Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 489-490
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Did You Hear About the Girl Who...? Contemporary Legends, Folklore and Human Sexuality. By Mariamne H. Whatley and Elissa R. Henken. (New York: New York University Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 197, bibliography, index.)
Siblings Mariamne H. Whatley, a biologist, and Elissa R. Henken, a folklorist, have produced an outstanding example of applied folklore and interdisciplinary collaboration in this book. Although folklore and biology may appear to have little in common at first glance, this project demonstrates how folklore methodology and analysis can be applied to benefit any number of other fields. It grew out of the two scholars' sharing of stories and questions that arose in their teaching: "When students would ask the folklorist about the biological/ medical possibility of a belief or legend, she would turn to the biologist for help. When the biologist got more attuned to recognizing legends, she would check them out with the folklorist" (p. ix).
The result of this collaboration is a book intended for a general audience, including health educators, parents, and secondary school teachers and librarians, examining in detail a variety of sexual legends currently circulating in oral tradition, as well as through e-mail and other electronic means. It begins by explaining the nature of folklore for lay readers and includes nine other chapters, each focusing on a cluster of legends on related themes—for example "You Can't Get Pregnant Your Very First Time: Understandings of Fertility and Birth Control in Folk Beliefs," "The Tiny Gift-Wrapped Coffin: Addressing Fears of AIDS," and "Of Gerbils and Stomach Pumps: Homophobia in Legends." The final chapter addresses how educators and parents can use folklore to teach young people about sexuality. It also addresses multicultural health education and the need for educators and clinicians to understand indigenous models of health and illness, even as they negotiate a treatment plan that can bridge cultural divides.
In addition to legends, the book features jokes and material from films and television programs that show how the narratives reflect widespread attitudes and assumptions. The data are largely based on Whatley and Henken's own collections, from folklore projects or questions in classes on human biology and sexuality. Some material was solicited from interested colleagues as well, but that, too, came mostly from North American college and university students. For folklorists, this book offers a fascinating portrait of American college students' beliefs, values, and practices surrounding sexuality. What emerges is a surprising moral conservatism and a frightening state of ignorance, despite widespread sexual activity.
The book undertakes a daunting task: how to correct that ignorance while remaining open to hearing and documenting folk legend and belief. Each legend is analyzed from a biological standpoint (is it possible or accurate?) and from a folkloristic one (what does it tell us about our worldview, values, anxieties, and concerns?). Those seeking in-depth theoretical interpretations need look elsewhere, however, because that is not the authors' primary emphasis. Although their educational purpose can sometimes give the impression that all legends and folk beliefs are false, the authors do try to emphasize that some beliefs may encourage practices that are actually healthy, though not always for the reasons people think. For instance, the belief that urinating after intercourse prevents pregnancy is incorrect, but doing so does help protect women against urinary tract infections.
This book is an engaging and fun read for folklorists, who will recognize many legends and beliefs from their own folklore classes. The [End Page 489] biological components are helpful because folklore instructors are often in the position to respond to students' questions about legend material ("That can't really happen—can it?"), and it is our responsibility to answer accurately. Its most ideal application, however, is not in the folklore classroom but in human sexuality classes in high schools and colleges, where it ought to be required reading, and in the hands of parents and educators who want to know what young people really think.