sex


sex
   Information and misinformation on sex, and jokes about it, must always have circulated informally, yet, paradoxically, it is literary scholars who give most insight into this semi-secret oral tradition. Elizabethan sexual slang and jokes are well documented, since they are central to Shakespeare's humour; so are the innuendoes in Restoration dramatists and 18th-century satirists; there are even anthologies of such minor genres as the bawdy limerick, a form of wit popular among educated men in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and the bawdy songs of all-male groups (students, rugby footballers, army, etc.). Dirty jokes are a flourishing oral genre (sometimes aggregating into joke cycles, e.g. about Viagra, or Essex girls), and are frequently found as graffiti.
   Sexual folklore certainly exists, both on a serious and on a jocular level. One widespread notion, seriously taught by doctors and schoolmasters well into the 20th century, was that boys who masturbate go blind, or 'soft in the head'. Girls' taboos about *menstruation were equally unscientific, though less alarming. There was, and still is, a good deal of 'folk wisdom' about sexual characteristics, though it is hard to tell how seriously it is held. Thus, it is said that the size of a man's nose indicates that of his penis; of a woman's mouth, the size and tightness of the entry to her vagina. Big feet could have the same meaning. Baldness in a youngish man is supposed to indicate virility, especially if accompanied by thick bodily hair, so women allegedly find bald men sexy. Oysters, Spanish fly, valerian, and ground-up animal horn are all reputed to be aphrodisiacs.
   In older folk beliefs, certain animals which were inherently virtuous, such as *bees and * lions, would respect a virgin, but attack an unchaste girl; hence, a virgin could walk through a swarm of bees unstung. Nowadays it is sometimes said that if a woman forgets to put *salt on the table when setting it for a meal, it is a sign she has lost her virginity.
   In the days when public behaviour had to be discreet, various rumours circulated about visual signals indicating sexual status and intentions. In the 1950s, it was said that a girl wearing a Robertson Marmalade golliwog badge meant 'I've lost my virginity', and any woman wearing a thin bracelet round her ankle was sexually available, or even a prostitute. Some said if a woman wore a red hat, or red shoes, or allowed her petticoat to show, it meant she was not wearing knickers. Prostitutes had ways of attracting clients without actually soliciting in the legal sense; some used to walk slowly, accompanied by a poodle, while others might stand in shop doorways jingling a bunch of keys to show they were available, and had a flat to take the client to. A red lamp in the window was the sign of a brothel, hence the phrase 'red light district'.
   In recent years, there has been similar talk about homosexual signals based on how one's tie is knotted or one's breast-pocket handkerchief folded, though probably the wisest guide is the folk saying, 'It takes one to know one'. It is often said by 'straight' people that any man wearing one earring is gay, though they disagree as to whether it is the left or the right ear that matters; in any case, male earrings are now so common that they can hardly be significant.
   Colloquial speech abounds in references to sexual acts and organs. Until recently they were completely taboo in general society, so for the male subgroups which did use them among themselves they were a powerful mark of 'belonging'. Currently, they are used freely by far more people than at any previous period in England. They still have aggressive and insulting force, but in some contexts are exploited for humorous effect; they are common in minor verbal genres such as riddles, playground rhymes, and limericks, where the wit may consist either in uttering the offensive word or unexpectedly avoiding it.
   Few folklorists have yet done research on the topic; Sutton, 1992, is the only book based on English current material, from women informants. The present authors sent out a questionnaire in 1998, on which much of the present entry is based.
   See also conception, *menstruation, *pregnancy.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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