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Author interview: Dr. Jeana Jorgensen, author of Sex Education 101

Folklore 101 by Jeana Jorgensen

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen recently released three hefty, extremely useful nonfiction books:

Folklore 101: An Accessible Introduction to Folklore Studies (Folklore Made Simple)
and
Fairy Tales 101: An Accessible Introduction to Fairy Tales (Folklore Made Simple)
and
Sex Education 101: Approachable Essays on Folklore, Culture, & History (Folklore Made Simple)

Today I asked her some questions about them and how they came to be.

Before you started writing your Folklore 101 series, what was your history with writing, with folklore, and with related subjects?

I’m one of those people who has always been a writer, and so when I went to UC Berkeley for my undergrad, I thought I would major in something like history, get a day job as a teacher, and write at night. My first semester derailed that plan entirely: I took an intro to cultural anthropology, intro to linguistics, intro to religious studies, and a freshman seminar on fairy tales. By the end of that semester, I was like, “I want all these things combined as one thing forever,” and it turns out, that’s what folklore is! And Berkeley had some phenomenal folklorists at the time, including Alan Dundes, one of the most pioneering folklorists of the 20th century, and he took me under his wing. I was completing masters-degree-level coursework while there, so I had to go somewhere else for my PhD. When I went to Indiana University to complete my graduate studies in folklore, I was still writing fiction and some poetry, but then I made the conscious decision to stop my “fun” genre writing projects in favor of “serious” academic writing projects. I had been steadily blogging for a while too, viewing it as a form of public scholarship.

This was back when “good people get jobs” was a refrain that was circulated and believed in academia, and when I finished my PhD with multiple publications already, I thought I’d get a professorship no problem. Hahaha, nope. I spent about a decade flailing around and taking adjunct and contingent teaching positions to stay in the game, all while continuing to publish my scholarship. Eventually poetry and fiction crept back into my life. I was feeling disenchanted with academia, with how few people were able to view and read my work (because a lot of academic work lives behind paywalls), and how academic publishing rarely pays. What if I were able to write for the general public and have a chance at being paid for my work? That’s when my buddy Jennifer Stevenson encouraged me to just start gathering stuff I’d already written (blog posts, essays, and the like) and put together a publication to see how it went. I decided to self-publish since I was already turned off by academic publishing, and I knew I wanted my work to be available to the general public well before it might get through the process of getting an agent, publisher, contract, and production. I worked with cover designers and editors to make sure my work was top-notch professional, and off I went!

Fairy Tales 101 by Jeana JorgensenWhat inspired you to start writing this particular series of books?

In summer 2021 I had the pandemic blahs and was very unhappy with how my academic career was going. Starting to write and publish nonfiction was a way of taking control. I also knew that most of my academic articles and book chapters were not accessible to the broader public, and I wanted my writing to have a bigger audience if possible.

But I also really wanted to spread the word about how awesome folklore is and how relevant it is to everyone’s lives. Everybody in the world has folklore in their lives, whether or not they think about it in those terms, so I wanted to shout it from the rooftops and give people tools to understand the traditions they participate in, knowingly or not. That was the main idea behind Folklore 101, and subsequent books carry that same inspiration but in a slightly more specialized vein. Fairy Tales 101 is aimed more at people who already enjoy or are curious about fairy tales, and want to hard-core nerd out about their history, the scholarship on them, and so on. And my newest book, Sex Education 101, is for anyone who’s wondered about the connections between sex and folklore, or about why sex ed is the way it is today. Again, I want to share my decades of hard-earned knowledge with people who may well be impacted by the very cultural practices I study.

You’ve mentioned in the books that some of this material comes from your lesson plans. How have your students reacted to this material in this past? Has anything changed?

My students seem to do well with the material, even if they sometimes complain that now I’ve ruined Disney movies for them (sorry/not sorry). One interesting trend I’ve noticed is that students seem more savvy about the existence of earlier tale traditions, ones they generally characterize as “darker,” such as when talking about the “original tales” by the Brothers Grimm. (This is not necessarily accurate, since many fairy tales were parts of other traditions before the Grimms collected and published their own versions of them, but it’s an interesting way to think about it nonetheless.) I’ve also noticed that students are way more aware and accepting of gender-and-sexuality non-conforming people, like folks on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, than ever before. Which is nice, because it makes my job easier, since I bring an anthropological lens to most of my classes, and that means talking about how gender roles are socially constructed, and many societies have more than two genders, and so on.

Sex Education 101 by Jeana JorgensenYour most recent book, Sex Education 101, touches on a lot of topics that you don’t necessarily see conventional academic writers on these topics addressing. You have researched extensively and blogged about sex and sexuality topics for over a decade. What has the reception from the public been like? Has it changed? How about from academia?

The refrain goes, “sex sells,” and it’s true in most places except academia. I haven’t had particularly negative experiences with this myself, but I’ve heard stories from other academics about being denied grant money and funding, and facing negative judgments from their peers, because they study sex-related topics. I think there’s still this stigma around studying sexuality. The assumption in some places seems to be that anyone who’s interested in these topics is automatically some kind of pervert. Academia used to be way more prudish about this too; there are some famous folktale collections that were actually censored because they addressed sexuality topics!

My public-facing work has been received well, though I occasionally have uncomfortable experiences where I’m giving a public-facing presentation about my sexuality topics and someone in the audience thinks it’s appropriate to hit on me. It seems as if there’s some assumption that if a person is talking about sex, they’re indicating sexual availability. I hope that continuing to talk about sex in an accurate way that is scholarly and rigorous challenges these problematic assumptions…sex is just a part of human life, and as with any aspect of humanity, it’s worth studying and understanding more fully.

I do think some of the ways we talk about sex as a society are slowly shifting, but I don’t know quite enough to speculate on how, except that I am seeing more people talking about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religions and having to reevaluate all the shame they received as part of that upbringing. I definitely think it’s worth analyzing the messages we get about sex from the various cultures we participate in. Guess what, folklore gives us a bunch of great tools to do so!

Is there anything you wish you’d had time to include in your books, or that you’re still itching to tell people?

I always wish I could insert more cool content into my books, but I have to give myself deadlines and cut myself off, or else I’d still be working on them. If there was only one thing I could tell people, it would be that folklore is in all of our lives, and can carry messages about gender, sexuality, and other identities and norms, so it’s really in our best interests to look at the folklore around us and try to understand it better! Folklore is a mirror held up to society, sometimes reflecting and sometimes distorting, and we get to shape and mold it as we transmit it, so why not try to understand it better while we’re at it?!

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Dr. Jeana Jorgensen earned her PhD in Folklore with a minor in Gender Studies from Indiana University. Her scholarship focuses on representations of gender and sexuality in fairy tales, ranging from canonical tales like those of the Grimms’ to contemporary fairy tales in film, fiction, and poetry. She has published nearly 30 academic articles and book chapters in journals such as the Journal of American Folklore, Marvels & Tales, Journal of Folklore Research, Cultural Analysis, and more. Other areas of scholarship include dance, body art, feminist and queer theory, the digital humanities, and the history of sex education.
How to Get Laid in Fairy Tales by Jeana JorgensenDr. Jorgensen also writes for more public audiences, with the 2021 publication of her book Folklore 101: An Accessible Introduction to Folklore Studies and over a decade of blogging at a variety of outlets. She appears regularly on podcasts and YouTube shows to talk about her work with folklore and fairy tales as well as her research in gender studies, which ranges from topics such as ethical non-monogamy to moral panics around marginalized genders and sexualities. Her creative writing, from retold fairy tales in poetic form to flash fiction, can also be found scattered around obscure corners of the internet.
When not teaching, reading, researching, or writing, she also directs two dance troupes and bakes with her sourdough starter.
Sign up for Dr. Jorgensen’s newsletter here, and get a free copy of How to Get Laid in Fairy Tales.
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Jennifer Stevenson writes fantasy and romance in varying proportions, always with a big dose of humor. Her researches have sent her to far-flung regions of academia, including folklore and fairy tales and many aspects sex and sex practices, gender, culture, and history. She is grateful to have these new resources to draw on for her serious dives into fact on behalf of her frivolous fiction.

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