Banal Sex

One of H.P. Lovecraft’s least successful horror stories is “Medusa’s Coil“, a 1930 collaboration with Zealia Bishop. The story builds to one of the hideous final denouements that Lovecraft liked to end his stories with.

Nor was it right that the neighbours should know that other horror which my strange host of the night could not bring himself to tell me–that horror which he must have learned, as I learned it, from details in the lost masterpiece of poor Frank Marsh.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside–the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation–was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba–for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.


Modern liberal readers of course find “Medusa’s Coil” laughable rather than horrific. The reason is that we are neither the misogynists nor the racists that the story presupposes. Lovecraft probably never stopped to think that he might one day be read by African American women or by anyone who considers such women to be people worthy of common respect.

I was reminded the other day of “Medusa’s Coil” by the ending of the five-part TV miniseries Criminal Justice 2. It’s the story of a woman who murders her husband over some dark secret between the two of them. Throughout there are enigmatic hints about some sort of violence or oppression she has suffered from her husband. But the viewer is left to wonder up to the last moment. Before the dramatic conclusion, in the court room, we learn that the husband had made a habit of raping his wife. And then, as the camera pans along the ranks of horrified jurors, we are finally told the shocking truth: it was anal sex!!!

Oh. OK. So the big thing here isn’t that she kept getting raped by her husband, but where, specifically, he put it in her. Are we to take it that if he had just used more conventional means to commit those rapes, then she wouldn’t have been driven to kill him?

Of course, forced entry hurts your bottom more than your vagina. But, beyond the physical pain involved, screen writer Peter Moffat clearly expected a strong sodomy taboo among the viewers. In 2009. Moffat very correctly judged that it would have been completely ineffective to use vanilla domestic sexual coercion as a plot twist. We’re supposed to be shocked not so much because the woman’s bottom hurts, not because she kept getting raped over and over again, but because she has been forced to take part in a Forbidden Act.

Nerve Magazine ran a “The Mainstreaming of Anal Sex” article in 1999. Slate ran theirs in 2005. To readers of Cosmopolitan Magazine and fans of the Sex and the City TV show, anal sex is about as controversial as Pilates. Mainstream on-line book stores offer many handbooks on the subject of how you might enjoy your own male or female little tush sexually. It’s optional: it’s your bottom and you decide what you’d like to try and what you’d then like to try again — or not. Everybody knows that the basic rule in bed is “consenting adults”. Therefore the Criminal Justice miniseries ends in anticlimax: when we learn that the long-withheld secret is rape we find it sad but banal. Even though it was anal.

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13 thoughts on “Banal Sex

  1. Are we to take it that if he had just used more conventional means to commit those rapes, then she wouldn’t have been driven to kill him?

    There is a school of Christian theological thought that would reply, without batting an eyelid, that anal rape is indeed morally worse than vaginal rape, because there is no chance the victim can get pregnant from her rapist. And until quite recently, the same school of thought would have argued that no form of vaginal intercourse between spouse and husband, no matter how forceful and non-consensual, would qualify as rape.

    The influence of these ideas on Western societies is fading, but it isn’t gone yet – but, fortunately, it is indeed already too weak to form the basis of a convincing fifth act shocking revelation.


  2. One of the first episodes of, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” suggested a similar sort of idea, but put the spin on it that it was, “all about domination.” The criminal dominated both men and women through sodomy. Oddly his partners were apparently consensual in the act but were his pawns. Later in the same series a different detective comments insinuate that a married man isn’t going to cheat just to have sex, “he’ll flip her over.” Which in the taped scene he did. My impression here is that many fundie Christians perceive anal sex with a woman as wrong and pretty much the equivalent of rape, regardless of consent. They also equate the notion of any man who would want or do such a thing with a woman as being a closeted hommosexual, bisexual, or at the least some sort of pervert. Yes, I’m aware of how things are perceived in more cosmopolitan circles as well as more educated circles.


  3. “Of course, forced entry hurts your bottom more than your vagina. But, beyond the physical pain involved, screen writer Peter Moffat clearly expected a strong sodomy taboo among the viewers.”

    “Hurts more”, as in unbelievably excruciating pain. In her case, over and over again, night after night. Sure sounds like a nightmare to me. I am not sure why you seem so intent on insisting that this is not reason enough for the added horror, and why it’s another opportunity for Christian/American bashing.

    What were you expecting anyway?


  4. I don’t agree that there was any implication, from the way you described it anyway, that the rape was okay – the camera panned across the faces of the jurors when only the rape was revealed and they were horrified. The fact that excruciating pain was involved (imagine that he was regularly raping her vaginally with a hard sharp object instead if that helps) certainly makes it even more horrifying to me. I still don’t get why it makes the rape part seem okay. It’s a drama, so it’s extra dramatic.

    Oh well I didn’t see the miniseries so no point in continuing to argue with someone who did; your take on it just seemed odd to me. It almost seemed like YOU were saying the extra physical pain was no big deal, i.e. banal. Maybe the jurors were expressionless and only exhibited horrified looks AFTER they learned it was anal. That would certainly be weird. The whole thing sounds weird. Which is why I only watch sitcoms; abuses of women are too much of a staple in the dramas. (which, now that I think of it, could be a reason the producers felt they had to ramp things up a notch- ugh, it’s depressing all around).


  5. Yeah, sad all around. My main point was that there was a disconnect between many viewers’ values and the writer’s expectations of us, just like in the Lovecraft example. How horrifying is it to learn that the story’s baddie is not just a supernatural lamia figure but also, GASP, an African American?


  6. My point was not to bash Christians or Americans as I am both. But, to point out that psychological studies have shown that the less education, the lower the intelligence a person has and/or the greater a person adheres to “traditional” values, ideas and mores, the less open they are to sexual variety and a variety of sexual acts. This should not be taken to mean, although in America it frequently is, that people who are more educated or less religious or cling less to tradtional values are simply sexual libertines. What it tends to indicate is that folks who are more educated, more intelligent and don’t adhere to traditional values or institutions are more likely to be open to variety within their sex life and within their sexual orientation. Regarding the horror of being raped or pain being involved 20 years ago a conservative Baptist minister taught a communications class I was in, he discussed a case in which a woman was raped with a pop bottle and the bottle was struck with a hammer while in her vagina….that is horrific, and I’m sure that anyone who is being habitually raped over time can attest to the notion that something as mundane as anal penetration is not all that horrifying in the big picture. Yes, I understand it would hurt and no I’m not trying to put down anyones pain…but Martin’s point was that in and of itself it isn’t the horror of say, oh, I don’t know, a shattered pop bottle or some other form of sexual torment that isn’t limited to forced penetration…


  7. Mike,

    You don’t seem to understand how painful unwanted anal penetration is. It is not comparable to an unlubricated vagina.

    And an anecdote from 20 years ago…so what?

    I researched this, even followed Martin’s links, which all confirmed this. And even young “educated” women are far from universally agreed that anal sex is “banal” or “mundane” and many medical professionals still feel it is much riskier, for many reasons, than oral or vaginal penetration.


  8. A couple of points here, first of all: This isn’t a debate about any sort of rape being painful…it is about a dramatic build up that was a let down. My point is that physically, oral rape wouldn’t have to be very painful at all…but it is still rape. Secondly, I did not say at any point that educated or intelligent women would de facto be into anal sex or believe unwanted penetration was okay. The point within the mini-series was to shock viewers with something unusual. As to my mentioning an “anecdotal” situation…when it comes to shock value and dramatic build up…the situation I mentioned goes a lot further towards that then being forcibly sodomized. Further, I’m a middle aged man, I’ve had a prostate exam. Obviously, this would be very uncomfortable without KY. Thus illustrating, yes I can in fact imagine how it might feel to have something forced up your tail. To go even further, I’ve dated women with different sexual interests and desires…this activity is not one I’d recommend anyone just leap into or force their way into…first the lady would have to be comfortable with it, second, it isn’t something you can just, one night decide to do…at least in my experience. As far as lubrication goes, well, there are a number of ways to provide that…as to the past relationship I’d most like to re-visit? None of this sort of activity was a part of it. The greatest errogenous zone is your brain. I respect your ass…Can you respect my brain? What little of it there is?


  9. “The point within the mini-series was to shock viewers with something unusual.”

    Again, I didn’t see it so I am not sure why you are so sure about that. Anal sex and anal rape are very different when it comes to pain. It DOES feel like someone is shoving a sharp object up there! And most people would feel rape (vaginal) with a sharp object is more horrifying than rape with a penis, and they would not need to feel the latter was acceptable in order to have that opinion. And they would not have that opinion because rape with a sharp object is “unusual”.

    So it is a difference of degree, not kind. Why do you guys keep changing the subject? Of course rape is not okay. Jeez.


  10. “How horrifying is it to learn that the story’s baddie is not just a supernatural lamia figure but also, GASP, an African American?”

    Yeah, that was incredibly lame. The woman’s hair was independently crawling around in a threatening manner, but that’s not so big of a deal… she was black!

    Just read that story a few months ago. If it hadn’t been in my kindle I’d have thrown it across the room.


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