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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  • sue

    Robin, this is a great post. Over the past years I’ve been thinking about the “myth” that men cannot control their sexual desires. This became quite apparent to me when I considered how some middle Eastern cultures insist that women wear a veil so that men won’t be led brutishly into impure thoughts which move into impure actions – which then the women are held responsible for and imprisoned or stoned in some cases. However, this is the same line of reasoning that a certain branch of Christianity also uses when it encourages women to dress modestly so that they don’t “cause” men to sin. Where, I wonder is self-control? And is it because we’re in such a sexualized society that we can’t imagine other ways of dealing with either sexual desires, or a legitimate fascination of (aesthetic appreciation for) the body then to engage in immediate fulfillment of those desires.

    And in mentioning desires, the question moves to a deeper level. Girard talks about mimetic desire, that as humans we want what others want. With fewer and fewer models of positive ways of handling sexual desires, as those you’ve mentioned above, no wonder we seem adrift.

  • sue

    You’re right in noting that literature – and I would also say movies and music – could go a long way in helping us now.

  • Rachel Kranz

    All of this is very thought-provoking. Sue, for what it’s worth, Orthodox Judaism has the same proscriptions–women are not supposed to sing or dance in front of men, to wear their own hair after marriage, or to dress in a way that leaves elbows or knees bare. Men are supposed to dress modestly as well, though they can sing and dance in front of women. I think Christian culture has similar proscriptions–I think the difference is not one of religious tradition within the Judeo-Christian-Muslim culture, but one of modernity; the point at which a community stops living in close quarters where sexual activity might disrupt community bonds, and begins to live more publicly and anonymously, where sex is more of a private matter than a community relationship. The challenge is how to keep sex in modern life from becoming a commodity. Of course, the temptress Eve is a big part of that Western religious tradition, along with the economic tradition that women and the children they produce are a valuable source of wealth for men to guard…

    For what it’s worth, I really don’t think “the logic of testosterone” is the issue. Women have hormones, too, including testosterone, that leads to desire! If “testosterone” is the issue, why isn’t there a lot more rape in gay culture, where there is certainly a lot of testosterone-fueled sex? Why are the vast majority of sexual assaults male-to-female? Sexual assault is about power and possession, not about sexual desire, which is why sexual assault has historically been such a huge aspect of military conquest, and why women who might not otherwise be considered sexual desirable (e.g., older women raped by younger men) are assaulted. Remember the scene in “Full Metal Jacket” where the Marines marched in their underwear, chanting, “This is my rifle, this is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun”?

    Can’t help thinking how much Scott Bates would have LOVED this whole debate, and how MUCH he would have had to say about it. Thinking of you, Scott, and wishing I could hear/read your comments rather than simply imagining them!!!

  • Robin Bates

    You know my father well, Rachel, in figuring that he would love this discussion. Many of his sexual poems are about exactly this. As for myself, I’m always suspicious of biological explanations. My psychologist colleague David Finkelman, with whom I’ve taught courses in “Literature and Madness,” points out that there is a porous line between sociology and biology, between nature and nurture, so that one can never say definitively say one or the other. Full Metal Jacket shows how a culture of sexual assault can be fostered. We see the result in the final scenes. The question is, how powerful are the countervailing cultural forces?

  • sue

    Great comments, Rachel. You’re right about the need for power when it comes to sexual assault. I was going a bit more broadly I think in my comments on overblown sexual desire – which may or may not lead to assault.

    One other thought I had was that the 10 commandments include prohibitions against envy and against lust – but we can go too far and prohibit desire. It’s like saying, thou shalt not be overweight (it is, indeed, often harmful to one’s health) and therefore lock up all food, rather than acknowledging these as good desires which can lead to appropriate fulfillment, but which often need self-control as well.


  • 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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