Tuesday, December 06, 2011

How would you historicize sexual repression?

This question came to mind recently when discussing the subject with a friend who is trying to reduce her feelings of shame around sex and sexuality. I’d discussed similar topics with other friends recently; it probably says something that they were all females; and I’ve gotten the feeling that it’s not at all abnormal. In fact, there seems to be a consistent discourse of sexual repression running as a thread throughout history. The common theme seems to be that sex is healthy, even good, but only in small doses. A high sex drive is associated with some sort of intemperance or selfishness. There is something offensive or repulsive about a female voluptuary. The problem is that “too much” lust is roughly the normal level for human beings.

As a history geek, I wonder how you would historicize what likely amounts to an oral discourse. There are manuals on sex from the Renaissance that warn about overindulging. Rudolph M. Bell wrote a delightful study of these manuals, where we learn that sexual “overindulgence” can lead to: “headaches, nervousness, chest pains, kidney problems, backaches and sore legs; facial paleness ensues, along with rapid aging and even death”. If that wasn’t bad enough, it “damages the eyes and all of the five senses” and causes, “loss of memory, tremors, aches in the extremities, especially the legs, along with kidney and bladder problems,” “causes loss of appetite, shortens life span, destroys natural virtue, makes bones brittle, and brings on senility”. Unfortunately, the manuals agreed that married people should be having sex regularly and did not actually specify how much was too much. Apparently, you’d know by the facial paleness.

I’ve never met anyone who worried about an early death, but the fear of sexual overindulgence still seems to be common. There’s something irresponsible and self-indulgent about non-procreative sex that rubs against our need to be “productive” at all times. I’ve had female partners ask me if I thought they were “abnormal” in their sexual desires. The answer was always no.

But the official story, if you were to judge by our books, movies, and marriage manuals, is that we’re none of us sexually timid. This is one area in which I agree with the college chastity movement: the mass media gives the impression that every young person is indulging in largely meaningless sexual experiences with whoever comes along (not to say that meaningless sex isn’t its own form of repression). You watch these programs especially and nobody ever seems to suffer from sexual hang-ups or insecurities and you would have the impression that ours is an age of Sex and the City style freedom, as opposed to one of the most fearful, conservative, and repressed cultural eras since the 1950s.

People talk about the “pornification” of society with widespread access to hardcore pornography on computers. And yet, this is not sexual behaviour, which requires the interaction of two people. Logging on and jacking off is a salve for sexual repression that makes it easier to endure. It’s not an indication of sexual freedom; much the opposite. What seems to have happened is that sexual behaviour was once private and scorned in public, leaving a nice, neat historical record behind; now, it’s much the opposite: sexual behaviour of all sorts is publically celebrated and repression is something shameful and private. In other words, the “historical record” should be expected to lie.


Holly said...

In my personal life, I have recently come to the conclusion that much of the distress of my life, all the way back into childhood, even, has to do with sexual repression. Of me, of others. Failed, successful, either way, it is so woven into how so much of society is structured ... and on such an intimate level. This is the repression within families, from one individual to another within a relationship, and that relationship need not even be sexual for it to happen.

There is a real sense of intimidation to even contemplate something like that, which is so completely integral, and offensive to people both in on it, and those who want out of it.

In what way, exactly, does the world get destroyed if women have sexuality?? It's just hard to fathom. And yet, this is a grounding principle of so many cultures.

Rufus said...

I've heard from a number of friends about their feelings of guilt, anxiety, or shame around the subject of sex- usually women. The psychoanalysts, of course, had a lot to say on the issue of sexual repression, but the profession seems to have turned, instead, to trauma and treating disorders with meds.

As an aspiring historian, it's hard to know where there would be a record of sexual repression, given that even the subject is so taboo. It seems like current books, movies, and art mostly portray sex in feminist or sex positive terms that reflect the people who make them. In the same way, everyone on television now seems to have a gay best friend, and nobody has any shame or sexual hangups. Neither reflects 100% of reality, but they will be the official recorded history because sexual repression is more of an oral tradition (so to speak).

Holly said...

I suspect just as many men have issues, but the current model (societally) is that women have repression issues and men don't.

I imagine (although this could be very, very emotionally challenging to investigate), the details of sex crime cases brought to trial would be very revealing. Because what is allowed, what is not allowed, and how those issues are handled will tell a story.

Rufus said...

Well, I'm sort of at odds with most men, since I don't really have issues with attraction to men or jealousy. I think the male ego is actually pretty fragile for many men.

I've seen some pretty interesting histories using sex crime trials (and actually a fascinating book about divorces during the Renaissance), but I always wonder if criminals aren't essentially outliers.

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