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Sexuality and Literature - Dirty Talks and Their Meaning

Updated on December 18, 2013

Blame it on Freud!

  • Freud invented psychoanalysis.
  • Discovered the sexual potential of the human subconscious.
  • Offered a completely new way of reading and interpreting literature.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

If it wasn't for Dr. Sigmund Freud and his publishing of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, literature would have had a school of interpretation in minus.

With psychoanalysis, Freud exposed his (sexual) ideas to a wider segment of people, including writers; in a nutshell, Freud explored the sexual potential of the subconscious, and demonstrated that we think about sex more often than we normally would or should. One of the most common example of male sexuality is the tall building, and to keep it in the urban environment, the sewer stands for female sexuality.

Departing from this point, tall buildings and sewers probably do not account for much in the context of psychoanalysis, however, in terms of literature and sex, they could yield some interesting interpretative results. A very important point that I would like to raise is that it becomes clear that "sex" is not particularly tied to explicit organs or acts.

Most likely, the discussion of literature and sexuality is not about the act in itself.

Chronologically speaking, the twentieth century brought about the fact that readers can decipher sexual innuendos in a text, while writers found new ways of "talking dirty" without being explicit at all.

Sigmund Freud

Even while posing for a major publication such as Time, Sigmund Freud could not withhold his obsession with phallic symbols.
Even while posing for a major publication such as Time, Sigmund Freud could not withhold his obsession with phallic symbols. | Source

Sexuality and Literature - a Bigger Context

Again, chronologically speaking, the discovery of sexuality and literature as a discipline in itself in the twentieth century didn't mean that the applications of this theory were limited to the contemporary works.

To prove this, let us take a knight story or a fairy tale.

The knight is usually a young man, who needs to prove himself (define his "manhood") by completing a quest. His sword/lance is, at best, a phallic symbol that will aid him when cutting down ogres and dragons. Even more, our knight is searching for the Holy Grail, a term commonly associated with the female sexuality; the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And this whole ordeal of questing, and filling chalices is done under the spectrum of fertility.

Why is that? As we all know from our bedtime stories, the kingdom is a wasteland. The king is too old to go and search or destroy the object that makes/breaks, and so he sends this much younger, good looking person that will surely complete the task at hand. As a bonus, the king can offer his old sword/lance/horse to the protagonist for some extra support.

As you can see, it's not your cup of wild sex, but it clearly is about sex nevertheless.

Symbols of Female Sexuality

The Holy Grail indeed.
The Holy Grail indeed. | Source

A Contemporary Example

One of the first writers that applied Freudian concepts to the letter was D.H. Lawrence. In his famous story "The Rocking-Horse Winner", published in 1932, a little boy wants to please his mother. His father fails in business, and as a consequence, his materialist wife is disappointed with him. The boy senses this hunger for money in the house as some voices whispered throughout the rooms "There must be more money! There must be more money!". The desperation is so big that his mother doesn't love him anymore, or anyone, for that matter. The son connects this lack of affection with the lack of money, and discovers that if he rides his rocking horse to the point of exhaustion, he somehow can tell which horse will be the winner in the upcoming race. The following quote is from "The Rocking-Horse Winner", and it is a great combination of literature and sexuality:

"The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.

He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to 'luck'. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him."

Feel the sexual charge yet?

I know that this example fails to be explicit on one hand, and being a sexually disappointment on the other, but it is a perfect oedipal conflict. The father fails to match mother's needs, the boy engages in a secret and rhythmic activity.

The son proves himself and his sexuality through the rocking horse. Because his father cannot provide, the boy tries to compete for his mother's affection. However, the way in which he competes causes concern among the elder members of the family.

The story has a tragic ending; the son dies while winning the sum of eighty thousand pounds:

"Do you think I'm lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn't I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that lucky, don't you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn't I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I'm sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?"

As dirty minded as it may be, the psychoanalytic interpretation concerning sexuality and literature is valid.

Ludicrous Lawrence in his Prime

DH Lawrence at 21 years old (September, 1906)
DH Lawrence at 21 years old (September, 1906) | Source

Why Would You Do That?

Why would you rather suggest something sexual rather than saying it explicitly? The classical oedipal situation is when Oedipus kills his father, and marries his mother. In "The Rocking-Horse Winner", however, it would be a bit boring for the son to actually murder his father and satisfy his mother's financial desires, as sick and perverted it might sound.

It has to do with the symbol (and I discuss symbols in literature in the hub to the right). Symbol. That is the word. Also, try to think about the censorship. Would a 10-year-old be allowed to read such an sexually explicit story?

More on Sexuality and Sexual Behavior

Long Story Short - Sexuality and Literature

  • Sex is not depicted as the actual physical act.
  • It is transformed into a symbol.
  • Opens numerous interpretations and debates.
  • It is encoded and embedded within the text.

The Coding of Sex and Literature

The reason for why sexuality and literature are coded on multiple levels is that "the real thing" is not particularly complex. As literature tries to offer pluralities within meanings, allegories, and so on, the physical act becomes overused.

Furthermore, the encoding of sex and literature also shows the craftsmanship of the author; seeing "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as a sexually charged short story opens the much wider context of intentionality; did the author really meant that, or are we just a bunch of perverts who think and talk dirty all the time?

All jokes aside, even though we live in a relatively liberal sexual age, the depiction of sex in literature is not about the act itself; rather, it is dispersed or marginalized. The young knight who tries to prove his manhood has sexual issues, but at a symbolic level. His problems are not the actual sexual organs; he tries to restore fertility to the land.


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    • carrie Lee Night profile image

      Kept private 3 years ago from Northeast United States

      The Touch Typist: Great scientific hub. I feel some of the theories of Sigmond were feesible, but others not so much. He was a very complex that fascinates me on how he came up with his work :) Have a great week and thank you for sharing this with us.

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      hey there carrie Lee Night, sorry for the late reply. As science progresses, some theories are no longer of use/value because there are new discoveries on the way. Nevertheless, Freud had some really interesting things to say. What's even more cool is that they have applicability in different cultural domains such as literature.

      Have a great day! :)

    • Johnnejin profile image

      Johnne Jin 3 years ago from Saudi Arabia

      Hi there, totally speaking I haven't finish reading yet your article because the fact that i was just curious about the picture. Picture which i wasn't enable to visualized the meaning itself. I was talking with the " ALTAR" right? How does it happen that "Altar" is being the symbol of female sexuality?

      Though, your article seems interesting thanks...

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Hello Johnnejin,

      Let me start by thanking you for stopping by. The picture with the altar was most likely pointing to the grail in its center. The grail, or chalice if you may, has been discussed time and again as a symbol for female fertility. If you're still not convinced, check "The DaVinci Code". And so, the fertility is something that you (almost) religiously cherish. This is, I believe, why the grail is placed in an altar. Also, I haven't mentioned the fact that the "Holy Grail" has a very big religious importance.

      Hope to see you around!

    • Johnnejin profile image

      Johnne Jin 3 years ago from Saudi Arabia

      Sorry but I was not totally convinced. I'd search the The DaVinci Code as you told but it says that Holy Grail symbolizes as Christianity itself. In my opinion, much better if you emphasize the LIGHT at the center. Because Light symbolizes GOD and GOD is the eye of females tranquility. However, you still did a good job indeed, and it is your own point of view.

      Good luck for you next article. Thanks!

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Dear Johnnejin,

      I am not trying to convince you of anything that is written in my article; it is just a piece of research, and just like you said, it is my opinion. I have only used the picture as a helping material for the "knight" metaphor. Still, it is just a picture. Perhaps the written content of my article will offer a more convincing case regarding the connection between sexuality and literature.


    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Interesting points. Maybe I should go and read all the old fairy tales over again, from a different point of view!

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      DreamerMeg, from a *ahem* dirty point of view.

      In any case, I am glad my article had an impact.

      Kind regards.

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 3 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Hello The Touch Typist and good day to you. Nice to see this article recognized with Hub of the Day. An interesting approach and well received seeking to offer within literature concepts of not "Sex" yet more so the development, conflicts, views, socializing, and more of sexuality in literature, which reflects society at the time of the written literature.

      That may be hinted to while recognized easily as alluded to within history as being transcendent? by the many examples offered, i.e, Oedipus, fairy tales, Freud's works, and too, D.H. Lawrence.

      I would suspect to get the main jest a short excursion to the offered hub - "The Role of Symbols in Literature - Definition, Meaning, and Purpose" presents enlightenment similar to a switching a light on in a room with only a reading lamp or desk lamp being lit. The combining of symbolism and sexuality within literature is more so dynamic rather than stagnant, in my view and you?

      Unfortunately, yet by no means taking away, this is only a hub and not a chapter in a book discussing the transition of sexuality throughout history in literature facilitating literary device(s). A taste has been offered and a meal is left on the table for any who seek to better their writing skills within segmentation of writing genre specifically Romance and too erotica both of prose and poem. Of course we may elude with a dash toward that is "what love is" then discuss the third love presented by C.S. Lewis being 'eros' amidst storge, philia, and agape . . . aporpo, Maybe?

      Too, today we are a visual media society more so than a reading media society as some years back. Seems we would discuss a movie more so than the development of character, plot, sub-plots, and of course the flow of a story with simply "did you see that? or "what just happen?" or some such.

      My humblest apology of length as it is late (or early?) and I did so enjoy this hub. Fortunately and personally it does have synchronicity and is opportune with my nights quest. Do have a wonderful day and please consider in today's journey to have fun, fun, fun . . . as best as can be.


    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very interesting hub about sexuality. Congratulations on Hub Of The Day.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Sex is a basic drive, so it makes sense it would sneak its way into non-blatantly sexual literature. The literature also reflects the writer's - or society's - view of sex. I dislike the reference of female sexuality being like a sewer, since that makes it dirty and repulsive. How about comparing it to a delightful hot spring instead? (I have a perfect picture of one; too bad the Comments section doesn't allow photo posts.)

      Sex doesn't have to be ugly. Where I come from (the ghetto) it is, but I left soon as I turned 18, and have since discovered many other worlds. The older and wiser I become, the more I realize how beautiful sex can be.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Congratulations on HOTD! This is quite an interesting, informative and thought provoking hub. I enjoyed reading your perspective!

    • profile image

      make monay 3 years ago

      tanks tanks tanks tanks

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Tsmog, thanks a lot for stopping by and taking the time to write such a lengthy comment. To respond to your comments one step at a time, it is indeed amazing to look into different time periods (because, in fact, that is one of literature's functions, to be studied from a social/historical perspective). However, limiting our discussion to sexuality & co., you might want to look at Michel Foucault's "History of sexuality", for a lengthy treatment on the topic.

      Secondly, I only gave here a bare minimum on sexuality and literature, as you obviously pointed out. I did not want to get into too many details that were more fit for a research paper because I wanted to keep it interesting and to the point. I guess the ultimate aim of this hub is to start a discussion, and hopefully, change your perspective when it comes to reading literature. If it pleases you, I might start a hub on "love and literature" for what is worth, since love is one of the greatest themes in literature.

      Again, at the risk of sounding boring, I fully agree with the fact that we are a visual media culture rather than reading. Simply because of the fact that we enjoy being passive, I guess. However, with my other hub, "Rain and Literature", I take on cinematic examples like "Singing in the Rain" and "Lion King". When dealing with cvasi-scientific topics, you are very limited in the choice of examples.

      All in all, I really appreciate your comment, and hope to see you around sometime soon.

      Kind regards.

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Jodah, thank you very much. Hope you have a wonderful day!

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Say Yes To Life, spot on. As you may have noticed in the previous comments, it is indeed interesting to observe the history of sexuality by looking at literature.

      However, my example of sewers and sky-scrapers is taken from a book called "The Passion of New Eve", by Angela Carter. The symbolisms are obvious there; the landscape is filled with tower-like buildings, and when the protagonist is kidnapped by a female rebellious faction, he is taken through some nasty sewers, if memory serves.

      In any case, don't take my word for it and feel free to check for yourself. It is quite a nice read! Also, please be aware that I don't have anything against sex per se, it is only a poor example choice, perhaps.

      Have a great day, and thanks for stopping by!

    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Thanks a lot for your encouragement! To be honest, this is not my perspective, as I am drawing quite some previous knowledge.

      In any case, I am glad you liked it, and all the best! :)

      Kind regards.

    • Romeos Quill profile image

      Romeos Quill 3 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

      Hello, ' The Touch Typist ',

      Firstly, congrats on your accolade from Hub Towers ( no phallic symbol intended ).

      An interesting article of curiosity, which speaks volumes about the mentality of the Hub editor(s) who chose to highlight this piece; thanks for presenting the opportunity for an insight into their psyche lol!

      Now, to business. Sigismund Schlomo Freud, whom you’ve mentioned, was a curious character. His ‘ Oedipus Complex ‘ ( based on a Greek tragedy, ‘ Oedipus Rex ‘ by Sophocles ), was a theory he later abandoned and its equivalent ‘ Electra Complex ‘, in relation to young women, which were the central tenets of his psychoanalytical theory. Consequently, many of its closest adherents defected, not surprisingly. If one psychoanalyzes this psychoanalyst, using his own methodology, it is known that he was extremely close to his mother, Amalie, and he was her favourite; the age gap of his new dad, Jacob,( who had been married twice previously ), and Amelie was greater than that of Sigmund and Amelie. Looks like Sigmund obviously had some problems himself which he tried to deal with, but personally thought that God didn’t exist, and that He was an illusion, so no foundation there; he was also known to be a cocaine user, so that may have influenced his outlook somewhat. ( As an aside, I think he had jaw cancer, and chose to end his life by being given morphine; cremated, and rests in North London, England where I have lived ).

      Perhaps poor psychoanalysis is the very disease which falsely proffers to offer a remedy for the ailment in which it is, of itself, guilty. As far as I’ve been told, psychoanalysis doesn’t recognize sin.

      “ Physician, heal thyself “ springs to mind.

      The therapeutic efficacy of his theory as a ‘ talking cure ‘ is now considered to be of dubious merit, and consequently, has waned over the years, from what I understand, though would be wiser to consult experts in the field as I’m only a lay reader of such matters, though have dealt with folk with mental health issues in the past.

      A sewer, supposedly representing female sexuality seems a bit disrespectful to women in general, and wonder just how much water this theory holds ( pardon the pun ).

      The ‘ Holy Grail ‘ was the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, of course, which contained wine, which quite clearly is presented in the New testament as symbolizing His blood, which seals God's covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. ( See:- Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20, and 1 Corinthians 11 : 23-25 ).

      So what this has to do with sexuality seems an absurd theoretical premise.

      Regarding the knight symbology; which kind do you mean? Knight-errant, knight bachelor, knight banneret, knight baron, knight Templar, knight of the Garter etc...?

      Thanks for the entertaining read, and bid you adieu, as I’m off now now to collect some rocking-horse pooh to trade at the farmer’s market for gold, so I can impress my cash-strapped mother with my new-found wealth, seeing as dad is such an abject loser. :)

      On the way, if I bump into Little Red Riding Hood, I’ll inform her that she is wanted for the murder of a cross-dressing wolf; will whisper to Alice that she’s wanted for questioning in regards to imbibing narcotics; that Goldilocks is to be arrested for breaking and entering at the Bear residence, and poor, innocent Snow White, that she is required to turn herself in to the authorities in relation to accusatory charges of sexual misconduct with seven small men. :)

      All the Best,


    • Romeos Quill profile image

      Romeos Quill 3 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

      Typo *shorter i.e. the age gap between Freud and his mother was shorter than the age gap between her husband and herself.



    • The Touch Typist profile image

      Dragos Ilca 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Romeos Quill, thanks for stopping by and taking your time to write such a lengthy and insightful comment.

      I am aware that Freud's theories have morphed throughout his career, and that by now they are quite obsolete. Nevertheless, in his defence, he started a discussion that carries on up to this date, so I believe that dismissing him in such a swiping move is perhaps too quick. As controversial as Freud may have been, his concepts have spawned and helped entire disciplines, literature included.

      With regards to the sewers, I am afraid I have to send you again to "The Passion of New Eve"; I think I mentioned it in a previous comment. (Why does everyone picks out on this particular example?)

      Along those lines, in terms of "the Cup" that was used by Christ at the Last Supper is extremely well explored in Dan Brown's da Vinci Code with the "Sang Real" bloodline. Thus, the quest of the knights becomes obvious.

      Please do inform the characters should you see them.

      Have a nice day.

      Kind regards.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Touch Typist - I tried to post the picture somewhere on your site, but I can't find a way to do so. You can find it on my forum, inspired by this hub, titled, "Why is Everyone so Uptight About Intimacy?" Please let me know what you think!

    • profile image

      Bluheron 3 years ago

      Sexuality is the organizing force in so much human thought for the simple reason that we are biological beings. We are primarily just small elements participating in life--which at the material level is simply a reproductive cycle. This is the whole basis of who we are and what we do.

      Sexual union promises the continuation of life--which is the same thing as complex organization, existing and persisting against the contrary force of entropy and chaos--the fundamental sexuality of the universe itself.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!

      This was an interesting set of ideas. Personally, I think Freud was a bit warped, himself, and is probably at least in part responsible for today's continuing hang-up with Victorian-era prudery and censorship of images on TV or "foul" language.

      A very naughty thought occurred to me, seeing his photo with that cigar, I could not prevent the stray thought of wondering whether that was the "inspiration" for Bill Clinton's alleged transgression... :-O My bad!

      I also have a problem with Freud in his 'sewer' analogy. That furthers the downgrading of the value of women. It is insulting and debasing.

      That said, I do not downplay your excellent reporting on the views then prevalent or your treatment of the topic. Well done.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Romeos Quill profile image

      Romeos Quill 3 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

      Hi ‘ TTT ‘,

      Thank you for your reply to the comment, and in response to your pointer of Dan Brown’s ‘ Da Vinci Code, and the “ Sang Real “ bloodline, I investigated, and this is what I found:-

      The “ Holy Grail “, or the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, is NOT the same as the ‘ grail ‘ of literature; the former is based on reality, the latter, based on folklore/myth.

      To qualify the assertion:

      The first recorded mention of ‘ a grail ’, that I could find was in the twelfth century, mediaeval ‘ Perceval ‘ poems by Chretien de Troyes, who mentioned the idea of a grail, but never stated what this grail actually was, because it was left unfinished. Further, the legends about a grail did not form until the mediaeval stories of King Arthur and his knights were created, most notably in Thomas Malory’s ‘ Le Morte d’Arthur ‘ ( 1485 ). Even here, the term is ‘ Sankgreall ‘, and ‘ grail ‘ is from the Latin ‘ gradale ‘, meaning ‘ platter ‘. So then, the “cup” was not a cup at all, but a large platter for fish.In the Old French language, ‘ Holy Grail ‘ was written ‘ San Graal ‘ , so the ‘ Sang Real ‘ of Dan Brown’s book, though a pun on the real word, is actually a false etymology. This is the debunking of that mystique.

      In fact, part of the movie of ‘ The Da Vinci Code ‘, starring Tom Hanks, was actually filmed in Lincoln Cathedral, England, just a few miles from me, where my brother lives. Unfortunately for Dan Brown, his book has been found to contain so many flaws by so many real historians, that it just isn’t funny any more; he’s even gone so far to quote sources from other authors whose very work is actually contradictory to his claims, not complimentary. It doesn’t look as though any amount of Jedi mind tricks are going to work for the Brown boy; just shamelessly raking in the cash, which he seems to have traded for his reputation.

      By the way; the only knight who succeeded in the literature of attaining the ‘ grail ‘ was Sir Lancelot, and only then, because of his purity.

      Anyway; hope this ride helped you out, and thank you for an engaging write.

      Have a pleasant weekend.


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