Am I sexually repressed?
How do you know if you're sexually repressed?
Asexual or repressed?
I've written about repression before, but I wanted to have something more serious for people wondering if they're repressed, for people wondering if someone they know might be repressed, and I wanted to have something more serious because many asexuals hear the suggestion that they may in fact not be asexual. They might be sexually repressed.
Since first finding the asexual community, I have had a growing skepticism toward the concept of sexual repression. I knew that it originated with Freud (or was at least popularized by him) and that scientific psychology tends to hate Freud. A lot. Many of his ideas are untestable, unstudyable, and therefore unscientific--yet people think of them as being facts of science, sound psychological knowledge. I wondered if this might be true for the concept for sexual repression.
Another thing that bothered me is that in popular usage, there are are two rather distinct meanings of "sexual repression" that get merged together, in a fuzzy, muddled confused sort of way, and no one seems to notice. One meaning is simply to say that some people are in denial of their sexuality. They have sexual desires, they have sexual feelings, but they refuse to acknowledge them, pretend they aren't real. When their sexual values and sexual beliefs conflict with their own sexual reality, they try to convince themselves that the do not feel what they indeed do feel.
The second meaning is that everyone--or at least most people--have these powerful, innate sexual desires, and if they repress these, if they do not act on them, it will create neuroses, mental illness, mental problems in their lives. Connected to this is the belief that everyone has these powerful, innate, natural sexual desires, and if someone is not interested, it is because they are repressing them, it is because they are sexually repressed.
As I understand it, Freud meant it in the latter sense. As I have attempted to make sense of this concept, I was quite surprised to find that my thoughts have been informed largely by a sex-therapist with a psychoanalytic approach, a sex-therapist who hardly has kind words to say about the idea of "sexual repression." In Sexual Reality and How We Dismiss It, Bernard Apfelbaum explains the origins of Freud's idea of sexual repression. (By the way, this article is probably the most interesting piece on sex that I've ever read, and if you've got a bit of time, I would highly recommend it. At 11,000 words, it is a bit long, though.)
To illustrate how our ideas of sexual reality are shaped by our fantasies rather than reality, he quotes John Howard Van Amringe, dean of Columbia College in the 19th Century, who was defending the policy of having an all male school. "If you can teach mathematics to a boy when there's a girl in the room then there is something wrong with the boy." Apfelbaum reflects on this:
Now, as it happened, so many boys have learned mathematics with girls in the room, that we need to ask where Dean Amringe went wrong. The answer is that he confused fantasy with reality. He imagined what it would be like to be a boy in a coed college and this just seemed to him to be a highly erotic prospect. Nowadays, sobered by the reality of coed experience, our imagination is no longer so free to play upon it.
He likens to this Freud's ideas of sexual repression.
Freud is, of course, the modern authority for the image of sex as wild and primitive, at odds with decency, the beast with two backs rattling the bars of its makeshift cage. Perhaps no less than St. Paul he thought of us as daily wrestling with our animal nature. Although Freud's conception is well known, it is not so well known that it was based on an inferential leap.
Now here's a big surprise: the reality that Freud observed was entirely the reverse. Freud's belief in the strength of the sex drive was based on his observations of its weakness. The evidence that Freud adduces for his vision of universal sexual repression is his observation of a widespread lack of libido in both men and women that he called impotence, being careful to say that he was using the term in the broadest possible sense.
After quoting an observation by Freud noting the widespread sexual disinterest, lack of pleasure, and sexual boredom, Apfelbaum makes the following analysis:
This was the sexual reality that Freud observed only to reject it. It is as if he observed that all the boys were learning mathematics with girls in the room and, fully agreeing with Dean Amringe, concluded that there must be something wrong with all the boys. This could not be the natural state of man. Hence Freud's inference that this lack of sexual excitement must be the wound we bear in the service of civilized life.
His point is clear: belief in sexual repression is not based on the reality of sex, not based on the reality of people's sexual desires. It is founded upon a dismissal of reality.
So, if you're wondering if you're repressed, if you're wondering if someone you know is repressed, if you're wondering if asexuality might just be sexual repression after all, the answer is quite simple.
You're not sexually repressed, they're not sexually repressed, no one is sexually repressed because there is no such thing as sexual repression. I previously gave two definitions of sexual repression. One is a denial of one's own sexuality and the other is a denial of the plain reality that a lot of people aren't interested in sex.
Certainly some people are very interested in sex. Certainly some people are in denial of their own sexuality, just as a lot of people are in denial about a lot of things. But I don't think we should call this sexual repression because by using that term, we perpetuate belief in its other meaning, a profoundly anti-asexual meaning. Indeed, an anti-reality meaning. If you or someone you know isn't interested in sex, it's not because deep-down they're secretly really interested in sex and are repressing it. It's much more likely that they're not interested in sex because they're not interested in sex.