The rumor about the girl in my school who smeared peanut butter on her vagina and waited for her dog to lick it off was told to me, a fifth grader at the turn of the millennium, standing in the breezeway among a huddled group of three boys. There was laughter. There was a dick joke. There was me, repeating the story back to myself in secret — partly aroused, partly ashamed, but mostly just befuddled in disbelief. Expectedly, the rumor spread like a virus, seeping through the various cliques until it found its way back to its ostensible source. She left school the following year.
You’ve no doubt heard some form of this rumor too, probably directed at some hapless individual in your hometown or school. Based on the number of Reddit threads that refer to some variation of a scenario in which a person’s pet is lured into licking their genitals by way of a healthy smear of peanut butter, awareness of this rumor seems to be a rite of passage.
It’s reared its head in pop culture as well: In 2018, my colleague Miles Klee reported that HBO execs had cut a similar scene from the final episode of the first season of Sex and the City — in the scene, a golden retriever is caught “going down” on a guy who continuously demands blow jobs from one of the show’s main characters. As to the legality of said act, Klee notes that, while “bestiality laws vary widely by state (still a-okay in Kentucky and New Mexico!) … that won’t necessarily get you off the hook for ‘Peanut Butter Kisses.’ … In California, for example, the penal code forbids sexual abuse of animals, or ‘sexually assaulting an animal for the purpose of arousing or gratifying your sexual desire,’ noting that ‘the conduct doesn’t have to be forced or violent.’ The crime is punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.”
All of this is to say that clearly, in a real-life scenario where a dog, peanut butter and a person’s genitals are involved in some sort of sexual act, a crime has been committed in the eyes of the law. Alternatively, when the rumor is just that — a rumor — but the subject is a nursery school teacher, it can quickly turn into a living nightmare.
Case in point: In 1985, a version of the peanut butter story scurried its way into a nursery school in Maplewood, New Jersey. “I noted the similarity of the central motif to the alleged crime committed by Kelly Michaels, a teacher/teacher’s aide at Wee Care Day Nursery,” says Bill Ellis, professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Penn State University, when I reach out to him to ask about the continued prevalence of the urban legend. Michaels had been accused of molesting and sexually abusing preschoolers, “often by forcing them to lick peanut butter off her privates, or, alternatively, by smearing peanut butter on their bodies and licking them,” Ellis tells me.
In August 1988, Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison, with no possibility of parole for the first 14 years. “Among other things, it was notorious that Michaels was a lesbian, and this fact made the children’s claims of sex-related abuse more credible to parents and prosecutors,” says Ellis. Her case became a cause celebre in New York, with a number of activists and legal volunteers alleging that she’d been the victim of a witch hunt.
Five years later, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided as much and Michaels was exonerated. She would go on to appear on Oprah. The truth was that the entire story was coaxed into the minds of impressionable preschoolers by the detectives who interviewed them. “Certainly, investigators found the children’s (apparently) independent testimony on this point strong evidence for Michaels’ guilt,” says Ellis. “‘Little ears fill big jugs,’ a proverb holds.” By then, though, the damage had been done; a folktale turned into small-town gossip had taken five years of life away from an innocent person.
But whatever form it takes, where did this endlessly persistent story come from in the first place?
To answer that, Ellis points to a much older legend named “The Surpriser Surprised.” In it, a woman’s friends sneak into her house to throw her a surprise party and are shocked when they find her having sex. “This version has always focused on the ‘surprise birthday party’ situation, with the group breaking in on a sexual encounter by a normal heterosexual couple,” says Ellis.
Over time, he says, the story tended to focus on the female partner, who (not knowing about the party crowd that has gathered) stands at the top of a stairway, completely naked, and shouts out an invitation to her partner to come have sex with her. “This is as old as the 1930s and probably has earlier versions,” says Ellis. Folklorists have noted that the person who is typically “shamed” in the story, when the party group’s presence is realized, is the female rather than the male. According to Snopes, though highly unusual, “every now and then, a version starring a man in the central role will appear.”
Ellis tells me that this is typical of white urban legendry. “Even when the same or similar legends circulate with either a male or a female protagonist, males tend to be embarrassed or perhaps wounded, while females are driven insane or killed outright.” In other words, typical endings to the “Surpriser Surprised” see the woman go crazy or “leave town forever,” says Elllis.
In her book, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, Debbie Nathan notes that “recent versions [of the story] are more deviant: As the partygoers enter the home, they hear the woman calling her dog, and they find her nude, with peanut butter smeared over her genitals, waiting for the animal to lick it off.” “The presence of peanut butter in the Michaels charges, and the earlier popularity of the sex education legend [a liberal teacher promoting sex ed], suggest that contemporary folktales have leapt over traditional evidentiary barriers into ritual-abuse trials,” writes Nathan.
Increasing anxieties and contempt toward anything but heterosexuality, then, will always bolster these contrived stories of deviancy. Their target is often a marginalized group, and the intent is to tear down a person’s character — whisper by whisper, slowly, in order to make the rumor more credible.
For his part, Ellis tells me that he found out about the story when he was editor for a newsletter titled FOAFTale News [Friend of a Friend], which went out to members of an academic organization called The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. “The October 1994 issue of FOAFTale News had a lengthy section on the ‘Peanut Butter Surprise’ variation, which seems to have emerged into wide circulation around the beginning of June 1994,” he says. “It was first published on July 7, 1994, in the Canadian satirical magazine Frank, but we found Usenet versions appearing in a variety of groups about a month earlier.”
The first versions, according to Ellis, appeared on the alt.folklore.urban network on June 3, 1994. “They varied quite a bit, though the food used to entice the dog was almost always peanut butter (margarine, whipped cream and dog food were specified once each),” he says. “The peanut butter was spread on the woman’s genitals usually, though some versions said she spread it on her breasts or covered herself ‘from head to toe.’” She was a newlywed, a nurse who lived by herself, or a co-worker who was notoriously attached to her pets. “The site of the misdeed was either the kitchen or the bedroom, the surprisers hid in the basement or living room, and the woman either called off her marriage, quit her job or sold her house and left town permanently,” says Ellis.
The actual origins of legends like these, according to Ellis, can almost never be determined. “As to what the sudden widespread discussion of the story suggests, I thought it likely that it was a reaction to the contemporary discussion of newly emerging icons of stereotype-smashing,” he says. He recalls a specific joke at the time when the rumor began to gain serious traction. “If I recall correctly, that was when jokesters said, ‘What’s the name of the scariest female in America?’ and answered, ‘Tonya Rodham Bobbitt,’” he says. The name is a combination of women notable for different reasons: Tonya Harding had recently been banned from figure skating after her then husband had arranged an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan; Lorena Bobbitt was acquitted of mutilating her husband (most famously chopping off his penis) after suffering years of abuse, in January 1994; “and of course Hillary Rodham Clinton was in her second year as First Lady,” says Ellis.
Basically, the “Peanut Butter Surprise” is meant to further shame such women — i.e., those who don’t conform to traditional norms of behavior, “made all the worse by the fact that she cohabits with an animal widely assumed to be ‘dirty’ in nature and does so in secret, making the surprise an unmasking of her bestial nature,” Ellis continues.
It’s essentially an extreme form of gossip, although, of course, gossip itself isn’t inherently bad. Megan L. Robbins, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who published a study last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science on why and how people gossip, tells me that the underlying reason for gossip is to communicate with each other about what is acceptable behavior and what’s not. “It can also serve a purpose of warning people about someone,” she says. So again, in some cases, gossip can serve a valuable purpose. “One big reason gossip has developed into such a prevalent behavior is because we need to learn about what’s okay and what’s not for our own selves,” she continues. “But it certainly has implications for someone’s reputation.” In short, for someone who’s doing something wrong, spreading the truth about them or reporting on factual information — which will affect that person’s reputation negatively — is “gossip” working the right way. “It’s a check on moral behavior,” says Robbins.
Historically, though, this hasn’t been the purpose of the peanut butter rumor. Quite the opposite, in fact — the peanut butter rumor has, up to this point, been a way to keep a check on women who’ve been deemed out of bounds. “The demonizing of Hillary Clinton continues, and lots of people still want her locked up and shamed for her misdeeds, the most significant being that she didn’t conform to expectations of personality, profession and marital submission,” says Ellis. “And there are many more iconic female she-demons now running amok on the news. So I’d guess that the need to focus on a legendary ‘dirty dog’ of a woman and publicly shame her is a form of psychological relief at a time when gender stereotypes increasingly are in flux, politically and legally.”
This is especially true when you consider that there’s no evidence that women are any more likely than men to engage in this sort of behavior. (Certainly, there are men who have nearly lost their lives in this quest, not to mention that in the book The Secrets of Abu Ghraib Revealed: American Soldiers on Trial, writers Christopher Graveline and Michael Clemens report that during the trial of chief petty officer Michael J. Smith, evidence was presented showing Smith used his “military working dog to lick peanut butter off of another male soldier’s genitals.”)
Moreover, Robbins tells me that despite there being no evidence in her study to support that women gossip more than men, there was a gendered bias as to the subject of this gossip. “The participants in our study agreed to be recorded,” she tells me. “They talked to other people over the course of us observing them. Even from just thinking about examples that I heard from our data, most of them [the gossip] were about women.”
This, as I recall, was just as true under the awning of the breezeway in elementary school, just as it was in middle school gossip circles and, of course, as it continued to be virulent when we graduated into high school. And so on and so forth.
You can bet that as the current rigid system by which we define the two genders continues to unravel, huddled whispers of the peanut butter rumor — and, surely, worse — will only continue to spread.