Literary Sex in the Age of Affirmative Consent

The awkwardness of teaching a story of about sexual awakening at a religious women’s college cannot be overstated. Either I overlooked this complication when I assigned it or misjudged how awkward it would be. But there I was in front of a room of modestly dressed young women and I could not avoid the primary dramatic tension of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss:” a woman’s sudden sexual desire for her husband.

The fact is, however, I have a history of oversights related to literary sexual encounters. When I was in graduate school, I discussed the rape of the “typist at home” in the “Fire Sermon” section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. After a dinner-time visit from “a small house agent’s clerk,” the typist is “bored and tired:”

[He] endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence.

Finally the agent “gropes his way out.” Eliot then writes, “When lovely woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone, / She smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone.”

Immediately following my presentation, it was suggested that I re-read the poem. I was informed of my crime (against literature): in the age of no means no, there is no rape. The typist does not resist; she does not struggle. I laughed at my error. The Waste Land is notoriously difficult to follow, and I was a fresh graduate student trying to prove myself worthy of this endeavor. I enthusiastically back-pedaled. I apologized.

The next semester, we read Ulysses. In the Naussica chapter, Leopold Bloom masturbates in public while gazing at naive Gerty McDowell, who was previously having her own romantic, if not quite sexual, fantasy. In my discussion, I somehow missed the public exposure and masturbation. I must have rushed over the line that states Bloom had “drained his manhood,” (unapologetically, of course; it was merely due to the sight of the “little wretch”). Again, I laughed at myself. We were all trying to make sense of a text that was at times inscrutable, so that even the most obvious clues seemed hidden. Still, it was my oversight. But in this second instance of misreading, I was following the training I received as a result of my encounter with The Waste Land: ignore literary sexual violence against women.

In contemporary writing, sexual violence is harder to miss. Lena Dunham publishes details of her experience with rape in her recently published Not That Kind of Girl. “Barry” takes Dunham to a parking lot because she needs to go to the bathroom and there is no available toilet:

I pull down my tights to pee, and he jams a few of his fingers inside me, like he’s trying to plug me up. […].

At no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough […]. I never gave him permission.

Dunham’s language is not inscrutable: she did not consent. And California Governor Jerry Brown’s affirmative-consent bill – requiring colleges and universities to consider “conscious and volunteer agreement” in their investigations of sexual assault – begins the process of making consent a barometer for legal action. Here is my question, however: As we reassess sexual violence on campus, how do we reassess sexual violence in the literary canon?

The period I study, modernism, is flush with women characters who complicate the “no means no” approach to defining sexual violence. For example, Anna in Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark naively enters into a relationship with an older man; after having a falling out with him and losing her job, she meets another man ostensibly to do his nails. When he confesses, “Oh, don’t worry about the manicure […] I only wanted to talk to you,” she does not protest. Saying no would not change the situation, so she limits her participation in the discussion: “When he touched me I knew that he was quite sure I would. I thought, ‘All right then, I will.’” Is this Anna’s “folly,” to use Eliot’s language, or is this rape? And why was this never asked in a graduate seminar?

Overlooking sexual violence in literature also legislates how we view women’s sexual pleasure, when and if they have the opportunity to pursue it. On the same day we discussed “Bliss,” I also assigned Mansfield’s story “The Tiredness of Rosabel.” After a hard day of work at a millinery shop, Rosabel goes to bed cold and underfed, but finds warmth in a fantasy that she is in possession of a new fiancé, a fashionable cloak and a dutiful servant. At the close of this fantasy, “Rosabel “shivered, drew a little gasping breath […] with a little nervous tremour round her mouth.” Scholars claim the pleasure Rosabel receives from her fantasy is yet another folly – she is a victim of the clichéd language of romantic novels. But for women of Rosabel’s class, sexual pleasure is necessarily separate from sexual experience. So why does Rosabel’s fantasy necessarily make her complicit in her victimization? She simply satisfies what otherwise is a life of never-ending physical and emotional hunger.

So what to do with students whose religious upbringing, to say nothing of the limitations of traditional literary study, complicate meaningful discussions about even fictional women’s sexual pleasure? I was determined to say very little. I demurred. I told the students to look at the repetition of the words “passion” and “bliss.” They sighed and groaned, ruffled pages, and uncomfortably shifted in their chairs. Either they did not see the textual evidence or they did not want to. Finally, one student, her long curls bouncing in the air, yelled out in what I can only describes as delight when she realized what “Bliss” was really about: “Wait, I get it, she wants to have sex!” There were a few gasps and nervous giggles. But not one student corrected her reading.

–Lauren Rosenblum is a writer and adjunct professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She is co-editor of Communal Modernisms: Teaching Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture in the Twenty-First-Century Classroom. She is currently working on a book on the do-it-yourself movement.