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Dec 11, 2011

"Creative Writing" - Sex With Purpose?

Disclaimer: This article may address issues and use language that may seem inappropriate or otherwise offensive to some. Read on only if you are comfortable and willing to take responsibility for yourself. 

I begin with a single paragraph summary, for context:

After a controversial article had been posted in creative writing portion of the Beacon, some backlash and controversy resulted in temporarily taking down the article (meanwhile, it was posted at as a placeholder and parodies cropped up on FrumSatire and TheLevineMachine). Subsequently, a meeting with Yeshiva University administrators resulted in a mutual agreement and parting ways of YU and Beacon as affiliates. As a note, YU didn't directly fund The Beacon, it was funded as a club by a student government at Stern College for Women (the female campus of Yeshiva University). Meanwhile, a whole slew of newspapers, blogs and other media has picked up on the issue (of which a thoroughly incomplete list is posted below) and Toviah Moldwin, one of the co-editors in chief posted a letter of resignation

What I am most interested in, though, is the discussions that came out through some of the comments and media reports that followed (feel free to read the comments on the original article). The core of the issue(s) throughout and the following controversy has surrounded two major topics:

1) The purpose of the article, it's intended and communicated message
2) The propriety of the article's words and approach to the topic at hand

Amid accusations of impropriety and irresponsibility, frustrations over censorship, polarized eruption over the tensions between "Yeshiva" and "University" of the issue, sarcastic mocking on both sides, and diplomatic posturing (for reference, see comments on the original article and following blog posts linked below), the general engagement over issues much larger than words and the topic of sex has me perplexed, fascinated, frustrated, torn with understanding and -somewhat guiltily -amused by the many different angles on the issue(s) at hand.

I often like to sit back and absorb as much information and as many perspectives as possible before making up my own mind; I believe that being informed about the many angles on the issue(s) and -most importantly -more information about what occurred and the thought processes behind the actions taken grants a holistic understanding, which is important to me as someone who strives to first figure out what's going on before settling on my own thoughts.

Often enough I find that I cannot get all the little pieces, and I am left with a woefully incomplete puzzle of the picture, as I am here. And it's the same feeling I got from the original creative writing piece -lacking a sense of the author's feelings and motivations. In fact, in the entire article I found less than a handful of feeling words on a topic that so often is so emotionally charged (just see the passionate responsiveness of the community following the issue for evidence) that I finished the article with a blank impression bordering on shock. It seemed to me like such a numb experience, written either by someone suppressing great emotion due to pain, or as though the entire experience were surreal and not really lived. Alternatively, it's just a bad piece of writing (though I'm going to set aside that possibility for the purpose of my own thoughts).

So what is the purpose?

Confused, I found myself wondering if the author didn't have a full grasp of those feelings herself. My best guesses included her having never experienced what she'd written or was afraid to put her feelings on paper, to force herself to process them, making them truly tangible and available for everyone to read, understand and possibly even judge (or perhaps that the author is actually male). Perhaps that may speak more to the anonymity -a concern for being judged. I can imagine that myself, what would be said of the author if a name had been attached to the article?

In a very typical fashion, many of own thoughts have since been focused on that gaping hole in the article, and wondering whether it mirrors a gaping hole in the author's own heart (and if so, how that experience is for her). Without answers, that is the impression I have. Resolved not to be resolved, I find myself in a nebulous state of confusion and loss for answers, wondering if perhaps that impression is precisely its purpose.

And a little bell chimes in my own mind, ringing with the words, "isn't that -by some definition -the purpose of creative writing?" Sounds so post-modern, which tickles me because I strongly dislike that aspect of post-modern art.

Not having answers is often so much more difficult to manage than resolving on one way of thinking.

Of course, the content seems also of vital importance, especially given the way our community draws associations and represents itself through all things connected to us. Which leads to the second major topic (noted above, see #2), and the latter half of this post: propriety (and issues of what the post is perpetuating, with or without explicit intent). The basic tension I've seen is one of propriety versus self expression.

One side takes a position of religious propriety, noting that any content bordering on (or having) explicit sexual content (however tame by comparison) should not be publicly aired, least of all in a newspaper or other publication intended for mass viewership and particularly when associated with organizations such a Yeshiva University, which is a religious establishment with Torah values at it's core. (Perhaps we can call this side simply "Yeshiva.")

The other side touts one's (legal) rights for self expression, some noting the article's place in the creative writing section of the paper, pointing out its potentially fictitious nature or noting how little explicit content is actually described, or comparing it to Tanach, which has its own explicit descriptions of sexual encounters. (Perhaps this side can be labeled "University.")

Of course there is another view, perhaps best described as centrist, that searches for and questions the value in such a piece, with the position that having substance qualitatively in the form of thick description or quantitatively, grounded empirical/Halachic data, would lend legitimacy and purpose to the article (see the two posts, here and here for Chana's exquisite articulation of this perspective). The idea would be to engage an important issue within a framework, and the framework is one of Torah values with the purpose of struggling with the issues. (Perhaps understood as a rigorously academic form of "Torah U'Maddah")

These three viewpoints are not simply camps of thought, but form a spectrum. In many ways, though, these arguments have left the community quite polarized. I acknowledge that I have no clear answers, and I'm still wondering if that gaping hole -the feeling of unrest that I've been left with since reading the original article -stoked the fires of controversy more than the actual content.

But in my own mind and through my exploration of what's been going on, I have seen the community engaged on so many levels, from different perspectives, on both major topics of this issue. Perhaps I would rather it were more respectfully done, given all the criticisms and name calling I waded through in my exploration of the issue. I also see the entire issue presented in such a fragmented ways through the multitude of different, unconnected sources that the entire process seems to me extremely messy and overly-complicated. More than that, a holistic understanding of what has been going on has been so much more difficult for me to construct (albeit a thrilling endeavor).

While I have many thoughts and probably a few rants on the topic and issue, consistent with my own style, I'd like to gather more impressions and information before launching into my own diatribe (or have I done that already? :P). To that end, I put up a new poll, and I welcome comments and discussion (though, I admit, some may see further discussion as beating a dead horse).

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  1. I have a feeling I'm going to be part of the minority in what I'm about to say, but I'll just spit it out . . . .

    After reading the comments and critique surrounding this article (before I ever read the article itself) I truly expected to come across an aricle that was as "graphic," "pornographic," and "detailed" as the vast majority of commentary stated. Instead what I found was an article that not only had the written quality of a high-school girl's musings, it contained all the pornographic graphic-ness of a Deli-menu.

    Now while I understand that the words "bra," "fumbling," "pleasure" and "making love" can be pushing the boundaries in a yeshivish setting, the yeshivish setting in question also happens to be a UNIVERSITY. I've had 7th grade biology books that delve into more graphic detail than the author of this article did.

    In short, I think that the huge negative reaction is not only uncalled for, it's also vastly inappropriate. Look up the word "graphic" in a dictionary before you apply it.

  2. The main motivation I think for this story was more to inflate than to inform. I don't see how pushing the envelope here achieved anything; all I read was the typical story of a girl giving away her virtue in a slim attempt to get a man closer to her, then regrets it when he blows her off (why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free)?

    I have read too many of such accounts by gentiles to find this version to be anything but pathetic. And considering this publication's flare for fiction, is this even true? If not, then what is the point? Are they addressing an issue or creating one?