In Defense of Sexual Repression

As a student of psychoanalytic psychology, I feel I’m in a good position to respond to this post that I found problematical.

1) Freud was located in a particular place at a particular time. Freud began his clinical work with Breuer by treating hysterics (Freud was revolutionary in suggesting that both men and women can be hysterical) who were developing inexplicable physical symptoms. Freud posited that sexual repression often led to somatic symptoms, which was the mind’s way to negotiate various conflicts. For example, some folks developed glove anesthesia (a physically impossible syndrome) which Freud traced back to the repression of masturbation by blocking the physical ability for self-stimulation. One of Freud’s greatest feminist contributions was normalizing and encouraging female sexuality, believing that society’s repression of female sexuality contributed to pathology

2) It’s a great simplification to claim that Freud blamed all societal problems on sexual repression. Freud claimed that both life and death drives demanded proper drive expression; hence, both aggression and sexuality are integral parts of what it means to be human. Humans must find appropriate, constructive outlets to sublimate these drive derivatives (wishes).

3) I don’t think there’s any legitimate connection between the sexual revolution and Freud’s theory of human sexuality. In fact, most US analysts were way too reactionary and homophobic when it came to sexuality.

4) I think you’re caricaturing the notion of sexual repression. Both sexual repression and compulsive, indiscriminate sexual expression can be pathological. Freud argued that we have to find adaptive ways to express our sexuality but he never held up promiscuity as some sort of ethical mandate. Even Lacan’s maxim ‘not to give ground relative to one’s desire’ should not be read some sexual prescription.

5) I agree that Sullivan’s explanation of Catholic priests is inadequate. However, are you really going to defend Catholic priests by claiming that they’re equally likely to be pedophiles as general civilians? I’m sure we’d all like to think that Catholic priests should have a higher ethical code than the folks in the general population. What’s unforgivable with the Catholic Church is not simply the fact of childhood sexual abuse but the systemic attempt to cover up the abuse.

6) I don’t know what you would accept as legitimate scientific evidence because I think you’ve already decided that Freudian psychology is somehow part of the humanities. I find this to be a really misinformed view that is more reflective of an introduction to psychology course than the state of academic psychoanalytic psychology. First, you might check out the abundant evidence that psychodynamic psychotherapy is very efficacious. Second, you should check out developments in neuropsychoanalysis to examine the neurological evidence of the psychoanalytic theory of mind. Third, sexual repression is part of many disorders. It is more evident in certain diagnoses such as: OCD, some eating disorders and personality disorders (e.g. histrionic).

7) “It’s a way of justifying the lack of moral integrity and, indeed, the moral disintegration required to act on most every sexual whim, a way of rationalising away the extreme level of selfishness and self-regard implicit in a promiscuous lifestyle.” Honestly, I have no idea how you’re justifying this claim. Claiming that repression can lead to pathology does not advocate promiscuity (notice I’m not necessarily agreeing with you that promiscuity is sinful) nor does it somehow scapegoat religious people.

8) “If the complete lack of clarity and scientific basis weren’t enough, Christians should reject the idea that sexual repression is a unhealthy, futile and dangerous thing. Why? Because it is an anti-Christian myth.” First, just because something is anti-Christian doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Second, mental health is about balance. I’ve definitely seen Christians whose sexual repression led to bizarre and unhealthy sexual practices because of their overly punitive superego and repressive background.

9) Read Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology if you want to see a liberation theologian tackling sexual ethics in a progressive, feminist manner.

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Sexual Repression

  1. As this is written in response to a post sparked by one of my posts on the subject of virginity and Christians, let me give some thoughts.

    1. One of the points of my original post was to challenge the idea that virgins are to be presumed to be sexually repressed. I strongly reject this notion, but I don’t believe that this need entail the complete rejection of the concept of sexual repression, just a clarification of it.

    2. Practically every human being, virgins included, experiences some sort of drive towards sex, and we all have to negotiate this in some manner or other. Mere denial, repression, and prohibition will often tend to cause problems. Abstinence as a purely negative denial and absence is seldom healthy for this reason. However, this drive becomes significantly more manageable as we start to realize that it can largely be quite – and often better – satisfied in numerous things apart from sex itself.

    3. While I believe that celibacy is a genuine possibility and need involve no dysfunction at all, I do not believe that it is easy, nor do I believe that it is a longer term ideal for most persons (although many will be called to this non-ideal state despite their desires). Longer term sexual abstinence is not normal or ideal. Part of our cultural problem is that children are sexually maturing at younger ages, while marriages tend to come much later in life. The growing period of the interim is not entirely healthy, nor easy to negotiate, especially in a sex-saturated society.

    4. This drive towards sex, while obviously involving a biological substrate, is culturally shaped, and involves considerably more than a mere desire for sex. Much as with our hunger for food, we bring to sex an integrated set of hungers – forming a more fundamental hunger for life. Our culture teaches us what to desire from sex.

    5. Our society is characterized by the bottlenecking of a host of hungers, focusing them upon the sexual act. Sex, sexuality, sexual relationships, and, more broadly, marriage are the sites where we are supposed to meet our hunger for intimacy, friendship, companionship, belonging, sensation, touch, identity, meaning, purpose, communication and relationship with the other sex, sense of identity in our own sex, personal realization, self-transcendence, and the leaving of a personal legacy. This bottlenecking occurs for many reasons, some of them socio-economic, some ideological, and others depending more upon the contents of specific cultures. The net result of this bottlenecking, however, is to produce an idolization of sex.

    6. Denying or repressing the hungers that our cultures teach us to bring to sex would not be at all healthy. However, we can and should challenge their bottlenecking, without denying that sex is a place where these hungers can be met to an important degree. As we dethrone the idol of sex, we can find a far deeper and broader satisfaction for our hunger for life than sex alone could ever have offered us.

    7. The bottlenecking of our hunger for life in a hunger for sex has led to dysfunction, as a selfish and promiscuous sexuality becomes detached from the other good ends of life, ends with which the Christian tradition has tended closely to integrate them. People can struggle to form and maintain long term marriages, to negotiate differing libidos, to cope with loss of sexual desire or potency, to develop broader forms of intimacy, etc. In its own way, this is a form of repression, as one of the many channels for our hunger for life is made responsible for bearing so much of it, far beyond its natural capacity, while many of the other channels become blocked up or are allowed to atrophy (long term intimate friendships with a physically affectionate – but not sexual – element being one example). Unsurprisingly, this form of sexuality is found wanting and unsatisfying by many, and often leads to socially and personally harmful results, stunting the personal and moral growth of many of those who pursue it and limiting their capacity to form long term stable and meaningful relationships.

    8. I believe that many forms of Christian approaches to virginity actually are sexually repressed, especially among the most vocal ones. Rather than the positive good of chastity that can give purpose, meaning, and channels for the expression of our sexual identities, a mere proscription is given. The bottlenecking of our hunger for life into sex is not adequately challenged, nor alternative means of personal fulfilment offered. The fixation upon sin and prohibition is characteristic of this attitude. Virginity as the negative pole of a binary state is fetishized, rather than focusing on the positive goods that accompany the pursuit of chastity. It does not surprise me in the slightest that this sexual repression often has ugly results in the real world and proves quite unsuccessful as a means of formation in healthy and joyful sexual and personal identity.

  2. Sometimes it seems that the only people who think our society is sex-obsessed are Christians. Who are these people acting on every sexual impulse? America is a nation of fat, awkward people who don’t like to talk to strangers.

  3. Adam, yeah the title was unintentionally ambiguous (as all good Freudian titles are). I don’t think our society is much different from other times in the US’s history. Perhaps the only novel thing is that we talk about sex more openly.

    Alastair, the conversation you’re trying to have is one I’m not really interested in. I was more invested in defending Freud from Arni’s uncharitable interpretation. Most of the things you said seem to be straightforward (e.g. sexuality is mediated by culture). I think we have different ideas about celibacy, promiscuity and abstinence. You view promiscuity as “selfish” and various other things that I find questionable. You wonder why this form of sexuality leaves some folks wanting. However, you never stop to consider that perhaps marriage itself is part of the problem (given the ridiculous idealization). I suspect that many folks engaging in alternative sexual practices only feel empty because society has uplifted marriage as some amazing ideal and denigrated non-standard practices. In fact, it seems as if our society is still unquestionably conservatives in its worship of marriage which functions as some sort of ultimate sign of success. Here’s a recent talk that challenged my thinking about sexual ethics –

  4. Thanks Jeremy, it’s rather difficult to have a conversation about Freud in relation to religion or sexuality that doesn’t devolve into caricature and stupidity. I enjoyed the lecture, especially the part about the bonobos.

    In terms of popular culture, there’s the tension between regulation of sexuality in practice, which still seems quite repressive, restrictive and conservative, and the promotion of images of sexuality in our media and advertising, which seems to promote a false ideal of liberation and serves to encourage people to buy things to feel good about themselves or make themselves more desirable. It also can create the impression that everyone else is having orgies and indiscriminate sex while I’m one of the few people who is not, so then I feel like a loser or alternatively I can embrace and exult in my virginity, celibacy, etc.

  5. I found the part about the bonobos particularly interesting, although I’d like to read the research to review on my own.

    I agree that the US’s values and the media are often at loggerheads with one another. I think that so many movies that normalize non-martial sex are still profoundly conservative insofar as marriage and monogamy are upheld as a more mature desirable lifestyle than a more sexually promiscuous (although I don’t like this word) lifestyle. The whole fascinating about the other’s jouissance can also be understood in various ways. I feel that people often overestimate the amount of sex other people have so that they feel ethically and morally superior than those sexually promiscuous folks (as a way to defend against their own insecurity about their sexuality desirability). I also think that having multiple partners is only viewed in such derogatory ways because we all have implicitly internalized the belief that marriage is the final horizon of sexual relations. I obviously have little belief or faith in Arni or Alastair’s Christian celebration of marriage.

  6. Right, it’s like we get a spectacle of sexual openness along with the subtle or not-so-subtle message that monogamy is the ultimate preferred goal. Sort of like having your cake and eating it too?

    Frans de Waal has written about bonobos, in comparison and contrast with chimpanzees. I remember that part of the reason bonobos don’t associate sex with physical violence was supposedly that their testicles are enormous and the competition/selection takes place in terms of sperm. His point was that we’re not determined to act like chimps or bonobos, although we have aspects of both.

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