09/27/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

The Jane Austen Weekly: Sex Organs and Sexual Difference

Okay. Now I've got your attention.

I know. You think I'm just trying to enlarge my audience. What better way than by shamelessly trotting out some genitals?

You are right! In my defense, though, sex organs have been making the news lately. First there was the publication of Naomi Wolf's The Vagina, which argues that the vagina "is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul." Penises, on the other hand, "are roughly 10 percent smaller than they were 50 years ago," according to a new Italian study. Rush Limbaugh was quick to blame feminists (of which Wolf is one) for the shrinkage.

But what does any of this have to do with prim and proper Jane Austen? Even Emma Thompson, who adapted and starred in the Hollywood version of Sense and Sensibility, said she wouldn't invite Austen to a dinner party because "I'm convinced she'd just have a soft-boiled egg and leave early." How could such a fuddy-duddy author discuss sex organs?

But she does. Just take a look at men's horses (think cars) in the novels my Austen class has been reading. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe brags about his animal's "loins" and "well-hung" gig (yes, it meant what you think it does), but later worries that "my horse" will "give a plunge or two" if Catherine actually rides with him. In Sense and Sensibility, the rakish Willoughby tries to give his horse to Marianne. The animal's name is Queen Mab -- an allusion to the fairy who prepares virgins for sex in Romeo and Juliet.

Austen even alludes to female masturbation -- at least that's one way to interpret Catherine's desperate examination of the secret cabinet in Northanger Abbey, the "tremulous" key she turns "every possible way" in hopes of reaching the central "cavity of importance." Marianne Dashwood is also "a masturbating girl," according to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the late literary scholar who helped originate Queer Theory.

If these interpretations scandalize you (Sedgwick scandalized many pundits) feel free to reject them. But you should also reject the popular assumption that Austen is prudish. I teach my students otherwise because the stereotype is sexist. Plus Austen's bawdiness is hilarious and when students laugh I think I'm funny. (Just wait until we get to "Rears and Vices" in Mansfield Park!) At the same time, my students have serious things to teach me about Austen's novels. Last week, a few who were taking a Shakespeare course suggested that Queen Mab is a hallucinogen. "It's like Willoughby is trying to get Marianne to take Ecstasy," one student said.

In the context of Naomi Wolf and Rush Limbaugh, Austen's treatment of sexuality is additionally instructive. Though she means "no disrespect to men," Wolf thinks women are particularly "lucky to be in their bodies." Limbaugh says men's bodies are endangered by certain women. Wolf and Limbaugh are ideological opponents, but both are preoccupied with sexual difference.

Austen would be suspicious of such emphasis. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe's obsession with his dubitably "well-hung" gig is idiotic. Meanwhile, Henry Tilney is well-versed in women's fashion and drives his horse and carriage "so quietly." Catherine was a tomboy in childhood, and she still has no fear of dirt. Neither protagonist is bound by assumptions about his or her sex.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are less free because they are more trapped by heterosexual obsession. Elinor thinks of Edward Ferrars "in every possible variety... Her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere." Marianne nearly dies from her preoccupation with Willoughby. Both sisters pin their happiness on members of the opposite sex. This is hardly surprising given the genre and the historical period. What else can a heroine in an early nineteenth-century novel look forward to but marriage?

And yet, as Sense and Sensibility makes abundantly clear, a society that strictly divides the sexes and then expects them to make each other happy is bound to create misery, especially for women. In the process everyone, not just a certain body part, is reduced.

Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.