sex in the classroom


Who: Me, and students enrolled in a first-year English Lit. course 
What: Discussion of characterization in Mrs. Dalloway 
When: Modernist London…. as pictured by Virginia Woolf
When (like, for real): Last week
Where: Tutorial

twenty minutes in…

Me: “She keeps hitting us over the head with it, doesn’t she? Smacking us in the face with that dick, with that dick-knife / knife-dick symbol, over and over and….”

Sometime later…
Student: “And then I found out she was old. So, she has wrinkles. Right? And you can’t see her breasts, because, like, they would be way down here.”

(I think her hand hits her hipbone here, to indicate the exact level of saggage all the women in the class can look forward to.)

And, a few hours later, in my other tutorial…

Me: “Well, she’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, isn’t she? She doesn’t cross her ankles demurely, she opens her legs for all the world to see. And she chops flower blooms from their stems– she only wants that feminine opening; she violently removes the phallic part of the plant. And in every way she is described as open, inviting, attractive. Basically, she is a walking vagina.”

Sex in the classroom. We never know quite what to do with it, do we? This past week, I put the portrait-drawing contest that I described in my last post to the test, again. It was a bit of a gamble. Whereas previously I had used this activity to talk about characterization in a highly realist novel–where the author gave a detailed physical description of each character, one that unapologetically aligned outward appearance with each character’s interior life–this week, I chose to use this activity to discuss characterization in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose a few passages, and asked the students to become portraitists, to draw a portrait of the character the assigned passage described– a tricky task when faced with Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style. She is a writer who rarely gives a catalogue of physical traits; instead gestures, symbols, and the inferences and associations that a character excites in another are what define how we, the reader, envision that character.

But holy crap, did we have fun with this activity. And by the end of it, with 25 minutes left in tutorial, we had plenty of time to discuss each portraitist’s “artistic” choices. Students clearly and carefully relayed their interpretations of the text to the class; they explained how they translated text and metaphor into image. Truly fantastic. These were students doing close reading at its best, but with interest, and humour.


Mrs. Dalloway’s take-home message: clock towers are a lot like giant penises.

Sex quickly entered the discussion because, well, it was Woolf’s work we were discussing after all. How funny it was for us all to recognize just how prevalent sexual symbols are in her text. They are everywhere. There is the phallic penknife, opened and closed, opened and closed, by Peter Walsh; there is Big Ben all erect at the centre of the text, penetrating each scene with its ominous noise; there is that orgasmic crowd scene, with every face turned to the sky to watch an airplane reach higher and higher, eagerly awaiting the release of each smoky letter written (you might even say spurted) in the sky above them; there is Sally Seton, castrating a bunch of flowers, divesting each bloom of its stem to display their feminine openings, unaccosted by any hint of masculinity; there is a frothing fountain at the centre of Clarissa’s memory of Peter, and an open vase, a jug, or ewer or whatever attached to her memory of Sally.

But is there a line, an invisible line that I should know about, or perhaps even set, which I am not supposed to trespass? Should I be setting some sort of “tone?” My gut instinct says, no, not really. Short of jokes about sexual violence, I’m pro-sex-in-the-classroom. Sex ain’t sacred–I know because Foucault told me so! Plus, I think Foucault is right to laugh at those who ask us not to laugh at sex, to mock those who admonish us immature gigglers, snorting at the mention of the word “labia” or “balls.” Right? I mean, just try saying “labia”  out loud and not cracking a smile.


What are your thoughts? Balls in the classroom– yay, or nay? And, another few: what about labia? Mons? Vaginas? Clitoruses (clitori???)? Female masturbation!??!!? I ask because weirdly enough, female sexuality is still taboo, no matter how much or how loudly I yell about my vagina when drunk at the pub. The same (female) student who joked about saggy breasts this week also commented one day, during a discussion of gender performance, on how women and men must sit differently. Commented, and demonstrated: sitting slouched, with legs splayed, she asked, “Who would want to sit beside this?”–whilst pointing derisively at her own crotch–“It’s gross, right? I mean, I know it’s not gross, but really, if I saw you sitting like that, I don’t think I could even look at you.” Should we be looking more closely at female sexuality in our classes? And can we open up the discussion to include everyone, even men? Are male students allowed a voice on sex in classrooms? Do you fear what they might say as much as I do? Honestly, what do you think?


Sally Seton. Am I right?


5 thoughts on “sex in the classroom

  1. I am also pro-sextalk in the classroom (hi Lisa!), and have resigned myself to a few rules about it:
    1.) ideally, sextalk only happens once you have developed a positive classroom atmosphere. This way, if someone does say something borderline (or outright) offensive, they aren’t scared away from the class when you deal with it, but understand that you are trying to teach via discussion, and, ultimately, trying to expand the way that they think rather than shaming them for being “wrong.”
    2.) sometimes, your students will say terrible stuff, and you will have to deal with it. However, most of the time, they don’t realize *why* what they say is terrible, and are generally open to hearing alternative and even critical responses to their views. In my (very limited) experience, forming critical responses in the form of a question is a great way to make them think about their views in challenging ways without feeling attacked.
    3.) if ladies get a voice, manfolk should also have a voice. That said, you can’t just talk about sex as if there is no history of power and oppression associated with it. The good news is that this history is important for the menfolk to learn about too!

    But, yes, I am always a bit terrified about what they might say (though I try to file this fear with my other moderatly rational fears, such as the fear that they are all carrying guns: in the “possible, but *really* unlikely category).

  2. Hey, this is Emily! I feel weirdly comfortable talking about sex in the classroom, perhaps more so than my students (I should qualify that I feel comfortable taking about sex as it relates to the texts we’re dealing with; I would feel mortified if we ended up discussing the specifics of anyone’s real sex life). I know I have occasionally shocked them by explicitly pointing out a bawdy pun or sexual symbol that they either didn’t recognize or didn’t want to address, I guess because I seem all demure and shit. I think the line that you have set up — no jokes about sexual violence — is a good one, and that is pretty much how I run my tutorials (maybe with the added caveat noted above that sex talk has to have some bearing on the text or topic under discussion). Otherwise, I think it’s up to the teacher and what they personally feel comfortable with. But, as you point out, it’s often impossible NOT to talk about sex if you want to do the text justice.

  3. Also, I think your comments about discussing/reframing conceptions of female sexuality are especially important. It’s something I make an active effort to address in all of my classrooms.

  4. I like both of your sextalk guidelines. Especially about establishing a comfortable environment/safe space before launching into discussions about dick-knives. Is sextalk in your tutorials serious? Funny? Both?

    @anonymousemily, I’m curious, how might you bring up the issue of female sexuality? I feel comfortable about talking about *past* sexual mores… about how female sexuality *was* construed. Actually, I should say that I feel that my students are comfortable about discussing sexuality in the past tense, and, as a result, I feel more comfortable raising the issue. But when we verge on anything current, well, things get awkward. In the tutorial that sparked this discussion, I also drew a portrait: I drew a “Frigidaire” with a dead stork inside of it, and wrote “Clarissa Dalloway” above it. My students didn’t get it at first– I explained to them that I drew her that way because she is described as cold, and frigid, and that she remains cloistered in her single bed each night, and, holy crap, the woman doesn’t even masturbate! i’m guessing that that made them uncomfortable…

    One last thing: “I guess I seem all demure and shit.” Best line in this blog so far.

  5. Pingback: Mapping Kinship | Dry-Erase Writings

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