Intersections of Folklore and Sex: My Mentor, Alan Dundes

Longtime readers of mine will know that I’ve written a lot on the connections between folklore and sex, sexuality, and gender, with topics including vaccines and public health, rites of passage, sexual slangfamily meal practices, storytelling and sexual health, urban legends about sex, Little Red Riding Hood and sex, breasts in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and how the very idea of folklore connects to sex.

Clearly, folklore and sex connect in a lot of ways. However, I didn’t reach this conclusion on my own: I have my mentor, Alan Dundes, to thank for it. Professor Dundes was one of the best-known scholars in the field of folklore, and he was my teacher and mentor while I did my undergraduate training at UC Berkeley. Sadly, he passed away in 2005, leaving those of us lucky enough to have studied with him to forge ahead in the field.

If you walked into Professor Dundes’s immensely popular “Forms of Folklore” class, you might catch him delivering dirty jokes or recounting urban legends. Professor Dundes was a legendary joke teller – and after regaling spellbound students with joke after joke, he’d deliver an equally compelling interpretation. See his book Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes as an example of his take on dead baby jokes and Jewish American Princess jokes. This short write-up barely can do justice to the breadth of his research; even limiting it to sexual topics, I’d still need to add a few dozen items to the bibliography!

Professor Dundes believed that all folklore has a meaning; if a joke or riddle or story or custom doesn’t communicate something to and about the people telling it, it falls out of circulation and dies out. In his search for meaning in everyday expressive culture, Dundes turned to Freud, drawn to his explanation of human unconscious drives and the need for an outlet – an outlet which folklore, with its frequent forays into fantasy, can provide.

We learned in classes with him about how fairy tales with child protagonists express forbidden incestuous desires, and about how European riddles told during courtship are a projection of sexual anxiety before the wedding night. You can love or hate his interpretations, agree with them or disagree with them, but they’re always thought-provoking.

Professor Dundes taught me that it’s better to analyze culture and risk upsetting people with risque content and sex-driven interpretations than to leave the task unattempted. Whether or not you subscribe to Freudian theory like he did, people do have vibrant fantasy lives and multiple unconscious motivations. Since folklore doesn’t always map to reality (I’d like a pair of seven-league boots, please!) it makes sense that folklore ventures into the realm of the unreal in order to let people tell stories about themselves and explore taboo topics such as sex, social anxieties, and so on.

Further, Professor Dundes unfailingly advocated for other scholars of sexual topics, decrying censorship at every turn. He wrote critical introductions for collections of obscene folklore and aided fellow scholars of sexual folklore when he could. His commitment to scholarly communication about any and every topic, no matter how taboo, demonstrates his dedication to furthering our knowledge of humanity.

I am proud to count Professor Dundes as my folklore mentor, and I similarly hope to never shy from researching anything because it’s considered “too” erotic or dirty. If it’s in any way connected to humanity, we need to study it!

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