-positive folklore that you’d like to use as a resource. That’s why most of the examples I bring up here are from European and American folklore.
The very collective nature of folklore makes it not only interesting but also useful for us to have on our radar. As second-wave feminists discovered in the 1970s with their conscious-raising rap groups, where women gathered to swap personal narratives – also folklore – recognizing shared experiences is powerful. It led to the slogan, The Personal Is Political, which is still true when it comes to the experiences of folks marginalized for reasons relating to gender or sexuality. Stories alone will not save us, but focusing on those stories that are communally shared can key us into healthy, positive, strong ways to interact with sexuality and be resilient in the face of oppression.
Has anyone seen Al Vernacchio’s TED talk about the baseball metaphor for sex? Guess what, that’s more folklore. Using the folk metaphor of baseball – ritualistically rounding the bases, scoring against the other team – is, Vernacchio points out, sexist and heterosexist. When Vernacchio provides the alternative metaphor of pizza, he subverts those sex-negative assumptions, and reframes them as questions that we ask when sharing a meal – what sounds good? When have we had enough? And key to my point is that Vernacchio says, “who gets to answer those questions? You do. I do.” That’s because we’re in the realm of folklore, informally transmitted traditional culture that we decide to share with variation. We’re the experts on our own cultural values.
If, as folklorist Henry Glassie suggests, “tradition is the creation of the future out of the past” (176), then it’s actually a very empowering message to examine traditional takes on sex and gender and incorporate them in our sex-positive vision of the present and the future. We can’t change the past, and we should be careful when interacting with cultures we don’t belong to, for ethical as well as practical reasons. But we all have access to word-of-mouth networks, where we get to decide which stories and jokes to tell and retell, and which customs get carried on. As educators, scholars, activists, and sex-positive people in general, we get to decide which metaphors and narratives we pass on in both our professional and our personal lives.
Folklore reflects culture. Given that many cultures are heteronormative, homophobic, and transphobic, that’s what we’re going to see in much of the folklore. But we can also look at the folklore of marginalized gender and sexuality communities, as well as try to draw out sex-positive nuggets from other times and places as appropriate. And I believe that the more we look for sex-positive folklore, the more we’ll find. And the more we can make it the norm, by drawing attention to it and choosing to transmit it.
I hope, as always, that more sexuality professionals – or, you know, everyone – will become more aware of folklore in their daily lives and consider using folklore in their work. Check out the American Folklore Society and Folklore Thursday (both the hashtag on Twitter and the website) for starting points. I’ve also got a series of #FolkloreThursday posts explaining basic concepts in folklore studies. Go forth and learn about folklore, and use it in your sex-positive conversations!
Glassie, Henry. “Tradition.” In Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. Ed. Burt Feintuch. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 176-197.
Greenhill, Pauline, and Emilie Anderson-Grégoire. “‘If Thou Be Woman, Be Now Man!’: ‘The Shift of Sex’ as Transsexual Imagination.” In Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag. Eds. Pauline Greenhill and Diane Tye. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014. 56-73.
Paredes, Américo. Folktales of Mexico. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Ready, Psyche. Transitioning: A Danish Folktale and the Contemporary Transgender Experience. <https://psychezready.com/category/transgender/> Accessed 12 May 2018.
Turner, Kay. “The Witch in Flight (AFS Presidential Address).” Originally delivered in 2017 in Minneapolis. <https://youtu.be/ALw2Zw_4hyI> Accessed 12 May 2018.
Vernacchio, Al. “Sex Needs a New Metaphor. Here’s One.” TED Talk. <https://www.ted.com/talks/al_vernacchio_sex_needs_a_new_metaphor_here_s_one/transcript#t-475130> Accessed 9 May 2018.
Whatley, Mariamne, and Elissa R. Henken. Did You Hear About the Girl Who…? Contemporary Legends, Folklore, & Human Sexuality. New York: New York University Press, 2000.