In Praise of Ozark Culture: Old Hillbillies and Sexual Relations

As a proud but realistic Ozarker, I was saddened but not offended to see Ozark culture criticized in the comments of a few threads on reddit. My initial impulse was to reply to those comments with ardent rebuttals of those criticisms, but after decades of online life I’ve learned that it’s okay to let people be wrong on the internet. I’m also realistic enough about my family and neighbors to know that there’s plenty to criticize about our culture, especially nowadays (though I would also point out that ours is not the only flawed subculture in America right now).

So rather than potentially hijack threads about other topics with an abstract discussion of the good, bad, and ugly parts of Ozark culture, I figured that I would write somewhere between 1 and 500 posts about specific aspects of Ozark culture that I consider to be both amusing and worthy of praise. I’m going to start (and who knows, maybe finish) with a specific story about how Ozark culture tends to be frank and non-judgmental on matters of sex—at least sex of the heterosexual variety, although on another day I could tell stories about how the Ozark aren’t as homophobic as some might think.

Anyhow, this story takes place when I was in college back in the 1990’s. I went to a fancy college out east that was (at the time) overwhelmingly male. I had the clever idea that I could meet women by taking a gender studies seminar for one of my elective requirements. Now, in retrospect I realize that a gender studies seminar wasn’t exactly a great dating market for me, but I was young, foolish, and desperate at the time. Turns out, in my desperation I had failed to read the fine print in the course catalogue, which specified that it would be taught by a male-female team of professors and would have a 50-50 gender split for the students in order to keep everything fair and balanced in classroom discussion (I’m old, so this was well before college campuses were giving explicit consideration to trans issues). All in all, the seminar was less romantically helpful than I had hoped, but it was also more educational than I had expected.

Near the end of the semester we were all tasked to interview our grandparents and ask them a prescribed series of open-ended questions about relationships. For the next class session, the professors worked around the room and asked the students how our grandparents had responded to each of the questions. We were each on the spot for five or so minutes of recounting the conversation. I happened to be sitting at a location that put me next-to-last to respond that day, so I had plenty of time to realize what was about to happen and brace for the impact.

The first substantive question in the battery was about the sorts of problems that can arise in a marriage. I don’t remember the exact wording of the question, but I distinctly remember how everyone else’s grandparents had talked about things like how hard it was for wives/mothers to be at home with the kids all day while the husband/father was at work, the challenge of agreeing on financial priorities for a family, and the difficulties of dealing with in-laws. My grandparents, on the other hand, had answered that question with great confidence and precision: they believed that the problems married couples faced mostly involved sex.

Over the course of responding to that question and the ones that followed, my grandparents—who were delighted to have this opportunity to discuss such important matters with their oldest grandchild, even if they clearly doubted the academic merit of the topic—went into excruciating detail about the forms those sexual problems could take. For example, one person in the couple might want to have sex more often than the other. Or maybe one person would be more “adventurous” than the other (at this point I learned that my grandparents had extensive thoughts about the relative merits of various sexual positions). And then there were matters of finding a place and time for maintaining a couple’s sexual connection, a discussion that made me realize that sometimes my grandparents just wanted the damn grandkids to leave so that they could go at it with one another.

The thing is, I wasn’t shocked by the conversation as it happened. I’d grown up in the Missouri Ozarks, and both my parents came from families that had been in the hills for a long time. As was typical in Ozark culture, sexual relations in general had always been a normal topic of family conversation, even when there were three (or more) generations present. Sure, a person’s privacy would be more or less respected, but there wasn’t anything taboo about the topic of sex.

My classmates were from posh suburbs and big cities all over the country, but I was the only Missourian and the only Ozarker in the group. By the time it was my turn to report to the seminar, my classmates had made about a dozen entirely sex-free reports.

I don’t think that I had ever seen anyone’s mouth dangle open in shock before that day, at least not in real life, but both of the professors and most of the students were literally agape as I reported my grandparents’ responses to the interview questions. The seminar room was dead silent as I recounted a sanitized version of my grandparents’ hillbilly guide to a happy marriage. Even the most vocal of my classmates squirmed in discomfort at the thought of having such a frank discussion about human sexuality with their grandparents. When I was finished, the professors admitted that in the 10+ years they’d been teaching the seminar they had never, ever encountered such responses from a student’s grandparents. They had a lot of questions for me, first to make sure that I’d actually done the interview and then, once they were satisfied that I was telling the truth, about where the hell I was from. At the end of the session the professors summed up what we had learned about generational differences in attitudes about gender and relationships, and Ozark culture became a hastily created caveat to the entire topic. Ozark culture is—or at least was—unusual in that regard.

Anyhow, I don’t reckon that most folks would want to have the discussion I did with my grandparents (may they rest in peace), but I’m glad that I did. I’m an Ozarker, so I don’t see much point in pretending that important things like sex don’t happen or don’t matter. I ain’t saying that our way is best here, but I think it works better than most. Sure, there’s a lot to criticize about Ozark culture these days, but this little part of being from the Ozarks still makes me smile to this day.

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