the storyteller and the elephant

Late in the spring semester this year, I took a couple twentieth century sex manuals into class and read aloud to my students. First, this from Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique by T. H. van de Velde (1926), defining “normal sexual intercourse”:

That intercourse which takes place between two sexually mature individuals of opposite sexes; which excludes cruelty and the use of artificial means for producing voluptuous sensations; which aims directly or indirectly at the consummation of sexual satisfaction, and which, having achieved a certain degree of stimulation, concludes with the ejaculation – or emission – of the semen into the vagina, at the nearly simultaneous culmination of sensation – or orgasm – of both partners (p. 145).


Then this, from The Hite Report (1976), from the chapter titled “Redefining Sex”:

Sex is intimate physical contact for pleasure, to share pleasure with another person (or just alone). You can have sex to orgasm, or not to orgasm, genital sex, or just physical intimacy – whatever seems right to you. There is never any reason to think the “goal” must be intercourse, and to try to make what you feel fit into that context. There is no standard of sexual performance “out there,” against which you must measure yourself; you aren’t ruled by “hormones” or “biology.” You are free to explore and discover our own sexuality, to learn and unlearn anything you want, and to make physical relations with other people, of either sex, anything you like (p. 365).


And I asked the students, “Which of these is more like the one you learned, growing up?”

No contest. Ideal Marriage.

And so I asked them why. “How come what you learned in the first two decades of your life is more like the 90 year old sex advice than like the 40 year old sex advice? How come this 40 year old sex advice isn’t what everybody believes now?”

“Because elephants are slow!” called one student.

“Yes. Well done.”

I said “Well done” because this was April, and I taught the thing about the elephants way back in January. I began the very first lecture of the semester with Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations research, and with his analogy of the elephant and the rider. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt writes that the rider is “conscious, controlled thought” and the elephant is, “everything else. The elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions […]. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well” (p.17).

I describe the rider as a storyteller, constructing a meaningful narrative that allows her to explain how the elephant got where she is and, crucially, to predict where the elephant might go next. And when the rider changes the story, she clears a path for the elephant, tempting the animal to take the new, welcoming route – “What if we go this way?” (The technical term for this is “hierarchical predictive processing,” but if I told my students that, they’d dutifully write down the term and a definition and stop thinking. I want them thinking, so I talk about elephants and storytelling riders.)

But it takes time for the elephant to adapt to a new path, for the new story to become simply the truth. The old story follows a path worn by two decades’ steady traffic; it will take time to grow over, and the new path will take time, practice, and repetition before it feels as open and easy as the old one.

It’s a sturdy metaphor, but it gets a little harder when we lift our vision from the single elephant and rider, to consider the herd. Ready?

Each person in a culture – each storyteller – is a hologram of a larger, cultural storyteller, which guides us – a herd of elephants – along the old paths. If new trail is made, it is made gradually, sometimes accidentally, by the shifting traffic of our traveling elephants.

A couple of things become apparent: First every rider has a slightly different view of the path; every rider’s story is just a little bit different from her neighbor’s. And second, if the herd gets big enough, it may well happen that smaller groups form little sub-packs.

The particular subpack to which I belong involves a group of riders have asked, “What if we’re a group of riders on elephants? What if everything we know about sex is a story we’ve been told? How would we go about understanding sex as it really is, rather than as we’ve been told it is?” These are the sex researchers, educators, and therapists who trained me and whose work constitutes the bulk of my course content.

I stumbled accidentally on this little pack of riders and elephants back in college, and I instantly felt I’d found a home with them. I’ve been with them so long now that sometimes it’s a struggle to remember what it’s like on the old, main path.

So I lead my students along this alternative path, and sometimes their elephants freak the hell out to find themselves on a path so unfamiliar and comparatively unworn.

I teach them a skill for managing their elephant’s freak out:

Pause. Notice your elephant’s reaction and give her permission to be uncomfortable. But don’t let her run back to the old path just yet – let her know this is a hypothetical, just another “what if.”