Carnal Ignorance

by Wendy Doniger

lthough a powerful literary argument can be made for the revelatory power of sex, many texts present a powerful counterargument, testifying to the power of sexual fantasy and the evidence that sex is a lie.

Sex can raise or lower our perception of a partner, moving us (according to later, retrospective judgment) from illusion to truth, or from truth to illusion. The permutations are complex, if not infinite, because there are several variables, each of which may prove illusory. Sometimes we are deluded about our partners, on whom we project our own fantasies (before, after or during the sexual act); sometimes we delude ourselves with fantasies about ourselves, thinking that we are animals seeking animal partners, when in fact we are looking for gods, or the reverse; sometimes it's all of the above. "Whatever can he see in her?" we ask one another about our friends, and often, as Wordsworth defined the origins of poetry, when emotion is recollected in tranquility, "Whatever did I see in him?" (see, indeed--or, rather, project onto him as a visual image). We all suffer from bovarysme, named after the heroine of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, who deluded herself constantly, especially about sexual love. It is easier to find someone to go to bed with than to find someone to wake up with; we need a different sort of morning-after pill, a mental rather than physical retroactive contraceptive.

Lust functions to cloud the mind, to throw a monkey wrench into the rational machine. The antirational power of the genitals was already enshrined in the ancient Greek concept of hysteria (literally, the wandering of the womb in such a way as to drive women mad) and is still encoded, for the other gender, in the contemporary phrase that accuses a man of "thinking with his little head" (immortalized in the rock song "Don't Use Your Penis for a Brain") as well as in the belief, widespread in India and elsewhere, that semen is stored in the head. This anatomical fantasy of upward displacement, conflating the organs of generation and cogitation, implies that both sexual experience and lust rise to the head, i.e., that sex both provides and corrupts knowledge, that it is a source of both truth and lies.

We trick ourselves in bed when we lie about who our partners are and about who we are. Though we may think we are "our real selves" in sex, we may actually be least so. Victims, therefore, lie to themselves, while tricksters lie to their victims and, often, to themselves as well. To seduce is to deceive; although not every masquerade is sexual, every sexual encounter is in a sense a masquerade. So basic is deception to sex--and so tight are the bonds between sex and text--that several languages have a pun linking sex and deception. In English "deceive" means both to fool someone and to violate a sexual promise, a pun that Robertson Davies puts in the mouth of a man who slept, disguised as a man named Arthur, with Arthur's wife, Maria: "I know that I deceived Arthur. I can't say if I deceived Maria" (The Lyre of Orpheus). By saying that someone who has been sexually unfaithful has "deceived" his or her partner, do we also imply that if you sleep with someone other than your partner you will lie about it?

English abounds in such double entendres; it is only partly an accident of the English language that we lie to the people we lie with. As Shakespeare puns, in Sonnet 138: "Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be"; and, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," when Lysander is negotiating how close he will lie to Hermia in the night, "Therefore I am not lying when I lie." Or, as the author of a book about infidelity put it (as cited by Jerry Adler in his article "Adultery: A New Furor Over an Old Sin"), infidelity isn't about "whom you lie with. It's about whom you lie to." In 1963, long before the Zippergate scandals of President Clinton, the British Profumo affair, involving call girls named Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, destroyed a Cabinet and produced one memorable limerick:

"What on earth have you done?" said Christine.
"You have ruined the party machine.
To lie in the nude
Is not at all rude,
But to lie in the House is obscene."
"True" and "false" lovers resonate with both the philosophical connotations of the English words ("Speak the truth") and their moral-sexual connotations ("Be true to me"). The moral-sexual meaning of "false," in normal usage, implies that a woman is "false" to her lover if she sleeps with someone else; its philosophical meaning grows much stronger in narrative texts, where she is "false" to him if she is someone else--a bedtrickster. In the first case, the oath of love is a false copy of the true oath; in the second, the person is a false copy of the true lover.

The legal scholar Jane E. Larson points out an underlying assumption of our culture: "lying is integral to the 'dance' of sexual initiation and negotiation. Exaggerated praise, playful suggestions, efforts to impress, and promises intended to reassure and trigger emotion (but not to be strictly believed) are all part of the ritual of escalating erotic fascination that makes up a 'seduction' in the colloquial sense. To lie to a sexual partner is to share a leap of fancy--all very harmless and justifiable." This leads Larson to ask, "[I]s it ever reasonable to believe a lover? Were our grandmothers right in telling us that men always lie for sex, and the woman who listens is a fool? This counsel rests on the presumption that lying for sex is in 'the rules of the game'" ("'Women Understand So Little, They Call My Good Nature "Deceit"': A Feminist Rethinking of Seduction"). Larson argues that the courts must change the game, but the myths reveal how deeply entrenched a game it is. Indeed, The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) is the title of Jean Renoir's great film about a bedtrick.

The ancient wisdom of the grandmothers persists in the cynicism with which we regard sociological surveys of sexual behavior. Anthony Lane, in "Sex in America," a review of a sex survey, put the matter with his characteristic wry humor:

These books are not about sex. They are not even about dancing. They are about lying. They are constructed with admirable clarity, but they represent the ne plus ultra of fuzziness--the unalterable fuzz of our duplicity, the need to hide the truth from other people in the hope that we will cease to recognize it ourselves. Read a sentence such as, "Men report that they experience fellatio at a far greater rate than women report providing it," and you find yourself glancing down a long, shady vista of self-delusion. This is not a question of inefficient research, or of culpable hypocrisy, or even of that much loved villain of the piece, the male boast; it is simply what T. S. Eliot called bovarysme, "the human will to see things as they are not," and throughout The Social Organization of Sexuality it never once failed to give me a good laugh.

The fellatio ratio is one of many asymmetries between male and female perceptions of the same act. The American public's reaction to President Clinton's revelation of the fact that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and had lied about it was simply "Why make such a fuss? Everyone lies about sex." According to a New York Times article, a 1999 survey of lie detection apparently established, statistically, that "not surprisingly, the most common of such lies were about affairs."

The evidence of our myths, too, indicates that the mating game is one whose rules were designed to be broken. Men lie in sexual situations: Pinocchios all, their noses stretch in resonance with (a Freudian might say upward displacement from) their lower noses. (In the aftermath of the Clinton scandals, some entrepreneur marketed a Clinton watch, with a picture of the president on the face, and a computer mechanism that makes the nose grow, suggestively, longer and then shorter.) Men are particularly inclined to lie in cultures, such as ours, where with one hand (the right hand of the superego) they impose monogamous constraints that with the other hand (the left hand of the id) they evade. If tyrants make liars, monogamous societies make sexual liars, and those who are, as it were, maritally challenged often turn bedtricks. In the film Liar Liar (1998), about a man--more precisely, a lawyer--magically compelled to tell the truth, the first place the curse manifests itself is where it is most obvious, the place where everyone lies: not in court, but in bed. When his adulterous partner asks him, in postcoital languor, how it was for him, the lawyer responds, to his own shocked dismay and her fury, "I've had better."

It is easier for women than for men to lie physically, in some ways--faking orgasms, for example, a widely attested, and debated, skill. But it is more difficult (though by no means impossible) for women to lie about other physical aspects of sex, such as maidenheads. When Isolde substituted her maid, Brangane, for herself on her wedding night with King Mark to disguise the fact that she had lost her maidenhead to Tristan, she "devised the best ruse that she could at this juncture, namely that they should simply ask [her maid] Brangane to lie at [her husband] Mark's side during the first night." And the author of this version of the story, Gottfried, remarks, "Thus love instructs honest minds to practice perfidy." (Tristan and Isolde)

Getting pregnant is a big truth teller. Pregnancy may be the problem, proof that adultery has taken place; hence the accusations against Tamar, Mary (Matthew 1.18-25) and many other women. But sometimes pregnancy is the solution, proof that the woman is fertile (when barrenness, rather than fertility, is the problem) or that her husband enjoys sleeping with her after all (when rejection, i.e., his barrenness, is the problem). In "Measure for Measure," only a pregnancy provides a sure distinction between the "imagined" body and the actual one.

Men, on the other hand, lie about other physical aspects of sex, such as desire. Although Pinocchio's nose declared to the world that he was lying, a man can fake--or conceal--an erection; even chimpanzees can conceal it. Thus there is an asymmetry, or double standard, in both the timing and the concealment of the physical lying and truth telling of men and women: men's physical truth test comes earlier, with desire, and is relatively easy to fake, while for women, the truth test comes later, with pregnancy, and is harder (though not impossible) to fake. These double standards suggest one reason that the stories about bedtricks are not symmetrical or interchangeable: that is, you cannot take the stories about men and tell them about women, or the reverse; different details give them different shapes.

It has even been said that lying is not simply something that occasionally happens in the course of our sexual life but is, rather, its very essence. According to Janet Adelman, the Shakespearean bedtricks suggest "that mistrust and deception are at the very root of the sexual act, as though the man is always tricked, defiled, and shamed there" ("Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure"). A character in Angela Carter's Wise Children soliloquizes, "Now I remember how everything seemed when I was doing it, but as soon as I stopped, not, as if fucking itself were the origin of illusion." So, too, the narrator of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh suggests that betrayal might be the very heart of sexuality: "What if she made you love her so that she could betray you--if betrayal were not the failure of love, but the purpose of the whole exercise from the start?"

But sexual lies, however common, are not cheap; we pay dearly for them. Precisely because sexual truth is posited as the ultimate truth, sexual betrayal is posited as the ultimate betrayal. The protean quality of sexual passion, unfortunately coupled with our foolish tendency to use sexual love as the rock on which we build the church of our identity, drives us to use highly charged words like "betrayal" (with its political overtones) and "unfaithful" (with its religious overtones) to describe the sexual lie. For this is the betrayal and infidelity that cuts closest to the bone, encompassing within it the other two, the political and the religious. When we deceive others about our sexual identity, or are deceived by them, we lose one of the main anchors of our own sense of identity, since we are lying to ourselves when we betray, or are betrayed by, those whom we desire and/or love. Why, then, do we speak of the sexual act as carnal knowledge? We would do better to call it carnal ignorance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Wendy Doniger

DonigerWendy Doniger (who has also published under the name Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty) was born in New York City on November 20, 1940. She first trained as a dancer under George Balanchine and Martha Graham and then went on to complete two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies (from Harvard and Oxford). She has taught at Harvard, Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the University of California at Berkeley and, since 1978, at the University of Chicago, where she is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, in the Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought.

Her research and teaching interests concern both Hinduism and mythology; her courses in mythology address mythological themes in cross-cultural contexts, and her work in Hinduism covers mythology, law, ritual, art and dance. Among Doniger's long list of publications, the most recent are Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes (1995), The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (1998), Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999) and The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000). Her works in progress include a memoir, a novel and a translation of the Kama Sutra, with Sudhir Kakar.

In 1976, Doniger's son Michael (then age 5) summed up his mother's career and interests: "My mom is a history of religions teacher at the University of Chicago. She teaches mainly Indian religion. She has gone to India many times. She might take me next summer. [She did.] My mom also rides her horse, makes collages, writes books, has dinner parties, and talks with her students."

COPYRIGHT | This feature was adapted from a talk presented at the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California, on October 8, 1999. Copyright 2001 The University of Chicago.

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