Notes on Sexual Liberation, pt.1




1) Personal Background

For some time now I have been trying to develop my convictions regarding sexual liberation. I began life in a Pentecostal family, practically fundamentalist Christian, with the attendant rigid sexual mores. The wider culture in the 1960s and 70s was challenging these rigidities and my family was not immune to the temptations of pornography and other sexual liberalizations. I grew up with a fervent sense that sex was a divinely given gift, that could nevertheless be misused. I intensely craved the pleasure that it promised and ran headlong into marriage at the age of 19.

My marriage was troubled early on, and sexuality was one of my persistent dissatisfactions. I wanted intercourse daily, as I expect many men do. My wife was much more reserved. I had been indoctrinated with the claim that pornography was a sin and that even fantasizing about another woman was infidelity to my wife. My sexual frustration collided with my moral upbringing.

My wife’s story was one of even more rigid sexual repression. Several years into the marriage, she told me that her therapist had uncovered repressed memories of sexual molestation by an elementary school janitor. Her need to heal the trauma of this experience resulted in a months-long hiatus from sexual intercourse. My frustration intensified and, as time wore on, my guilt about pornography began to wither. My Christian indoctrination faded in the face of the sexual stand-off of my marriage. We did eventually resume intercourse, but my childhood religious sexual repression had been severely weakened.

Although sexual liberation came to fruition in the 70s, various forces drove this movement underground in the 80s. The Religious Right, AIDS crisis, and anti-porn feminism haplessly colluded in driving the agenda back towards sexual repression. While anti-porn feminists would deny that they shared any agenda with the Religious Right, they did in fact supply the Right with a new persuasive argument against pornography, i.e. that it caused harm to women. Some strains within feminism also attacked male sexuality in toto as sexist and misogynist. The utopian hopes birthed in the 60s were driven underground as renewed regimes of sexual repression attempted to force sexuality back into its domestic cloister.

Renewing the argument for sexual liberation is a difficult task for several reasons. Feminism, while not united in seeing all male sexuality as hopelessly sexist, still poses a profound challenge to any sexual liberation vision that doesn’t grapple with the real gendered power differentials in our society. The continuing influence of religious traditions confine sexuality to private realms of shame and repression, while trivializing any claim that sexuality and the need for sexual satisfaction is a social concern.

Nevertheless, a quiet underground of sexual experimentation has been growing even during the most conservative phase of our recent past. These subcultures have profound promise for renewing the movement for sexual liberation and for upending the moralizing tactics that have been so successful in our society. To build on this promise does require addressing the fundamental sources of sexual identity, shame, and expression.

2) Pleasure, shame, repression, and sexual identity

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 through the mouth is an intensely pleasurable act that begins in infancy and sets the stage for later desires.

Along with oral pleasure, urination and defecation are also pleasurable and lead the infant to the more typically recognized sexual pleasures. In time, most children discover their genitals and the pleasure of touching them. I remember vividly when my son grabbed his penis during a diaper change and giggled wildly when he was only a few months old.

Even beyond these specific bodily pleasures, small children are given to spontaneous nudism. Nearly all very young children will discard their clothing happily and feel no shame about it. The Garden of Eden story’s "naked and unashamed" description likely harkens back to this very primal unself-consciousness of children.

Of course, Edenic innocence does not last. Shame is very early visited on children’s naive bodily pleasures. Much of this shame is wrong-headed, especially in the matter of genital self-touching. There is no good reason to treat childish masturbatory touching as disgusting or naughty. Nevertheless, most parents have already imbibed their own genital shame and quite reactively project it on their children. Of course, teaching children discretion and privacy in this practice is healthy, but far too often intensely negative messages are given.

Returning to the primal breastfeeding bond, at early infancy, children have no sense of being boys or girls. A lot of speculation exists about innate male aggressiveness, and other sex-specific characteristics, but the children have no consciousness of gender and bond quite readily with their nurturing caregiver, usually female, as if they were extensions of their own bodies. The quality of this bond can vary from caregiver to caregiver, and if this bond is not consummated, indications are that pathological consequences do result. Even with the best of caregivers, the initial immersive bonding gives way as some needs go unsatisfied and the children have to escalate their demands for satisfaction. This escalation, and eventual exhaustion of the caregiver’s ability to satisfy the infant, force a psychological rift, the beginning of individuation. The child realizes that it cannot have all its needs satisfied and that its caregiver is not a limitless supply of food or holding or comfort. In time, the child begins to conform its demands to the limits of the caregiver, the basis for later obedience to the commands of the adults in its life.

In the later stages of individuation and language acquisition, sexual identity begins its first formation. The genitals take on names, and become linked to being a boy or a girl. The caregivers are also differentiated by whether they are male or female and the imperative to conform takes on the burden of gender roles. If the individuation is extreme, then the parent who was once the all-flowing source of nourishment becomes an absolute Other, the not-self against whom complete disidentification must be exerted. Boys shun female identification in the extreme cases. If a boy sometimes plays with dolls or wears dresses, and is subsequently discouraged, he is pushed further along the path towards hypermasculinization. Girls, if bonded with mother, have greater trouble totally retreating into disidentification. They seem destined to become little mommies. Each situation can propel either repression of femininity as the girl tries to resolve their gender crisis or hyperfemininity as the girl cocoons herself in the trappings of girlishness.

As children learn about their genitals what Freud identified as "castration anxiety" and "penis envy" do occur, though this may be less traumatic than Freud’s theory maintains. Boys do wonder if their penis can be cut off to make them a girl. Girls do wonder why they don’t have penises. Whether these early questions, rarely voiced aloud, dramatically shape sexual desire and orientation is an open question. Children don’t seem to normally obsess about their genitals, except in unusual circumstances. If a boy is intensely shamed for genital fondling, castration anxiety can become obsessive. I know that even as an adult, I have regular moments when unbidden images of my penis being sliced from my groin flash in my imagination. I don’t generally worry about this, but it is a recurring, not infrequent experience.

Girls who are shamed for touching themselves or being nude when troubling to adults, don’t envy the male penis, since boys are similarly shamed. Rather than penis envy, what seems to be more likely is a common sense of anxiety about exposure, a sense that their genitals are shocking, scary, or provocative to adults. This sense is likely tied specifically to male reactions. Men are troubled by seeing nude females in public. This can lead to a generalized body shame. In Islamic cultures, the burkha is among the extreme manifestations of male repression of female bodies.

As layers of sexual shame and confusion, as well as pleasure, desire, and disobedience to sexual restrictions collide in each child’s being, a plethora of unique sexualities emerge. As a result of gendered power differentials in society, female sexuality is more likely to be repressed and conformist. Male sexuality has a greater "play" in terms of rule-breaking, but given the childhood conditions of shaming and anxiety, male sexuality also exhibits a double-standard of often viewing sexually active women as dirty, at the same time as they seem intensely attracted to such women. This ingrained double-standard is the basis for anti-porn feminism’s view that sexual liberation is a no-win proposition for women.

The more conservative tendency of female sexuality is not rooted in illusionary anxieties for the most part. Men do mistreat, harm, and even murder women who are sexually aggressive. Male anxieties and shame about sexuality lead them to intensely desire complete sexual fusion with women, only to reject such fusion in the aftermath of orgasm. The no-win sexual situation dominates our society.

Leave a comment