European literary sex guide: five lessons from the classics

Article published on Sept. 20, 2013
Article published on Sept. 20, 2013

In mid-September, Russia’s children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov argued that in order to protect innocent children from corruption, young Russians should look to the classics for sex education, to learn all that they need to about love and relationships, chastity and family values. From sadist France to Gothic Ireland, classic European literature has dubious pious pointers

Rus­sia: Anna Karen­ina, by Leo Tol­stoy (1877)

'I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts'                                          

In Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina, love is laced with sad­ness, lust shad­owed with for­bod­ing, and sex proves to be the char­ac­ters’ un­do­ing. The beau­ti­ful aris­to­crat Anna Karen­ina, bored and un­sat­is­fied by her pas­sion­less mar­riage with a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, finds love in the arms of the debonair mil­i­tary of­fi­cer Count Vron­sky. Her mar­riage un­rav­els, the af­fair be­comes pub­lic knowl­edge and Anna is shunned by so­ci­ety and her friends. Her re­la­tion­ship with Vron­sky be­gins to crum­ble, aided by the hypocrisy of a so­ci­ety which al­lows him to con­tinue with life as nor­mal while she is left os­tracised and alone. Jeal­ous, para­noid and pos­ses­sive, Anna fears that Vron­sky will leave her, and after one par­tic­u­larly vit­ri­olic ar­gu­ment she throws her­self into the path of an on­com­ing train.

Les­son no 1: Heart­break, de­spair and sui­cide.

ITALY: The De­cameron, by Gio­vanni Boc­cac­cio (1353)

'A kissed mouth doesn’t lose its for­tune, on the con­trary it re­news it­self just as the moon does'

Re­nais­sance writer Gio­vanni Boc­cac­cio held some fairly un­con­ven­tional ideas for his time - in­clud­ing the out­landish no­tion that women were in fact human - and the even more stag­ger­ing idea that they might in fact be equal to men in some re­spects. In De­camerone ('The De­cameron'), a text com­monly con­sid­ered to be a pre­cur­sor to Ge­of­frey Chaucer's The Can­ter­bury Tales, Boc­cac­cio gath­ers his ten young char­ac­ters in an iso­lated villa in the coun­try­side and has them tell tales of life, sin, love and lust.

There’s a lot of sex in these sto­ries: from a con­vent of nuns who hire a gar­dener to ful­fil all their sex­ual needs, to a her­mit who de­flow­ers a maiden only to dis­cover that her sex­ual ap­petite far sur­passes his own, to ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs and horse­play aplenty. Boc­cac­cio avoids moral­is­ing on the topic, deem­ing the laws of na­ture to be far more com­pelling than mere so­cial moral­ity. 

Les­son no 2: Love and sex are ir­re­sistible forces of na­ture.

Ire­land: Drac­ula, by Bram Stoker (1897)

'There was a de­lib­er­ate volup­tuous­ness that was both thrilling and re­pul­sive, and as she arched her neck she ac­tu­ally licked her lips like an an­i­mal… Lower and lower went her head. I closed my eyes in a lan­guorous ec­stasy and waited'

This nine­teenth cen­tury epis­to­lary novel is all about sex. Long be­fore Twi­light had girls swoon­ing over vam­pires, Count Drac­ula was se­duc­ing women into open­ing their boudoirs to him. And he didn’t glit­ter. In­stead, the blood­thirsty aristo cor­rupts the pure Eng­lish girls through pen­e­tra­tion, through which method he be­comes in a sense both their fa­ther and their sex­ual part­ner.

It gets worse. The madonna/whore di­chotomy has rarely been so creepy, in a text ex­em­pli­fy­ing the Vic­to­rian ter­ror of fe­male sex­u­al­ity. Dear sweet Lucy is trans­formed by Count Drac­ula’s bite into a blood­suck­ing sex­ual preda­tor and her pre­vi­ous suit­ors, ap­palled at the de­sire that un­dead Lucy awak­ens in them, pro­ceed to join to­gether to ham­mer a stake through her heart. A big, wooden stake. You don’t need to be Freud for this one.

Les­son no 3: Necrophilia, in­cest, and group sex.

SPAIN: Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cer­vantes (1605)

'There were no em­braces, be­cause where there is great love there is often lit­tle dis­play of it'    

Don Quixote is es­sen­tially one great spoof of the me­dieval ro­mance genre. The men­tally un­sta­ble pro­tag­o­nist, under the in­flu­ence of too many books of chivalry, re­names him­self and his horse, and sets out on a quest. His grand pas­sion is an imag­i­nary one, the mid­dle-aged Don des­ig­nates a nearby farm girl Dul­cinea del To­boso and de­fends her ho­n­our at every op­por­tu­nity, tilt­ing with wind­mills and ac­cost­ing strangers in the name of chivalry and of his lady love. When, in the end, Quixote re­cov­ers his san­ity, he be­queaths his for­tune to his niece on the con­di­tion that she should not marry a man who reads books of chivalry. The moral of the story is that fan­tasy does not equal re­al­ity. And you shouldn’t be­lieve every­thing that you read in books.

Les­son no 4: Be still, my beat­ing heart... ro­mance is chaste when it is imag­i­nary.

FRANCE: The Phi­los­o­phy of the Bed­room, by Mar­quis de Sade (1795)

'What does one want when one is en­gaged in the sex­ual act? That every­thing around you give you its utter at­ten­tion, think only of you, care only for you... every man wants to be a tyrant when he for­ni­cates' 

Think France, think ro­mance? Think again. The Mar­quis de Sade, the lib­er­tine aris­to­crat whose be­hav­iour gave the world the word ‘sadism’, wrote erotic trea­tises in which he glo­ri­fied tor­ture, rape and above all else the pur­suit of sex­ual plea­sure. In La Philoso­phie dans le boudoir ('The phi­los­o­phy of the bed­room') the vir­ginal Eugénie is sent by her fa­ther to re­ceive a sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion at the hands of Madame Saint-Ange and her com­pa­tri­ots.

The book broke every sex­ual taboo of the time, and some they hadn’t even thought of. Moral­ity is slammed as a mere so­cial con­struct as the char­ac­ters in the book cor­rupt and are cor­rupted in every sense. 

Les­son no 5: Graphic het­ero­sex­ual and ho­mo­sex­ual en­coun­ters, rape, tor­ture, vi­o­lence and in­cest.