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What is sexual repression for? 
26th-Jul-2003 09:16 am
Me: on Ferris wheel 2012-09-09

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?

Best essay in response gets rewarded with oral sex. (Or a sparkly sticker. Offer void where punishable by stoning or burning at the stake.) [Beware of the comment length limit, if you really want to write an essay.]

26th-Jul-2003 11:50 am (UTC)
It's also to be noted that Mead's Coming of Age turned out to be almost total bunk. Not so much that she made it up, as that she fell for "lets feed stupid answers to the stupid questions shes asking us" from teenagers she interviewed.
26th-Jul-2003 02:01 pm (UTC)

I’d heard that, and it made me pause before using that example, but I didn’t think of another one off the top of my head at the time. There’s an example that should have been immediately obvious to me: the Hawai’ians, or Kanaka Maoli. Since the Kanaka Maoli are also Polynesians, and definitely had much laxer pre-contact sexual mores than Europeans, I’m inclined to suspect there’s a fair bit of truth to what Mead’s informants told her.

But I’d also heard it asserted that her data was probably not that bad, but that the missionaries had been really influential in the subsequent generation or so, and the Samoans interviewed later had been eager to repudiate what Mead had been told. (I admit, that seems a bit of a stretch.) In any case, it seems to me that if groups of kids were even comfortable making up the stuff they told her, that suggests they were at least somewhat less sexually repressed than their Anglo-American contemporaries.

If you have a URL or two about the controversy, or a reference to an article I could find in a smallish academic library, I’d be interested in it. I read CoAiS a long time ago, and my only other information about Samoan culture is casual comments in conversation about her book.

Hmmm, on a hunch, I checked at the Wikipedia (certainly not an authoritative source, I admit). The article on Margaret Mead is interesting, and meshes nicely with my expectations.

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26th-Jul-2003 02:05 pm (UTC)
Good points. Coincidentally, I’ve just started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. I look forward to getting to that bit. It’s also interesting in this context that large conquering cultures seem to tend to be patrilineal rather than matrilineal.
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26th-Jul-2003 03:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with Noumenon, I think it boils down to population control. There are times (or have been hystorically) where infact the population needed to be increased, and those seem to reflect times of 'excessive' behavior.

I do think however these things take a while to change. Especially when religeon is used to impart these social codes. Now we have birth controll, methods of disease protection, etc, but we can't wipe out the years of programming instantly (well most of us can't) or even very quickly as it is still 'written'.
26th-Jul-2003 10:11 pm (UTC)
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.

Well...given that "sex-negative" is a variously definable term, I'd still have to disagree with regard to Islam. Throughout most of Muslim history (in the Middle East, at least), attitudes toward sexual pleasure have been far more liberal than in, say, Christianity -- assuming you're talking about the behavior of married men and women. Granted, Islam shares many other religions' intolerance of homosexuality and of sex outside the marriage bond, though there are exceptions and social workarounds in many Muslim countries for both: in Saudi Arabia, for example, male homosexuality is seen as a relatively normal adolescent behavior; and in Iran, day-long marriages are legal and allow otherwise uncommitted men and women to have sex together.

But (and I realize this is a big qualification), assuming you're talking about heterosexual marriage, Islam is aggressively sex-positive. From the hadith advocating oral and anal sex to the sharia rulings that guarantee women a legal right to sexual pleasure and birth control, Islam's historical relationship to sexual gratification is a far, far better one than, oh say, the Roman Catholic Church's.

Granted, that's not saying much. But I at least like that the Qu'ran proposes that God invented sex for the same reason He made fig trees and cool breezes: for the pleasure of His creations. A far cry from original sin, anyway.
26th-Jul-2003 11:32 pm (UTC)
Just as an aside....it seems like most people during this thread are thinking of "civilization" in western terms. Just because you're not the Roman Empire, doesn't mean that you don't have a structured, stable society. Many Native American tribes were settled in one place, cultivated land, had a working governing structure...and as I understand it, had very strong sex-positive feelings. My two-cents.
27th-Jul-2003 10:42 am (UTC)

(6:32am on a Sunday morning? I hope you were still up from a wonderful late night, rather than up that early to get up to Lowell for work or something.)

That’s a good point, but the particular kind of “civilization” (if we want to call it that, which I don’t) I was asking about was the kind of “civilization” that lets you impose your values on your neighbours, the Roman Empire kind, because I’m curious why puritanical sexual mores spread so much. (On the other hand, the native Americans weren’t conquered because of their sexual mores, but because of European disease and European military and economic power. Of course, alongside the military conquest, there was also the religious conquest at the hands of missionaries.)

Do you happen to know anything about pre-contact Mayan and Aztec sexual ideology? (I know nothing at all about it.)

27th-Jul-2003 12:23 pm (UTC)
Check out Bernardino de Sahagun's Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, which is a rather astonishing ethnography of Aztec culture right at the time of European contact. Though it's been some years, I believe he talks about sexuality, particularly in relation to religion; and though de Sahagun was a Catholic missionary, he was still pretty objective for his day.
28th-Jul-2003 01:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks for all the nifty book recommendations! I look forward to checking them out.
27th-Jul-2003 10:52 am (UTC)

Great point. I knew about Iranian temporary marriages (although I understand a fair amount of the older population finds them somewhat scandalous), but I didn’t know about the Saudi acceptance of adolescent male homosexuality. Still, Iran (or Moorish Spain) is a far cry from pre-contact Polynesia. But I agree that over the ages (if not right at the moment) the Islamic world has probably been more tolerant of sexuality than the Christian world.

I don’t suppose you can point me at a good history of the Islamic world, can you?

27th-Jul-2003 12:11 pm (UTC)
It's not a history per se, though given a few minutes in my own library (I'm chez surrealestate right now) I could easily dredge up some broader recs, but I'm very fond of Geraldine Brooks's Nine Parts of Desire. It's a social history and analysis of women and Islam, and provides a nifty look at gender and sexuality in a Muslim context.

I have heard many excellent things about Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Islam if you're looking for something more general, but I haven't gotten around to it yet and so can't vouch one way or the other personally.
27th-Jul-2003 12:18 pm (UTC)
My bad: the actual title of the Armstrong is Islam: A Short History. I also neglected to mention John Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path which is a good historical, cultural, and theological overview of the faith, and which I've used in prepping my own lectures on Muslim religion and literature.

Finally, I'm fond of Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam, which focuses on Sufism and does a nice job of exploring some of its more transgressive practitioners, including Rabia and al-Hallaj. Sufi poetry and theology uses some interesting sexual metaphors, many queer (Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet, was passionately in love with Shams al-Tabriz, another male Sufi, most of his life), and you might enjoy reading a bit about that tradition.

(I'm really not an Islamicist. Just picked up some odds and ends along the way.)
27th-Jul-2003 11:27 am (UTC)
I just want to know who gets the oral sex.
27th-Jul-2003 11:41 am (UTC)
So far, I think noumenon and scholargipsy are in the running, just on the basis of length. (scholargipsy’s reply wasn’t in the form of an essay answering the question, but on the other hand, he did henna my wrists last night, and that has to count for something when you’re giving out blowjobs.)
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