Recently, something happened to me for the first time in my 35 years of college teaching: a student reported me to our Title IX officer for using sexist language.
I explained the context of the remarks to the officer, and he will relay my explanation to the student. If the student is satisfied, that will be the official extent of it. The affair, however, has alerted me to how changes in the political landscape may require changes in the classroom. I now realize that I need to be more sensitive about the use of certain words, even if (as was the case) I was using them to characterize views that I abhor. In today’s post I sort through the issues.
Here’s the note I received from the officer:
I’m writing because I have received a report from someone who is concerned about comments you’ve allegedly made in your ENGL 106 course:
- In a conversation about a scene in Flight Behavior, in which a man and a woman are fighting, you referred to the woman as “bitching” at the man, and asked a student if there are any psychological theories on “women bitching at their husbands.”
- In a discussion of The Bacchae, you described a woman who was raped by Zeus and then later said that everyone in the village thought the woman was sleeping around and was a slut. A student asked you not to use degrading language like that, and you said you would, although you later referred to women going into the mountains to dance with Dionysus as sluts.
I recognize “bitch” and “slut” to be two ugly words, ones that show up far to often in our daily discourse (not to mention at 2016 Donald Trump rallies). In Flight Behavior, the B- word is not actually used, but the protagonist realizes that, as she scolds her husband in a dollar store, that he sees her as one. Even worse, she feels that she herself is one. Her frustration and self-loathing grow out of her feelings of entrapment, and she needs to change her life if she is to move into healthier relationships, both with others and with herself.
In short, the B-word is a symptom of social and familial dysfunction. It is a word used to demean, and I should have been more careful about using it, perhaps using air quotes or not using it at all. Furthermore, it was insensitive of me to ask a woman why the phrase is used in social discourse. This was probably my biggest error, and I apologize.
It is only in the past ten years or so that I have started encountering “slut” on a regular basis. Previously I associated it with 18th century plays: Mac the Knife casually uses it with every woman he encounters, especially Jenny Diver (“Ah Jenny, thou art a dear slut”). In the 1990s, however, I had students telling me that it is common middle school and high school usage. We concluded that the label is used cloak sexual anxieties: if you label someone else a slut, it’s a way of distancing yourself from your confusion about your own sexual feelings.
I used the word while teaching The Bacchae because it’s somewhat difficult to explain why Dionysus is punishing Agave and her sisters. We are only told that they disrespected Dionysus’s mother—Semele, their sister—but the full emotional impact of that disrespect can elude students. Dionysus, son of Semele and Zeus, explains how they discounted his mother’s story:
is my choice to be the first place I have filled
with cries of ecstasy, clothed with fawnskin, but thyrsus
in hand—the ivy-covered spear—because my mother’s
sisters—of all people, they should have known better—
said Dionysus was no son of Zeus. They said
Semele was seduced by some man or other and
put the blame on Zeus (as Cadmus runningly advised her)
for her mistake in bed, and Zeus killed her—they yawped
everywhere—because she pretended to be his wife.
“Yawping everywhere” is their “slut shaming.” When Agave and her sisters later head for the mountains, King Pentheus sees them acting no differently than Semele. He doesn’t use the word “slut”—that was my attempt to use the students’ language to characterize his views—but “priestesses of Aphrodite” is pretty much the same thing:
These women of ours have left their homes
and run away to the dark mountains, pretending
to be Bacchants. It’s this brand-new god,
Dionysus, whoever that is; they’re dancing for him!
They gather in throngs around full bowls
of wine; then one by one they sneak away
to lonely places where they sleep with men.
Priestesses they call themselves! Maenads!
It’s Aphrodite they put first, not Bacchus.
In point of fact, the women are not sneaking away to sleep with men. That’s just Pentheus’s dirty mind at work. Rather remarkably for fifth century Greece, a far healthier description is provided by the seer Teiresias. To celebrate one’s body is to honor Dionysus, he tells the king:
It is not Dionysus who will force virtue on women
in matters of sex. You must look for this in their natures.
Even in a Bacchic revel, a woman who is really virtuous
will not be corrupted.
There is nothing dirty in the Bacchae’s beautiful hymn to Dionysus:
When the ebony flute, melodious
and sacred, plays the holy song
and thunderously incites the rush of women
to mountain, to mountain
then, in delight, like a colt with its mother
at pasture, she frolics, a light-footed Bacchant.
Pentheus and his mother and aunts, not the Bacchae, are the corrupt ones. They are forerunners of Rush Limbaugh, who called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” when she argued that birth control should be a mandated part of the Affordable Care Act. If you think that way, Teiresias tells Pentheus, “you are as sick as if you had been drugged.”
This sickness shows up in those politicians (the current Alabama governor comes to mind) who preach family values but have secret mistresses. Dionysus, a nature god who understands how we degrade the gift of sex, uses his knowledge of Pentheus’s repressed longings to bring him down:
Would you like to see the women gathered on the mountains?
Pentheus: Of course. I’d give a pot of money for that.
Dionysus: Really? Isn’t this great passion of yours rather sudden?
Pentheus: Well, it would hurt me to see them if they’re drunk, but…
Dionysus: Still, while you hated it, you’d enjoy the spectacle.
Pentheus: Yes, of course, and I’d be quiet and sit under a pine tree.
In the past, I’ve assumed that the students could see that I was on Dionysus’s side in this conflict—that I am against men who deal with their sexual repression by degrading liberated women–but I can see now that I must spell out what is wrong with using such language. After all, my students have just seen fellow voters turn their country over to a man who demeans and sexually harasses women. Why should they give a male teacher the benefit of the doubt?
On the other item mentioned in the complaint: I was called out for moving too easily from saying that Semele slept with Zeus to Semele was raped by Zeus. I wondered afterwards why I had insensitively conflated an act of sex and an act of power domination and realized that I had fallen into the mythic tradition, which often treats the two as the same: Hades carries off Persephone (the Latin word “rapere” means “to take away by force”), Zeus has some kind of intercourse with Leda (it certainly seems like a rape in Yeats’s version), and Apollo tries to rape Daphne.
I also had in the back of my mind that Semele was like Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,” for whom “consent” is a meaningless concept. Kingston is wondering why her aunt in China would have had an improbable adulterous affair, which led to the villagers tearing apart her family’s house and to her aunt committing suicide:
My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.
Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers. She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.
In short, power imbalances between men and women can eradicate the distinction between rape and consensual sex. Language must be handled with care if it is to do the situation justice. To have this pointed out can lead to fruitful conversations.
I don’t know who reported my language use—it could have been anyone, including a roommate not in the class—but I am glad that he or she did. It will make me a more sensitive teacher, and sensitivity will be called for next week when I teach Rape of the Lock in my Couples Comedy class. The Baron’s sexual harassment of Belinda may look different to students who, during the election, saw their current president boasting, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything … grab them by the pussy.”
Today we know that Clarissa’s advice to laugh the affair off is not enough. We can no longer tell a harassment victim, “And trust me, dear, good humor can prevail,/When airs, and flight, and screams, and scolding fail.” Today, thankfully, we can refer the matter to our Title IX officer.