As I mentioned in my introductory post, I’m getting my Ph.D. in folklore. Some of you may be wondering what folklore is, what a folklorist does, and what all this has to do with sex, sexuality, and sex education. I’ll start by defining folklore (touching both on what it is, and what it’s not), and from there I’ll discuss some folklore topics that are definitely relevant to the study of sex and sexuality.
Folklore is not, as many people suppose, limited to the study of oral tradition. Sure, a lot of folklore circulates in oral tradition, but there’s also written folklore, from yearbook verses and latrinalia to internet folklore and xerox folklore. Folklore is also not limited to stories or fairy tales, though it can include them. Additionally, if you’ve ever heard someone say, “oh, that’s just folklore,” that’s also not a definition we use academically; if something is folklore, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a lie or falsehood (though, again, folklore can include made-up things like tall tales and fairy tales).
Folklorists define folklore, at its most basic, as expressive culture. Other ways to phrase this include artistic communication among small groups of people, and creativity in everyday life. The common themes here are that folklore is related to art, creativity, and expression, but also to people in groups, communities, and identities. Folklore communicates something–it’s entertaining and aesthetically pleasing, but also meaningful. Everybody has folklore, too; it’s not just antiquated or primitive beliefs, but rather something that every group of people, no matter how urban or civilized, transmits and shares.
Folklore is an interdisciplinary field, meaning we overlap with other academic areas of study. Like anthropologists, we conduct fieldwork among communities and are interested in culture–but more narrowly in the artistic aspects of culture. Like literary theorists, we study stories, but we’re less interested in single-author published texts than in texts that exhibit variation over time (like an urban legend or a joke that is modified in different settings by different tellers). We study myths as sacred creation stories, like in religious studies, and we study language and dialect, like linguists.
We tend to classify and study folklore by genres, or groupings of similar items of folklore. Genres include verbal folklore (things people say), like fairy tales, urban legends, proverbs, riddles, jokes, slang, and nursery rhymes; customary folklore (things people do), like superstition, folk medicine, folk dance, folk music/song, festivals, and holidays; and material folklore (things people make), like pottery, traditional foods/cooking, body art, vernacular architecture, traditional crafts, and so on.
In short, folklore is everywhere, and it informs many aspects of daily life. As you might imagine, folklore also touches on sex and sexuality in many ways. One of the most obvious connections is in language: what do you call sexual acts, or sexual identities? Folk speech or slang, any unofficial use of language by a particular group, provides many ways to discuss sex by use of metaphor or misdirection, whether we’re talking about making “the beast with two backs” or what a lipstick lesbian is.
How do you identify sexually-charged parts of the body? Unless you’re using medical terminology for everything, you might be using folklore instead, by calling certain body parts a wee-wee or muff or bubbies. Body practices are also folklore, such as shaving patterns (my favorite term for one? the “landing strip”) and other methods of hair removal.
Sexual communities also have folklore, such as the customs and jargon of leather clubs, dungeons, swinger’s clubs, and so on. If there’s some kind of etiquette or code of behavior that you learn over time by interacting with a group, chances are, there’s folklore afoot. Sexual communities also frequently have their own narrative traditions, such as coming-out stories or “the first time I…” personal experience narratives. The more a story is repeated, the more traditional it becomes, even if it starts out as a first-person narrative (and we all have stories we like to tell about ourselves, sexual or not!).
Superstitions or beliefs about sex also abound. If you’ve heard that douching with a certain substance can prevent pregnancy or STI transmission, or that a certain food acts as an aphrodisiac (rocky mountain oysters, anyone?), then you’re in the realm of folklore.
Finally, and perhaps most entertainingly, there’s a wealth of narrative folklore, or folklore in story form, about sex. Urban legends cover everything from bestiality and infidelity to AIDS transmission, while fairy tales are about the quest for the perfect spouse. Jokes touch on the sexual practices of blonds and priests, while pretend-obscene riddles make you think dirty thoughts (what goes in long and hard and comes out pink and soft? bubble-gum!).
In sum, folklore is everywhere, permeating all of our lives. It can serve as an outlet for anxiety and as a tool for passing on morals and norms. Studying the folklore that specifically relates to sex and sexuality–and there’s quite a bit of it!–can yield fascinating insights about how people think about themselves and others in connection to the wonders and mysteries of sex.
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