The story of a literature professor who marries a woman to manipulate her preteen daughter into having a relationship with him, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita continues to be controversial over sixty years after its publication. Modern scholars have heavily criticized the novel for its use of hebephilia, a sexual attraction to prepubescent or early adolescent children, as an artistic motif and for reducing Lolita as an object of desire without any indication of her thoughts or feelings. Despite the criticism and the uncomfortable subject matter, Lolita has gained classic status, consistently included in “must-read” lists and topping multiple lists in best American literature.
Now that psychologists understand the mental impact of sexual abuse in childhood, Humbert’s manipulations of Lolita are especially troubling. Humbert consummates his lust for her by convincing her to demonstrate what she thinks qualifies as sexual activity. Bribing her for sexual favors, he threatens her that she will end up in an orphanage if she leaves him. Nabokov specifically references a case of child sexual abuse that inspired the novel. In 1948, fifty-year-old mechanic Frank Lasalle kidnapped and sexually assaulted eleven-year-old Florence Horner, posing as her father when they checked into hotels. Lasalle completely brainwashed Horner, threatening to send her to a juvenile facility if she didn’t comply.
“To a Dark Moses” (1973-1974)
Much like The Carnal Prayer Mat, the celebrated poet Lucille Clifton connects religious and erotic themes in her poem “To a Dark Moses,” making an important statement on the power of female sexuality. Using biblical imagery, Clifton represents herself as “the Burning Bush,” referenced in the Book of Exodus as the bush in flames on Mount Horeb, marking the location where God told Moses that he would lead the Israelites to Canaan. Clifton’s description of her lover, representing Moses from the biblical story, is graphic, using words such as “rod” and “serpent” to describe him.
Written in the midst of the feminist movement, a time when women’s sexual empowerment became part of the feminist rhetoric, Clifton uses the burning bush that was not destroyed on Mount Horeb as a metaphor for her sexuality. “To a Dark Moses” is a significant work of literature that celebrates women’s sexual power in general, stating that women do not need men to satisfy them, an idea that would become an essential component of sex-positive feminism that would emerge in the following decade.