Prevent Sexual Assault with Literature

Daniel Gabriel Rossetti

Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Percival and the Holy Grail

Early last week, before my father’s final illness and death exploded into our lives, I was writing about our society’s problem with predatory males and what a writer like Chaucer can teach us. My family is still digging out of our emotional trauma, but to regain my emotional balance I have been turning my attention to the larger world once again. Here are some further thoughts about the subject.

Contra Frank Bruni’s New York Times article, which puts the blame for our many rapes on culture, Andrew Sullivan of The Dish finds the culprit to be testosterone. Sullivan adds, however, that a biological explanation doesn’t let men off the hook. Like Bruni’s column, Sullivan’s comments got me thinking about the Middle Ages. Here’s what he has to say:

[T]here’s a great deal of work to be done in creating a dialogue and culture in which the logic of testosterone is challenged constantly. But this used to be done by appealing to male pride, not by suspecting generalized male infamy. The concept of “gentle”-men or “gentlemen” was honed in the last few centuries specifically to encourage such a civilizing cultural climate. And I’d argue that approach will pay far more dividends than the well-intentioned attempts to remake human nature by cultural coercion – because it deploys one the most powerful forces in men, testosterone, against itself. It works with the grain of human nature, rather than assuming that such nature doesn’t really exist and culture is all we need to change.

Literature has played a major role in this “civilizing cultural climate” that created the gentle-man. I think especially of the Camelot tales and the courtly love tradition that grew of out of 12th century southern France. A number of scholars believe that this perspective was needed to domesticate warriors.

A key part of courtly love is delayed gratification. Camelot’s knights are expected to sublimate their sexual desires, transforming them into higher purpose. A knight’s love for a lady, even a married lady, is celebrated, but only if it does not proceed to actual sex.

One can see some very down-to-earth situations that would lead to such stories. For instance, if marriages were generally financial affairs with little attention paid to love, then Camelot stories provided an outlet. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle pits loyalty and social convention, which is one reason it is such an enduring story. There is no happy ending, but at least the problem is acknowledged. Lancelot and Guinevere experience internal conflict as they strive to transcend a physical desire that proves to be overpowering.

For a contrast, think of Beowulf, written in the 8th or 9th century. In that society, women are seen as helpless in the face of male testosterone. Queen Wealtheow foresees that the king’s nephew Hrothulf will go Grendel once King Hrothgar dies but is powerless to prevent it. Instead, the culture looks to Beowulf’s strong handgrip to keep warrior barbarity from breaking out.

Chretien de Troyes, on the other hand, gives us a Sir Perceval who must be trained in the social graces if he is to be worthy of Camelot. When he is setting out for Arthur’s court as a young and ignorant boy, Perceval forcibly kisses a young woman and takes her ring (her virginity?). To grow beyond this brutish self and become a peerless knight of the Round Table, Perceval must be specially tutored by his mentor Gornemant, who has difficulty overcoming the young man’s primitive upbringing. Ultimately, however, Perceval saves Gornemant’s niece from an attack and marries her.

It’s interesting to think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in terms of the courtly love ideal. In this late 14th century work, the ideal has become so entrenched that Sir Gawain feels guilty for even having sexual thoughts. The poet makes fun of how Camelot has gone overboard with the gentleman ideal, thinking that it can ignore human nature altogether. The romance captures the tug of war in men between their animal and their angelic sides.

This tug-of-war gets revisited in the literature of every subsequent century—in Shakespeare’s plays (say, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (where the hero must learn prudence and religion when dealing with women), in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens and Henry James. Often in 20th century literature, we are given negative examples of what  happens when men descend into savagery (say, James Dickey’s Deliverance and the novels of Cormac McCarthy).

Of course, novels aren’t the only means by which men can be turned into gentlemen. Male mentors are critical as well, along with such slogans as “Any guy can make a baby but it takes a man to raise one.” But don’t discount literature when it comes to “creating a dialogue and culture in which the logic of testosterone is challenged constantly.”

Maybe we can have, for a library campaign, Stop rape, read books.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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