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What are We Doing with Sexual Education?

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The title for this manual on sexual education for schools in Mexico says ‘What are dad and mum doing?’ The design of the cover shows a couple of siblings curiously spying on their parents intimate life, and incites to what could result in extremely dangerous practices. There are indeed big issues with the cover and the title chosen to teach children sexual theory (we should be aware of the difference between sexual theory and practice). Independently of the contents of the book, this cover introduces the topic through a transgression of sexuality and domestic space that can have psychological consequences.

First of all, sexual curiosity is addressed towards the parents. But is not sexuality, when it appears consciously, usually addressed towards another object than the parents? Spontaneously, the first sexual feelings appear between girl and boy without need of establishing any relationship to the parents. Nature is an agent clever enough to start working by its own. Girl and boy – I will only refer to heterosexual attraction -, as human beings, contain in their biology all the necessary mechanisms that will allow sexual attraction appear at some point of their lives with a clear object. To readdress this sexual curiosity towards the parents implies a change of view within family relations that opens a door to sexual approaches among all family members. And indeed, the door is open. The cover of the book constructs the desire of children to see their parents lovemaking, and that cannot but strike me enormously. The next question the cover introduces is easy to infer: should parents allowed their children to look? Maybe offering a chair in the bedroom before starting the performance?

It is clear that the cover, supported by the title, incites to highly polemic questions. In our culture, there is a clear boundary regulating sexual issues within family members, especially, from parents to children. The bedroom door should indeed be close and lock. Suggesting the transgression of sexual boundaries within the space of the nuclear family in a book called of sexual education is highly reproachable. Besides, no one has the right to sexualize family relationships in what is a total disregard of the parents’ opinion.

What mum and dad do is indeed their problem, and considering that they act as authority of  that space, which is a private space, no one should feel with the right to invade it. This only shows the need to think through a proper sexual education.

Madness and Domesticity in Eline Vere

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The Dutch novel Eline Vere (1889) is another late nineteenth-century bourgeois example of failed female domesticity. Eline is a young dreamy girl whose basic problem is, like Emma Bovary, a deep boredom; although Flaubert’s novel is in many senses superior to that of Couperus’- Emma’s psychological characterization is one of the best of the nineteenth-century together with that of Anna Karanina – , as well as influential to the latter, both Emma and Eline share a passion for romantic novels, high expectations which are always damned to fail, and a too restless character to conform to bourgeois domestic expectations. Even if Eline Vere is not a novel of adultery, it presents a lot of the classical elements Flaubert introduced to represent a mediocre and regional bourgeois society.

Homes and objects are overall represented according to a bourgeois approach and meaning: they signify, they keep memories and serve as a medium to introduce class and imperial topics. The reader can travel from house to house and see their inhabitants and objects, which accordingly to the novel’s milieu are totally interrelated. Eline Vere can be described as a novel of domesticities, and it is in this context that Eline can be better approached: she does not fit within the domestic network; she is homeless and presents a deep sense of the un-domestic. Eline cannot be domesticated even if she wishes so in order to conform to the house with the rest of its inhabitants and objects.

Domestic space is mostly perceived as a prison by Eline, who, as single woman has nothing to do, no one to care for. Interestingly, in this case is not adultery but hysteria – then wrongly understood as madness – what springs up in Eline in the last third of the novel – the best part of the text in terms of dramatic tension and psychological insight. Eline, as a late 19th C. female bourgeois belongs to Freud’s context and very well might represent some of his patients trapped between a social discourse and personal desires. The domestic setting surrounding the text thoroughly constitutes a static and oppressive spatial frame which emphasizes Eline’s stillness and incapacity to change direction:

 ‘She now spent hour upon hour racked with doubt as to what she could possibly do with her useless body and her useless existence, dragging herself from one spasm of coughing to the next on the prison of her rooms’

 Madness then comes out as a means to escape such physical and psychological pressure, and it is a quite widespread topic during the 19th C. including even a biographical text The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins 1892). Rooms experienced as prison also affect the body, which, alongside with an obsession for covering it – the 18th C. was far more permissive in this topic -, amounts of clothes reproduced the same spatial domestic configuration, where the sexual body is suffocated.

Death is a common end for most of 19th C. heroines – or anti-heroines -. In Eline’s case, however, the border between suicide and accidental death is well worked out, although for a modern reader the accidental might be read as an unconscious wish given Eline’s previous thoughts on suicide. The room then ‘was transformed into a dark crypt, a mausoleum of blackness in which a lifeless body lay, ghostly white’. This last representation of the room is one of the most powerful: the room is not a room anymore but a crypt. Domestic space is not only able to become a prison but it can be death itself; Eline, one may say, is killed by the space she is forced to inhabit. If one takes Eline Vere as representative of Dutch bourgeoisie, then Bourgeois Dutch domesticity dies in this room.

Towards a Democracy of Space

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Contemporary theories on space make an emphasis on its lack of stability and perpetual becoming opposing classical theories of space such as those of Heidegger and Bachelard. Human Geography is a postmodern school on space which generally includes feminist, psychoanalytic, ecological, marxist or postcolonial approaches, among others. Besides their theoretical differences, there is an overall share idea based on new fluent and unstable spaces which do not guarantee a refugee from a speedy world. In opposition to the classical dichotomy time/space, postmodernism totally intertwines one with the other annulling binary oppositions such as: space-time  still/movement  emotion/reason  female/masculine  being/becoming, etc. Feminist geography especially criticizes these dichotomies claiming that woman is aligned to space, and so to domestic space, and argues that spaces have been traditionally defined by the white bourgeois male in opposition to an Other (female, black, low-class, etc.).

These new approaches to space argue that space is not one but multiple, and they are not defined by fixed characteristics but by a multiplicity of interrelationships which configure space: the strong mix of ethnical groups in big cities is an example of the total presence of the other which is not other anymore. Ethnical, national, and gender boundaries tend to disappear, at least in space – even if, I think, invisible boundaries do exist in these same multiple spaces. However, it is true that the strong delimited boundaries of the 18th and 19th centuries are totally put into question: the other is host at home; nevertheless, we cannot deny that home has become uncanny (terrorism by Muslim British citizens is an example of invisible boundary and the existence of the other for both sides).

Feminism also relates boundless space with a new configuration of the family however it does not specify. Body and space are totally interrelated: the body is our first place and the most basic tool to establish relations of measure. If domestic space is meant to change in terms of boundaries, then the body will be conformed to another sexual morality than the classical one: bourgeois domestic space – which is still our predominant – belonged to an idea of space; the question is to know until what extend a new concept of space will – or is – conform a new concept of family.

The question of free spaces  is not resolved at all: feminism insists on defining female spaces: who owns the public and the private space in Western societies? This issue is related to the body: if men are predominant in the work space, for example, will they adjust policies to maternity? Will the space of capitalism leave room for the female body? Or rather this one should adapt itself to the market demands? The same might be said of class, race and religion. The configuration of spaces is then of high importance because it reflects the intentions of the powerful: the ones who build the space configure a particular society in terms of inclusion and exclusion. It is important to fight for a democracy of space build among all different groups inhabiting a town, or a city, even a company or a house. The space should be based, not in ‘powerful interests’ such as capitalist, neither the one white middle-class man -even if that is disappearing in favor of the bank world – but for all those involved in a particular space. Spaces should be adapted to the body and to emotional needs, and reflect a human and popular appropriation of that space.

Narratives of Domesticity

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It is commonly forgotten that the bourgeoisie was not born in France, neither in England, but in the Netherlands; it was not born in the 19th C. but as early as the 17th C., but as usual small countries and ‘rare’ languages fall in oblivion. Witold Rybczynski, a Scottish architect living currently in Canada, has a wonderful book which just fall in my hands some days ago: Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986). This book is a little jewel written by a humanist architect, what can be called a mini version of Philippe Ariès huge work.

Rybczynski approaches the idea of home historically, since its birth until nowadays. The concept of home different from that of house was born in the bourgeoisie, as such, it conforms the values of the former which, clearly, remain until today. The author has a wide knowledge on history and the arts, and he continuously provides artistic and literary examples of his statements. The one I wish to focus on in here is his comparison between 17th C Dutch paintings and Jane Austen narratives.

Rybcznski shows the first representations of domestic space in Dutch paintings to exemplify the first idea of domesticity and privacy, arguing how ‘there was one place, however, where the seventeenth-century domestic interior evolved in a way that was arguably unique, and that can be described as having been, at the very last, exemplary […] In short, at a time when the other states of Europe remained primarily rural […] the Netherlands was rapidly becoming a nation of townspeople. Burghers by historical tradition, the Dutch were bourgeois by inclination’. However, the Dutch 17th C has not left bourgeois literature as has done the 19th C in other European countries, instead it left pictorial representations of domestic space:

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The above painting by de Witte in 1660 is not only a domestic painting but it also contains the bourgeois topic per excellence: adultery. One can carefully see a man hidden in the bed of whom Rybcznski introduces an explanation, hence a narrative, and a domestic narrative. This painting is thought of as domestic space, wanting to englobe the whole of the home in the depiction of several rooms. The woman playing the piano with half-open curtains, the daylight suggesting a non-orthodox hour for intimacies as the owner of the house might be working, the clothes untidily left on the chair: all that narrates a story. Like him, and other contemporary painters, Jane Austen, a century later, ‘single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing, the literary equivalent to the seventeenth-century Dutch school of interior painting’. This comparison between painting and writing is very interesting, and they show the same social and class frames in two different moments and times. This historical difference confirms domesticity as bourgeois topic: Austen belonged to the late 18th C. new English bourgeoisie, the concept of home landed to Enlgand, which was also heir of Dutch tastes in interior design.

Austen scenes are typically feminine; women present the whole narrative perspective, it is a world conformed indoors and managed by women and their topics. Love and marriage, as well as real estate, are favorite talks in the drawing or tea room (and it might be reminded that the so tea British tradition came from the Netherlands in the 17th C.). As Rybcznski says, Austen’s plots are simple, no big tragedies or dramas are told, but she has become a national figure, why? Apart from Austen’s deep insights in the human heart, it is indeed a sense of domesticity what her texts bring out: home sweet home, the British nostalgia for quiet familiar and well-being scenes.