Let’s talk about sex (or not)

“All too commonly, people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else’s moral standard as well.” — Warner, 4

“It seldom occurs to anyone that the dominant culture and its family environment should be held account­able for creating the inequalities of access and recognition that produce this sense of shame in the first place.” — Warner, 8

I have seen myself in a lot of our readings throughout this class (I am sure this is the case for a lot of queer people in a class about identity). This sense that I was reading stories and reflections from people very similar to myself started with our first(?) reading: “The Trouble With Normal.” Warner writes about theories of sexual shame, repression, and heteronormative assumptions/societal expectations. As a queer person who was raised in a Catholic family, I am very familiar with the guilt and shame associated with sex/sexuality, as well as the repression (of identity) that follows. Assigning a level of morality to sexual activity in general, or to certain sexual orientations, is often rooted in religious beliefs that sex is something sacred between a man and a woman– and in my experience, is to be saved for marriage and for the purpose of reproduction. A question I have wondered myself and that is posed in Warner’s writing is “why were they so driven to control something that we now recognize as harmless, and by definition not our business?” (pg 4). This is in reference to masturbation, but is applicable to lots of different things that individuals can be shamed for– i.e. having sex at all, experiencing same-sex attraction, or otherwise acting/presenting outside of the norm. Why is there this need, in so many aspects of society, to control things that don’t affect the person trying to control them? This is also directly applicable to my family: why does it matter to them how I identify my sexuality, choose to dress, tattoo my body, or plan my future? It was expected that I would fit into this box of what my parents envisioned, a box that is firmly heteronormative and socially acceptable. 

Relatedly, the quotes above suggest not only that “people think not only that their own way of living is right, but that it should be everyone else’s moral standard as well,” (pg 4), but that this belief creates and further enforces shame surrounding sexual variance. The “dominant culture and its family environment” (pg 8) can be what ultimately feeds queer children in particular this notion that they aren’t “normal,” or that their desires should be hidden. This can continue into adulthood as well, and isn’t limited to queer folks– the notion that any sex at all is shameful can be a very harmful narrative. My Catholic family taught me (either directly or by implication) that sex was not to be done or talked about unless it was in the context of marriage (between a man and woman) and reproduction, which left me to learn sex education from my public school (not a great set-up either) because my family simply ignored its existence. I was never given space to explore nor did I ever think to question my sexuality until I attended college. 

“The term “repression” is often applied retrospectively in this way. There is a catch-22 of sexual shame; you don’t think of yourself as repressed until after you’ve made a break with repression.” — Warner, 8

I feel like this quote accurately represents my experience with learning about sex and sexuality. I wasn’t aware of feeling repressed (or even being closeted) until years after leaving the repressive environment and learning about my bisexual identity from peers, college courses, social media, and through therapy (which is where a lot of these so-called “break[s] with repression” happened). Ultimately, the assumption by my family that I would be straight and not sexually active only served to create an idealized version of me which only ever existed before I learned to question social norms and repressive religious beliefs. This has had lasting effects on my sense of self, and on what parts of my identity I feel comfortable sharing with my family (or not, out of the fear of not being understood or fully accepted).

Authenticity Over Expectations

“‘I will leave them a note, partially explaining, and then I will write them in detail once we’re there. But they will never accept any of this, and if they learn of it beforehand, they will separate us at once… Look, Sarah, either we do it now or we will never be able to. There would be no point for me in living if i was unable to see you every single day of my life.’” 
–Mootoo pg 59 

“‘And what about your friends, / Don’t you love them enough to stay?’ / And I say, ‘If I don’t leave now, / Then I will never get away.’ / Let me be a blue raft on the blue sea, I’ll blend right in” 
–The Front Bottoms “Maps”

The conceptualisation of identity and understanding of the self has been a recurring theme throughout all of our texts thus far. The quote above from page 59 of “Cereus Blooms at Night” draws attention to a moment where Pohpoh is eavesdropping on her mother as she is making plans to leave with Lavinia. It is insinuated that Pohpoh’s mother (Sarah) is romantically/sexually involved with Lavinia at this point, and that adds to the urgency with which they are trying to leave town. Besides the obstacle of being married to a man, Pohpoh’s mother faces judgment and social ostracization if she chooses to stay and pursue these desires with another woman. On the other hand, she risks denying an important part of her identity if she chooses to stay and continue her relationship with Pohpoh’s father. 

We don’t get much of Pohpoh’s mother in the story (at least comparatively to other characters), but this moment on page 59 – “either we do it now or we will never be able to” – immediately reminded me of a song by my favorite band, The Front Bottoms. In their song “Maps,” they say, “‘…what about your friends, / Don’t you love them enough to stay?’ / And I say, ‘If I don’t leave now, / Then I will never never get away.’” This question, “what about your friends, don’t you love them enough to stay?” points to a similar dilemma in Sarah and Lavinia’s quest to run away together. In the moment on pg 59 where they are making the plan to leave, they also spend time questioning the logistics of bringing the children along and whether it is worth it to go. Ultimately it comes down to the importance of staying true to the self– Sarah and Lavinia, regardless of the fact that they are forced to leave the kids (Pohpoh and Asha) behind because of the father, decide that they must leave in order to live their truth together and fully embrace their queerness. It is a difficult question that gets raised here about the kind of sacrifices that have to be made sometimes in order to live authentically, especially in a world that encourages conformity. 

The Front Bottoms have been a huge part of my life for years, particularly in relation to the journey of self-discovery; their songs are very raw with emotion (which is evident both in the writing and in the way the words are sung) and feel very authentic, which I think is one of the biggest goals when it comes to determining a sense of self. This sense of urgency is evident both in this part of the song and in Sarah and Lavinia’s decision to embrace their queerness despite societal expectations of heteronormativity and the threat of rumors, etc. Both of these passages highlight what I think could be a common thread within queer identity, which is the weighing of authenticity over expectations. Is it more important to embrace the parts of you that are not accepted by others/do not fit with social expectations and live authentically? Or should you live your life trying to fit into what others expect of you? The answer seems more often to be the former, but in my experience seems to happen after a long period of being forced to deny parts of yourself in favor of keeping to social norms. Eventually there comes a point where you have to shed these pressures and live for yourself, because “either [you] do it now or [you] will never be able to.” 

Am I A Fruit Bowl?

Why is this fruit bowl always here? He stopped and held it by the rims.

It’s always here and it never

Has any fruit in it. Been here all my life never had fruit in it yet. Doesn’t

That bother you? How do we even

Know it’s a fruit bowl? She regarded him through smoke. How do you think it feels

Growing up in a house full

Of empty fruit bowls?” –Carson pg 68

The image of the fruit bowl in this passage is particularly interesting to me as a symbol of the self. I think of a fruit bowl as a vessel for a collection of fruits, usually a variety of different ones put together in one large bowl. The idea of taking bits of different fruits and putting them together reminds me of the intersection of varying identities; in the case of Geryon, I would say it could refer to his queer identity, racial ambiguity, presentation as a red, winged ‘monster,’ and the influence of his traumatic childhood on his identity and perception of his self. I think including things like his traumatic past alongside his more physical identifiers creates a more rounded (like a bowl??) image of who he is. Also, I remember Georgis stating that “it is likely that because his body is strangely marked on the outside, that his inner universal queer wings are throbbing with that much more pain” (pg. 165). This highlights the way different aspects of an individual’s identity relate to each other, and how certain social identities can make others more complicated– here, I am thinking in particular about oppressed/otherwise marginalized groups (LGBTQ+ community, racial/ethnic groups, etc) and how the combination of such identities (ex: Geryon as a “gay racially hybrid young man,” Georgis pg 165) can exacerbate the oppression or isolation felt as a result. 

Speaking of isolation, and this sort of societal exclusion, the image of the fruit bowl as empty in the passage above is relevant and representative of Geryon’s feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. Geryon feels caged and “other” as a result of his identities marking him as different, and lacks consistent healthy relationships in his life (i.e. his somewhat detached mother, abusive relationship with his brother, and complicated relationship with Heracles). While I think these empty, lonely feelings can be obviously symbolized by the emptiness of the fruit bowl, I also think the fruit bowl can be imagined as empty in the way that it has this potential to be filled. I think the potential to be filled could easily become a sexual metaphor, but I was thinking of it in the context of defining the “self,” that this potential refers to a future opportunity to be understood (by others and in self reflection). The potential for Geryon’s life to be filled with more healthy relationships with others, alongside a more complete understanding of his own identity/desires/place in the world. 

I think the fruit bowl as an image of the self gives us the space to explore the role of queerness in this text. Particularly the lines “Been here all my life never had fruit in it yet. Doesn’t / that bother you? How do we even / know it’s a fruit bowl?” (Carson pg 68) lead me to wonder about the types of assumptions we make about people based on the way they look or present themselves. This could be in terms of gender presentation or queer-coding, but also about the types of labels someone uses (especially outside of the cis/binary/heteronormative expectations of society). I wonder how these lines might reflect Geryon’s thoughts about his own identity, particularly as a queer person; I am reminded of my own experiences with reflecting on my queer identity as someone who identifies as bisexual but has only had relationships with opposite sex partners in the past. The idea of using labels without “experience” can be a way of “other”-ing, even within the queer community. I think the question of “how do we even / know it’s a fruit bowl?” reflects this question of who am I, how do I identify myself, and how do I know? Georgis would supplement these thoughts with the line “taking account of the self is never a straightforward process” (pg 165).  I wonder if the question “how do we even / know it’s a fruit bowl?” is even relevant, if we are focusing on self-identification. How much does it matter whether others know it is a fruit bowl, so long as the fruit bowl knows that it is and is comfortable with its identity as a fruit bowl, regardless of whether it has ever held fruit before? Or if the fruit bowl only looks like a fruit bowl “should,” but doesn’t identify that way?

A wet June, a dry June

“June. The wettest June on record. We made love every day. We were happy like colts, flagrant like rabbits, dove-innocent in our pursuit of pleasure. Neither of us thought about it and we had no time to discuss it. The time we had used. Those brief days and briefer hours were small offerings to a god who would not be appeased by burning flesh. We consumed each other and went hungry again. There were patches of relief, moments of tranquility as still as an artificial lake, but always behind us the roaring tide.” (pg. 20)

“June. The driest June on record. The earth that should have been in summer glory was thin for lack of water. The buds held promise but they didn’t swell. The beating sun was a fake. The sun that should have brought life was carrying death in every relentless morning.” (pg. 150)


The first passage above appears early in the text, after the first mention of Louise by name. The second passage appears near the end of the novel, shortly after Louise’s cancer diagnosis, and directly after a few chapters about anatomy. The focus of the story shifts from exploring the body as an object of love and sex, to exploring the body as it functions and as it fails to function over time. This is also evident in the use of repetition/double meanings above; the phrases “the wettest June on record” (20), and “the driest June on record” (150), besides being obvious sexual innuendos, hint at a sort of cyclical experience. This could refer to the repetitive cycles in relationships that we’ve seen the narrator experience, or it could reference more simply the cycle of life and coming to terms with natural endings.

The passage of time, measured in different ways throughout the book, and not always linear, is a major focus of Winterson’s writing. Along the changing timeline, the narrator’s relationship with Louise undergoes physical and emotional changes. The two passages I’ve highlighted above directly contrast the narrator’s feelings of falling in love versus dealing with inevitable loss as it progresses over the course of the novel. More explicitly we can see that the language in each passage remains rooted in nature imagery, but shifts from descriptions of life, love, happiness, and growth, to descriptions of darkness, death, and loss. This is parallel to the changes in both Louise’s body (from more energetic/sexually-charged to tired and cancer-ridden) and in her relationship with the narrator (from exciting, new, and passionate, to dying and distant).

I think these ideas are also representative of the idea of the “palimpsest,” which we discussed briefly in class: the concept of rewriting stories, memories, or a body of work on top of past versions in order to reflect the always-changing nature of life, the self, and relationships.