A five-question-meme question and answer in a friend’s journal got me wondering about this question (not that it’s not something I’ve wondered about before): Why is it that the dominant, powerful cultures across the world seem to have been very sex-negative, very repressive of sexuality?
(Disclaimer: I’m not a historian or a comparative anthropologist. I know not whereof I speak.)
Sure, there are lots of cultures that have very little sexual guilt and shame. The canonical example is described in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. But I have the impression that those cultures tend to be small and localized, not the conquering, continent-spanning ones. Christianity and Islam and Confucianism (using those terms as shorthand for the cultures, not to denote the religions themselves) have all been pretty sex-negative for most of their history. I don’t know much about precolonial India, but I know it was more sex-positive than modern India — but the British Empire very successfully imposed a deep prudery on the subcontinent.
Actually, Victorian England is an interesting example. Prostitution was extremely widespread and pretty accepted, and judging by what statistics we can come by, there was overwhelmingly more sex between men and female prostitutes going on than sex between men and their wives. But it all had to be kept just under the surface, with a little bit of tension between what men did and what they talked about in public, driving the engine of sexual shame and guilt and fear. And of course the fact that so much sex was semi-underground had terrible consequences for the spread of disease. I think Victorian society may have been a mirror image of modern American society, where sexual tolerance is on the surface, but there’s a deep vein of sexual guilt and shame just beneath the surface.
So, maybe this is just a coincidence, and a cross section of the Earth’s cultures five hundred years ago or five hundred years from now would show a different picture. But I don’t quite think so. It sort of looks to me like there’s some sort of correlation between sexual repression and geopolitical success. If that’s true, why? What does sexual repression do for cultures that gives them an advantage over their neighbours? Are ascetic people, afraid and ashamed of their inner sexual beings, better warriors than their neighbours who are busy boffing like bunnies? Before modern medicine, was unrestrained sexuality too much of a risk in terms of deaths in childbirth and the spread of disease? (Of course, before contraception lots of mixed-sex intercourse would have equalled lots of babies, but I don’t think that explains all of it, since there are many other ways to express your sexuality, and avoiding something because it has consequences you don’t want is different from avoiding it because you think it’s a source of evil.) Does a sexual economy of artificial scarcity make it easy to use sex as a carrot to control the people? Or just to harness their libidos for other things, as described in 1984? Do people learn self-discipline through repressing their sexualities that makes them more efficient citizens? Or do I have cause and effect reversed, and is it political and military power and geographical spread that leads to sexual repression?
And if any of this is true (and of course none of it may be; I’m making this up as I go along), then why do Europe and North America since WWII seem to be bucking this trend? (There are a lot of reasons I can think of, including greater population density and mobility leading to greater anonymity.) If there is some sort of quasi-evolutionary advantage to sexual repression, what does it mean for western culture that we seem to be getting less repressive — or will that last?
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