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Evolution of Sex in Literature

LS's picture

Literature, like biological evolution, does evolve, adapting and changing overtime.  Specifically when literature evolves the themes and literary devices central to literature and writing evolve as well.  Sex, both human nature and therefore a common theme in literature has evolved across authors and genres.  The descriptions of sex, and the literary devices used to describe it, have changed drastically over time thus portraying different messages and meanings to readers.   Sex is not only a strong literary theme but also a driving force in human reproduction and human nature and is therefore an important evolutionary topic to study.  Sexual contact is presented in different literary forms and mediums from the biblical scriptures to Shakespeare’s plays to Forster’s book Howard’s End and Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty.  In the Bible and Shakespeare sex is portrayed to the reader in a shorter concise manner, while in On Beauty almost every aspect of sexual intercourse is described.  Interestingly, in Forster sex is almost not described at all. By studying the evolving course of this literary theme we will be able to explore why the theme may have evolved this way, what this then says about the themes evolutionary history in the past and its future and how the evolution of this theme relates to man kind.  The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband.In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alonebut also to his wife (1)           


In this passage in Corinthians, it is very clear to the reader that the passage is referring to sex, however it does not explicitly say so.  The reader has to use their own judgment and read into the text in order to add a deeper understanding.  In this manner sex is referred to very nondescriptly and in a somewhat symbolic manner.  In another passage in Samuel it simply stated “and he slept with her” (2) in referring to David’s affair with Bathsheba.  In thess two quotes context is integral in the way that sexual intercourse is described.  In the first passage from Corinthian’s the reader sees the bible describing the sexual needs and desires of human beings (1) however in this context it is between a married man and woman, a sexual union that is described in a positive and appropriate manner.  In the passage from Samuel the sexual intercourse is addressed simply and less symbolically and poetically, stating in a somewhat curt manner that it took place.   In similar passages in the bible such as Genesis 38:7-10 (3) , sexual intercourse is described in a more symbolic and descriptive manner when it is something that God condones.  In Genesis 38:7-10 (3), sex is more richly detailed because this is a union that God wishes to take place, although it does not.  In the Bible, although the exact date of its origin is unknown, is a religious writing in which sexual intercourse is described but in several different ways, but usually with very little description and with situational connotations.  The bible does not only address sex between married couple but also homosexual intercourse, incest and adultery which the bible strongly warns against.  With this in mind, upon further exploration the reader does notice that sexual intercourse is addressed in many ways and at many times in the Bible. 


A secondary literary modality that often describes the actions of sexual contact is plays.  On of the most famous quotes concerning sex and sexual intercourse comes from the Bard, William Shakespeare in the play Othello, circa 1603, (4) in which Iago has just reported to Brabantio; “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (5)For the reader and the viewer this is a very clear description of sexual intercourse.  Even though the description is short, as in the bible, it adds more detail to the act than the Bible does and even provides a visual image.   A very similar earlier edition of this quote appears in Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, in 1532; “These two did oftentimes do the two-backed beast together, joyfully rubbing and frotting their bacon 'gainst one another." (5)  In both of these passages sex, again, is described in a shorter manner but with key details.  The reader or viewer is not presented a mirada of details but only one or two very clear details that provide a strong image to the reader.  In some manners, it is easier for the reader to understand that the author or playwright is referring to sexual intercourse because such strong visual imagery is provided.  In Shakespeare’s plays, as in the bible, the reader sees sex references about married individuals, as well as incest, rape, homosexual intercourse, and sex outside of marriage.  Sex is described in a freer, fuller manner although it is not actually a longer textual description.  Sexual contact is also treated differently by the Bard depending upon which plays he is writing, accordingly in his comedies sex and its description are much more lighthearted.


In 1910, sex took a very different turn in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  In this novel we see almost no representation of sex, be it figuratively or literally, in fact we see almost no description of any intimacy.  Characters do form relationships but sexual intercourse and any sexual actions are simply implied to the reader.  One of the main characters, Margaret, gets married and there is never talk of a wedding night or even the couple waking together.  The second main character Helen, at the end of the novel is pregnant and the reader never actually reads about the sexual relations involved in this.  She simply appears pregnant and then her one time lover Leonard Bast states that “in the morning she was gone” (6).  With this phrase the reader is to imply that Helen’s pregnancy has to do with an event proceeding the morning that she has left.  Although Forester does not describe sexual contact there is scene where Margaret has found out that her new husband had an affair on his previous wife; “So that woman has been your mistress?” (6)  Although Forster has addressed a sexual affair that line is all that that is ever stated, there is no other information on the affair or its ongoing.  Sex and all other physical connections are left to the reader, they are implied.  This is a very different effect than that which in seen in Shakespeare the bible.  Sex, a very important part of human nature has been completely left out of Forster’s narrative, and here the reader sees a pause in the evolution of the description of sex where there is no description at all. 


In 2005 Zadie Smith composed, On Beauty a “homage” (7) to Forster’s Howard’s End.  This book has evolved out of Howard’s End, and is different on very many levels, especially in its treatment and discussion of sex.  Several of the character in the book are having extra marital affairs and there affairs between students and professors.  Almost all of these affairs are noted, and described in explicit detail.  “Howard, took hold of his cock and began the breech…as he entered Victoria…Howard pressed deeper…offering about half of his ample eight and a half inches…” (7)  This quote comes from a scene where the main character Howard is having an affair with his student Victoria, this particular scene is quite explicit and goes on for a couple of pages.  In this novel the reader experiences something completely different from that in any of the previously aforementioned literary works.  Zadie Smith describes sexual intercourse in a graphic and rather vulgar way, leaving nothing up to the reader and using no symbolism.  This is shocking to the reader and provides a complete visual image.  Although drastically different Zadie Smith does also treat sexual intercourse in a way that reflects how she feels about it.  Almost all of the sexual encounters are described in a negative manner. All of the sexual scenes in this book are this graphic and vulgar as Smith does not condone them.  Even the one time Howard reunites with his wife and has sex it is treated in this manner as though, Smith is also looking down upon it.


Smith addresses sex and sexual intercourse very differently from any of the aforementioned authors.  There is an evolution of sex seen in these works although it is not linear.  In the bible the reader does see descriptions of sex but they have very little detail and are left up to interpretation by the reader.  The reader then sees this evolve into Shakespeare where sex still takes up little narrative space but is freely described providing, a strong visual image.  Following this in Howard’s End the reader is given no description of sexual contact, it completely implied.  Following the evolution of this theme this seems to be a very strange turn, it is almost reverting to the state one would assume of sexual description before the bible.  This is made even more apparently and strange to the reader because Smith’s adaptation to this book is incredibly descriptive and vulgar.  Looking at the big picture it seems as though Forster is a break in the linear progression, and in this way, mirrors biological evolution.


The evolutionary description of sex is useful to us because of the way sexual contact is treated in these novels, it is the way that it was treated in society at that time.  In the bible, sex is a reality but not deeply discussed, this follows in Shakespeare although it more apparent and brought to the audiences attention.  Sexual contact is treated differently in Shakespearian society and is brought to the viewers’ attention through the differences between his work and previous works by other.  Also, as a playwright Shakespeare brought strong attention and highlighted details in the society making sure to make them apparent in his plays.  In Forster there is no mention of sexual contact because it was not appropriate at the time and in his style of wring.  At the turn of the century sex was a taboo topic and was not considered appropriate as material for novels that were written in hopes of being placed in the literary cannon.  In On Beauty Smith adequately reflects today’s popular culture and our treatment of sex.  In our society sex is everywhere: music, TV, movies, art, it is a common theme.  Smith is calling attention to this by highlighting the descriptions of sex, adequately reflecting our society where almost nothing is secret.  The evolution of sex follows the evolution of the treatment of sex in our culture; in this way we can use this pattern to predict the treatment of sex in literature in the future.  We can predict that the treatment and description of sex will continue to follow that of society; however what we cannot predict is how society will treat sex in the future.  Sexual content is so open and descriptive now that is hard to image that we will see it get any more descriptive, it may not be possible.  However, as evolution itself is not linear we may see the description of sex return to that of Forester’s writings, or branch off in a completely different manner all together. 

 WWW Sources 

1); Paul 1,Corinthians 7:2-5 


2); 2 Samuel 11:2-27  


3); Genesis 38:7-10 


4); Winkipedia; Othello 


5); Phrase Finder: Beast with two backs 6) Forster, E.M. Howards End. New York: Random, 1910. 7) Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2005


Héctor's picture

Hi there, For a school

Hi there,

For a school project I am doing a research about sex in literature and the differences in the explicity in dutch and english literature and this was a great source of information.