I’m in my last semester of my Bachelor’s degree in English, which essentially means I spend a lot of time analyzing works of literature from what’s called the Canon. The Canon is essentially a group of books that literary elites have chosen as important for students to study. We study them in light of theory (Poetics, Marxism, Feminism, Historicism, etc.) which can get extremely boring, in my opinion. It’s easy though. A lot of it is common sense.
I’m taking one class that examines American Literature and we’re studying literature with from an African American perspective, which is a nice diversion from the mostly white male literature in the Canon.
Yesterday’s novel was Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin–an African American gay male author who was very popular in the 60’s. Giovanni’s Room is a novel that explores sex and sexuality–particularly homosexuality and heteronormative behavior. Heteronormative? Yes. Basically the concept that society thinks we should act a certain way to be considered “normal” and this is usually from a straight perspective.
But I digress.
The novel’s protagonist, David, is a typical white male American who’s goal is to be married and have a family. He asks his fiance, Hella, to marry him and she goes off to Spain to “think about it.” While she’s in Spain, David has a sexual relationship with Giovanni, another man.
Throughout the entire novel, David is afraid of people’s bodies. He’s disgusted by both male and female bodies, and particularly disgusted by his desires for men. He associates being gay with death and decay.
When the novel was written, homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness and gays were “treated” for this “mental illness.” President Eisenhower even signed a bill that said “sexual perverts” (aka, gays) could be fired from their jobs.
It’s no wonder David things being gay is disgusting–white male America thought being gay was disgusting, perverted, and dirty.
Baldwin, however, criticized Americans (especially white male Americans) for this “fear of the body” and “sexual shame.” He thought racism stemmed from a white male American hatred for the body and a fear of sexuality. That’s why in literature and movies we saw African Americans portrayed as lustful, sexual beings. Baldwin said that white America’s portrayal of African Americans as out of control sexual people reflected OUR fear of sex and our shame of being sexual.
Baldwin said, “You really feel that sex is dirty–that the body is vile–you really do.”
I feel like things in America haven’t changed all that much. We really feel like the body is vile and that sex is dirty. We hide it. We don’t bring it into public discourse and if we do, it’s talked about as dirty or immoral. We’re not comfortable seeing gays and lesbians be affectionate and religious people call them “sinners.”
Why do we feel the body is vile and that sex is dirty? Why do we hide our sexuality or our thoughts about sex? Why are we ashamed?
Do you agree with Baldwin?
Since I’ve de-converted from Christianity, I’ve thought a lot about sex and sexuality and my sexuality has ranged from heteroflexible to bisexual. I find that people are still very closeted; they still obey the heteronormative rules in society. Men are afraid to admit (or admit with caution) that they wouldn’t mind sexually experimenting with a man. Women are often displeased with men, but instead of trying things with women, they just accept their “normal” role as a woman. To be “normal” is to be a wife of a male, a mother, etc. The normative roles in society for women require a male (marriage, kids).
Part of what I consider self-growth has included reexamining the social norms revolving sexuality, primarily because sexuality (and our ideas of what is normal) is imposed on us from patriarchal religion. If religion says it must be so, then I say I must question it and redefine it for myself.
I’m advocating for a more open, flexible idea about sex and sexuality and bodies, particularly among those of us who’ve been highly religious at one time. If the church says sex is dirty and sex is shameful and we can’t control our “wicked desires” then I say the church is wrong and we should redefine sex and sexuality in a more progressive way.
What do you say?
- Can we change our dialogue about sex in the world?
- Can we embrace sex as something enjoyable (with or without procreation) instead of something vile?
- Can we embrace sexuality as something that may be flexible instead of rigid?
(Author’s Note: I’d like to give credit to Professor Mills at CSUN for his lecture being the impetus to this post. Many of the ideas presented here were inspired by his lecture on James Baldwin)