Friday, June 19, 2009

Am I sexually repressed?

From time to time, people type a question into a search engine and find my blog. One question that I've seen a number of times is the title of this post.

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.


Queers United said...

im really glad these people are finding your blog as opposed to some pseudo scientific anti asexual jargon

Ily said...

Funny how no one wonders if people who have lots of sex are just over-compensating so that no one notices that they actually have a low sex drive.

Which is sort of what that awesome article is about. Thanks for sharing it!

Isaac said...

I think that when this dean said being something wrong he was implicitly homophobic and meant being homosexual.

ACH said...

Queers United, I was recently thinking about this. I think it is important for the issue to be brought up more because it seems to people tend to be fairly uncritical on this issue. After making this post, I used the article I quote here as a citation in the Wikipedia article for "sexual repression."

Ily, yeah, it is odd. If someone is having lots of sex (just not too much) people don't look for explanations (maybe they're trying to compensate for lack of desire, maybe they're trying to convince themself that they're normal, maybe they're afraid of being alone) but they do look for reasons for not being interested in sex. Of course the reality is...complicated! There are lots of good and bad reason for not having sex and there are lots of good and bad reasons for having sex.

Isaac, for some reason I hadn't really though of it that way. (I guess if he thought they were gay, he would think that boys wouldn't be able to lean math with other boys in the room?) I generally don't get bothered by quotes like this. They guy's been dead for a long time and his opinion isn't a viable option in today's society, so it's easy to think of it as a thing of the past, considerably removed from the current struggles of present-day society.

Isaac said...

A non-openly homophobe doesn't mind a drawback for homosexuals, but can't stand a drawback for straight boys which is neutral for gays.

I'd say that, if a dean think that a boy is wrong if he can learn math among girls, there's something wrong with the dean or with the teacher. In the latter case, teaching quality would be so bad that wouldn't do matter if the distraction come from girls or from the windows.

ACH said...

To me, the dean's comment reminds seems typical of the sort of argument that is often used (on a huge range of topics) to support the status quo. They imagine some potential change and warn against it with visions of dire consequences. But lacking evidence of whether those consequences would actually happen (or sometime ignoring the evidence because it isn't overwhelmingly obviously enough to get them to change their minds), they must rely on their imaginations. In this case, we have the benefit of hindsight, and his view is one that no one nowadays would take.

I think that the value of using this example is that based on current perspective, it is obvious to out that the dean's comment is nonsense. But for many readers/listeners of the talk it's quoted in, from their perspective, "sexual repression" doesn't seem to be nonsense. The analogy is, I think, helpful for putting "sexual repression" in a much different perspective.

Mary Maxfield said...

Didn't know much about the origin of Freud's thinking on sexual repression; thanks for the quick lesson. I'm a little hesitant, on the basis that people who do have stuff to work out before discovering they're sexual -- (I feel like I qualify as one of these people) -- might be inclined to read this as, "Oh, good, I'm actually fine." Granted, there's nothing wrong -- generaly -- with people thinking they're fine, but I wouldn't want anyone to stay stuck when they're might be a healthier, happier life out there for them. Not to claim that sexuality = happiness or health. But I'd claim that self-actualization does. All of that said, your next post (and the comments on it) make me think you aren't so much suggesting some of these issues -- like people struggling with sexuality after abuse or after a certain kinds of religious upbringing -- aren't issues, as you are suggesting we need to change the terminology. True? Or no?

ACH said...

I'm largely saying that we need to change the terminology. There are some sensible meanings and some stupid meanings for "sexual repression" and my impression is that the stupid ones are actually closer to the original than the sensible ones (though generally a dumbed down version). And the more pernicous meanings are still culturally active, so using the term, even for the sensible ones, has the real danger of reinforcing the more ideology behind the more harmful ones.

drew said...

I'm 20 and i find it extremely difficult to be close to anyone emotionally, mentally and physically regardless of gender. I have sexual and social desires which i would act upon if it weren't so weird for me. I feel like that makes me sexually repressed or perhaps suppressed by the workings of my own mind. Anyone have advice?

ACH said...

Drew, I wouldn't call that "sexual repression" as much as it is one set of desires being in conflict with another set of desires. Recently, there have been some people who identify as involuntarily celibate--often people who want to have sex but lack of skills necessary for navigating the relational components involved. You may find some helpful information on I hope that helps.

drew said...

thank you pretzel boy, that is an extremely accurate depiction of me minus my age. thank you for sharing!

Isaac said...

Is interesting this thing of involuntary celibacy. I always wondered why people have so much sex and can reflect in their behavior their sexual orientation. Technically it's something too complicated, since it involves two people with distinct interests. It must be the so-called sexual attraction the force that moves sexual people to try and try, but trying too much doesn't warrant success. I wonder how much involuntary celibacy there is in general population.

Anonymous said...

So what does it make me if I am interested in sex, I am not in denial of the fact that I have a strong desire for sex, yet I find it difficult to act or talk or function in a sexual manner around another person?