Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Sex

By Dorothy Allison

Sex

It was like sex, that food, too good to waste on the middle of the day and a roomful of men too tired to taste […] He began to feel for the first time like one of the boys, a grown man accepted by the notorious and dangerous Black Earle Boatwright, staring across the counter at one of the prettiest women he'd ever seen. (1.50)

Glen's priorities are kind of weird here: first he thinks about being accepted by Earle, and second he thinks about Anney, the supposed conveyor of orgasmic (not to be confused with "organic") food. It seems that for Glen, sex is more about showing yourself to be a man than it is about sex itself.

She flushed then, and smelled her own sweat, nervously unable to tell if it came from fear or lust. (1.58)

Fear and lust seem like pretty different feelings. Shouldn't you be able to tell them apart? Well, the truth is, it's not impossible to feel both, and that's probably why Anney can't tell the difference here. The fact that Anney simultaneously distrusts Glen and feels attracted to him foreshadows their relationship.

Love, at least love for a man not already part of the family, was something I was a little unsure about. Aunt Alma said love had more to do with how pretty a body was than anyone would ever admit […] (3.1)

Word, Alma. Bone is still quite young at this point, so she doesn't really understand romantic and sexual attraction. Alma seems to think that it's really more sexual than it is romantic, and the more we learn about Anney and Glen's relationship, the more we get the sense that this might be true—at least for them.

I saw how she blushed when he looked at her or touched her, even in passing. A flush would appear on her neck, and her cheeks would brighten until her whole face glowed pink and hot. Glen Waddell turned Mama from a harried, worried mother into a giggling, hopeful girl. (3.12)

You're probably wondering why this in the Sex section instead of the Love section, because it seems like a cheesy love-is-a-many-splendored-thing kind of passage. The fact is, the two aren't unrelated: Glen is having a physical effect on Anney. Look at what the passage describes: ruddy cheeks, flushed face, glowing skin. Anney's blood is pumping, folks. We can guess where this is going.

He smiled, and for the first time I saw the smile in his eyes as plain as the one on his mouth. (4.28)

This quote, taken out of context, seems pretty harmless, even positive—hey, a genuine smile from Glen, right? The thing is, this passage occurs in the hospital parking lot right before Glen molests Bone for the first time. Thinking about it that way, this quote is pretty scary. Remember how no one can seem to understand what's happening behind Glen's eyes? It's like suddenly, at this moment, Glen has revealed himself... and it's not pretty.

"Man's got a horse dick," Butch boasted to other boys, and that I understood. But it wasn't Daddy Glen's sex that made me nervous. It was those hands, the restless way the fingers would flex and curl while he watched me lean close to Mama. (5.61)

Plug your ears, folks. Actually, don't, because this quote actually shows us something really important about how Bone thinks about sex. As most other kids probably do, Bone thinks of sex in the most literal terms, meaning as intercourse. But she also has an underlying sense that there is something sexual about Glen's feelings toward her, even if it doesn't involve sexual intercourse. This gap in meaning is going to cause some confusion for Bone as she tries to explain Glen's abuse.

Mama and Daddy Glen always hugging and rubbing on each other, but it was powerful too. Sex. Was that what Daddy Glen had been doing to me in the parking lot? Was it what I had started doing to myself whenever I was alone in the afternoons? (5.68)

As in the last quote, Bone is trying to sort out just how many forms sex can take. She seems to have come to a broader understanding here, but she still words it in terms of a question that she doesn't have an answer for. Also, she is realizing that sexual attraction is "powerful," which is a word that can have both good and bad connotations (foreshadowing, anyone?).

The sound of Mama crying grew softer, faded. In the stillness that followed I heard Daddy Glen whispering, heard a murmur as Mama replied. Then there was a sigh and a creak of their bed as he comforted Mama and she comforted him. Sex. They were making love, Mama sighing and sobbing and Daddy Glen repeating her name over and over. (8.21)

Imagine how Bone must feel listening to her mother and Glen having sex (like that isn't awkward enough) right after he has beaten her. It's like adding salt to the wound. There are definitely multiple occasions in the novel where we feel like Anney is choosing her desire for Glen over her obligation to protect Bone, so it'd be incomplete not to acknowledge the role sex plays in Anney's reluctance to leave Glen—or rather, the fact that they have an intense, interdependent relationship. If their sex life shows anything, it's that.

I could not tell Mama. I would not have known how to explain why I stood there and let him touch me. It wasn't sex, not like a man and woman pushing their naked bodies into each other, but then, it was something like sex, something powerful and frightening that he wanted badly and I did not understand at all. Worse, when Daddy Glen held me that way it was the only time his hands were gentle, and when he let me go, I would rock on uncertain feet. (8.26)

There is a lot of guilt and shame associated with sexual abuse, even when it's pretty clear (to us) who the victim is. It's not just that Bone is young and doesn't really understand her abuse in this case; it's also that she's afraid she will be blamed for it. We've already seen Anney blame Bone when Glen beats her, so really there is a precedent for Bone feeling this way. Also, we know that Bone has some really mixed-up feelings about the abuse. Obviously she hates it, but since it's an inescapable fact of her life (since Anney keeps going back to Glen), she isn't sure of how to deal with it.

I knew what she meant, the thing men did to women. I knew what the act was supposed to be, read about it, heard the joke. "What's a South Carolina virgin? 'At's a ten-year-old can run fast." He hadn't done that. Had he? (9.44)

Okay, let's talk about this joke and why it's important for the story. Basically the joke's punch line is that in South Carolina, people start having sex and a really young age, and usually unwillingly (unless they can outrun their rapists). Because they're hillbillies. Get it? Right. Anyway, the fact is that this joke is actually a painfully close reality for Bone, who, yes, has been sexually assaulted at a young age. But what's throwing Bone off is the word "virgin." Again, Bone isn't sure what to call what Glen does to her when it doesn't extend to actual sex. She knows that there's something sexual about it, but it's not sex as she understands it, so it totally confuses her.

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