Scandalous! Examining Sex in Banned Literary Classics.
“The material to which children are being exposed in certain classes in Republic Schools is shocking… This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The “f word” is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”–Wesley Scroggins, Springfield News Leader The book that Scroggins was suggesting banning from the public school curriculum back in 2010–not in the 1970s, as one might expect–was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a classic anti-war novel regularly listed in the top 100 books of the century by literary scholars. Reading his editorial, one might expect to find a graphic sex scene a la Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. In reality, not much happens. The PTSD-suffering hero, Billy Pilgrim, is transported (or believes he has been transported) by aliens into a zoo in which human beings are observed by little green men. An actress is sent there to be his mate. They’re both nude, a detail that is stated rather matter-of-factly in the text. The actress, Montana, is understandably frightened. And… wait for it… nothing happens. Eventually, a couple passages later, it is revealed that they had intercourse with all the pornographic detail of a college manual on affirmative consent. “In time, Montana came to love and trust Billy Pilgrim. He did not touch her until she made it clear that she wanted him to. After she had been on Tralfamadore for what would have been an Earthling week, she asked him shyly if he wouldn’t sleep with her. Which he did. It was heavenly.”–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. Sexual morality is really subjective. And one man’s scandalous will always be another’s “what’s the big deal?” But the bigger problem with critics of sex in literary classics is that they are interpreting the scene as about the physical act of intercourse and not seeing what the writer intended to reveal about the character or society through the sex scene. Literary writers–in fact, most writers that don’t specialize in erotica–have no interest in penning porn. What we want to do in an intimate scene isn’t titillate but provide perspective on our character and the world in which they live. Vonnegut was writing about a character whose psyche had been wrecked by war. The alien scene mirrors his own abuse at the hands of German soldiers. The sex scene illuminates Billy Pilgrim’s own powerlessness with regard to one of the acts that people view as integral to their humanity–the choice whether or not to procreate with another person. Pilgrim doesn’t even have a choice whether or not his forced compliance will excite him or not, as he later has a wet dream thinking about this incident. The sex scene is about how his experiences have robbed him of agency. Let’s take another scene in a more modern classic: Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. In the scene, which I won’t excerpt here because of length, a young boy is gang raped by bullies while his friend (the narrator) hides. The scene, while horribly painful to read, is necessary because it is what brings about the protagonist’s moral crisis, the running from which defines his life. One of the central questions that the protagonist asks in Hosseini’s book is can you be a good person if you look the other way when bad things happen? The answer that I believe it delivers is “no.” And getting to that answer, along with the protagonist, requires that the reader appreciate the horrors of what we turn a blind eye to. If a reader sees the scene only as a horrifying gang rape, he misses the point–and, because of that, naturally wants the book banned. I’d argue that no parent wants their sixteen and seventeen year old kid reading about gang rape. What we should want, as a society though, is to create sensitive people that can understand how our humanity erodes when we ignore the horrors around us. My all time favorite on the banned list because of sex is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I had the privilege of reading in high school. In the book, Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola. The rape and incest is repulsive and depressing, even seen, as it is, through the eyes of the rapist.However, Morrison doesn’t include it for shock value. She is illuminating how a life filled with abandonment and demoralizing prejudice has warped Cholly, as well as trying to show how pain is passed through generations as sure as any abnormality in the DNA. As Tupac said, The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. If there is a lesson for writers to take away from these banned classics, it is that a sex scene should always be about far more than sex. That’s what separates even graphic scenes in literature from pornography. If there is a lesson for readers, it’s to look beyond the descriptions of the physical acts to what the writer wants you to see: the characters, the emotions, the plot–even the moral. In the best sex scenes, there’s always a moral.