Open Thread: the Cloven Fruit

We got an interesting email from Ara recently, and I thought it deserved a discussion:

One of the organizations of which I am a part has a rather interesting custom that I would not have seen as a complex issue before starting to read Hathor: the cloven fruit. I’m told these are common in other parts of the reenactment community besides the corner I inhabit– anyway, the point is that you stud a fruit with cloves, offer it to someone, and the recipient either refuses it or decrees what part of the body (ranging from hand to mouth to “let’s go romp in the bushes”) they wish to have kissed. The rule is that the shyer person dictates the body part, or in some areas that the woman dictates the body part.

They’re a lot frowned upon in some parts of the group as Improper, and some people don’t like it because they feel pressured. I can see feeling pressured– I probably would have when I first joined up. As much as we like to think of ourselves as a friendly bunch who would never dream of pressuring anyone… well, there are bad apples in every group.

So I’m curious about what your opinion of the practice is and whether it is something automatically terrible and evil, or something to only be done if you know everyone involved, or something to always be done with disclaimers… since while Hathor has opened my looking at things, I know I don’t see all the same nuances you do yet!

I think there are a lot of nuances to be seen. I’ve always felt comfortable putting my body sovreignty ahead of any social considerations, so if someone is offering me a sexual encounter I’m not interested in having, there’s no social pressure in the world that would make me have it. But even I feel bad rejecting potential suitors, because I’m empathetic, and I know what rejection feels like. What sort of pressure might someone else feel from a ritual like this?

And on the other side, what sort of opportunity might it be for someone who wants a sexual encounter, but feels she or he can’t ask for it, for whatever reason?

On an even larger canvas: are there any good rituals for courtship? Dating is awful, but I’ve never been able to think of a good substitute. The best courtships are the ones that just kind of happen naturally, but they’re few and far between – for some people, even non-existent.

Your thoughts?


  1. says

    Offhand, I don’t think that the cloven fruit–or any other openly-sexual overture–is any worse than asking for a date. There are good ways to do it and bad ways; there are good and bad ways to take a refusal. But, I mean, if a guy asks me to dinner–assuming this is an actual date and not just a friend all “we should have dinner, I’m bored”–I know what’s actually going on here. So does he if I ask.

    Doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with putting it out in the open, and no more pressure. I could see it being less of a hassle, actually: if I feel pressured into accepting a date, I have to spend a couple hours with That Guy, whereas if I feel pressured into accepting a cloven fruit, I can always be all “…hand, ‘kay, thanks, bye.” There’s the possibility of as much pressure or guilt in both situations, but the fruit one seems…over more quickly and less entangled.

    Just off the top of my head, granted.

  2. says

    I would really like to hear people’s ideas for good courtship rituals. If somebody is a friend, I tend just to tell them how I feel or what I’d like to do to them (or both), as I try to keep friends who are forthright but gentle (which is what I strive for myself). But when it’s a cute stranger, all I’ve come up with is this script:

    TINA: I really like your [something that stands out, like clothing, hair, or accessory, but isn’t too personal]. [Optional: “where did you get it?”]
    HOT PERSON: Oh, thanks. [sometimes, a recommendation or vignette of acquisition goes here]
    TINA: Umm, I’m Tina.
    HOT PERSON: I’m [name of hot person].
    TINA: So… are you doing anything tonight?

    I’m naturally shy, so the first time I did this, it was like walking through molasses. I couldn’t even tell who was doing this, it didn’t seem like me. I’ve gotten better and better, but it’s hard every time. Often, the person thinks I’m strange and nervously walks away, which always stings. Sometimes the person says they’re flattered but already taken, which is a pretty nice response—I feel good just for having asked. Sometimes the person says they’re doing something tonight but are really nice about it, which leaves me unsure what to do (should I persist, or should I take that as a polite “no”?). And, in only one case out of maybe 20 so far, the hot person was an absolutely amazing girl that I dated for six months. So, it has borne fruit.

    Plus, so far I’ve only felt comfortable asking out women this way—I’m bisexual, and I’m a transsexual woman, and even though only a tiny minority of men (not to mention some women) are going to beat me to a pulp for hitting on them, it’s enough to chill me thoroughly. Every time I read something in my Google News feed about a rapper doing “damage control” after rumors of an encounter with a transsexual woman (which would of course be the worstest thing in the world), and things like that, I’m reminded of this pervasive idea that for many men simply being seen with a transsexual woman is some kind of attack on their masculinity. Obviously, those are the sort of men I won’t bother with, but I can never know if a stranger falls in that category or not. (On the other hand, I wouldn’t expect a straight woman to be offended by being asked out by another woman, at least not _angrily_ so.)

    So, I really would like to hear people’s thoughts, on the stuff I just said, on courtship rituals in general, etc. For an introvert like me, none of it makes any sense, it’s all so counterintuitive. I wish I could just tell people I’m attracted to them and we could decide where to go from there, if anywhere. (To see how _I_ like to talk to potential mates, see my OKCupid profile here: That’s where I say absolutely everything I want, ’cause I’m a glorious slut like that and I want to be sure people can handle me.)

  3. Mel says

    Haha, I bet I know which corner of the reenactment community that is! I have…complex feelings about cloven fruit. In my subgroup of (probably the same group), the rule is that the offeree dictates kiss area by whether they take the clove with a hand or with their mouth, although if the offerer is uncomfortable they may dial it down. I know some people who got more creative, but for traditionalists it was just hand or mouth.

    When I joined [group], I was very inexperienced–I’d kissed one person, and it was BAD–and I went to a lot of parties that had cloven fruit. I had no problem saying “no thanks,” or taking a clove with my hand for a chaste hand-kiss, so for me it was a great excuse to kiss lots of people in a socially-acceptable way.

    A few years later, I tried to get a friend of mine involved in [group]. She was a lot more sexually conservative than me, and I think less comfortable saying “no thanks,” and cloven fruit and all the atmosphere that went with them made her very uncomfortable–and I think we ultimately a big part of why she didn’t get involved, although she liked the history (which is a shame, as there are large chunks of [group] more like her than me). There CAN be a strong social pressure to participate even if you don’t want to, and some people just aren’t comfortable in environments with a lot of sexual flirting. The former is a problem, the latter–well, I don’t think those environments shouldn’t exist, but I think we need to look out for people and tell our new friends what they’re getting into if they go to a certain party (a story I heard about someone inviting people to a party and not telling them it was a swingers’ party, so they walked in the door to find naked people getting busy on the couch comes to mind. Fair warning is fair!).

    I’ve had a lot of fun with cloven fruit, though, and I sort of miss them now that my subgroup no longer has that kind of party much, because even though I’m more confident now, it was nice to have a structured excuse to proposition people for kissing in a way with a clear and graceful out if they didn’t want to.

    Tina, I like your script and it would work for me; it’s a more polished version of what I normally end up doing with friends (I would, however, probably be uncomfortable with a friend telling me what they wanted to do to me before mutual interest had been established–that can make things uncomfortable).

    But I am terrible at reading subtle flirting, and anything short of “I like you. Want to get naked?” is subtle. I have actually been asked out (I think) and not realized it. So I have pretty much given up anything other than the straightforward Geek Flirt. (I don’t ask strangers out, though, for assorted reasons, although I’d probably accept a date with a non-creepy stranger.)

    Courtship rituals are indeed counter-intuitive.

  4. Red says

    I don’t think it’s so bad. Especially if there are signs that the recipient of such a gift would reciprocate.

    Truth is, I’ve never been into the dating scene. I’m 33 and I have never dated anyone in my life. Guess I’m just waiting for the right person to come along. Or maybe in part because I’m WAAY too insecure to ask a guy myself.

  5. M.C. says

    Tina Russell,

    Tina Russell:
    I wish I could just tell people I’m attracted to them and we could decide where to go from there, if anywhere.

    It would be awesome if the world worked that way. But admitting that you want someone can be very hard if you’re not a cis-gendered straight man.
    For example I as a cis-gendered woman rarely go after hot guys I’m into because I’m afraid of slut-shaming. I whish I didn’t care so much about social norms and what others think of me, but I do…

  6. ninjapenguin says

    Hmmm, I am reminded of something that happens (and happened to me) at RenFests*. Among the various performers that wander the fest coaxing people to join in, there is sometimes a “jail.” In the one in which my friend and I were “imprisoned” the captives could only be freed by someone outside paying their “bail”. It’s quite often used to embarrass a friend, but unfortunately, we were there by ourselves, and were stuck having to wait for someone else to decide to set us free. The jail owner basically pitched us as pretty ladies who would be *grateful* to whoever let us free. Fairly quickly a couple of guys offered to let us out if they could kiss us (not on the mouth). On the one hand, harmless little flirtation that we could have said no to, and I’m sure the jailer would have let us out after a few minutes if nobody else had come by. On the other hand, I felt pressured to let these strangers do something I wasn’t that comfortable with. Thankfully, they went on their way after the incident, but they could have followed us around the Fest or even home afterward.

    I’ve also seen performers, there and at other venues, single people out in front of an audience to ask for a kiss, and it just makes me uncomfortable, because it feels like there is no way to say no without looking bad. Sometimes if you try to turn them down, they insist again loudly, even appealing to the audience for support. I guess, to me there’s a difference between trying to get someone to answer a question or sing along (or even to some extent, participate in a comedy act) and trying to make someone kiss you. Even in a non-sexual way.

    *Ren Fests make for interesting stories. A year or two after that my fiance and I were propositioned for some couple swapping at the mead tent.

  7. Attackfish says

    Don’t have much to say about the social side, but cloves are a fairly common allergen… And clove studded oranges used to be used to ward off plague, so especially for reenactors, wow, bad association.

  8. Mel says

    I’m not sure the “ward off plague” thing isn’t a myth, but they were certainly used as air freshener.

    Are they an allergen if you don’t eat/touch them? Whole cloves don’t seem like they’d aerosolize readily. I should think a cloven fruit that can be turned down is considerably less of a potential hazard than clove cigarettes (and boy, THOSE are ubiquitous in [group], although I don’t know for sure whether they have real clove oil in them) or unlabeled spice cookies.

  9. Attackfish says


    Because people used to think that illness was caused by foul air, anything that was used as an air freshener was also used to ward off disease.

    Also, I have less experience with cloves as an allergen, not being allergic to it myself, but I can’t be around open pumpkins, which aren’t all that smelly, without having a seizure, so it depends on the sensitivity.


    In my family, and I think among Irish-American Jews more generally, we get an orange for each night of Hanukkah, and my mom makes spiced, hot orange juice with cinnamon, cloves, and sugar.

  10. Attackfish says

    By the way, am I the only person who sees “cloven fruit”and thought “What, like a cloven hoof?” You know, fruit that has been cleaved?

  11. M.C. says


    In my family, and I think among Irish-American Jews more generally, we get an orange for each night of Hanukkah, and my mom makes spiced, hot orange juice with cinnamon, cloves, and sugar.

    That’s interesting. I wonder if the Christian tradition has it’s roots in the Jewish one, or if both of them and the one from the reenactment community (of the original post) come from a pagan custom…

  12. Mel says

    Because people used to think that illness was caused by foul air, anything that was used as an air freshener was also used to ward off disease.

    This is one of those “everyone knows” things which I am very hesitant to apply to specific historical periods without solid citation.

    And I’m willing to believe cloven fruit are an allergy hazard, but if they are, we need to crack down on other, more common sources of clove exposure in reenactment as well.

  13. Attackfish says


    Dunno, but since Hanukkah is such a minor holiday, and so many of any western Jewish group’s traditions for it are based off of Christmas ones, pagan influence via Christian neighbors is a real possibility.

  14. Attackfish says


    Foul air was so completely believed to cause infection, that some of the first experiments with electricity were “foul air finders” which would explode methane in swamps. True, there were major debates between scholars as to whether the plague was caused by foul air coming out of the earth, or from a misalignment of the stars, or from Jews and Gypsies poisoning wells, but most came down on the foul air side of the argument, and the reason plague doctors wore masks with long beaks was so that they could fill the beaks with sweet smelling herbs and spices to drive out the foul air. The miasma theory of disease is recorded in Greek and Roman medical texts, and remained popular throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance. It wasn’t until the Victorians and the discovery that Cholera was waterborn, and then the discovery of microbes that the miasma theory was discounted.

    Sorry, became obsessed with germs and history at roughly the same time…

    And given how many diseases, including pneumonic plague, a form of the black death, actually come from airborn diseases, foul air is not so far off. Also, the way of combating foul air, aside from perfume, was good sanitation and avoiding open sewers, something that does in fact prevent disease. Before the discovery of microbes, the belief in bad air was simply sound but incomplete observation.

    Not to mention smoke more generally, before we even try for things like cloves. Cloves are fairly common allergens, Smoke is very very common. Not that this will ever happen. I hear bonfires are part of the fun.

  15. says

    I’m not sure the ritual is as important as the environment. Whatever means you use, offering fruit or complimenting their outfit, the message is the same. So I think it’s more important that the atmosphere be welcoming and unpressuring.

    This reminds me of a thread I saw on Reddit with men listing their experiences of being asked out by women and only realizing it later. Some of the anecdotes were as unsubtle as a woman stripping naked in front of the commenter. There were a lot of guys in the thread clamoring that gals should learn from this and flat out ask, the world would be so much easier if we all just asked for what we wanted! They didn’t seem realize that for women, plausible deniability is necessary to preserve our social status. “Gee, it sure is hot in here!” is a pathetic excuse but it still serves to protect us from rejections and slut-shaming. I also don’t think they realized that if women felt as free to hit on men as men do to hit on women, they’d have just as many creepers and harassers as we do currently. Not everyone who wants to have sex with you is going to be attractive and respectful.

    M.C.: And in some countries here in Europe it’s a Christmas tradition to put cloves into oranges …

    Yes, that’s how I’m familiar with them. We used to make cloven apples and oranges at Christmas time and hang them on the tree.

  16. firebird says

    By the way, am I the only person who sees “cloven fruit”and thought “What, like a cloven hoof?” You know, fruit that has been cleaved?

    That was what I thought when I read the title. I do have to wonder, given the sexual nature of the practice, if there wasn’t some intention in it – given the fact that many people of a straightlaced religious conservative bent would be horrified and would associate such behavior with the devil, which is what the idea of a cloven hoof still conjures to me (although I know it’s a natural phenomenon of hooved animals).

  17. firebird says

    I think for me to approve of a practice like that (if it matters what I think) it has to be done with sensitivity where people know what to expect before being confronted with the situation, and where perhaps they could opt out of the situation first. Nothing would ever be perfect, but it could be a cool way to push past some of the bias toward monogamy we have in our society, that leads to even only kissing and touching one person at a time in one’s life.

    I was in a situation once with some friends from work where a game of “Spin the Bottle was being played, and they (very drunkenly but with good humor) respected my disinterest in playing and allowed me to sit on the couch and call out comments. I was comfortable with the situation because I was shown respect in what was essentially a very sexual situation, as a bystander.

    As to courtship rituals, I had a reasonable experience with an online dating website. Naturally there were some people I would easily screen out in real life, and did screen out easily by talking to them briefly, but while he doesn’t like to admit it, that’s how I met my boyfriend of 2 years and a couple of friends I still occasionally correspond with. People complained constantly on the online forums for the website about lack of response, but there was no face to face rejection. I don’t know if it’s a good addition to our courtship rituals, but it’s something that has worked for me.

  18. says

    I should note… I had one experience with someone not realizing I’d asked her out. She was a really pretty lady I saw at the grocery store… I was intimidated by her fancy suit and beautiful hair. But, I asked her out, saying I liked her bag, my name’s Tina, and… “are you doing anything tonight?” She said, “going home and cooking dinner for myself, I guess… why do you ask?” I got really shy, playing with my hair a bit and going quiet, and said, “’cause I’m hitting on you…” She got really happy, and said that she was already seeing somebody but that she was very flattered. I felt good about myself, anyway—it made me feel like a good catch for her to be happy that I even asked her out.

  19. Sylvie says

    I have done the cloven fruit thing and I have never gone past mouth to mouth kissing on it. If a guy gave me a cloven fruit who I was not comfortable kissing (and there have been a few), I have either turned it down or given a hug, depending. Incidentally, we also had a rule that the fruit could not be passed back and forth between two people but had to be passed on.

  20. Sally says

    Attackfish: hoo

    The word ‘clove’ for the spice comes ultimately from the Latin ‘clavus – a nail.’ (from its shape). ‘Cloven = split’ comes from the verb ‘to cleave’ (< Old English 'cleofian'). It's a nice pun though.

    Being 'married' now, I no longer have an interest in such rituals, but it sounds like fun – with *very* good friends!

  21. Maria says

    IDK, from your description it makes me think of the Open Source Boob Project, where the onus is on the person being asked to defend their boundaries.

    and of the article the “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” where ideas of consent, labor, and group dynamics become even more muddy because they’re unacknowledged.

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable in that setting. As a busty WOC, my body is already presumed to be accessible in particular ways when I’m walking around in day to day life. Why would I freely chill with a bunch of people where I have to keep saying no? That… sounds like my daily life.

  22. says

    Don’t be dubious – I really encourage people with every viewpoint to talk on this topic. I was kind of surprised at the lack of people saying it made them uncomfortable, but it didn’t occur to me they might feel unsure about speaking up. Go right ahead, please, and give details if you’re comfortable. This is to everyone, not just Casey. Post under another name if you feel more comfortable doing it that way.

    I have to say, Maria’s point’s got me thinking. My boundaries have been under heavy assault since I was a tiny child, and I have no idea what it’s like to go more than, say, a week without having to explain to someone why I don’t conform to their ideas of normal. But for me, it’s not just sexual boundaries – it’s people wanting to know why I don’t live my life just like they live theirs (conformists trying to be “normal”) so we can all be miserable in exactly the same way. I’m so used to people assaulting my boundaries every 5 minutes that I’ve just learned to avoid most people and be prepared to tell the rest when to fuck off. So, actually a ritual like this WOULD bother me. It’s just it wouldn’t bother me anymore than 90% of any given day bothers the shit out of me.

    Hmm. Maybe I’m not a misanthropist. Maybe I really have just spent most of my life being surrounded by assholes.

  23. Maria says

    Jennifer Kesler: I’m so used to people assaulting my boundaries every 5 minutes that I’ve just learned to avoid most people and be prepared to tell the rest when to fuck off. So, actually a ritual like this WOULD bother me. It’s just it wouldn’t bother me anymore than 90% of any given day bothers the shit out of me.

    This, exactly. I wouldn’t find it charming, or radical, or whatever, just tiresome.

  24. Casey says

    Yeah, I wanted to say something about how, when I went on a pseudo-blind date, and the guy asked to hold my hand on the way back after the movies even though I wasn’t into him or what was going on AT ALL, I felt so pressured/freaked out so bad that I ended up crying (which also plays into the fact that yeah, I have EMPATHY and if someone rejected me I’d feel like shit), so if someone approached me with some orange covered in spiky things asking me to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING AT ALL of a pseudo-romantic/courtly nature, I’d just be pressured/feel weirded out.

    I didn’t really want to say anything ‘cuz I was afraid I’d offend all the….uh…are the people who do this RennFaire RP-ers or something? I didn’t want to make them feel like crap either. >_>V

  25. Patrick McGraw says

    I hadn’t commented earlier for some of the reasons discussed above. This practice would make me, personally, super-duper-I-am-never-coming-back-here uncomfortable.

    Which again puts the lie to the idea that women should be flattered by unwanted advances because “any man would be in their place.”

    • Maria says


      The thing that gets me, though, is that as a fairly attractive woman whose body characteristics (race and build) mark me as seemingly more sexually available/accessible/likely to say “yes,” I think my saying no would make it so I wasn’t INVITED back.

      Made m think of how pretty waitresses are unfairly penalized for delivering average/above average service because pretty women should ALWAYS be awesome and agreeable and never just regular.

  26. Robin says

    I’ve only encountered the cloven fruit ritual twice, but both were at parties populated by (mostly polyamorous) close friends that made me (the self-proclaimed “token vanilla” friend) feel very safe no matter what I decided to do with it. In a situation like the one described in the original post, I’d be much more likely to decline altogether. I’m uncomfortable enough surrendering any of my bodily autonomy in the presence of medical professionals; strangers with some level of sexual interest would freak me right out.

    And count me among the oblivious geek girl population. I’m rarely aware and never sure of someone’s romantic feelings unless and until they look me straight in the eye and say, “I like you. Would you like to go on a date and/or engage in some kissing?” I may have been on a series of dates last year, or I might have just had a series of dinners with a friend. Both of us fall into the too-shy-to-make-the-first-move camp, so it’s difficult to tell. ::le sigh::

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