Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Romance and Sex Education

Having brought up the topic of sex in romances, and because the recent discussions of the controversy that homosexual romances have caused within the RWA reminded me of last year’s controversy surrounding graphical standards and the continuing sense that many writers of erotic romance have that they’re not entirely accepted within the RWA I thought I’d take quick look at some of the ways in which sex in romance can be educational. In the interests of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I’ve not read any inspirationals or any erotic romances, though I have read some romances with strong Christian elements, such as Cheryl St. John’s Saint or Sinner (Mills & Boon Historical Romance 2004) and I’ve read plenty of romances with fairly explicit sex scenes. I should also add that I don’t think sex scenes are essential in a romance: Austen and Heyer, to name just two authors, managed very successfully without them, and in fact, I have a feeling that sex scenes in Austen would be incongruous given the formality that her heroes and heroines maintain (though we know they take place ‘offstage’ between unruly characters, such as Lydia and Wickham, and Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford).

The fact that sex can and does take place ‘offstage’ in romances leads Monica Jackson to argue that:
Romance has sex. The most staid inspirational romance is about establishing a relationship that is going to lead to luscious, hot monkey sex, even if the sex happens to take place outside the covers of the book. There’s sex in romance, whether it’s an implied promise or frequent and graphically described variations. That’s why the controversy over romance sex is sort of silly. It’s as if folks were arguing over sweetener in chocolate. You can eschew sugar in favor of artificial sweetener or honey or use less–but if you’re eating palatable chocolate, it’s going have some sweetness, even if only a hint. If you read romance, it’s going to be about sex. If your characters don’t care about establishing a relationship that will eventually lead to some sort of sex, then you don’t have romance.
Clearly she has a point, since marriage has traditionally been, at least according to the Book of Common Prayer, ‘ordained for the procreation of children’ and ‘to avoid fornication’. Quite whether the activities involved in this would always aptly be described as ‘hot monkey sex’, though, is another matter. Can you really imagine Fanny and Edmund Bertram engaging in ‘hot monkey sex’? I can’t (though it could be that this is because my imagination is lacking).

The crux of the matter is not whether or not people have sex, but whether sex should be depicted in romances, and whether, if implied/depicted, it should only take place between two married people. It’s clearly a highly controversial issue, and rather than get embroiled in an argument about the morality or otherwise of depictions of sexual activity (and the Bible itself can get pretty explicit, with lines such as ‘A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts’ (Song of Solomon 1:13), I’d like to take a look at a few ways in which romance novels can play a role in educating people about their bodies and in shaping attitudes towards sexuality.

In Lucy Monroe’s Blackmailed into Marriage the heroine is the not uncommon widow-who-has-never-had-an-orgasm, and the hero, of course, manages to awaken the heroine’s sexuality, but the twist is that this heroine’s got vaginismus. The treatment for this condition is described in some detail, and forms an integral part of the love-scenes and the author added a note to readers:
I wrote this book for the tens of thousands of women who suffer in silence believing there is something wrong with them. Only one in ten will seek treatment and of those, less than thirty percent will be willing to undergo physiological treatment such as the dilation procedure for vaginismus. I hope that if you are one of the women suffering in silence, you will be silent no longer, but most of all that you will realize that it’s not your fault. (2005: 187)
This is perhaps an unusual example of very specific information on a gynaecological problem being presented in a romance, but it seems to me that it’s an indication of the possibilities offered by romance. In general, romances may give some basic information about the mechanics of reproduction, and though the incidence of contraceptive failure seems extremely high if one looks at romances as a group, as do the numbers of secret babies produced as a result, the depiction of the use of contraceptives during sex scenes, particularly of condoms, suggests to readers that condom-use is not incompatible with passion and enjoyment. Romances also challenge attitudes towards women’s sexuality. As Crusie says, according to ‘conventional wisdom’:
Women shouldn't experience a lot of sexual encounters [...] because that would soil them, and it's not in their nature anyway. Men who had a lot of sex and enjoyed it were studs; women who did the same were unnatural sluts. [...] God forbid a woman should know more about sex than a man. Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it's not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one.
Whereas novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles tell a woman that, if she’s raped, she’s degraded, the modern romance genre, even with its rather high number of virgin heroines, does, on the whole, assert that a woman who has been raped or otherwise had sex outside marriage is still attractive, is still valuable as a person. Rather than condemning her, it celebrates her as a person. Some romances feature heroines who are/have been prostitutes, such as Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel, and Diane Gaston’s The Mysterious Miss M. Balogh writes that:
Priscilla Wentworth in A Precious Jewel [...] is a working girl at a brothel and a regular of the hero's until he takes her away to be his mistress. [...] Why do this? Just to give myself an excuse to write more sex scenes? Purely for titillation purposes? Emphatically no! Sex is surely not very joyful--and probably not very skilled or erotic either - between prostitutes and their clients. I did it to show that strong women can prevail over even the most dire and degrading of circumstances. [...]
There are sex scenes, of course, involving these women and their clients, but generally speaking they are either ugly or bland and emotionless. Those scenes provided me with a marvelous opportunity to write the contrasting scenes of love and joyfully erotic sex later in each book. I am firmly of the belief that sex can only be truly beautiful when it is combined with love. And so my books are love stories, not just sex romps or even just romances.

It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to sex, ignorance is not always bliss. In Polly Forrester’s Changing Fortunes, set not long after the end of the First World War, the widowed heroine, Flora, having been assaulted by her employer’s son, believes that she may be pregnant. William, the hero, asks her to marry him, because he himself is an illegitimate child, whose mother, ‘an ordinary country girl who made one mistake too many’ (1997: 166) was sent to a ‘home for fallen women’ (1997: 158). The stigma of such a status was immense, and William says that ‘I wouldn’t wish my fate on any child’ (1997: 166). Still unsure of their feelings for each other, having known each other for a short time, marriage seems like the only solution: ‘Marriage would be her only chance of escaping lifelong shame’ (1997: 166). On their wedding night, Flora experiences sexual pleasure for the first time, but this happiness soon turns to alarm when William spots some blood. He calls for the doctor:
‘Am I going to lose the baby?’
‘What baby?’ the doctor countered smartly. ‘There is no baby. As far as I can see, Mrs Pritchard, you are not now, nor have you ever been, pregnant. In fact, in my view you were still a virgin when your husband rather comprehensively made a wife of you just a short while ago.’
[...] Flora remembered [...] ‘My first husband-’
‘How long were you married the first time?’ [...]
‘Only two days – it was in the war. He was killed...’ (1997: 187)
Earlier in the novel, when William and Flora had visited a bookshop William had shown Flora his purchase: ‘Have a look. I shouldn’t like a respectable widowed lady to imagine I’d picked up the latest by Mrs Stopes.’ (102) Marie Stopes’ experience of her first marriage was not completely dissimilar to Flora’s:
Marie Stopes [...] had a disastrous marriage to fellow scientist Reginald Ruggles Gates. They had a whirlwind romance, but the relationship was close to breakdown within a year. Although she was highly intelligent, it only gradually became apparent to Marie that her sex life was not quite right.

After studying medical books in various languages in the British Library she realised her husband was impotent and that she was still a virgin. She did not believe in divorce, but took the extraordinary step of turning to the law and having her marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.

The humiliating experience drove her to write her first book, Married Love. It was a sex manual - the first of its kind in the UK. It opened with these words: "In my first marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity… I hope (this book) will save some others years of heartache and blind questioning in the dark."

[...] The book was labelled immoral and obscene by the church, the medical establishment and the press, with its claims that women should enjoy sex as much as men. But it was an extraordinary hit with the general public. It sold 2000 copies within a fortnight, and Marie Stopes achieved fame and notoriety overnight.
A similar book in the US had falled foul of the Comstock Law which
forbade distribution of birth control information. In 1915, Margaret Sanger's husband was jailed for distributing her Family Limitation, which described and advocated various methods of contraception. Sanger herself had fled the country to avoid prosecution, but would return in 1916 to start the American Birth Control League, which eventually merged with other groups to form Planned Parenthood.
Anti-obscenity legislation has also led to the banning of extremely important works of literature:
In 1930, U.S. Customs seized Harvard-bound copies of Candide, Voltaire's critically hailed satire, claiming obscenity. Two Harvard professors defended the work, and it was later admitted in a different edition. In 1944, the US Post Office demanded the omission of Candide from a mailed Concord Books catalog. [...] Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron, Defoe's Moll Flanders, and various editions of The Arabian Nights were all banned for decades from the U.S. mails under the Comstock Law of 1873. Officially known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, this law banned the mailing of "lewd", "indecent", "filthy", or "obscene" materials. The Comstock laws, while now unenforced, remain for the most part on the books today; the Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996 even specifically applied some of them to computer networks.
Censors often seem unable to distinguish between literature and pornography, and between educational material and what is ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’. Of course, not everyone believes that romance is the correct genre for educating people about sexuality, but most would admit nonetheless, that, given the genre’s emphasis on sex taking place in the context of a loving relationship, even the more explicit romances do not, in general, encourage promiscuity and, as the heroine of Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight says of her own novels: ‘although my themes and plots are often mature in nature, my characters are suitably rewarded or punished depending upon the morality of their actions’ (2004: 86).

---
Forrester, Polly, 1997. Changing Fortunes (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).

Monroe, Lucy, 2005. Blackmailed into Marriage (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).

Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).

12 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer03 August, 2006 18:03

    I have always thought that it is better to know everything about a subject you're interested in, rather than nothing, so I did read explicit romance novels and also books by Nancy Friday, The Hite Report, novels by Erica Jong, etc.

    And I found that most romance novels were completely misleading in their descriptions of the metaphysical transports of orgasm. I suppose it is just a fictional device writers use as a metaphor for the emotional transports of love, or maybe they are just too uncomfortable writing honestly about the subject.

    It is interesting, however, that over the years as contraception has become more openly talked about, it has been more prominent in historical romances, as well. And there certainly were a lot more virgin heroines 25-30 years ago than there are now. And heroes, even alpha males, have become more feminized. Heroines have certainly become more aggressive and have even been allowed to have a sense of humour, a trait which Mills & Boon ruthlessly stamped out of their heroines pre-1985.

    Romances have definitely evolved over the years and have become as increasingly obsessed with sex as our culture has, as a whole. I'm glad that the prudishness of the Fifties has gone, but I am also glad to see Georgette Heyer's novels being reprinted. There was such delight and good humor in those novels, and the heroines didn't tediously dwell on the massive shoulders or muscular legs of the heroes. If there was no sweaty sex in her novels, well, you didn't miss it.

    So, to get back to the theme of this post, there is sex education to be had in romance novels, yes, but then there is much that is misleading, too. For one thing, if some novels were to be believed, we'd think that men actually enjoy wearing condoms and never have any trouble keeping erections, right? : )

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  2. I found that most romance novels were completely misleading in their descriptions of the metaphysical transports of orgasm. I suppose it is just a fictional device writers use as a metaphor for the emotional transports of love, or maybe they are just too uncomfortable writing honestly about the subject.

    Is it the purple prose that some authors use? Or is it the actual events described? It is fiction, and I think one has to give the writers a bit of leeway regarding metaphors. And, of course, the writers are usually describing the very best-case scenarios. For example, there are rather a lot of heroes who are the best lover in Regency London. Actually, I'm not sure that's such a good reputation to have, given that there was no known cure for syphilis at the time, but I think the idea is that the reader gets the impression that the hero's sexual prowess is out of the ordinary.

    I am also glad to see Georgette Heyer's novels being reprinted. There was such delight and good humor in those novels, and the heroines didn't tediously dwell on the massive shoulders or muscular legs of the heroes. If there was no sweaty sex in her novels, well, you didn't miss it.

    I think sex in romance novels can be repetitive and boring, and I think it happens when the scene feels generic, rather than one which advances the characterisation and plot. Similarly, when a reader meets yet another hero with six-pack abs and broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist, she/he may well feel a strong sense of deja vu unless the author does something something to make this hero seem real, rather than just a clone.

    there is much that is misleading, too. For one thing, if some novels were to be believed, we'd think that men actually enjoy wearing condoms and never have any trouble keeping erections, right?

    It's true that some aspects of the descriptions can be misleading, but like I said, I think romances will tend to present a best-case scenario. There are exceptions, though, such as a couple of scenes in Crusie's Faking It where the heroine is less than impressed by the heroe's initial efforts.

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  3. j as in jennifer03 August, 2006 21:01

    Yes, I found those scenes in Faking It genuinely surprising and funny. Instead of giving her hero the attribute of "world's greatest lover," Crusie gives Davy the maturity not to become insecure and petulant. Points for her!

    Are you of the opinion that romances are a "best-case scenario" of a woman's life? Because if "women understand what they're reading is fiction" and if the purple prose they use to describe sex is a fictional device, and if we shouldn't take anything we read too seriously, well then, why are we taking romance novels so seriously?

    Perhaps the simple explanation is that women who like to read romance novels are getting an endorphin rush triggered by their mirror neurons, which fool the brain into feeling the same emotions of the heroine and hero. Like that experiment done with men watching pornographic images. I don't know...

    But if we are silly to actually believe the stuff in romance novels, why is it not silly to believe in love, that love conquers all? As a genre written primarily by women for women, Romance must say something about the women who read them. Do women who read romance tend to more optimistic, because they demand the HEA? Do we live more passionate lives? Do women who don't read Romance believe any less in true love?

    These are questions that interest me. I don't mean to be rude or criticize.

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  4. Are you of the opinion that romances are a "best-case scenario" of a woman's life?

    It does depend on the woman, doesn't it? I mean, not all women want to be in long-term sexual relationship (for example, they may prefer to live alone, or they may like their independence, or they may be asexual). I suspect that the majority of people do want to find love with someone else, though. Relatively few women feel they have a vocation calling them to be a nun, for example, and I think the numbers of people who are asexual are low. That said, women who enjoy reading about an alpha hero may actually prefer to live with someone more like a 'beta'. Or the female reader might want to find a heroine of her own, not a hero at all. And I think that must be plenty of people reading romances with sex scenes featuring activities/scenarios which the reader would not like to be part of in real life. And not all women want the children that often accompany the happy ending in romance. But there is a lot of variety in romance, with different sorts of heroes, heroines, relationships, jobs, family structures etc, and for each reader there will be some which are closer to that reader's 'best case scenario' than others.

    Because if "women understand what they're reading is fiction" and if the purple prose they use to describe sex is a fictional device, and if we shouldn't take anything we read too seriously, well then, why are we taking romance novels so seriously?

    What I was saying was that writers can only use words to describe physical sensations. I think it must be very hard to do, because specifics about pain and pleasure are not that easy to convey. One person's pain threshold, for example, may be very different from another's, and when a doctor asks you how intense the pain you're feeling is, what do you have to compare it to? You can relate it to your own previous pain, perhaps, but you can't guarantee that your pain from a broken bone or a cut is exactly the same as someone else's. Some writers may be able to convey those sensations in a way which seems accurate, but if the writing is hyperbolic, e.g. Barbara Cartland's heroines find that kisses make them feel like they've been lifted into heaven, I don't think we should feel let down if the kisses we experience don't make us feel exactly the same way. What we can take from the description is a general sense that kissing, in certain circumstances, can be a very intense physical, emotional and spiritual experience. Which I think is true. Just because language is metaphorical doesn't make it untrue, it just means we need to be careful about how we interpret the metaphor.

    if we are silly to actually believe the stuff in romance novels, why is it not silly to believe in love, that love conquers all?

    I don't think it's silly to believe a lot of the stuff in certain romances. In earlier blog posts we've touched on how, according to Northrop Frye, romances are on a spectrum between the realistic and the mythic. Many romances represent relationships in ways which are realistic. Kathleen Gilles Seidel's When Love Isn't Enough (Mills & Boon 1985) is a realistic romance, as the title suggests, and it's about how to achieve a 'work/life balance'. On the penultimate page we read that:

    It would be lovely to say that Wiley Hunt turned into the ideal husband and father, generous with his time, ever ready to sacrifice his professional interests to those of his wife and child, his community and church, but, of course, he did not. (page 253)

    What he does do is change substantially in the course of the novel, so that by the end both he and his wife are much, much happier.

    With regards to the romances at the mythic end of the spectrum, I think they're about ideals. Ideals serve a purpose too, because they embody qualities that one can strive for, such as honour or eternal unselfish love. We may never achieve these ourselves, but the ideal is still there and can remind us not to settle for too little. Love may not conquer all (it's not likely to change a frog into a prince) but romance is a counter-blast against cynicism and reminds us that love, even if it can't move mountains, may give us the strength to climb over the mountains, or give us the ability to look up and enjoy sitting at the foot of the mountain.

    Do women who read romance tend to more optimistic, because they demand the HEA? Do we live more passionate lives? Do women who don't read Romance believe any less in true love?

    I don't know the answers to these questions. I suspect that some romances readers are optimistic, but others may demand a HEA because it provides a bit of a counterbalance to their own, usually pessimistic, outlook on life. There was some suggestion that romance readers did have more passionate love-lives, but I've not been able to find a reference for that, so it could just be something that someone said, but without any evidence to back it up. I'd be very interested in the answer to the third question.

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  5. P.S. re things that sound unlikely, and re different experiences of pain/pleasure, I just came across a website about 'unassisted childbirth' where the authors discuss how some women can experience childbirth as orgasmic. It's here. They're saying that this really happens to some women. It's about the furthest thing possible from my experience, but clearly some people say it really did happen to them. So, given that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, I'm not in any rush to say which sexual exploits/experiences in romance are unlikely/impossible, well, unless it involves aliens with tentacles, vampires using their fangs etc.

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  6. j as in jennifer04 August, 2006 02:41

    What we can take from the description is a general sense that kissing, in certain circumstances, can be a very intense physical, emotional and spiritual experience.

    I really liked this passage from Patricia Gaffney's Flight Lessons:

    "Sex wasn't romance unless you pretended; she had a personal history to prove that. Sex was nerve endings and synapses and lucky timing. She didn't even want romance, just decent treatment, a little cheerful reciprocity between the sheets."

    I think romance is about pretending, which is why fiction does it so well. Romance is like Christmas, a nice idea but wrapped up in a lot of emotional landmines. Romance is like a wedding, a beautiful day for the bride, but the groom is hardly involved, and it's a lot of hard work, and at the end of the day it feels like an elaborate, expensive performance. But because women want the feeling of romance, they'll pay a lot to get it.

    I guess I am pretty cynical, and yet I keep reading romances! Sometimes I get the feeling my bf thinks I'm brain-dead for reading so many, but then I remember it was my brain that got him in the first place. : )

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  7. I think that some aspects of 'romance', as with some aspects of Christmas, are about pretending/make-believe. Some people are better at pretending than others, and some enjoy it more than others, and some even forget that they're pretending. Pretending isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, and it can affect mood. For example, (and this is a page found after just a quick Google):

    Put a smile on your face and pretend that you are happy. Stand straight rather than falling into that slouching, depressed posture. Sound hokey? Well, it isn't. Research demonstrates that forming a facial expression actually changes how you feel inside. And pretending to feel an emotion results in actually feeling it. Frowners feel sadder. And the depressing effects last for hours. So smile: at yourself and others, even trees or dogs or cats. Sure, it's tough to smile when you're feeling blue. The extra effort you muster to do it will help you break the blues.

    Wear bright, happy clothes and pretend you are happy. You will then find yourself happy. Maybe, even wear a goofy shirt or blouse or cap so you can see others smile with you. Dressing cheerfully and pretending can beat the blues.
    (Kansas State University Counselling Service)

    I don't think it'll work for everyone, but clearly it does for some.

    There was a discussion about what different people consider 'romantic' on the At the Back Fence noticeboard at All About Romance a month or so ago, and the topic crops every once in a while. For some people, there are certain gestures/objects which they think of as 'romantic' eg flowers, diamond ring, chocolates, dinner at a restaurant, champagne, song sung underneath someone's window. Others of us (me included) thought that the small gestures which show love and concern are romantic, e.g. if your partner sees a mango, knows you like them, and brings it home for you, that could be romantic. Or if they know you're feeling sad, so they come home early to cheer you up, that's romantic, even if all they do is hand you hankies. It's the thought and caring in the gift/action which matters most to me. Crusie touches on this in Bet Me, because Cal has a knack of finding just the right gift that demonstrates that he really knows them, and isn't just giving a stock 'romantic' present.

    I suspect that the first kind of romance tends to be more expensive and takes more planning. If you're the sort of person who doesn't like the first kind of romance, but does like the second, that doesn't make you 'cynical'.

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  8. j as in jennifer04 August, 2006 18:15

    It's interesting that you use that passage, because I actually attended Kansas State University. Kansans, as are other inhabitants of Plains states and the Midwest in general, are big believers in having a positive attitude, looking on the bright side, etc.

    I do agree that romance can come in many different aspects, and yet I worry that, for all the varieties of romances theses days, there is still something fairly homogenous about most of them. Romances are frequent reminders that you can't judge a book by it's cover, yet when their own covers are so cringingly bad ("The Billionaire Boss's Bride"?) I can't help but question some of their values.

    (But perhaps all this comes from exposure to a man who is apt to mutter while wandering the the Biltmore Estate: "Pol Pot had a point." Isn't that romantic? : )

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  9. Seeing as we've now mentioned Kansas, romance, and a positive attitude, how about this as an antidote to cynicism:

    I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun
    Of my proud protestations of faith in romance [...]

    Fearlessly I'll face them and argue their doubts away,
    Loudly I'll sing about flowers in spring,
    Flatly I'll stand on my little flat feet and say
    Love is a grand and a beautiful thing!
    I'm not ashamed to reveal
    The world famous feelin' I feel.

    I'm as corny as Kansas in August, [...]

    (From South Pacific)

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  10. j as in jennifer04 August, 2006 20:39

    Re: South Pacific

    Well, I have never been a "cock-eyed optimist," but I do feel like one when I sing it. There is certainly great pleasure in pretense, which probably explains why I love romance novels and why I love musicals, as well. "South Pacific" is particularly good as an example of the difference between accepting love as simply as a child and trying to make it conform to all our adult notions of respectibility and responsibility. Nurse Nellie can be as optimistic as she wants but love isn't as easy as falling down. Sometimes you must forsake all others, as well.

    During these wicked times, it is worth feeling a little like Cockeyed Nellie:

    I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
    That we're done and we might as well be dead,
    But I'm only a cockeyed optimist
    And I can't get it into my head.

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  11. I still contend that almost everything I learned about communication and, yes, sex, I learned from romances. Reading romances--especially erotica--had definitely improved my sex life and made me more open to experimentation. And learning about how characters communicate to reach their perfect relationships has had a huge effect on the success of my marriage.

    Just my $0.02.

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  12. A big amen from the XY corner to everything Sarah just wrote. I've often thought that my students were getting a much richer and more useful education from my romance novels course than from anything else I taught--most of it from material that didn't show up on the test (grin).

    More on this anon, perhaps.

    E

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