Teaching fiction is no protection from the real world, which comes crashing into the classroom whether we want it to or not. The last time I taught Lucinda Rosenfeld's "What She Saw . . .," a novel about a young woman's sexual experiences during and beyond college, the Rolling Stone-University of Virginia rape fiasco was in full swing. If today I were to teach J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace," a novel about a man whose sexual encounters with women are anything but edifying, I might direct my class to this CNN headline, "Reconciling love and admiration for men who behave badly," and let the pundits take over. Or the students. The last time I taught "Fifty Shades of Grey," one of my female undergraduates protested, claiming that the author got it all wrong about S&M relationships. No one disputed her.

Why even teach novels full of sex? Given all the pressures students already face, why go there, to the uncomfortable terrain of sexual experience?

Good questions. To which I would answer: Fiction shouldn't soothe us; it should make us think, expand our range of feelings and possibly reshape our worldview. Sexual experience does that, and so does reading about sex. A well-written novel can really shake us up. Perhaps the ones I taught my undergraduates can still do that for us.

"Did he just rape her?" "Why didn't she just say no?" "I would never do that." "What a slut!" "He's weird, crazy."

Possible responses to today's headlines? Yes. They're also responses from my past students about specific fictional characters.

Rosenfeld's Phoebe Fine is upset over a bad experience with a stranger, and her nice live-in boyfriend is trying to comfort her by listening to her while stroking her back and legs. She's crying, and he is getting aroused. She puts her hands over her eyes. He speaks soothing words to her. They have sex.

Did he just rape her? Why didn't she say no? He certainly would have stopped. Many of my female students had already cast Phoebe as a slut, and this scene was one more example of how passive and foolish she was. The men were less sure of how they read Phoebe; some failed to understand the implications of Phoebe's body language (covering her eyes), but many didn't even remember reading that detail. Hands over the eyes! How could they miss that? Only by carefully rereading the scene did the full meaning of Phoebe's gesture register. But she didn't say no, and bad sex ensued.

We can reread a fictional scene, turn it over in our minds, allow it to teach us — possible good preparation for any future dicey off-the-page real-time experiences. (Is there a novel out there that could prepare us for Louis C.K.? If so, please let me know.)

Surprisingly, my female students fared no better in understanding why Phoebe didn't say no. To determine how easy it is for a woman to actually say "no," I went around the room asking all my female students to say aloud the word like they mean it. The first time around, none of them could do it. Instead, there were whispers and even some giggles. So we went around again, and again, until everyone was practically yelling "no." Saying "no" takes a lot of effort, and reading a woman's body language takes practice. Suddenly, Phoebe's character isn't so cut and dry. Suddenly the students aren't so sure what they'd do if they were in her place.

"Disgrace" offered different complications: David is an egocentric teacher who sleeps with his student, visits prostitutes and has a daughter who refuses to call the authorities after she's been gang-raped. Everyone in the novel behaves against expectations, but Bev, an unattractive married woman who instigates a sexual affair with David knowing full well his reputation, really perplexed the students.

"But Bev's married," the cry went up. "Sleeping with anyone but her husband is wrong. Why did she do it?" Never one to miss an opportunity to rough up the discussion, I suggested they ask their mothers. A more serious question is: How did sleeping with Bev help David to become a better man? In real life we may never come in contact with the Davids of the world, but in the classroom our job is to understand them despite their sexual behavior.

Michel Houellebecq's social satire "The Elementary Particles" may share the most with our current headlines. Houellebecq's character Bruno, an unattractive, overweight man prone to inappropriate sexual behavior toward women, seems awfully close to a certain Hollywood mogul, with important exceptions: Bruno is not a rich, successful man, and he is, from time to time, capable of gestures of tenderness, even if they are rebuffed. Many of my students didn't "get" Houellebecq's novel; they just thought the characters were jerks. As fiction often does, the novel forces us to consider all possible aspects of a person, which is the same thing as considering all possible aspects of ourselves, right? Looks like that CNN article is more useful than I first thought.

If I were still teaching, I don't know what novels I would put on my syllabus, and I sometimes worry our culture may be too far gone to be contained between the covers of a book, something novelist Philip Roth, famous for his own libidinous books, predicted in 1961, when he wrote that "actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist." I hope not.

Many of the students who read the books I taught are now in their 30s. I wonder if they remember our class discussions, or if the books made a lasting impression. I taught these books in the spirit of hope — and information. Now, I wonder: How can we bring back the exultant Yes Yes Yes of Molly Bloom if we're teaching women to say No!, and too many men haven't a clue?

Sibbie O'Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.

Read more:

essay