Listen: 10273549

MPR’s Terri Keefe reports on a speech by feminist author Kate Millett at the University of Minnesota about Millet talks about the rules of sexuality in classical literature, Oedipus and Medea, and about erotic literature.

Report includes excerpt from Millett’s speech, in which she talks about Victorian assumptions about sex and manners, and that repressive sexual customs laid groundwork for political explosion reflected in labor reform movement and unrest about exploitation of women in mines and mills.

This file was digitized with the help of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).


text | pdf |

KATE MILLETT: Virginia Woolf said that sex is present when a man hands a woman a teacup. Merely that. Well, but how much that implies of manners and morals and a thousand social assumptions, not the least of them, heterosexuality.

Sex, then, something we thought we understood, seems to reel and quicken under our feet. Assume 1,000 elusive and amorphous shapes everywhere. To speak of sex is to speak of culture, and society, and socialization.

TERRY KEEFE: Millett said that sexual roles, attitudes, and customs, afford insight into the politics and values of an era. She said, for example, that repressive sexual customs in the Victorian era laid the groundwork for political explosion. She says this was reflected in the labor reform movement, and unrest over the exploitation of women in the mines and Mills of 19th Century England. And she said that heterosexual love, as perceived in the classical age, was simply an affliction.

KATE MILLETT: For so much of the power and suffering of Victorian writing, take Thomas Hardy, for example, is engendered by its terrible, even heroic efforts to examine, to understand, and then struggle desperately to free itself from the tyranny of sex. Oh really not of sex itself, but the tyranny society had made of sex. When you look back on the role of sexuality in classical literature, you're not much cheered up either.

In fact, an attitude of fatality prevails. Antique sexual appetite may be easily satisfied by the spoils of war. A prince is thrown to a warrior, or the escapades of Zeus, who was always bopping about in various, outfits of one kind or another, or the adventures of a wood nymph, or even Aurora herself who got around.

But there are great and terrible rules. Witness the bleeding eyes of Oedipus. Once King and now only a sightless and pitiful example. Or consider Medea. Sex is the great undoer, the murderer of peace and life, in classical literature.

TERRY KEEFE: Millett said that a large part of modern sexual values and sex role behavior can be traced to the concept of courtly love, which emerged in the medieval period. She said that heterosexual love was secularized and institutionalized in an age of feudal hierarchy dominated by men. This, says Millett, is the essence of the politics of sex. Women, she says, have traditionally been the pawns of a patriarchal society.

And Millett said that marriage evolved as a political and economic pact of convenience rather than a romantic union. She said that this led to the overwhelming violence toward women and contempt for the sexual act prevalent in literature. But Millett said that she has hopes about the future of erotic literature, and she distinguished sharply between erotic art and pornography. And she says that the future of freer sexuality lies with the women's movement.

KATE MILLETT: The erotic is finally, I think, coming into its own. It begins with the proposition that sex, whether love or sensuality, is a value in itself. There is no guilt. The erotic doesn't bother with community standards, and redeeming social value and that jazz, the stuff that lawyers and censors argue about. Unlike pornography and obscenity, which are the forms of shame and repression, fear in the sense of sin, with its corollary of objectification, and sadism, and dehumanization. Unlike them, the erotic is pro-sex, and porn is anti-sex.

TERRY KEEFE: That was feminist author Kate Millett, speaking at the University of Minnesota about the history of sex in literature. I'm Terry Keefe.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>