Standing Up to a Charge of Sexism

Earlier this year, I was blindsided by a charge of sexist word usage, a story I share because it is such a telling tale. What you consider telling, of course, may be nothing like what I consider telling. Presenting myself as another Coleman Silk, protagonist of The Human Stain, a professor victimized by absurd accusations, I may instead read as another Nigel Tufnel, protagonist of This Is Spinal Tap, a doofus blind to his own chauvinism. I accept this risk because the stakes—far past the cleansing of my reputation—are high.

The context is that I sent an 18-page e-mail to English-department colleagues about student evaluations of teaching. The dean had solicited feedback on that topic, and I hoped to help guide our collective comments. I knew my analysis would ruffle feathers, but I never expected departmental e-mails by two colleagues objecting to a phrase I used on grounds of “sexual politics.” I had used “sexualized/gendered” words full of “animosity” toward women, and my name has been misogynist mud since.

I had characterized certain hiring practices as “ideological wet dreams.”

Reading the indictments, incredulously, I wondered why I hadn’t worried about sexism when I wrote “wet dreams” as a zingy synonym for “fantasies.” My answer then remains the core of my apologia now: I first came across the published “wet dream” metaphor in a Molly Ivins column; I hear it regularly on podcasts by Rachel Maddow and Stephanie Miller; I read it used by male and female authors alike and have never seen it criticized as sexist.

To test these impressions, I first checked “wet dream” entries in dictionaries and idiom guides. The metaphorical extension is now the universal second meaning, e.g., “An exceedingly pleasurable or exciting experience, situation, or fantasy” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). “Something that is very pleasant or very exciting for someone. Example: This new machine is a computer buff’s wet dream” ( Idiom guides for foreign students and tourists always include “wet dream” as illustrated by examples like “The guy’s an extortionist’s wet dream; he’s new to town, and he’s loaded.”

I next searched “wet dream” phrasings in dozens of databases, the richest of which was Access World News. There, among the 1,685 hits are clinical passages on emissions, stories about boats and cocktails, and hundreds of metaphorical extensions, divided about in half between product endorsements and put-downs imputing to political opponents a feckless adolescent longing. Tellingly, left-feminist critics use satirical the “wet dream” metaphor to excellent effect. Among examples: “Over 4,000 dead U.S. soldiers sacrificed for a neo-con wet dream” (Arianna Huffington), and Iraq being “some demented wet dream Dick Cheney had … ” (Julie Farby). Note as well James Earl Jones’s honorary-Oscar acceptance speech, heard by millions. Taking the statue from Sir Ben Kingsley, Jones gushed, “This is an actor’s wet dream.”

Look now for charges of sexism raised against Huffington, Jones, et al. You will find none. You will find one objection on other grounds, from “Kathy” in a letter to the Newport News Daily Press. Put off by a (female) columnist’s phrase “a publicist’s wet dream,” Kathy wrote: “In spite of today’s increased social acceptance of profanity and other vulgarisms, there remain some readers who do not wish nor expect to be exposed to such offensive terms.” Fair enough, but vulgar, sexually explicit language need not be sexist. If you doubt that, listen to Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, and Janeane Garofalo performing profane anti-sexist comedy.

The telling part here is that “Kathy” is exactly who my colleagues align themselves with culturally and politically: not, as they fatuously suppose, progressives fighting actual sexism but censorious Red State church elders.

Seeming to be involved in a social-justice struggle—paradigmatic campus politics today—my colleagues slurred me without cause. Sexism harms people, but nobody is harmed by reading phrases like “a computer buff’s wet dream,” “Big Oil’s wet dream,” or “ideological wet dreams.” I had Clarence Thomased no Anita Hills. I had pawed, groped, assaulted, demeaned, leered at, and quid pro quo’ed nobody. I had paid no female employee 79 cents on the dollar. I had promulgated no theory of women’s inferiority. I had compromised no one’s opportunity to excel. I was defamed for a rhetorical change of pace favored by feminists from Oxford to Oxnard.

Yes, I had used a sex-based metaphor, but so does everybody else. Sexuality being ubiquitous, sex-based metaphors are as well. No one blinks at “pregnant pause,” “strange bedfellows,” or “breasting the mountain.” “Wet dream,” newer, is now well past the tipping point—again, that was 1,685 hits on one Web site.

And if you believe the “wet dream” metaphor to be gender-exclusive and betraying “animosity” toward women in that way, consider that Kinsey in 1953 reported that 40 percent of the 5,628 women interviewed experienced at least one nocturnal orgasm, or “wet dream,” by the time they were 45 years old.

Projecting a delusional certainty, as sure as Lysenko on environmental inheritance or Bush on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, my colleagues felt no need to qualify their indictment with words like “by my standards” and then defend those standards. Instead, in the manner of the vindictive self-righteous everywhere, they just stipulated extreme sex-aversion as normative and set out to punish the nearest, safest violator of neo-Puritan code.

The actual politics so advanced is not liberation but repression, the tradition not of Susan B. Anthony and Charlotte Perkins Gilman but of St. Augustine, Increase Mather, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the McCarthy not named Mary or Clean Gene.

Jeffrey Zorn is a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University.

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