“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.