Category Archives: Relationality/Sexuality
On July 8 self-described feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino was a panel member on the Melissa Harris-Perry talk show discussing “Porn in America” with others such as Michael Eric Dyson and Zephyr Teachout. Self-described anti-pornography feminist Gail Dines created something of a buzz as she objected that her viewpoint – which she takes to speak for all women’s real interests – wasn’t represented on this program. Betty Dodson responded in Taormino’s defense against Dines’ brand of feminism, thus re-opening the question of how can feminists be so polarized on this point? Even more broadly, what is the status of feminism and sexual emancipation in our time?
Pornography is a product, a commodity that is bought and sold on the market. Its production shares common features with other media productions, most notably that of the glamor magazine and the live-action video/film industry. Gail Dines’ view that pornography requires a sustained protest by feminists and their allies against its creation begs the question of whether such action might be called for against glamor magazines and other media productions that employ people in displays of their bodies with or without clothing. Does Dines consider Playboy magazine – the largest selling porn magazine, even in this era of ready availability of much more explicit kinds – more of a threat to women’s freedom and equality than Cosmopolitan, which outsells Playboy by nearly double? If Playboy sells women’s nude bodies to men, Cosmopolitan sells women an ideal of sexuality and womanhood that is not that much different.
Perhaps Dines does care about opposing Playboy and even Cosmo, but in her public lectures her most intense animus is directed against video and film pornography that directly pays women to engage in sexual acts for the camera with other actors who are also paid. For Dines, the fact that a visual recording is being made of a sexual act for a profit elevates the risk of harm that all women face as they daily defend themselves against a male-dominated sexually aggressive culture. One might ask whether there are other live-action visual media that also contribute to this culture in Dines’s view? Did the Oscar-winning film The Accused in which Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in the final scene in a bar elevate the risks of male aggression against women? Did it perhaps contribute a critique of male aggression? Might feminist pornography create such a contrast to male-dominated sexuality?
Addressing that male-dominated sexuality brings one to the question of male aggression and violence, specifically the sexualized violence of rape. Tristan Taormino’s most popular porn videos are her Rough Sex series which features couples engaging in various mildly sado-masochistic scenarios. What sets this series apart from most in the genre is that each scene is created by the lead actress, who is filmed in an interview with Taormino beforehand. All the hair-pulling, verbal sparring, sexual coercion, and other aspects of the scenes are planned by women and directed by a woman. Not all scenes are of men as aggressors, since a significant number feature men or women being dominated by their female partners. While not all feminist pornography is quite so fixated on sexual aggressiveness, Taormino’s approach offers a window into the questions that feminists ask about rape as a social force, but does it really answer the questions? If some or even many women find male sexual aggression erotically desirable, does that place the desire itself above criticism? Do some women’s fantasies of being forced into sex against their will truly reflect an innate aspect of sexual desire, or rather of the fact that men already are in power, so sexually egalitarian and consensual relationships are impossible or perhaps too bland to be deeply enjoyable?
If Gail Dines overestimates the centrality of pornography in the structure of male domination, Tristan Taormino underestimates the pervasive power of male dominance and how it obstructs the struggle of women for genuine social equality. The problem with censoring pornography is the problem of censorship in general, it gives those who already have power a warrant to apply that power to further restrict critical discourse about the structure of our society, including its sexual dynamics. The limitation of feminist pornography in furthering women’s emancipation is that the power men exercise over women isn’t primarily located in the bedroom. Male domination is structured throughout our economic, political, cultural, and social institutions. Men possess more wealth, hold more political offices, control the production of culture, and maintain social influence that outweighs women in nearly all arenas.
Furthermore, this male dominance is not equally distributed. Men are not all elite masters of their own fate. Most men share with most women in a variety of conditions of exploitation, disempowerment, and repression, albeit in significantly distinctive ways. The systemic structure of sexuality in our society is intertwined with a broader complex of social power systems. Dines’ radical feminist viewpoint eliminates this complexity so that the very fact of pornography is reductively seen as a creation of men purely for the purpose of maintaining sexual control over women. However, which men are doing this creation? If women create their own feminist pornography are they incapable of shaping an alternative viewpoint to male domination? Dines would deny this, since in her view, all men seemingly collaborate to repress all women, and her central emancipatory project is to stop men from creating any pornography at all.
One of the unusual features of the modern history of sexual power is that the rise of pornography has coincided with relative increases in the social power of women. If one compares the status of women at the beginning of the feminist movement at the 1839 Seneca Falls Convention to today’s situation, only someone with ideological blinders would say that women now have less power than in 1839. This suggests that male domination isn’t tied mechanically to the creation of pornography. In fact, most women tolerate pornography, even if they don’t view it themselves or even personally find all of it offensive. Especially more younger women have come to consider it part of their sexual development.
The relative gains in women’s power over the past 119 years are not because men have decreased their view of women as sexual objects, but because they have decreased their view of women as slaves to motherhood. The justification by the Right throughout the past century for confining women to subservient roles has been carried out as a defense of the sacredness of the family and a central division of labor within it. Christian ideology about the male as God’s chosen leader in the home serves to enforce a life of cultural and social deprivation upon women. This is justified because children seemingly deserve a full-time caregiver who must be a woman divinely outfitted for this task. This logic has been shaken, especially for women of the middle and upper classes who now expect to become college educated and enter the workforce. Poorer women have always been denied the full-time mothering role. Concomitantly, these newly privileged women have themselves begun to rethink the question of their sexual fulfillment and to divorce sexuality from this nostalgic notion of romance and domestic bliss.
Of course, this de-romanticizing of motherhood has actually not been carried out in such a way as to equalize male and female participation in child-rearing, but rather by the creation of a laboring class of women to carry out this function, daycare workers and in-home babysitters. It would seem that yet more radical changes need to be made in the gender dynamics of society before we can truly emancipate all women. Battling against all pornography, feminist or not, seems a distraction from this larger project.
In fact, if one returns to the question of pornography as a product that requires labor to create, the disparity between male and female contribution to this product seems to harbor similar imbalances as childrearing. Men are the main consumers, the overwhelming majority of porn directors, of screenwriters, keep the lion’s share of profits, and are the primary driving force behind the industry on nearly all levels. Feminist pornography tries to redress at least some of these imbalances, and feminists could do more by advocating for sex worker rights, supporting legislated labor standards, encouraging women to exercise their civil rights in cases of job discrimination, elevate healthcare standards, greater unionization, and other forms of activism that not surprisingly parallel the general needs of all workers in our late capitalist economy.
Replacing the cultural regime of compulsory motherhood with either the reclamation of “slut” as a badge of honor or by empowering middle class women to rise into positions of power within capitalism seems to leave the majority of women still trapped in the lower tiers of a wildly stratified social order with the majority of men who also reside there. Social inequalities of class, race, and political power frame, structure, and frustrate the quest for human fulfillment, sexual and otherwise, for most of the world’s men and women. Feminism definitely has a central role in this task, if it can break out of its middle-class captivity and achieve radical solidarity with its sisters and brothers below.
Is human society unalterably fated to reproduce in each generation inequalities, hierarchies, and domination? Is there a drive within each of us to both be dominated and to dominate others? On this most basic question, the radical left has tended to assert that “human nature” is not inherently competitive, aggressive, or domineering. Such traits are considered by many to be constructed by social processes or conditioning.
I’m currently taking a course on the sociology of inequality and the readings so far have focused on social class as a political, economic, and cultural category. Humans are sorted into various niches in society that either give us advantages or disadvantages, usually some mixture of both. Wealth, politics, race, and other systems confine most of humanity into conditions of subordination.
Throughout modern history especially, a recurring resistance and challenge to existing power-structures has emerged, most effectively in the overthrow of monarchies during the Western Enlightenment. The “Divine Right of Kings” was rejected forcefully after ages of some form of unaccountable political power ruling nearly all humanity. Democracy, the rule of the people, became the new standard of political authority.
However, this victory over monarchy and feudalism seems incomplete. It has only succeeded in a limited range of nations, notably Europe, North America, and a few other places. Even where democracy is in force, the social order still depends on a strict division of power between the electorate and the government. Democracy does not mean direct empowerment in contemporary politics. Further, in most democratic nations, the economic system is still very undemocratic with a clear top-down polity. Why can workers not vote together to fire their bosses?
While I am passionately committed to overcoming political and economic domination, there seems to me not enough commitment on the left to overcoming gender hierarchies. Look at a list of speakers for political panel discussions arranged by left-wing organizations, nearly every panelist is male. The most common exception to this pattern is when the panel topic is on women’s issues. Having to point this out in 2012 after decades of feminist agitation on the left seems ludicrous. Women are fifty percent of the population, they should be fifty percent of the panelists for any public forum on politics.
Some may raise the concern that setting a 50% standard for women’s participation will result in tokenism. I would prefer to risk tokenism than to keep attending male-dominated left events. Michael Albert in his 2006 memoir, Remembering Tomorrow, worries out loud about the lack of submissions to his Z Magazine and Znet sites from minorities and women. He points out that law school admissions are now very close to equality by gender, yet month after month as Z Magazine decides on its articles, women and non-whites submit only a fraction of the article volume that white males do. I admit that I have had to make a deliberate effort to include women’s voices in my political reading.
I am convinced that a critical component of the reproduction of social domination is the suppression of women. While Marx favored the working-class as the revolutionary agent to go beyond capitalist democracy, I believe that women play perhaps an even more crucial role in transforming society. We’ve had almost two centuries of fomenting workers’ revolutions and precious little has come of it, in my estimation.
That said, I do not take a radical feminist view that all men are oppressors or exploiters. A socialist-feminist merger of class struggle with gender struggle seems a most promising political strategy and analysis. This gives a somewhat elevated role to working-class women as leaders of revolutionary struggle over either bourgeois women or working-class men. Ideally, a partnership of equals is the goal, yet the means to the end seems to me to explicitly favor working-class women’s revolutionary leadership.
The socialist-feminist analysis of the opening question, “are human beings inherently aggressive and competitive?” takes on a different answer than the conventional wisdom. From socialism, the analysis is that competitiveness and aggression are responses to economic class struggle. From feminism, male competitiveness is also about maintaining control of women’s lives for male advantage. For the wealthy to maintain social and economic dominance they must restrict resources and encourage competition among the workers, often using race and gender to divide workers.
Going even further, the reproduction of social domination seems intimately bound up with the way children are raised in our society. From birth to early childhood, both boys and girls are primarily cared for by women. Men put in far fewer hours of effort and care for small children. This division of labor isn’t lost on the children’s formative experiences. Females are caregivers, males are distant in the experience of children. This lack of emotional intimacy provokes an identity crisis in boys especially. They generally lack a rich interaction with a male that can flesh out male identity for them. Male inattentiveness to children’s early lives results in boys who repress their early sense of intimacy and fusion with their female caregivers. This repression works itself out as aggression, reinforced both by the unsatisfied desire for an older male’s affirmation and caring, and from the sheer difficulty of repressing one’s feminine identification.
Most adult men interact at a very externalized level. They don’t talk about how much they desire to be loved, to be affirmed, to feel safe in the arms of a woman. The male “world” is harsh and unsafe, while retreat to the arms of a female lover provides a singular solace to most men. When men do discuss “love” it is almost entirely in terms of lust and sexual conquest.
This hyper-masculine pathology isn’t uniform for all men, certainly not along the divides of class and other privileges. Some few men did have caring involved men in their early childhoods and later on that have mitigated the damage that the exploitation of women’s childcare work typically does. In some liberal subcultures, such as Quakers, feminism has penetrated deeply and an equality in childcare duties is almost commonplace. Quaker youth typically grow up with much more accepting and flexible gender identities.
Even if a man didn’t grow up with an involved healthy adult male caregiver, simply recognizing that this is part of what one really desires is a major realization. Every male I’ve ever known can recount stories of their father or other older male wounding their ego. Rather than attend to such wounding and healing it, most men “shake it off” and put forward their chins to face more male aggression and to give as good as they’ve gotten.
Healing masculine wounding isn’t easy work. I spent years in psychotherapy working on my father issues and in some sense am still working on them. However, I wouldn’t trade all those years of work for living the unhappy and confused life I lived before feminism and psychotherapy began to heal me.
That we live in a male-dominated competitive and aggressive social system is undeniable. Transforming society involves first of all empowering women to share power with men in all arenas of life. It also involves men doing the hard work of recovery and healing from the effects of male domination.
Yesterday I was reading a science text on physical cosmology that was quite critical of string theory and of physicists in general for allowing theory to trump evidence. In the course of his critique he claimed that the birth of science was in fact due to the Christian idea that God as absolute creator established unalterable physical laws to govern the universe. He argued that no other worldview, whether Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism had such a determinist foundation.
This got me thinking about Marxist determinism, which in some sense became a dogma under Stalinism. In the preface to Kapital Marx writes, “And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement — and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society — it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”
This characterization has the peculiar antinomy of all deterministic statements, it posits a continuum of cause and effect, but then also posits a “deus ex machina” agent (or subject) that is “outside” and can alter the process. The ruling metaphor here is almost that of an obstetrician midwifing a birth. However, the revolutionary observer, who seeks to “lay bare” the natural laws of society’s motion, isn’t in fact a skilled physician, but rather, in our moment, a disparate collection of theorists, organizations, movements, and activists who each describe part of the elephant of revolutionary potential in terms of their immediate interests. They, too, are buffeted by the “successive phases” of social (economic) development.
This reminds me of the Kantian antinomy of freedom, that while all natural phenomena (including the perception of autonomy) are determined, human reason demands a perception that it is free.
One way that I’ve handled the freedom vs determinism antinomy is to borrow from our favorite leftist supplementary discourse – psychoanalysis. The problem isn’t that our freedom is frustrated by a deterministic continuum of cause and effect in which we are helpless cogs, but that we have formed unrealistic expectations of freedom itself. This certainly was the case in the 60s New Left, when so many felt “revolution was in the air” even as the cops killed the movement leaders systematically with the consent of the majority.
How does subjectivity become “unrealistic’? By splitting itself from itself via the trauma of achieving autonomy. We deny our dependence on others, our embeddedness in the very systems we have come to hate. Our hate has a rationale, but our psychic deformation under the death-systems of sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism induces within each and every person an irrational sense of individual responsibility for forces beyond any one’s control.
Why does achieving autonomy shape us into irrational subjects? Because we want to be far more free than is possible. We want to command mother to feed us and change us on demand. When she fails to satisfy us we hate her passionately in infantile tantrums. When our tantrum subsides through exhaustion, we are driven to renegotiate with the still all-powerful caregiver we’ve tried to murder in our imaginations. Beneath the traumatic shame and guilt we come to feel at our hatred of mother is an unresolved anxious feeling of failure, an irrational hope that we can someday actually force mother to give us everything we want when we want it. These fantasies of omnipotence and future autonomy in relation to mother’s failure to satisfy our desires are projected onto social and economic systems. Mother was supposed to be able to feed us, to change us (which toilet-training ended), and to let us play any game we wanted any time we wanted, endlessly. The “Law of the Mother” is far more potent in the infantile imagination – and omnipresent in the adult ego – than that of the “Father.”
One of my favorite philosophers, John Macmurray, analyzed the problematic of agency and irrational desire by pointing out that “since our actions contain a negative element which is … ‘unconscious’, the unconscious motive may find expression in action, so that we find that what we have done is not what we [consciously] intended, but something different; even something opposite and contradictory to our intention. In our relations with other persons this ambiguity of motivation is felt as a tension and a constraint between us, and therefore in each of us.”
As revolutionaries of the left, our conscious intention is a mass revolution in which the majority of humanity rises up as a unified movement against its exploiters and oppressors. However, as irrational fantasists of absolute autonomy, we want this revolutionary movement to satisfy our needs, recognize our theoretical mastery, and fulfill our freedom. We must each face and mature beyond our internal irrationalities, our trauma-induced fantasy of absolute freedom, and our desire that we never need depend on another (Mother).
Although it is something of a wordplay, there is substantive truth in the concept of interdependence that has emerged from ecological philosophy and political activism. The illusory dream of absolute independence cannot be simply rejected for the dangerous myth of complete dependence. We are not slaves to natural law, nor are we limitless free subjects. Our freedom is found in interdependence, in seeking out companions and partners for the grand project of human emancipation. Overcoming our resistances to an egalitarian leveling that includes and limits our own desires, to the recognition that others hold indispensable keys to our own emancipation which they can only truly give us if they freely choose to do so, and finally acting according to the realization that we cannot be truly free if we do not invest ourselves in emancipating others, even at the cost of our irrational desires and illusions.
In his classic interpretation of psychoanalysis, Norman O. Brown elaborates on Freud’s theories to develop a reading of history as a conflict between the two drives, eros (love/life) and thanatos (death/hate). Brown paints a large canvas that encompasses art, science, economics, and religion. The conflict is not merely within the individual, though its totality is at its most visceral there, but even more inescapably present in our relations with the others from whom we seek the satisfaction of our desires.
While Brown recognizes the role of the mother in this primal conflict, he fails to fully grasp her significance. Dorothy Dinnerstein brings this significance into focus, elaborating the conflict between life and death as a conflict arising from the loss of dependent infantile oneness, the demands of maturation towards independence, and the gendered differentials that permeate that process. Conventional female-exploiting mothering stamps every infant with a psychological “malaise” that yearns for a fantasized primal wholeness and binds each human to a violent trauma of lost love. This illusory fantasy of wholeness itself occludes a deeper persistent duality between life and non-life, yet in the ambivalence of maternal bonding, that imaginary wholeness becomes a bottomless source of both a passion for love and, for death.
The “working” male parent is subconsciously shaped within the child into a fantasy of escape from the rules and limitations of the mother. Father’s daily departures form a blank canvas filled by the child’s wishes both to be free of mother and to be able to control her for the child’s unsatisfied desires. As the child begins to connect their own identity with the parent of their gender, a crucial fulcrum is reached.
Girls begin to perceive that they cannot become the independent beings that their fathers symbolize. Boys begin to perceive that their primal ungendered connection to their mother is a threat to their successful achievement of male identity. Girls start down the tragic path of self-repression and hyper-femininity, while boys repress their core experience of dependence on mother and begin manifesting the all-too-familiar male ego.
Females in the conventional family become specialists in connection and empathy, or in Freudian terms, eros. Males specialize in aggression and competition, or the death drive. This is not some biological destiny, but the predictable outcome of a systemic privileging of fatherhood that bifurcates the child’s experience of gender into a pernicious duality.
As conventional mothering came under increasing criticism in the second wave of feminism, circa 1953-1982, economic forces gave some ambivalent propulsion to its erosion. Capitalism seized the new social moment to begin hiring women in massive numbers outside the home and classically female occupations. To a very limited extent some men began to take more interest in their children’s nurturing needs, but by and large, women were still the primary nurturers for children, only biological mothers were now supplemented by – usually female – babysitters and daycare providers.
The “Moral Majority” backlash against feminism targeted this very phenomenon as a precursor to the apocalypse. A new theological offensive predicted dire consequences if motherhood wasn’t restored to its Biblical mandate. Abortion came to symbolize the dangers of women’s emancipation.
This masculinist counter-offensive was a predictable response to the limited new social liberties available to women. The male ego built upon the denial and repression of feminine characteristics is reactive, aggressive, and resolutely stands against the realization of an emancipatory erotic future. The death drive seeks only power, not love.
Recently, I drew a figure of the eightfold systemic struggle domains with an eye to illustrating the interrelationship of these systems. For some time, I have found it likely that systemic struggles were not all equally weighted in terms of social revolution, but making this figure produced some striking results.
My basic idea was that ecology is the widest system that contains all the others as subsystems. Within the ecosystem, gender, race, and class seem to have the most direct impact on human suffering, that is, non-whites are the largest single exploited social group, women are second largest, and class domination encompasses not only women and people of color, but also a the majority of the caucasian population.
At the center of the diagram, where race, class, and gender intersect, it seemed natural to place sexuality or relationship as the central field. I didn’t expect that result, but it ultimately males a great deal of sense. Sexual reproduction produces racial lines, gender is a primary embodiment of sexuality, and economics is ultimately a field of relations that have affective valences.
Though not a point to be overdone, it can be noted that gravity, the cosmic force that moves bodies, is also referred to as “attraction.” Certainly, all human interactions are relational and the systems of organized human relations are as nearly pervasive in our daily lives as gravity.
One of my favorite philosophers is John Macmurray, a Scottish Christian who became a Quaker late in life. His magnum opus is a two-volume set of Gifford lectures which are collectively titled The Form of the Personal. Volume 1, The Self As Agent is a critical examination and proposal to replace the excessively theoretical, dualistic, and egocentric view of humanity of modern society, with a more adequately practical and relational viewpoint. V. 2, Persons in Relation begins from this new standpoint to critically examine and explore the field of personal relationships, from infancy to family and to society, religion, and politics.
Macmurray’s conclusion regarding humanity is that our authentic nature is that of persons in relation, beings who are undeniably interdependent on others. This interdependence is complex and fraught with conflict, and with opportunities for reconciliation. The endless task before each person is that of becoming persons of mature love.
This love begins in our lives as a love we should receive from our parents and earliest caregivers. This love we receive will never be limitless, though we may desire it to be. The limitations of our original caregivers provoke fear in us and we reach out to communicate our need to be cared for. Healthy consistent caregiving teaches us that our fears can be assuaged, and our needs met.
Healthy human relationships are not perfect, are not ideal. Each of us fails to be the fully mature loving person we imagine or desire to be. There are many human beings in our world who have never known healthy love. These persons act from fear, anger, and hatred. Indeed, at the smallest scale, social injustice and much of human suffering is the product of a failure to achieve mature reciprocal relations between humans.
I am very interested in a fusion of feminism, Socialism/Marxism, and psychoanalysis/sexual psychology. My concerns are similar to those that animated the Frankfurt School and today Žižek, why do the masses seem to gravitate towards the Right? What can progressives do to intervene for emancipatory ends in the social sphere?
Freud’s theory of eros, death drive, and unconscious broke ground that has since been surpassed, but still stands as important early contributions to the unfinished project of human psychology. Today, the theorists who most interest me are feminists like Jessica Benjamin, Isaac Balbus, and Nancy Chodorow. Where I feel that psychoanalytic feminism as represented by the above thinkers is limited, is in constructing a political economy out of their more individualistic foundation.
Balbus, with whom I’ve taken courses, does try to construct some rudiments of economic theory in his latest book, _Governing Subjects_. At this point, my working hypothesis is that the dynamics that feminist psychoanalysis identifies in forming authoritarian/sexist personalities, are embedded in class dynamics that affect how the personality/person rises within the social system.
The question that has rarely been asked outside of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic feminism is why did class systems arise at all in human history? The answer of FS is parental domination and harsh parenting. Psychoanalytic feminism’s answer is that before even harsh parenting, there is a pre-oedipal bond with the mother that gives rise to both an idealized memory of perfect bliss and the repressed memory of the frustration of that bliss.
The repressed frustration of infantile bliss gives rise to a desire for control of the mother/feminine in conventional families. It leads to an idealization of male power embodied in the father. This dynamic sets boys up to become male authoritarians and girls to adopt submissive personalities.
Class society emerges from the conjunction of personality formation and social conditions which sort out occupations by wealth, education, gender, family ties, and intangibles like “ambition.” The feminist intervention is for women to be emancipated from full-time motherhood and for men to become half-time fathers/childcare providers. This alteration in gender roles sets up a process of weakening the identification of authority with all-powerful maleness.
According to Balbus, the youth rebellion of the 60s was due in part to a large number of children raised under the permissive parenting theory of Dr. Benjamin Spock. This wasn’t an entirely feminist theory, but it did alter the cultural dynamic enough that rebellion on a mass scale was possible and even predictable. My sense of our present moment is that permissive parenting is still very much widespread, but that the Religious Right has done a great deal to destroy and attack permissive parenting. It must be stressed that Spockean permissive parenting is not an adequately feminist model.
“Man’s sexual organization and his social organization are so deeply interconnected that we cannot say which came first, but can only assume a simultaneous evolution (whether sudden or gradual) of both.” Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, p. 24.
As a social radical committed to abolishing war and poverty, it took a while for me to grasp the importance of the interconnection between social and sexual organization. How war and poverty may be connected to the seemingly tangential realities of sexuality aren’t clear. In fact, the apparently tangential relation of sexuality to violence may be the greatest sign that they are in fact profoundly connected.
After all, what is the theory of repression except the theory that we deny the true character of our deepest needs? We can understand quite easily why poverty and warfare are a threat to our very survival. It is harder to understand why repression and sexual frustration are also survival threats.
Sex is seen as an entertainment, a luxury, and a private matter. It is also never far from shame and disgust. Even when its centrality to our social organization is acknowledged, that centrality is often reduced to reproduction, with intercourse being the vehicle of conception, and of little importance beyond that.
It may help if we ask, what exactly is sex? Is it more than intercourse? To answer these questions, I find it helpful to begin with some Freudian ideas, though I acknowledge his controversial character.
Freud holds that our sexual drive – eros or libido – is in fact an integral part of our drive to live and survive. The desire for physical pleasure is part of our fundamental bodily life from birth. An infant does not know that sucking a breast gives them nutrition, they only know that the breast and its milk are pleasurable.
Children who do not receive breast-feeding are not necessarily sexually deprived, but taking in sweet warm fluid from the warm fleshy breast through the mouth is an intensely pleasurable act that sets the stage for later desires. “The sexual aim of the infantile impulse consists in the production of gratification through the proper excitation of this or that selected erogenous zone.” Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex
Norman O. Brown remarks how at the stage of breast-feeding our desire for survival and for pleasure are united. A suckling infant isn’t denying its desire for pleasure in order to seek out nutrition, as adults are compelled to do. This stage of “privileged irresponsibility permits and promotes an early blossoming of the desires of the human being….” Life Against Death, p. 25.
Of course, the idyllic fusion of mother and infant isn’t really idyllic. An infant is in fact capable of intense emotion, even sheer rage when it desires something it can’t seem to acquire. The infantile brain is filled with images and sounds it can’t make sense of and begins to imagine, usually quite fantastically, just what this world is truly like.
The world of the infant is both its experience of satisfaction and of deprivation, of comfort and caring and of lack and absence. This duality is posed by Freudians as the source and ground of two distinct projections and motivations, the life drive and the death drive. While in some real sense truly one fundamental drive to survive and connect with the world, the positive drive and its negative counterpart often become disintegrated and in conflict.
In many of us, especially men, the death drive emerges into an aggressive motivation to control and dominate others or our surroundings. We subordinate our desire to connect and feel affection to the desire to feel safe and in control. The connection between sexuality and violence becomes a bit more clear.
What Freud seemed to not grasp is that all this ambivalence of the human emotions is most directly aimed for most of us at our mothers, much more than at our fathers. The modern family shares with most traditional families the near total subjection of early childcare to women, whether biological mother or other females.
This means that the first being we learn to love and, most importantly, to hate is a woman. According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, mother-centric childcare “gives us boys who will grow reliably into childish men, unsure of their grasp on life’s primitive realities. And it gives us girls who will grow reliably into childish women, unsure of their right to full worldly adult status.”
In essence, the gender imbalance in our infantile experience leads men and women to a lifelong emotional immaturity. We split the world up into male and female domains, with the female domains being zones of love and tenderness and male zones being dominated by competition, aggression, and violence. A stereotyped polarity between loving women and heartless men structures every human interaction.
Since the 1960s, movements for sexual liberation have sought to overcome the repressive conditions of previous history. The availability of birth control freed teenagers from fears of pregnancy and led to the abandonment of pre-marital virginity by most. Experiments with group marriage, swinging, and nudism were tried, and in most cases have even more practitioners today than in their public heyday. Despite its origins on the left, much of sexual liberation gains were mainstreamed by capitalism into sexualized media, including pornography.
Beyond the heterosexual majority, gay, lesbian, and bisexual versions of sexual liberation took on strength. In addition to the desire to overthrow outdated sexual rules, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and eventually transgender movements also took on wider concerns about social equality and discrimination. Heterosexuality could no longer be assumed as normative, no longer were lbgt persons silent targets of sexual bigotry.
In essence the connection between sexual and social liberation revolves around the core values of freedom and love. We are seekers of love, even when life has warped our souls. Socially radical sexual liberation is the demand for nothing less than the emancipation of love itself.