Urban Legends About Travel And Sex

Dearest MSP readers, posts from me will be scarce for a while as I’ll be traveling through India for roughly three weeks. I’m incredibly excited because I’ve been interested in Indian cultures for a while (for example, I’ve researched women’s dress in India), and this will be my first time visiting. I’ll be presenting a paper at the International Society for Folk Narrative Research in Shillong, and also visiting friends of my aunt.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some of the insights from my field, folklore, about travel and sex. Most people have heard of urban legends–wacky and disturbing tales that totally happened to a friend’s aunt’s neighbor–so I’m going to discuss how we interpret urban legends and what they mean, with a focus on travel and sex.

The current acknowledged expert on urban legends (also called contemporary legends) is folklorist Jan Brunvand. He’s published many books about urban legends, notably the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. I’m also a fan of his early book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (I use sections from that book when I teach introduction to folklore classes). His work is really accessible, so I highly recommend looking up his books if you’re interested in urban legends.

So, what is an urban legend? It’s a believable story set in the modern day with strange, frightening, and often morbid themes. Urban legends are shapeshifters: they’re told orally, in print media, on the radio and TV, and they’ve especially taken to internet transmission. Tellers frequently appeal to authority sources to validate their credibility, citing newspaper articles or the previous teller; a common phrase is “I heard it from a friend of a friend” (leading to the acronym FOAF). Structurally, the tales have abrupt, dismal endings: “and then they died,” or “and then the murderer was caught.” Urban legends are told for a variety of reasons: entertainment, obviously, but also to both reinforce and question social values. Urban legends contain a critique of modernity, since so many things can go wrong with urban life (appliances attack! immigrants take over! the nuclear family disintegrates and only ever eats fast food that makes you sick and/or kills you!).

Sex, obviously, plays a huge role in urban legends. There are many stories about bizarre sexual acts landing one in the hospital, or sexual partners turning out to not be who they originally represented themselves as. Sex is frequently made out to be extremely dangerous in urban legends–which, it certainly can be, but the stories exaggerate the dangers people face in urban environments. In fact, the website Snopes, which is devoted to debunking or determining the truth value behind urban legends, has a whole page devoted to urban legends about sex.

One story that circulated on Indiana University’s campus a few years ago was about a girl who went to some tropical location over spring break, and met and fell in love with a man there. As she was boarding the plane to come home, he gave her a small box and told her not to open it until the plane was in the air. She was thinking it would be an engagement ring, but instead it was a note that said: “Welcome to the wonderful world of AIDS.” Since she had had unprotected sex with this man, she had caught HIV from him. Snopes covers some of the variations on this story.

This legend circulates on college campuses because it clearly has relevance for college students: be safe when you travel and make sure to have safe sex, because you don’t know what could happen to you. The story also contains information about risk assessment and where to place the blame for infection. The college student didn’t get infected at home, she got infected while abroad: HIV infection is clearly something that takes place over there, not here. This story reveals anxieties about STIs and a denial that infection could happen so close to home. The female protagonist–and in this plot, it’s usually a woman who goes abroad and gets infected–is essentially being criticized for having a fling or a one-night stand. Men who have sex in urban legends are also punished, but for different reasons (they’re cheating on their wives, or seeking too kinky or abnormal an experience).

Stories about risk assessment and illnesses therefore contain important cultural information about what is considered moral, dangerous, deadly. The specific topic of AIDS legends is treated by folklorist Diane Goldstein in her book Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception, in which she argues that taking legends into account is important for public and health policy. The stories we tell, after all, can tell us about our beliefs about causality and morality. This is important stuff. Whether you read this far because you like urban legends for the entertainment value, or want to learn more about legend scholarship and disease prevention, be aware of the risks in your own life. Not all stories have happy endings.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.