Viewpoint

The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of clichĂ© and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

WHY DOES SEXUAL REPRESSION EXIST?


Freud’s classic argument is that sex is a strong human drive, active from earliest childhood, but it becomes repressed by an internal mechanism. You repress yourself, eliminating consciousness of desire, driving it from your thoughts as well as your behavior. But it comes out anyway, in dreams, in symptoms, in displacements. For Freud, the world is pervasively sexualized, but in symbolic form, via transformations of sexual drive onto targets seemingly far removed from its original erotic objects.

Freud wrote at a turning point now 100 years behind us. He psychoanalyzed his patients at the end of the Victorian era, making his discoveries between the 1890s (“the gay 90s” in the original sense of the time, which meant heterosexual) and World War I. Sex was coming out of the closet-- better said, out of the corset-- and Vienna was the leading center of the action. It was the first period of the modern sexual revolution. Official prudery was being challenged; the heavy layers of clothing were starting to come off, and people were not only starting to talk about sex (and to paint it) but to act on it more overtly.

Egon Schiele, 1917


It is ironic that Freud should formulate a theory of sexual repression at just this time. In fact his patients were caught in the gap, repressed persons in a world where heightened sense of sexuality was rising around them.

Freud’s first patient cured,  Anna O.


Since then have been a series of sexual revolutions. The “roaring twenties”-- the “Jazz age” which in its original slang meant the verb to have sex (“he tried to jazz me” a young woman says in a Faulkner novel). The sixties counterculture, famous for sexual communes-- in fact not very many and all of them short-lived; the counterculture had more long-lasting effects in the shift to cohabiting without getting married, a shock wave around 1968-71 about what used to be called “shacking up” or “living in sin,” and then quickly becoming accepted almost everywhere. Cohabitation was soon followed by acceptance of what used to be called “illegitimacy," which soon changed to "out-of-wedlock childbirth,” and now is completely normalized.  The outburst of pornographic magazines and films in the 1970s, going mainstream and eventually becoming the early cutting edge of video and the Internet. The homosexual liberation movement that achieved public legitimacy in the scandal of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and transformed proper terminology into the elaborations of LGBT. Battles still take place, most recently over gay marriage. The configuration has repeatedly replayed since Freud’s time-- a struggle between one form or another of sexual repression and victorious movements of sexual liberation.

Can we say sexual repression still exists?  That is, exists in the large part of society which is liberated, outside of a few backward enclaves who have lost every battle and appear likely to lose the rest of them?


What Would Totally Liberated Sex Look Like?

Let us define complete sexual liberation as a condition where anyone can say or do anything sexual that they want.

Would there be any limitations?  Consider our own sexually liberated times. Can you go up to any person at all and say, I’d like to have sex with you?

Circumstances where one cannot say this are limitations on sexual speech. As for sexual action, consider its least intrusive form, touching. Can you touch any person you feel attracted to?

The quick answer to both questions is: no. There are very definite limitations and circumstances in which sexual speech and action is allowed.

The phrase is widely used, “between consenting adults.” But this implies a lot more sexual liberty than actually exists, even among the most liberated. “Consenting adults” applies more to action than to words; and many forms of sexual speech are strongly sanctioned-- so that even approaching the topic is socially prohibited in most situations. This doesn’t mean talking philosophically about consent.  What is prohibited is requesting personal, particular consent.

The title, “Why Does Sexual Repression Exist?” is not a rhetorical question. It is not a way of saying “Isn’t it absurd for us not to express our sexual desires any time we want to?”  It is a real question, a sociological question that asks what causes people to limit expression of sexual desire and sexual behavior.

It is a very answerable question. Sexual behavior and talk have varied a great deal historically, across societies and within any particular one. There is ample evidence for showing what determines what sex is and is not allowed.

There may be a tendency to think that the answers are obvious, at least for our own enlightened times. Obviously, certain categories of persons have to be protected; certain situations are just not appropriate.  Why do we think this? It is more revealing to distance ourselves from our contemporary point of view. Not very far in the past, people assumed different standards. It is safe to predict that in the future, people will look back at us-- including the most liberated-- with scorn and moral condemnation, just as we look backwards at our own predecessors. The power of comparative sociology is to rise above our historical self-centeredness, and to show what makes people feel this is right and that is wrong about sex.


Does “Consenting Adults” explain the contemporary sexual standard?

Social rules are embedded in tacit understandings as to when a rule is to be invoked. Freud would have called this unconscious; Durkheim called it pre-contractual solidarity. There are many persons and many situations where one cannot ask for consent, or even bring up the topic.

By way of generating some sense of the social conditions, ask yourself: how many people can you ask to have sex with you? Think of the variations of how to say it to particular persons: politely, indirectly, blatantly, using slang, using obscenity: “Excuse me ma’am (or sir), would you like to fuck?” What would happen if you said this? In some situations today one would be accused of using inappropriate language, in others, of sexual harassment. In the era before WWII, you could get your face slapped.

I have appealed to your imagination of real-life occasions because in the vast number of situations where someone has a sexual interest in someone else, it does not get expressed at all. David Grazian’s book, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife,  shows what happens when young adults are out in the scenes where they are most explicitly looking for sex. Although both the boys and the girls* talk about what they are aiming for and what happened, they do this among themselves before they go out and after they come back. When they are on the front lines in the night club, virtually no one ever says anything like, let’s hook up. They are playing a game of pickup, but at a very distant level. Most of the excitement is in the tease and innuendo, and sexual scores are so rare that the boys end up bragging about getting a girl’s phone number, and the girls laugh about giving out fake numbers. Like most ethnographies, Grazian cuts through the ideal and shows the social realities of how the atmosphere of sexual excitement is constructed, like putting on a performance in a theatre.

*  “girls” is how they refer to themselves. [See also Armstrong and Hamilton.]

Why doesn’t this scene, about as blatantly sexual as they come, have more real sex or at least more sexual talk? This means asking about the sociological processes that repress sex. We will come to the list of causes shortly; here they have little to do with the kind of sexual repression which concerned Freud.

Compare the few places where expressing one’s sexual desire face-to-face with its target is actually done. One is in front of fraternity houses, on heightened occasions like party-night afternoons, or at the beginning of term when new student cohorts arrive. There can be a lot of raucous hooting at passing women, commenting both positively and negatively on their sexual desirability. Notice two things: This is sexual expression, but without a serious aim to get consent from any particular woman; in fact, the impersonal and collective nature of the hooting makes this impossible. Secondly, even the frat boys’ tactic of strength-in-numbers-and-anonymity does not necessarily shield them from the negative reaction they would likely get if one of them said the same things to an individual woman.  As social movements and administrative organization have mobilized, fraternities hooting at women are sometimes sanctioned or even closed down (as happened for instance at San Diego State University in 2014). The sociological pattern holds:  expressing sexual desire is limited even in the most liberated society; it can be gotten away with more if it is ostensibly not really serious, or is carried out at a safe distance. Today, the most blatant sexual talk is telephone sex [Flowers 1998]. Sexual expression also gives rise to counter-movements. The sociological pattern is not sexual expression alone, but sexual conflict.

Inside the fraternity house, the situation is not too dissimilar from Grazian’s description of downtown nightclubs. [Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape; Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party] There is a lot of bragging talk about sex within the male-bonded group; but only a small sexual elite actually gets very much action. At parties, disguised by loud music, semi-darkness, and plentiful alcohol, the reality is that most of the frat boys are on the sidelines watching their sexual heroes. So, are they the ones who boldly ask for sex? Even here, the conversations are more tacit and oblique than blatant; the most successful approach is by sheer body language, dancing in high sync, laughing together. The less formal and coherent the talk, the more likely it is to build the mutual mood that may lead to sex. Uninhibited extroversion is favored by the scene, not the rational-legal language of discussion and consent.

The prevailing social pattern when talking person-to-person about possible sex is that explicit sexual desire is never directly expressed, until the situation has evolved non-verbally to the proper point; any violation of this tacit rule gets a negative reaction.  The main exception is in commercial sex work, talk between prostitutes and prospective clients (Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours). But even here, the initial steps of negotiation are surprisingly round-about. Sex work illustrates a pattern found more generally in social stratification: low-class street prostitutes are most blatant in verbally offering sex; high-class prostitutes or “escorts” play out the girlfriend experience (GFE in advertisements) minimizing explicit negotiations in order to set a non-commercial atmosphere.

The most explicit sexual talk is in scenes dominated by males, not only because they control violence but because they are at the center of the carousing, “where the action is.”  This is the pattern in unpoliced  lower-class black inner city ghettos, where groups of dominant males-- both teenage gang members, and some adult men-- fling sexual banter at girls and attractive women, and humiliate those who object. [Jody Miller, Getting Played]  This fits the sociological pattern of more blatant sexual talk lower in the class hierarchy. But it isn't the whole explanation, since upper-middle class fraternities resemble lower-class gangs, except that they have the money for their own club house, and do not need to engage in street crime for income. Whether in tribal societies or enclaves in modern ones, a hyper-sexualized pattern of blatantly exploiting women occurs where the power center is a "men's house" that is also the ceremonial center of the community.

In the gender-integrated middle and upper classes, much sexual talk is tabooed even when it has nothing to do with consent.  Circumstances are rare in which persons can say directly to another: “How big is your penis?” or “You’ve got really great tits.” In the talk regime of liberal late 20th/ early 21st century, such talk would be considered over the top, if not called “politically incorrect,” “sexist,” or actually resulting in formal charges.


Socially constructed age limits

The other part of “consenting adults” is the age limitation. We take this for granted, as all customs generally are. But it is palpably constructed by social regimes, as we can easily see by comparing laws and customs in different historical periods. In this area, instead of a post-Freudian trend of increasing sexual liberation, sexual repressiveness has historically increased.

The strongest contrast is sex in tribal societies. One of the most detailed is Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islands north of Australia. The Trobrianders have almost the opposite of the official American position (that adults are sexual and children are sexless, unless adults impose sex upon them). In this tribe, childhood is the time for unrestrained sex; whereas adults are expected to settle down and devote themselves to work.  Both girls and boys flaunt their sexual activity; both sexes go off on group sex-seeking expeditions; both show off marks of love-bites and scratches on the skin as proud tokens of sexual passion. This happens almost exclusively among what modern Americans legally define as children.

Among the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, there is a homosexual version (Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes). The normal life-course pattern is for an adolescent boy to become the sexual partner of a young man, the older initiating the younger into sex simultaneously with the mysteries of the warrior men’s house. It is not lifetime homosexuality but a stage of age-graded promotion. The boy is shown the sacred flutes and also taught to suck the man’s penis and swallow the sperm, religiously interpreted as giving manhood. As William Graham Sumner said, the social mores can make anything legitimate.

A similar pattern existed in ancient Greece. Young men of the upper classes, in the long wait for marriage to upper class women (who were snapped up very young by older men), had love affairs with boys of their same social class-- preferably adolescents before the beard and pubic hair had grown. These were genuinely passionate love-affairs that would be recognizable today, except that young males rather than females set the ideal of bodily beauty. The ideal eventually became transferred to the female body, once Greek and Roman women became more emancipated. [Dover, Greek Homosexuality;  Keuls, Reign of the Phallus]

This is a striking reversal of modern homosexuality, which is legitimate among adults but harshly penalized across age lines. For the ancient Greeks, homosexual relations among adult men was considered ludicrous; and anal sex-- the predominant form of modern male homosexual practice [Laumann et al. 1994]-- was regarded only as a humiliating punishment.

What can we get out of these comparisons other than that societies change and can decree anything is right and wrong?

Sex between adults and “children”-- generally defined by the cutting point of age 18-- is now labeled child sexual abuse. It is the most stigmatized of contemporary crimes. The rationalized argument is that the child has no power of consent, and that any adult must automatically be considered as taking advantage of them. This is a legal judgment, not a sociological one.

Where sociological evidence does exist is for the pattern that children who have had sex with adults-- victims of child abuse-- have many more life problems. [Finkelhor 1986] They have more drug use and alcohol excess; more unstable marriages and sexual partnerships; they are more likely to become victims of spousal abuse and violence; to have more trouble with education and jobs. The data analyses do not always control very well for confounding factors, such as lower social class and broken family structure; but on the whole, one can make out a sociological case why child sexual abuse is a very bad thing in its consequences.

Social shame causes the damage

There is one major problem: what is the causal mechanism? One might assume that a child who has sex with an adult feels traumatized; but this is not always the case. Sometimes the adult uses force, but in many cases the adult is a parent or close relative, often when the opposite-sex spouse is absent, and the child gets an early sense of intimacy and initiation into adult sexual privileges.  The mechanism that causes the trauma, most typically, is shame.  Shame produced by the reaction of the larger society, shame transmitted to the child by having to keep the sexual relationship secret. Shame and humiliation when the case comes to official notice; even bureaucratic policies to keep such cases secret (as far as the child’s identity is concerned) have the effect of segregating the child in an atmosphere where the secrecy is itself a mark of shame. This is shown in studies of juvenile facilities where children in such cases are segregated; and where a culture of precocious sexuality is further enhanced, since the one thing these kids have over others is more sexual experience, and they share it among their peers.

Social labeling theory has been applied to explaining mental illness, retardation, and numerous other things. The theory has not always held up when controls are applied to the data. But in the case of the life-long effects of being labeled a victim of child abuse, the labeling process is by far the strongest explanation of the debilitating consequences.

As social psychologist/family therapists Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger have shown, shame is the master motive of social control. Even tiny episodes of shame from broken attunement in a conversation bring hurt reactions; and if the shame is not overtly expressed and resolved, but hidden away (by embarrassment, by shame about being ashamed) it comes out in long-term destructive rage, against self and others. In my own theory of successful and unsuccessful Interaction Rituals [Collins 2004], disattunement and its concomitant shame lead to difficult social relationships; to loss of emotional energy, and instead to a cycle of depression, passiveness, and interactional failure.  Via the shame mechanism, it is possible to explain why many sexual relationships between adults and children result in very negative life consequences for the children as they grow up.

Many sexual relationships, not all of them. We know that because of societies like tribal New Guinea and ancient Greece, where adult-child sex was honorable and celebrated, not regarded as shameful at all. In those societies, it had no negative consequences.

The purpose of this discussion is not to make sexual policy; but here is a point where sociological theory suggests what is being done wrong, and what could be done to solve it. The negative consequences of adult/child sex could be eliminated if society stopped treating it as shameful.


Who Can Touch Who When?

The formula “between consenting adults” has similar limitations in explaining the tacit social norms about touching another person.

Consider the range of touches that exist in our society, whether commonplace, restricted, or forbidden:

-- shaking hands
-- patting on the shoulder (usually clothed)
-- kisses of all varieties: air kisses, cheek kisses, gentleman-kissing-lady’s-hand, kissing the Pope’s ring, lip kisses, tongue kisses, tongue-to-genital kisses

Notice, apropos of consenting adults, hardly anyone ever asks, “Can I kiss you?”  (although social consent is explicit in the traditional wedding ceremony, with its climax “You may now kiss.”) When persons kiss, and what kind of kiss it is, is a tacit, unspoken part of a particular kind of social relationship. If it is the wrong social relationship, or the wrong kiss, there are repercussions. This is a sociological rule for all forms of touching.

Similarly with hugs. The style has palpably changed in American society, with a big shift in the 1970s towards much more hugging-- not necessarily spontaneous, because it has become so strongly expected in particular situations. Take a look at the polite hugs which are now de rigueur in social gatherings of the higher classes-- hugs around the shoulders, leaning forward, avoiding full body contact. In the 1940s, an enthusiastic hug consisted in grasping the other person’s arms with both hands, above the elbows-- more enthusiasm shown by more body contact, within the limitations of the time. The ritual of sports celebrations (victories; home-runs crossing the plate) has shifted from merely verbal, to hand-shaking, to the now-required full-body pile-on.  It is notable that body contact among American men is more extensive the more violent it is; swinging high-fives, forearm smashes, chest bumps, pile-ons are more favored than gentle contact, probably because the violence sends the message that it isn’t sexual.

Historical comparison helps explain the meanings of body contact vary. In traditional societies such as Arabs, it was common for groups of men in public to walk along holding hands or linking arms. Similarly, women in traditional societies linked arms in public.  It was an explicit show of group tie-signs. It had nothing sexual about it; it expressed the politics of the situation when kin-groups and other close solidarities were all-important. As modern societies have become more individualized, tie-signs such as hand-holding or linking arms have narrowed in meaning, explicitly confined to sexual ties. It is the same with the decay of old kissing rituals like the French official who kisses the recipient on both cheeks after pinning on a medal.

In our sexually liberated age, many bodily gestures are restricted, because the default setting is to take them as sexual.


Four causal mechanisms that control sex

[1] Sexual property regimes
[2] Sexual markets
[3] Sexual domination and counter-mobilization
[4] Sexual distraction and sexual ugliness

These mechanisms, in one degree or another, have existed in every society.  What varies is the strength of the ingredients that go into each mechanism.

[1] Sexual property regimes

Sexual property is present wherever there is jealousy. It is analogous to property over a thing, or more exactly, property over behavior-- like a professional athlete signing a contract that requires certain kinds of performance on the field and prohibits other behavior in the off season.  Sexual property is the right to touch someone else’s body sexually. Like other forms of legal property, it takes many forms: sometimes the rules are elaborate and restrictive, sometimes not; sometimes it is a permanent, life-time contract, sometimes breakable (e.g. by divorce), sometimes very short-term indeed (e.g. a half hour deal with a prostitute or an overnight with an escort).

The forms of sexual property have changed historically. But despite movements of sexual liberation, it has not gone away.  The gay liberation movement has coincided with a great deal of private fighting over sexual jealousies-- more commonly among male homosexuals than females [Blumstein and Schwartz 1983].  Legitimating a particular form of sex does not mean turning it into open access.

What determines the forms sexual property has taken? Most important are changes in the political power of the family.  The most blatant and restrictive forms of sexual property existed in patrimonial households-- roughly speaking, the medieval pattern where big households with their own warriors were the backbone of the state.  Important households were tied together by marriage politics. Women were treated as tokens to exchange with other important families, so they had no choice in their own sexuality. Any incursion into the sexual property of the household was regarded as a combination of rape and treason, with both parties punishable, sometimes by spectacularly violent death. This is the background for Romeo-and-Juliet romances, and for real-life versions in places like Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, and Pakistan. A royal princess can be assassinated, and brothers can stone a sister to death for sex or mere flirtation with an outsider to the clan. [Cooney 2014]

The era of the patrimonial household upheld a double standard, technically unilateral sexual property: males controlled females as sexual property to be used for political alliance-making, but not vice versa. The big historical changes in sexual property go in either direction from this medieval pattern-- backwards towards tribal societies, and forward to the modern state.

Tribal societies like those described by Malinowski and Margaret Mead, and that greeted sailors in Polynesia during the 19th century, seemed like sexual paradises to people from the modern West. The reason was that their politics were extremely rudimentary. Where there were no strong military coalitions, and nothing like a warrior class living in castles or big households, marriage alliances were not very important. In very simple societies without class differences in wealth, divorces were extremely easy. Sex was not politicized and therefore left up to individual discretion. Jealousies were personal and not backed up by group forces. Sexual property was ephemeral.

Coming forward historically from the Romeo-and-Juliet world toward our own is the rise of the bureaucratic state. Governments acquired their own armies and tax-collecting machinery. Households became more private and their sexual affairs depoliticized. This set the stage for the shift to the private marriage market.

[2] Sexual markets

A market exists whenever there are numbers of actors who want something and have to find someone else to trade with to get it. Markets can range from many competitors to virtually none; the more competition, the more each individual must be concerned about the “price” for what they are buying or offering. This structure exists whether its participants recognize it consciously or not. The price can be in money, but it can be in other things too-- sexual attractiveness, subservience, social status, even love. In fact a bundle of all these things has become the preferred way that people find sexual partners in the modern era of the private sexual marketplace.

The ideal of marrying for love came into existence in European societies around the turn of the 1800s. It was called the “Romantic” era because so many writers made a theme out of love affairs defying social convention and expressing the individual’s wild, uncontrolled passions. The literary ideal reflected a real change. Parents gradually stopped controlling their children’s choice of partners. In one respect this felt like an era of freedom, but it also meant that young people were thrown into a marriage market they had to negotiate for themselves.

A market is freedom but it is also constraint. The freedom is to make choices. The constraint of a market is that you do not necessarily get what you want, at the price you would like to  offer. The romantic image is that love happens like magic, a meeting of two persons with perfectly matched desires; it scorns social differences and mere material things like inheritance and money. In reality, the love ideal came along with the market of who can offer what. Many persons may desire a very beautiful, sexually arousing partner, but s/he may not find you sufficiently attractive in return. Other things get thrown into the mix: today not so much inheritance, but a good job and earning capacity.

Material things become part of  romancing, in the form of treating, paying for dinners and entertainment, gifts, not to mention the degree of attractiveness one can muster by one’s clothing and grooming.  Viviana Zelizer has shown there is no clear gulf between purely sentimental considerations and material offerings; even if the latter are ignored in the ideology of love and sexual passion, they exist in a semi-conscious underground of bargaining, an almost Freudian repression of the sexual market itself from polite consciousness.

We don’t care about somebody’s social background, and assert that all that matters is whether we really like each other. We can take this attitude with a fair degree of success because in fact what we like about another person is their cultural tastes and their social personality, and liking consists of fitting together people who find their manners match. It is not surprising to sociologists that the prevailing pattern is homophily-- personal ties with someone similar to oneself on as many dimensions as possible. And this applies to ties of all degrees of permanence: from long-term marriage down to passing affairs. In fact, the closer the homophily, the longer the relationship is likely to last.  Affairs across big social gaps do happen, but they are also more likely to break up. The shift during the last century from divorce-proof lifetime marriage, to serial monogamy, to cohabitation without getting married, to hookups, has not affected the dynamics of sexual markets. In none of these long-term or short-term relationships is it irrelevant who are the competitors, and competition always affects what one needs to offer in order to find a partner.

Sexual repression inside a sexual market

The idea of a sexual market makes it sound like everything is very blatant, but on the whole modern sexual markets repress the overt expression of sexual desires. The more people who are actively out there on the market looking for partners, whether for the evening or for a lifetime, the more likely it is that any particular person will encounter rejections. Experienced individuals in such markets-- those who often go to nightclubs, or to parties, mixers, conferences, dances, dating services, you name it-- generally get to know their own value from the way they are treated by others. Very attractive individuals become very picky-- in part because they can afford to be, in part because they are overwhelmed by advances, most of which they scorn.  A very beautiful young woman of my acquaintance complains that she is constantly being stared at by strangers, who she regards as completely boring.  Of course: by her standards, she can do much better. Interview data show the same thing [Gardner, Passing By]. This is a main reason why persons at the top of the sexual market tend to pair off with each other.

Homophily is everywhere. Systematic observations of persons who are together on streets and public places (my own research), shows that pairs and small groups tend to be similar on every dimension, including clothing style, physical size, and attractiveness-- i.e. they have sorted themselves by cultural capital and social class, but also by their positions in sexual markets.  Women tend to be friends with women of similar attractiveness, because they have similar backstage issues.

An open sexual market represses overt expression of sexual desire for several reasons. One reason why people very rarely say something like “I’d like to have sex with you,” is that most of the time they will be rejected. The target of the advance may not at all be a prude, but simply someone higher in the sexual market. And rejection is not only a downer in its own right, but it also tends to publicize one’s own level of sexual un-attractiveness. Paradoxically, the more open the sexual market, the more individual-level psychological pressure exists to avoid exposing one’s own sexual desires. The expression of desire risks a negative judgment about one’s market position.

Thus the persons who are most open in expressing their sexuality tend to be among those who are most sexually attractive.  The expression of sexual desire itself becomes stratified in a time of sexual openness.

sexual ranking at IMF meeting



[3] Sexual domination and counter-mobilization

Sex is a potential site for conflict and domination. Some feminist theorists have asserted that sex is always a form of domination, or at least heterosexuality always is. In social science, “always” is a dangerous term, since variations spread across the spectrum, and it is more useful to look for the causal conditions rather than an alleged constant. In some arenas (such as prisons), homosexual sex is more frequently the target of coercive practices. [O'Donnell 2004]

Since the aim of this article is causal explanation rather than protest and policy, let us ask the question: what settings produce the most sexual domination, both coercive and indirect? And what conditions mobilize social action against sexual domination?

Indirect sexual domination is implicit in some kinds of sexual property, especially in the patrimonial household politics already discussed. In those settings, sexual violence mostly comes out when the informal controls are challenged.* Modern sexual markets have probably increased the historical incidence of some kinds of sexual coercion, since date rape could hardly exist in societies where there was no dating, and fraternity party rapes could not exist before the era of co-ed schooling.


* This doesn’t inevitably happen.  Cooney [2014] shows that the weaker the clan’s political control and the more the family lives in modern urban conditions, the more likely they are to let off the culprits from their tribal code. When they can keep the sexual defection of a daughter or son secret, it is often indulged; but when it comes out in the ethnic community, the family may be goaded to act violently to protect their reputation.


There are at least five distinct causal pathways of rape (date rape; serial stranger rape; carousing zone rape; political rape; rape in the course of another crime.)  I will put aside the topic of the causes of rape for fuller treatment in another post.

Here I will concentrate on two arenas where opportunities for sexual domination have changed, and where counter-movements have mobilized against them. My analysis focuses on the theme we have been pursuing, what causes sexual repression.

The two arenas are age restrictions on sexual contact, and restrictions at work.

We have already seen that age limits on sexuality have grown historically. They were virtually non-existent in most tribal societies. In patrimonial household politics, child sexuality was promoted when political marriages were arranged at a young age. The category of childhood is a modern construction, at least in the sense of a social category backed up by law. Of course medieval people recognized that children were sometimes too small for adult activities, but there were no rigid dividing lines; what children did was determined by their particular capacities and the political maneuvers that took place around them. For centuries in Japan, children were put on the throne so that they could be manipulated by regents, often from the family of the child-Emperor’s wife; and child sexuality was encouraged precisely because political influentials wanted an heir from their line.

What created the sharp dividing lines that separate childhood from adulthood, legally as well as moralistically, was the rise of modern bureaucracy. The power of the household was reduced by the bureaucratic state. The state began to impose requirements for children to be educated in a bureaucratic school system; labor laws were created, under a variety of influences including both labor and humanitarian movements, which restricted or prohibited employment under particular ages. States have increasingly penetrated households; at first (starting in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s) this was done to enroll the population for military conscription, and for taxation; approaching our own times, for the purposes of social welfare, public health, equal opportunity, prevention of child abuse, and a growing list of causes.

Bureaucratization means setting out formal rules and keeping records. The rules are designed to disregard individual circumstances and lump everyone into abstract and easily measurable categories. The growth of mass education has placed increasing emphasis on age-appropriate activities, as  laws have mandated education for lengthening stretches of everyone’s lifetime.  Schools in medieval times, and up through the 19th century (as in rural schools in America), generally lumped together children of very different ages; they all learned in the same classroom, with the abler ones moving through faster at their own pace. (For instance, Sir Francis Bacon went to Cambridge University from age 12  to 14, tagging along with his older brother; he entered law school at age 15, but soon went off on an informal apprenticeship as secretary to an ambassador. This cursory formal education did not prevent Bacon from becoming the most learned man in early 17th century England.) By the early 20th century, schools were moving students through rigidly according to age-graded classes; skipping grades was allowed as an exceptional policy, but both formal and informal pressures were against it.

It was in this context that laws controlling the sexual behavior of children-- now a strictly age-graded category, with no concern for individual variation-- became formalized in law. Children are now defined by their age, not by their capabilities. Social movements have been mobilized, since the mid-19th century, to protect children, as seen through eyes and social values of the reformers. Some of these movements were notorious for imposing the values of puritanical Protestants upon immigrant families in American cities; others have dropped the religious themes, and put themselves forward in the name of humanitarian, scientific, or medical ideals. Because resources for mobilizing social movements have continuously expanded in the 20th and 21st centuries, movements to control the lives of age-defined persons (“children”) have become increasingly influential.

There is no natural, culture-free reason why persons above the age of 18 should be regarded as sexual predators against those below 18. Since boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are typically between males a year or two older than females, there comes a life-passage when what was acceptable at least informally in these age-segregated enclaves becomes illegal. Increasing pressures on courts to impose uniform penalties, has combined with the successful efforts of social movements to punish all sexual offenders not only with prison but by labeling and segregating them for the rest of their lives. The results include instances where the sexual activities of boyfriends with girlfriends end up in the public roster of sex offenders as indistinguishable from the most violent rapist. Young female teachers in their 20s who have affairs with teenage boys (probably the most sexually mature ones) are treated as if they were raping little children. The spread of surveillance cameras, where videos are routinely monitored by bureaucratic authorities and handed over to prosecutors bent on increasing their conviction rate, is one more feature of today’s impersonal organization intruding on private lives to enforce laws that are oblivious to individual differences.

Genuinely humane persons might recognize that the category of statutory rape should be replaced by more flexible consideration of circumstances.  But it is characteristic of a bureaucratic society that once rules are written into laws and standard organizational practices, unintended consequences merely become normal. Peeling back such laws and procedures is more difficult than the flurries of scandal and melodrama that first enacted them.

From the high ground of sociological analysis, we can summarize: the combination of modern age-graded bureaucracy and the ease of mobilizing social movements is a new source of sexual repression, rolling back waves of post-Freudian liberalization.

The other arena of new sexual controls is work.  Gender integration of women into formerly male occupations increased opportunities for sexual contact. The result has been two kinds of controversies. One is that men can take advantage of women working with them, either by superior force or by rank. Counter-movements have mobilized, and rules to prevent such victimization have grown, both within organizations and under government legal pressure. Since sexual advances are also made in an indirect manner, rules to control sexual domination have expanded to a wide variety of activities under the category of “sexual harassment.” One result has been that the loosening of sexual talk that happened from the 1930s through the 1980s, has been reversed. Whether this is good or bad from the point of view of men and women in the world of work, is no doubt mixed. One conclusion is clear: post-Freudian sexual liberation-- although still strong in popular culture and in the high arts-- has been turned back to a Neo-Victorian standard of official prudishness.


[4] Sexual distraction and sexual ugliness

This is a topic rarely discussed. It is more universal than our current movements for and against particular kinds of sexuality. Even if sexual domination were eliminated, this issue would remain.

Sexual arousal can be overwhelming, obsessive, shutting everything else out. This leads to practical norms to limit sexual arousal. 

Why is there a taboo against sex in public? Even in the most liberated arenas and sexual scenes of modern society, it is rare for people to actually engage in sexual intercourse in public, as well as other sexual acts. Anthropologists and sociologists [Ford and Beach 1951; Reiss 1986] have noted that with all the variety of sexual regimes around the world, there is one constant:  sexual intercourse almost always takes place in privacy.

The exceptions help pin down the sociological rule. Even in the most liberated circles, there are restrictions. Swingers groups (AKA wife-swapping), popular in the 60s and 70s, developed a rule: couples only, no unaccompanied singles [Gilmartin 1978].  The exchange had to be complete; everyone had to take part. Swinging was breaking the rule of monogamous sexual property; but it had to be equal-- both man and woman got the same license as their partner. Another rule: no meeting illicitly on the outside. What happens in swinging, stays in swinging!  If they were all going to have sex together, it was going to be in one place: group privacy, no public allowed, no side-involvements.

Studies of communes in the 1960s and 70s (Zablocki 1980; Martin and Fuller 2004)  found that the longevity of the commune was inversely related to its sexual openness.  Communes that strictly banned sex (especially religious communes) or communes composed of married or monogamous cohabiting partners lasted longest. Communes that had a policy of free love-- anyone can have sex with anyone, no questions asked-- were the most volatile. Why? In part, because their idealistic rule overlooked the sexual market and sexual attractiveness.  On one side, the men vied to have sex with the best-looking women, hence squeezed each other out. * On the other side, women sex stars were overwhelmed, and played their favorites.  And there was the snake in the garden, social rank:  a charismatic commune leader hogged most of the sex; and swingers groups among businessmen tended to fall into the pattern of the younger men with good-looking wives swapping with older men and fading wives, a trade-off of rank for sex, or sex for promotion.

*The same was observed in the bathhouse scene of gay sex in the 1980s and 90s, when the overt rule was anything goes, but in fact bathhouse participants queued up in order of personal attractiveness to get the most attractive men.

Although there is a fantasy ideal of orgiastic sex, it is structurally difficult, if not impossible. Orgies are depicted on ancient Greek drinking-bowls; but what we know about these scenes is that the group of upper-class men hired professional prostitutes for the orgy. [Keuls 1985]  Even with this commercial dominance, the border seemed to be enforced: everyone present took part in the orgy, closed to the world outside.

To repeat the question: why the taboo against public sex? The answer is that sexual arousal is distracting, it is contagious. There are rapes on record where men wandering around come upon a couple making love on a deserted beach, and  intrude themselves into the sex. Gang rapes often get started in the same way, without plan, sheer arousal-driven piling on.

The answer is a sociological transmutation of Freud. Sex is too strong a drive for people to let it go untrammeled-- which is to say, to let it go outside of privacy that limits it to just two people, or in rare circumstances, a larger but equally circumscribed group. This continues to be the pattern of Vegas-style all-girl junkets for sexual adventure. Pictures posted on Internet sites typically show a group of women of which one is having sex with a well-built man while the others watch; the partying atmosphere is displayed in their fancy clothes and their drinking. It remains a private group enclave, where everyone present is a potential sexual participant.

Sexual distraction helps explain the proliferation of sexually-inhibiting rules in the contemporary work place. In addition to the threats of sexual dominance, there is also the possibility that sexual arousals may take over and pull people from their work. It is hard to estimate realistically the strength of this threat, given that most organizations are not working at full capacity, and ideal efficiency is always hard to estimate. 

A hint is that sexual relationships at work are tolerated when they do not upset the organizational hierarchy or blur its chain of command.  On the Eastern front of World War II, it was common for Soviet commanders to take “combat wives”-- secretaries or telephone operators pressed into service in the manpower shortage, who became the sexual property of the highest-ranking officer for the duration. There was little push-back about the system. There are indications similar things happened on the Western front, at least among the Americans (such as the C-in-C Eisenhower having an affair with his chauffeur). *  But organizational sex only functioned when women did not upset the hierarchy. As women started making careers of their own, even vying for CEO in their own right, the stories that circulated in the 1970s of fast-track young women having affairs with CEOs gave way to the current standard of sexual restraint. 

* It is striking that the three most famous Presidents of mid-20th century-- FDR, Ike, and JFK-- all had illicit affairs, well-known to insiders and journalists, but no scandals were launched against them. Ari Adut  (On Scandal)  notes that in a more puritanical culture of polite discussion ("all the news that is fit to print," in the New York Times' now-outdated slogan) scandals don't happen because it is improper to talk about them in public. Bill Clinton's blow-job affair with a White House intern happened in the late 1990s when the public culture of sex was at its most blatant. Sex scandals have become part of the normal political repertoire for bringing down politicians and government officials.


A notorious example of what happens when sexual partying gets into organizational duties is the Abu Ghraib scandal. [Mestrovic 2006] The American guards carried out their torturing of prisoners with forced nudity and sexual humiliation, and in an emotional tone of joking and laughter. The presence of young women guards in the gender-integrated US Army-- one of whom got pregnant by a leader of the revels-- was a major ingredient in the partying atmosphere. Politicians supporting the guards argued it was nothing more than the fun of a fraternity initiation.  It was so much fun that they couldn't help sending out the photos that implicated them.

Bottom line:  sexual arousal upsets organizational hierarchies. The solution has been to keep it rigidly under control. 

The hypothesis this gives rise to is the opposite of post-Freudian liberation:  the more gender equality in the future, the more Neo-Victorian repression in the realm of work and politics. 


Sexual ugliness

There is another dimension of how sex disrupts everyday life. Since almost all depictions of sex are tittilating, this one runs against the ideological grain:  Sex is often ugly.

Freud himself said, the sight of the genitals is not beautiful, although it is exciting. This is confirmed by photographic evidence. There are exceptions, but these help tell the sociological story.

The history of pornographic magazines in the 20th century provides evidence on how sexuality is depicted in styles varying from idealized to ugly. The first successful magazines (Playboy, founded 1953; Penthouse, founded 1965) projected an upper-class image, a fantasy of sexual luxury. Playboy reached a peak monthly circulation in 1972, at 7 million copies-- for a time it had the second biggest circulation of any magazine of any kind except TV Guide.  Penthouse peaked in 1984 at 5 million.

Put this in context of the so-called Pubic Wars: Playboy had pioneered in showing beautiful nudes and semi-nudes, including stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, featuring bare breasts and pin-up leg shots. Under competition from Penthouse, by the early 1970s Playboy was showing similar women, in luxurious lingerie and decorator interiors, with a hint of pubic hair. Peak circulation in 1972 was early on in this process of genital strip-tease. By 1973-75, Penthouse was showing the same kind of luxurious bedroom scenes with women’s legs starting to come apart, revealing the interior of the crotch-- through a drawn-out sequence of disguising through shadows, fingers, and semi-revealing panties. Penthouse soft porn photography was famous for the heavy use of flowers, sometimes to set the atmosphere, sometimes to lend cover or suggest shape to the genitals.  Playboy followed suit for a while at a discrete distance.  But as Penthouse in the late 1970s and early 80s printed increasingly clear pictures of genitals with outer labia parted and then inner labia aroused, Playboy began to pull back  to its older pubic-tease standard of its greatest success. [Wikipedia articles; Venusobservations.blogspot.co.uk/pubic-wars]

Although Penthouse followed the pathway of increasingly edgy photos, this was not the formula for greatest market success. By the 1990s, Penthouse had lost much of its circulation, as well as virtually all of its mainstream advertisers. Like most sex magazines of the time, its advertising revenue shrank to telephone sex services. It continued to push the edge as a glossier version of hard-core smaller-circulation magazines, now showing  vaginal penetration as well as oral sex on both male and female genitals.  Penthouse with its money could still present explicit porn with better looking models, high-quality photographers, and luxury settings.  In contrast, Playboy in the 90s held to its stronger market niche of extremely beautiful, clean-cut models in slightly provocative nude poses. This was the luxury-sex market, on the conventional edge of respectability, where Playboy could get the most beautiful models by offering fees as high as $10,000 in the late 1970s (equivalent to $45,000 today)  for the monthly centerfold. Competing  magazines like Gallery in the 1990s offered $2,500 for the monthly winner of amateur nude photo contests featured in the magazine, $25,000 for the yearly winner. But it all went down hill. By 2003, Penthouse went bankrupt, then re-emerged with a modest circulation of 300,000. Playboy too was down, but held on at a respectable 3 million circulation as of 2006. The 40-year sequence is an experiment showing the greater attractiveness of idealized sex over blatant sex.

Another rendition of this history just says the porn magazine business was destroyed by sex on the Internet. This is a factor, but it doesn’t alter the point that blatant sex doesn’t sell so well. Playboy, the most conservative sex magazine, survived in reasonable shape, and was joined by new magazines like Maxim, playing for the niche of idealizing a respectably sexy life-style of successful men. Hugh Hefner’s celebrity-laden Hollywood partying style was the biggest attraction, not the amount of explicit sexual display. The most blatant sex magazines were already declining before the Internet  became dominant. A further peculiarity of Internet porn is that most of it is posted for free, by amateurs showing themselves off to each other. This resembles a private enclave of sex cultists, like swingers in a previous generation.

Compare now the sex mags that deliberately aimed at a non-elite, real-life, working-class view of sex. Hustler, founded in 1974, rocketed to a circulation of 3 million by the end of the 70s. It never rose above third place, but it did open a market for more blatant sexual display: what publisher Larry Flynt bragged about as “showing pink,”  i.e. fully lighted photos of open labia and vaginas. It should be noted, though, that Hustler during its early high-circulation years stayed closer to the Playboy/Penthouse style of luxurious settings, often with quite beautiful models. It parted company most blatantly in its cartoon features, rather juvenile satire of the scatological kind, toilet-bowl humor in pictures, with scuzzy-looking derelict characters. This was in sharp contrast to Playboy’s cartoons, which tended to feature stereotypical old rouĂ© millionaires with willing bimbos and trophy brides. The social class ambience is explainable in the trajectories of the publishers: Hefner started in the sophisticated literary men’s magazine Esquire, Flynt as promoter of a string of roadside strip clubs.

As Hustler got more blatant, more working-class in appearance, and lost its idealized  settings for pornographic displays, it lost ground in the market faster than its rivals. By the early 2000s, it was hanging on below 500,000 circulation, and offered $1500 for the monthly amateur photo winner.  Even cheaper-style presentations of sex were on the market by the late 1980s and 90s, pioneering photos of actual sexual intercourse (rather than the genital-hiding couples features in classic soft-porn Penthouse that resembled body-double sex scenes in Hollywood movies). A useful comparison is Lips, which imitated a popular feature in Hustler and Gallery: amateur nude photo contests, with cash prizes for the winners. Lips appeared to print more or less all comers, pushing the edge by concentrating on close-up photos of female genitals in their opened and aroused state. There are no luxurious backgrounds, in fact usually no backgrounds at all (although Hustler and Gallery amateur photos show that most of them are taken in cheaply furnished working-class homes or rural outdoors). Such magazines are relatively limited circulation, sold primarily in non-corporate, independent liquor stores and mom-and-pop markets-- lower class all the way around. This is sheer un-idealized genital sex, and one effect is to show how often genitals are rather ugly.

By what standard can one make such a judgment? Beautiful depictions of human bodies are very symmetrical, with clear simple geometry; long graceful curves, proportions that have been calculated as a “golden mean,” inflections of curves that gracefully change direction and convey a geometry of three dimensional solids. Art instruction books tell how to draw a beautiful woman by staying very closely in form; especially drawing the face with as few lines as possible, highlighting the curves of jaw, cheekbones, lips, eyes. Superfluous and complicated lines (not only wrinkles, but contorted body lines) are avoided. Obviously this is not the standards of abstract and expressionist art, but it is the standard of success in erotic art from the pin-up era through the peak of Playboy/ Penthouse/ Gallery market sales.

As one can see in close-up depictions of genitals, and especially labia in an aroused state, they do not often fit the criteria of graceful curves. Aroused genitals are often asymmetrical, full of bulges and pockets; colors when engorged with blood range through purple, brown and grey. This is not universally true, but classically beautiful genitals are probably rare, judging from the array of commercial porn. The 1970s era of the Pubic Wars, when photos at most showed inner labia peeking through the dark hair of outer labia, were piquant, but close-ups of hairy crotches themselves generally are more of an jumble than as aesthetic pattern. This is so even in photos of women chosen for their overall beauty.  In collections of amateur photos of ordinary working-class women, frequently what can be seen of the rest of the woman’s body is flabby, wrinkled, boney, or sometimes with skin eruptions. (This last is completely excluded in magazine porn with professional models, who are selected for their good skin, indeed as the sine qua non of every kind of modeling.) Surprisingly often the fingers and nails shown in crotch shots are unmanicured, even cracked, bandaged, or dirty. One conclusion is that the people submitting these photos (usually the husband or sexual partner of the model) find this an object of desire that outweighs any aesthetic considerations. True enough; these photos come from the lower end of the sexual marketplace, but individuals match up by desire as best they can at that level too. This underscores the point that successful porn depicts a fantasy  of the upper end of the sexual marketplace, where a fantasy of wealth matches a fantasy of perfectly sexy bodies.  And even under those conditions, female genitals are not on the whole highly aesthetic.

The same is true of male genitals. Not to say that male genitals are incapable of being idealized, like Michelangelo’s statue of David; and porn photos sometime show classically beautiful male bodies and even penises with classic proportions. The bigger circulation sex magazines started showing male genitals relatively late, in the 1990s when female genitals had been shown for about 20 years. Why this is the case has not been sociologically explained. Even the most blatant of the sex mags, Hustler, instructed amateur photographers that it would not accept photos of erections, although occasionally it printed frontal photos of “well-hung studs”  in the amateur section. When photos of erections and intercourse started appearing in the 1990s, it became apparent that an erect penis is often bulging with veins, trails off into loose skin, sometimes distended testicles; altogether quite far from the aesthetic criteria of a few smoothly inflected curves. (Depictions of erect penises in ancient pottery and statuary, included ritual door-marking herms, clearly idealized penises to an aesthetic standard, since modern porn photos rarely look so pure.)

Bottom line: comparison of un-idealized, naturalistic photos of both male and female genitals indicates that genitals per se are not the most beautiful part of the body; they rarely fit the criteria of symmetry and graceful geometry that many people display in their legs, hips, breasts, arms and faces. To underline the point: genitals are not usually attractive aesthetically, but of course they can be a powerful center of attraction as the target for sexual action.

Comparing the techniques of idealized and un-idealized pornography shows that erotic attractiveness is constructed through the total effect of the body in its setting. Professional photographers at the high point of soft porn popularity in the 1970s showed genitals in the midst of photos posed and manipulated for maximal aesthetic effect and social prestige in the non-genital features of the photo. Luxurious upper-class and fantasy settings. Women with curvy legs, firmly rounded breasts; long beautiful hair, stylishly coiffed; beautiful faces with high cheekbones and full cupid’s bow lips.  Body postures carefully posed to get at the best angles to display the curve of a thigh or a calf, the hang of a breast; awkward poses eliminated in the pile of rushes. In the midst of the picture, increasingly the peep-hole widening on the crotch. But since close-ups of pubic hair and crotch hair are not in themselves aesthetic, photographers position them as accent marks in the total picture; something like beauty-marks, actually skin blemishes that set off the rest of the face. Of course the genitals are the object of erotic interest, in the fantasy of consummating with oral touch or real penetration, but the photo is frozen in the visual moment. Dark pubic hair was especially dramatic for the total aesthetic project; that nuance disappeared with the shaved style that came in the late 90s.

An analogy is depictions of breast nipples and areolas. During the pin-up era of the 1930s through the 50s, both in drawing and photos, artists worried over the question, to nipple or not to nipple, and if so, how distinctly. Large, dark areolas can have a strong effect as an accent mark, making breasts look spectacular when they echo larger curves with concentric ones. But close-ups of breasts tend to zoom in beyond optimal aesthetic distance. Close-up, nipples and areolas are often lumpy and unsymmetrical; this appears to be especially common for women with very large breasts. Since big-breasted women display the strongest distant marker of female form, they tend to be the favorite for lower-class pornography. Here again we see a contradiction between the object of erotic action and optimum aesthetic presentation.

Finally, we should note that erotic photographs are often manipulated post-production. I am not referring here to censoring features like pubic hair by old-fashioned airbrushing, but the opposite-- making bare bodies look sexier. Photos in sex magazines are often printed in enhanced colors, especially a golden light that makes the skin look honey-blonde or coppery. (One sees this in non-erotic photography as well, especially in tourist magazine photos of hotel lobbies.) Comparison with amateur photos shows what needs to be touched up: natural skin color (even of Caucasians) is often a dull white, yellowish or brownish; the vivid hues are added by professionals. Some magazines print pictures both of the amateur photo submission and the results of the professional photo shoot; the same woman generally looks transformed, not only better coiffed and made up, but her whole body comes across as more vivid.

For all these reasons, the more blatant or hard-core the pornography, the less likely it is to be attractive aesthetically. Sexual ugliness is a fact that is widely covered up for most people in everyday life.


Social repression of sexual ugliness

Thus we have another facet of why totally out-front sex is controlled-- by most people themselves. Concern about sexual ugliness is not unconscious Freudian repression, but Goffmanian strategy of self-presentation.

Not to overlook all the changes that have happened historically in how much of their bodies people have displayed publicly. The bedrock limitation I am pointing to here is about people displaying their genitals. This is very rare throughout all societies, except in privacy with a person one is about to have sex with. It has often been noted that what someone looks like does not match very well with how their body feels up close, and that the quality of intercourse diverges widely from how beautiful or not the partner is. The point remains, that the visual repression of genital display has been widespread, and will likely continue to be so.

What has varied is displaying the rest of the body. Bodily ugliness has changed a great deal in recent centuries. In the Middle Ages, most of the population were ill-nourished, largely unwashed, often afflicted by skin diseases and other illnesses. Medieval aristocrats regarded the peasants who worked their land as dirty animals, hardly sexual objects. The sexual status of non-elite classes improved as indoor servants became better treated. In the early 20th century, working-class people started becoming much better fed, healthier, and better looking. Upper class persons, especially women, started getting more exercise and developed fitter bodies. This is one reason why shorter clothing became popular, especially in the series of economic booms since WWII. More people can wear things like bikinis (invented in 1946), because more people look better in them. The sexual revolutions of the 20th century have a lot to do with these kinds of improvements in general physical health and bodily attractiveness. If the trend continues, some forms of bodily display will further increase in the future-- but we can expect it will be confined to showing the more attractive parts of the body.

Future Limits of Sexual Repression

Further sexual revolutions in the future are certainly possible. In fact, we have been running at the rate of one sexual revolution every 15 or 20 years, since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Gay marriage is only the latest of the series. What else can happen? Sociological predictions take more than imaginative speculation, and are best made when we have a theory of what causes what.

Sexual property regimes have shifted historically depending upon the political uses of sex for family alliances; male and female incomes and wealth-holding; and the bundling of shared household property with sex and love.  All these generate possessiveness, in the form of jealousy and anger when the existing form of sexual property is violated. Whatever else is bundled with sex may well change in the future, but it seems likely bundling of sex with some kind of property will continue.

Sexual markets exist whenever people have choices of partners; this means competition, rejection, and psychological defenses against rejection. In a sexually liberated era, this is a major reason why most people are not very blatant about offering and asking for sex.

Sexual domination, in an era when it is easy to mobilize social protest movements, typically gives rise to counter-movements that restrict sexuality in arenas like work and government. Ironically, sex becomes more scandalous in an era of gender integration.  A similar process in the future may create new arenas for scandals as discrimination against homosexuality declines. Another possible future is that as social class inequality widens-- and we are rushing down that slope-- the advantages of the wealthier occupations will give more sexual leverage to the upper classes. A version of this exists already in the black lower classes of urban ghettos, where men who have jobs or even just substantial illegal incomes have many women seeking them, and can play the sex market in a cavalier fashion. (See the forthcoming ethnography by Waverly Duck, No Way Out.)

Sexual arousal is disruptive of normal routines, and will continue to be confined to enclaves where everyone takes part and outsiders are excluded (the prototype “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” junket).

The contemporary world is thus a patchwork of different arenas, some of them rigidly policed by political correctness, others blatantly displaying idealized images of sex. But sexual display is safest when it happens at a distance, not in personal relationships but for a mass audience; and when it is wrapped in aesthetic and class markers of eliteness and luxury. In the early years of the 21st century, advertisements in women’s fashion magazines-- especially those depicting the fantasy of a non-existent world of total sophistication-- show models in poses that mimic the soft porn of men’s magazines around the early 1970s.

jewelry ad, 2006



luggage ad, 2006




And the future of sexual ugliness? Further advances in electronic technology might produce virtual reality sex-- not just today’s pictures for masturbation but stimulating brain centers so as to convey the actual feelings of sexual intercourse, combined with idealized images of a beautiful body. Ordinary sexual ugliness would be side-stepped, the sexual market of person-to-person barter turned into a completely commercial market for non-human surrogate experiences. And then what? Social processes don’t go away just because of technology. Counter-movements would probably mobilize, treating virtual-reality brain-stimulation sex as dangerous as heroin. Since people generally enjoy sex most with someone they like, love and family will probably not disappear, although they would have to compete in the market with virtual sex.

In short, there will likely always be some social controls on sex. The Oedipus complex may be far behind us, along with the jealous father internalized as the Superego of the child who has to give up sexual desires for the mother. For reasons Freud could not have foreseen, there will always be some mechanisms of sexual repression.


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