In fact, a large part of what we know about our bodies we have learned informally, from kids on the playground or colleagues at work, from piecing together the information contained in folk beliefs, jokes and legends. Sexual folklore goes beyond classroom lessons of mechanics to answer many questions about what people actually do and how they do it.
Mariamne H. Whatley and Elissa R. Henken have collected hundreds of sexually-themed stories and jokes from college students in order to tell us what they reveal about our sexual attitudes and show us how they have changed over time. They confront myths and stereotypes about sexual behavior and use folklore as a tool to educate students about sexual health and gender relations. Whether analyzing popular rumors about celebrity emergency room visits or the latest schoolyard jokes, Did You Hear About The Girl Who . . .presents these tales in a way that is intriguing and educational.
|Publisher:||New York University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Elissa R. Henken is Associate Professor of English at the University of Georgia.
Read an Excerpt
YES, WE ARE FOLK AND WE DO
* * *
I believe the woman was from Murphy (North Carolina). A few years ago, she started going to the tanning bed because she wanted to be tan by the time she got married. I think she was getting married around April. Anyway, she didn't have time to get a real tan. A few days before the wedding, she started going to the tanning bed three or four times a dayhoping to get real dark before her wedding day. You know, you're only supposed to go once a day and that's not even good for you. Nancy [a friend of the narrator's family] said that someone told her that they found the girl in one of the beds the day before her wedding and she was dead. She had fried her insides. Just thinkthe day before her wedding.
This story, told by a woman to her college-student daughter, is folklore, whether or not the mother or the daughter knew it at the time. Specifically, it is a form of folklore called a contemporary legend and is not merely entertainment but also conveys a set of messages. In this book, we present a range of folklore relating to issues of sexuality currently circulating in the United States, particularly among adolescents and young adults. We place that folklore in the context of what it reflects about the society that produces it. As authors who come from different backgroundsone a biologist whose areas of research are health and sexuality education and women's health, and the other a folkloristwe hope to encourage readers toseethe connections between folklore and sexuality education, and especially to encourage health and sexuality educators to use the folklore of their students/clients to enhance their teaching approaches. Because of the rapid changes and regional variations in folklore, it would be impossible to present exhaustively all the folklore circulating about specific topics, such as HIV/AIDS or sexual violence. We have instead selected examples that illustrate what folklore is and how it can be used to enhance sexuality education.
Returning to the legend above helps define one form of folklore. Contemporary legends or "urban legends" are narratives about bizarre, unnatural, or ironic events purported to have happened in the recent past, often in the local community, to an unspecified person (the woman from Murphy or there was this girl who ... ), to people at a couple of removes from the narrator (a friend of a friend), or to famous people. Located as they are in contemporary society, they reflect with particular clarity the current fears and anxieties of a group and serve as warnings about potentially dangerous situations, behaviors, and assumptions. The tanning bed legend serves as an overblown (overdone might be more apt) warning about an unhealthful practice. It is also a commentary on the dangers of artificial beauty standards and the risks women take in attempting to achieve them, though not apparently a criticism of the "beauty" industry that promotes such unhealthy behaviors.
Contemporary legends are generally presented as true, though the narrator and audience may or may not believe them. Debates about whether or not to believe a particular legend are important activities, helping the individual and the group determine the range of acceptable possibilities. Moreover, an individual's degree of belief in a particular legend may vary depending on the context, on who is telling the legend, on the supporting evidence (something that happened to the narrator's friend's aunt can be very convincing), and on the reactions of the rest of the group. Legends may be based on true events, but we will not attempt to prove the "truth" or "falseness" of these legends in the sense of whether or not they actually happened. There are authors, such as Jan Brunvand, who particularly focus on tracking down these legends and checking whether they happened. There are also websites that play this role. For example, on one (http://www.snopes.com/), a red dot indicates that a legend has been shown to be false, while a green dot indicates a real occurrence. Although we will not try to prove whether or not these legends are based on real events, we will explore whether they could happen. Legends are presented in a conversational style so that they may be told not only by a single narrator but also by a group of people each adding remembered details and evidence (or even the "scientific" explanation of why it can or cannot be true). Legends, transmitted by doubters as well as believers, are passed on in casual conversation, mixed in with news, rumors, personal experience narratives, or sent by e-mail.
The story told above has appeared in many different forms, having "happened" to young women all over the country. The naming of a specific location (Murphy, N.C.) and the attribution to a friend of the amily combine to lend veracity to the story. Some legends are "authenticated" by false reports of media coverage ("I saw it in the paper"; "It was on Oprah") and now, with the use of the Internet, many legends are presented in the format of (fake) newspaper accounts, lending the reports greater apparent legitimacy. A story's presence on the Internet can add a certain aura of veracity, as one author (Anderson, 1997) explains:
With a computer and a phone line, anyone can become his own publisher/commentator/reporter/anchor, dispatching to everyone everywhere credible-looking opinions, facts, and "facts" via the Internet.... Thanks to the Web, amateurism and spuriousness no longer need look amateurish or spurious. (P. 41)
"I saw it on the World Wide Web" becomes a new kind of proof of a legend's truth, serving the same function as, "My friend knows this doctor who said...." As mentioned previously, there is information available about whether or not these legends are based on real events, but the evidence countering the veracity of a legend rarely carries the weight that the legend does. A story like the one about the tanning salon has never been documented but it still circulates freely and is often believed. It has a long life because it is frightening, refers to a very common practice, seems as if it could happen to anyone (particularly to any of the young women who are generally the purveyors or targets of the story), and has a "moral" that resonates with manywomen are punished for excessive vanity.
The impact a legend has on those telling or hearing it may have little to do with whether the story is believed. People may learn that stories about mall parking lotswith a killer hiding in the back seat of the car or an Achilles-tendon slasher lying in wait under the car or a serial killer disguised as a kind businessman who asks only for a lift across the parking lot after generously changing a tireare really "just legends." However, that does not diminish the strength of the warning message, as women carefully look under their car from a distance before approaching and check the back seat before getting in.
What Is Folklore?
Legends are one form of contemporary folklore that will be examined in this book. Before discussing the ways in which folklore and sexuality/health education overlap and affect each other, it is important to clarify what folklore is and, perhaps, correct some misconceptions. People often think of folklore as quaint sayings and customs belonging to peasants, mountain or rural people, or an easily recognized ethnic groupalways "others" viewed at a distance, rather than one's own (even if marginalized) group. In fact, folklore is part of every individual's everyday life, no matter how "civilized," westernized, urbane, or mainstream. Another common mistake is the belief that folklore is always false, as people frequently express their disbelief by declaring, "That's just folklore!" Folklore can be completely true, in the sense of portraying actual events or being scientifically accurate, though its "objective" or "scientific" truth or falsity may not be its most important aspect. What may be more important is the "truth" that folklore conveys about the attitudes, fears, and beliefs of a group, which in turn shape and maintain the identity of that group. The rumor that the U.S. government deliberately used the AIDS virus to kill African Americans has no basis in fact, but it reflects the truth that many African Americans feel their communities are under attack by racist government policies.
Folklore is the unofficial culture of a group, the means by which information and attitudes are transmitted and interpreted within the group. The folk group may be categorized in any number of waysby nationality, ethnicity, occupation, avocation, family, age, genderand the group may be any size, numbered in the single digits or the millions, but always the group will share some common core of tradition. In our research, for example, a folk group may be students at a specific university, or even members of a specific athletic team or sorority.
Folklore takes many forms, but whether oral (jokes, stories, songs, jumprope rhymes), customary (blowing out candles on a birthday cake, knocking on wood), or material (stone walls, Easter eggs, matzoh balls), it conveys the collective wisdomtechniques for living, worldviewof the group who share them. The information may be presented clearly, as in proverbs ("Slow and steady wins the race"; "Beer before whiskey, mighty risky; whiskey before beer, have no fear") or cures (cure hiccoughs by eating a teaspoonful of dry sugar or drinking out of the far side of a glass), or in more coded forms such as riddles, jokes, games, and holiday customs.
Folklore is transmitted informally from person to person within a group by aural means and observation, by custom and practice. No one needs formal lessons on when and how to decorate a Christmas tree to know the community's expectations, unless they are new to the community and not steeped in its folklore. Folklore is characterized by both continuity and change. An item's basic form persists through time, but it undergoes constant changes during the transmission process. Folklore is re-created each time it is performed. For example, most of us learn jokes in an informal process by hearing them told. We do not need to memorize a joke in order to repeat it, and when we retell a joke, we use our own words and gestures. Moreover, each time a person tells a joke, it may be told differently, with different words, gestures, emphases, and with sensitivity to context. Certain jokes may be withheld to avoid offending an audience---or told loudly with the opposite purpose in mind. People do not share the same jokes with their peers as with their grandparents, or at the Thanksgiving table as in a bar.
People often misunderstand folklore as being a remnant left from an earlier stage of culture, possibly interesting or picturesque, but without any meaningful purpose. However, folklore always serves a function, whether of education, social control, expression of attitudes and emotions, or strengthening of social bonds. A particular item of folklore will exist only as long as there is some need for it. As a culture's needs change, the item will be adapted to meet those needs, but if need for the item disappears, so will the folklore. Folklore will also adapt to meet changing technologies or times; for example, stories of pets in the clothes dryer have changed to ones about pets in the microwave. We both remember vividly a story that circulated through our junior high school:
There was this girl, one of the hoods, who had a big beehive that she kept heavily hairsprayed. One day in class the guy behind her saw blood trickling down her neck. Then she collapsed. They rushed her to the hospital but she was already dead. When they examined her, the doctors found that spiders had nested in her hair and had eaten into her brain.
This story, told about beehive hairdos in the 1950s and early 1960s, was later told about hippies' long hair in the sixties and dreadlocks in the eighties, but always with the same message about cleanliness and the groups who supposedly did not practice it.
One of the ways in which legends, especially legends dealing with sexuality, change is that they are circulated within increasingly younger groups. Consider these two legends:
A boy and girl are out parking on a dark road. They have the radio on and suddenly there's an announcement that a deranged killer has escaped from the local insane asylum. He can be recognized because one of his hands is a hook. The girl gets really scared and wants to go home. The boy doesn't want to but she keeps insisting, so he slams out of there, driving out really fast. When they get to the girl's house, he goes around the car to open the door for her, and there hanging on the door handle is a hook.
This boy and girl are out parking one night and when they get ready to leave, the car won't start. The guy tells the girl to wait there while he goes for help, to lock all the doors and just stay inside. Well, she begins hearing these scratching sounds and a constant tapping. She gets really scared but all she can do is curl up, cover her ears, and wait. Then it's morning and there's a policeman knocking on the window, telling her to get out, come with him, and not look back. Well, of course, she looks back, and there's her boyfriend hanging by the feet from a branch over the car, with his fingers brushing the roof and his blood dripping on it.
In the 1950s and 1960s, these legends were told mainly among high school students; even in the 1970s, students at Indiana University, some of whom knew the exact bit of road near their various hometowns where the events happened, reported having heard these in high school. An important aspect of these legends, with their strongly implied warnings against parking and becoming sexually active, was that they circulated among teenagers first getting their driver's licenses, with all that entailed of freedom of movement and escape from adult watchful eyes. As one more example of young people maturing earlier these days, the stories have moved over the years into younger groups so that they are now collected from eight-year-olds who heard them as just some more, not too scary, campfire stories. After all, how risqué (risky?) is necking considered these days? How many teenagers wait for the privacy of a car on a dark road to begin exploring sexual activity?
So ever-present in the background of people's lives that it becomes almost invisible, folklore nonetheless shapes people's behavior and reactions to events. A large part of what many of us know about our bodies, in both health and disease, we have learned informally, from kids on the playground or colleagues at work, from piecing together the information contained in folk beliefs, jokes, legends, and personal experience narratives. In matters of sexuality, folklore goes beyond classroom lessons of mechanics to fill in, satisfy, and answerin piecemeal fashionall those questions about what people actually do and how they do it. A joke laughed at by a young teenager without understanding, lest the puzzled listener disclose naïveté, can be mulled over in private, pieced together, and collated with other bits of information until an explanation emerges.
Folklore is more pervasive than any number of public service announcements or posters and has a greater weight of authority, coming as it does from the collective wisdom and transmitted as it is on a personal, individual level. Knowledge gleaned from the experience of a roommate's cousin's friend is emotionally more trustworthy than information from a textbook. Unless health and sexuality educators, whether working in the local schools or in the Surgeon General's office, are aware of the folklore circulating, their messages may not be heard and they may misunderstand entirely which concerns must be addressed. Warnings about safer sex and clean needles cannot be heard clearly in an African American community whose legendry assures them that AIDS is the result of genocidal U.S. government experiments in biological warfare (Turner, 1993). Educational messages about rape as a violent and illegal act may be drowned out by high school and college-based legends that suggest that gang-rape is not such a terrible thingunless the victim is the sister of one of the rapists. Educators should also know about unsafe practices presented first in folk narrative, such as inserting gerbils in the rectum for sexual pleasure, which might be copied by some innocent believing them to be common practices.
In this book we will deal primarily with two genres of folklorefolk beliefs and contemporary legendsthough we will also include some jokes and personal experience narratives. Even folk beliefs that are not fully believed may be acted on, as anyone will recognize who has searched for a piece of wood on which to knock, picked up a penny for luck, avoided walking under a ladder, or avoided stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. We are used to receiving medical advice informally in the short statements of folk belief: Don't go swimming for an hour after you've eaten; give very sweet tea to a person in shock; exercise to relieve menstrual cramps. Folk beliefs give us advice, wisdom, and warnings that we can fall back on in a world full of uncertainties.
Jokes provide a means for discussing taboo subjects or for expressing socially unacceptable opinions, and may be used to disguise aggression. After all, if someone takes offense, the narrator can always say, "It's just a joke." "Aw, can't you take a joke?" The joketeller and audience may not be able or willing to articulate the meaning behind the joke. Indeed, in many cases it is probably essential that they do not. If the meaning were absolutely clear and evident, people would not be able to use the joke as a socially sanctioned outlet for taboo ideas and subjects. Because jokes are a means of saying what one really thinks without the responsibility attached to actually saying it, they provide a view deep into a group's attitudes and concerns.
Another folklore genre through which people share ideas about sexuality is the personal experience narrative (PEN). PENs are narratives we tell about events in our own livesnot just an oral history or a response to a question, but a developed narrative. These are the stories that we've polished in the telling; if we listen to ourselves, we hear the same phrases and wording we've used before. The story may be brought out whenever the discussion provides the right theme, for example, vacation nightmares, childhood scars, how a couple met. Women often have PENs about their first period, bleeding through at embarrassing moments, the first time they had sex, giving birth. Sometimes, these stories are so good that someone who already knows the story may ask for it: "Tell them about the time that...." Sometimes, other people will start telling the story and it will become an anecdote in general circulation.
Other Health-Related Folklore
In this book, we are concentrating on folklore that deals with sexuality, but health educators should be alert to folklore about drug use and other health-related issues. Drug-related legends include those about the stoned babysitter who roasted the baby and put the chicken in the cradle; the honor student who plucked his eyes from his head when he was tripping; the drug dealers who pass around sheets of LSD-laced decals and PCP-laced temporary tattoos to school children; and the following two examples:
There was this girl who was tripping really hard one time, and she thought she was carrying her brain around in her hands. She kept on staring at it and talking to it for hours and hours. She lived in a dorm, and one of her friends snuck up behind her and yelled "Boo!" She freaked and dropped her brain and has been loco ever since. She's in a mental institute now and just keeps on looking for her brain.
There was this 17-year-old girl who lived in New York City, in this slummy, beat-up apartment building. She was a major druggie, and this was a true story, because the newspapers all had the story in them the next day. Anyway, she took some acid one day and started tripping out; nobody was in the apartment, and she started imagining all kinds of weird stuff. She was looking down at her arms and hands, and she thought she was an orange; her skin looked orange and bumpy and rippled, like an orange peel. Anyway, she went to get a butcher knife, and when they found her the next day, she was lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood, with the skin on her arms all peeled and sliced off!!
Whether or not these horrific acid trips ever really happened, the stories can serve as warnings of the dangers of certain psychoactive drugs.
Recently, health-related folklore has begun to surface in a new area that reflects changing fashions: body piercing. In 1998, students began to report such legends as the following:
This story begins that a young girl who just got to college decides to pierce her nipples, and she does. She follows the directions that the piercer gave her to clean them, but they continue to be sore after the healing process should have ended. She continues to clean them daily, but they remain sore, so she returns to the piercer about two months after the initial piercing. The piercer tells her that it takes some people's piercings longer to heal than others, and to just keep cleaning them. Three weeks pass with no change in her condition, but on the fourth week the pain in her nipples begins to spread to her breasts. She endures it for three days, then her nipples begin to harden beyond the norm. She immediately goes to the hospital to be examined, which she is. Unfortunately, she somehow contracted gangrene in her nipples and it spread to her breasts. She was forced to have her breasts removed and replaced with implants. This met with only limited success as the infection had already spread to her heart. She died.
Obviously, this story communicates a clear message about the dangers of piercing and the importance of keeping piercings clean and of following up with medical care if there are any signs of abnormality. The student who reported this story said he had pierced himself, using sterilized equipment, more than twenty times, but the only piercing he maintained was a nipple ring. He said the story gave him reason to clean his piercing every day and to discourage friends from getting nipple rings. There are, of course, risks involved in piercing, including potential infection (Tweeten and Rickman, 1998), and for that reason the Association of Professional Piercers (APP) has established health and safety guidelines for the profession. This is a good example of a legend carrying important warnings about health risks, providing health educators with opportunities to introduce useful and accurate information. As new health risks and health issues, such as body piercing, arise, new folklore will also circulate and old folklore may be modified.
The Collection and Use of Folklore
in This Book
The legends and folk beliefs presented in this book were collected by folklore students and by the authors. The cited material reflects a variety of collecting techniquestaperecording, transcribing directly, recreation from notes, student written assignmentsbut in each case attempts to preserve the original language of the narrator. The folklore students collected from friends and relatives as well as through self-collections (reporting what they had heard in the course of their own lives). Beliefs on reproductive issues were collected through specifically directed studies, but the legends were collected through undirected fieldwork. Material also emerged in class discussions, was collected in interviews with a few knowledgeable volunteers, arose during a conference workshop on the work in progress, and surfaced in many informal interactions. We collected mostly from students at the University of Georgia, but also informally from colleagues, friends, the teenage children of friends, and simply by listening at home and while traveling. This is not a systematic or all-inclusive collection, nor could it be, given all the diverse groupsgeographically, racially, religiously, ethnically, by class, sex, and agecomprising the United States. Most of the material was collected from Southern white Christians. There are certainly differences among different cultural groups, born of different worldviews, in their beliefs and fears connected with sexuality and associated behaviors; there is also much held in common. Legends we heard in Australia and England, as well as throughout the United States, were very similar, with only the details such as location changed. Additionally, judging by the legends collected by folklorists in other parts of the country and discussed at conferences, in newsletters and journals, and on the Internet, this is, at least geographically, a representative collection.
It would be impossible to collect all of the pertinent folklore, in part because folklore is constantly changing, both as it is re-created for each individual performance and as it is adjusted to the community's needs. By the time this is in print, new legends will have appeared and others may have dropped out of circulation. There will certainly be new topical jokeslagging only slightly behind the latest news story.
What Do a Folklorist and a Sexuality Educator
Have to Say to Each Other?
At this point, it is important for us to emphasize very clearly some things we are trying to accomplish in this book. Folklorists often feel that their work is marginalizedconsidered too much the trivia of every day to be "scholarly" and too esoteric to be useful. We have found folklore to be extremely useful in education; unfortunately, educators, who hold many of the misconceptions about folklore we have tried to dispel in this chapter, are often unaware of its applications. Folklorists and sexuality educators need to be talking to each other, just as we have done in conceptualizing, researching, and writing this book. We want this work to be a model of how two seemingly unrelated areas can connect and inform each other. Our goal is to make sexuality educators aware of the value of folklore for understanding the concerns, needs, and fears of their students and the role folklore can play in their teaching practice. We suggest that educators elicit from the students/learners the folklore they already know and use that as a basis for discussions about issues related to sexuality and health. Throughout the book, as we analyze the folklore we have collected, we examine the role it can play in different learning experiences. There are wide ranges of folklore and learning environments, so that an educator will need to decide what is culturally and age-appropriate; the range of folklore provides a great deal of flexibility and options.
The book provides examples, not a complete account, of the kinds of folklore that are circulating. These examples are used to stimulate readers to recognize folklore when they hear it and to collect, analyze, and use it. As with all folklore, new material will continue to emerge, so the collector's work is never done. By focusing primarily on one relatively homogenous group (students at one university), we are exploring the range of folklore that may be found within one group that is usually not thought of as a "folk group." While the informants who contributed folklore to this book do not represent the full range of diversity found in the United States, there is some diversity in age, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, place of origin, as would be expected in many groups that at first glance may appear homogenous. We hope this will encourage educators to collect and use folklore no matter what group they are working with. In spite of the relatively limited range of informants, much of the folklore we collected is prevalent throughout the country and is shared by diverse groups.
While an item of folklore always carries its own particular information, its meaning and function are dependent on the context, which includes both broader socioeconomic-historic context and the immediate performance context (the individuals, time, and place). We use folklore in this book as a way of understanding groups' and individuals' current concerns around sexuality. We suggest some of the possibilities of interpretation and some of the issues that have emerged in discussion with our students. You and your students will most likely find others.
The point is to be alert to what folklore is circulating and to be prepared to work with what the students have heard. Remember that even if the narrator dismisses the story, the listener might not. Also remember that even if people pass on a legend as the dumbest thing they have ever heard or as a joke, their very act of transmission shows that there is something about it that intrigues them, that makes them want to share it.
Not all students will know equal amounts of folklore. Just as there are some people who are good joketellers and who always seem to know the latest while others are hopeless at telling a joke and routinely forget the punch line, there are people who are more or less alert to the other genres. Some will claim never to have heard a legend, that their family and friends do not tell that sort of thing. Sometimes, it just takes pointing out a legend they do know for them to recognize that they have indeed heard others. In a recent conversation with family members about this project, several people denied ever having heard folklore or passing it on. However, when we mentioned the stolen kidney story discussed in Chapter 9, they recognized the story, described how they had heard about it, and engaged in a long discussion of its probability, providing a perfect example of how folklore works, even for those who think they are not "folk."
What People are Saying About This
"This is a must read for sexuality educators and youth workers concerned about the power of pedagogy and folklore as they swirl in the minds of youth. Whatley and Henken construct a magnificent argument about listening to the beliefs, the jokes, the sometimes very wrong headed, sometimes brilliant folklore narrated by youth as we accompany them into conversations about sexuality, health, desire, and danger. If adults can be useful at all, it is only with the guidance of Whatley and Henken that we have a chance at engaging with, rather than lecturing to, the fertile minds and bodies of America's youth. This book is fun, clever, engaging and provocative."
-Michelle Fine,CUNY Graduate Center, author of Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School
"Books that deal with adolescent sexuality have one of two audiences: adults or teens. Finally a book that bridges what often appears to be an unbridgeable chasm. Henken, a folklorist, explains what young people are—really—saying to each other in their private moments; while Whatley, a biologist and health educator, provides the correctives to these rumors and folk beliefs. The book, written in a lively style, takes the reality of boys and girls seriously, while never flinching from providing the best health information available. While many of the stories presented may be disturbing, each presents how gender and sexuality is interpreted. This is a book that should serve as a standard text for courses on sexuality in high schools, colleges, and for parents who want to know what their children believe."
-Gary Alan Fine,Northwestern University, author of Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends
"A book with a wonderful interdisciplinary idea-using sexual urban legends as part of high school and college sex education."
-The Women's Review of Books,Oct. 2001
"Whatley and Henkin have written a book that is as intelligent as it is interesting and funny."
-Journal of Sex Research,
"An entertaining and useful book which describes the ways in which folklore might be used to enhance sex and relationships education."
-Sex Education Matters