Why Is There Sexual Repression?

Sociologist Randall Collins writes:

Social rules are embedded in tacit understandings as to when a rule is to be invoked. Freud would have called this unconscious; Durkheim called it pre-contractual solidarity. There are many persons and many situations where one cannot ask for consent, or even bring up the topic.

By way of generating some sense of the social conditions, ask yourself: how many people can you ask to have sex with you? Think of the variations of how to say it to particular persons: politely, indirectly, blatantly, using slang, using obscenity: “Excuse me ma’am (or sir), would you like to fuck?” What would happen if you said this? In some situations today one would be accused of using inappropriate language, in others, of sexual harassment. In the era before WWII, you could get your face slapped.

I have appealed to your imagination of real-life occasions because in the vast number of situations where someone has a sexual interest in someone else, it does not get expressed at all. David Grazian’s book, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, shows what happens when young adults are out in the scenes where they are most explicitly looking for sex. Although both the boys and the girls* talk about what they are aiming for and what happened, they do this among themselves before they go out and after they come back. When they are on the front lines in the night club, virtually no one ever says anything like, let’s hook up. They are playing a game of pickup, but at a very distant level. Most of the excitement is in the tease and innuendo, and sexual scores are so rare that the boys end up bragging about getting a girl’s phone number, and the girls laugh about giving out fake numbers. Like most ethnographies, Grazian cuts through the ideal and shows the social realities of how the atmosphere of sexual excitement is constructed, like putting on a performance in a theatre.

Why doesn’t this scene, about as blatantly sexual as they come, have more real sex or at least more sexual talk? This means asking about the sociological processes that repress sex. We will come to the list of causes shortly; here they have little to do with the kind of sexual repression which concerned Freud.

Compare the few places where expressing one’s sexual desire face-to-face with its target is actually done. One is in front of fraternity houses, on heightened occasions like party-night afternoons, or at the beginning of term when new student cohorts arrive. There can be a lot of raucous hooting at passing women, commenting both positively and negatively on their sexual desirability. Notice two things: This is sexual expression, but without a serious aim to get consent from any particular woman; in fact, the impersonal and collective nature of the hooting makes this impossible. Secondly, even the frat boys’ tactic of strength-in-numbers-and-anonymity does not necessarily shield them from the negative reaction they would likely get if one of them said the same things to an individual woman. As social movements and administrative organization have mobilized, fraternities hooting at women are sometimes sanctioned or even closed down (as happened for instance at San Diego State University in 2014). The sociological pattern holds: expressing sexual desire is limited even in the most liberated society; it can be gotten away with more if it is ostensibly not really serious, or is carried out at a safe distance. Today, the most blatant sexual talk is telephone sex [Flowers 1998]. Sexual expression also gives rise to counter-movements. The sociological pattern is not sexual expression alone, but sexual conflict.

Inside the fraternity house, the situation is not too dissimilar from Grazian’s description of downtown nightclubs. [Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape; Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party] There is a lot of bragging talk about sex within the male-bonded group; but only a small sexual elite actually gets very much action. At parties, disguised by loud music, semi-darkness, and plentiful alcohol, the reality is that most of the frat boys are on the sidelines watching their sexual heroes. So, are they the ones who boldly ask for sex? Even here, the conversations are more tacit and oblique than blatant; the most successful approach is by sheer body language, dancing in high sync, laughing together. The less formal and coherent the talk, the more likely it is to build the mutual mood that may lead to sex. Uninhibited extroversion is favored by the scene, not the rational-legal language of discussion and consent.

The prevailing social pattern when talking person-to-person about possible sex is that explicit sexual desire is never directly expressed, until the situation has evolved non-verbally to the proper point; any violation of this tacit rule gets a negative reaction. The main exception is in commercial sex work, talk between prostitutes and prospective clients (Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours). But even here, the initial steps of negotiation are surprisingly round-about. Sex work illustrates a pattern found more generally in social stratification: low-class street prostitutes are most blatant in verbally offering sex; high-class prostitutes or “escorts” play out the girlfriend experience (GFE in advertisements) minimizing explicit negotiations in order to set a non-commercial atmosphere.

The most explicit sexual talk is in scenes dominated by males, not only because they control violence but because they are at the center of the carousing, “where the action is.” This is the pattern in unpoliced lower-class black inner city ghettos, where groups of dominant males– both teenage gang members, and some adult men– fling sexual banter at girls and attractive women, and humiliate those who object. [Jody Miller, Getting Played] This fits the sociological pattern of more blatant sexual talk lower in the class hierarchy. But it isn’t the whole explanation, since upper-middle class fraternities resemble lower-class gangs, except that they have the money for their own club house, and do not need to engage in street crime for income. Whether in tribal societies or enclaves in modern ones, a hyper-sexualized pattern of blatantly exploiting women occurs where the power center is a “men’s house” that is also the ceremonial center of the community.

In the gender-integrated middle and upper classes, much sexual talk is tabooed even when it has nothing to do with consent. Circumstances are rare in which persons can say directly to another: “How big is your penis?” or “You’ve got really great tits.” In the talk regime of liberal late 20th/ early 21st century, such talk would be considered over the top, if not called “politically incorrect,” “sexist,” or actually resulting in formal charges.

Socially constructed age limits

The other part of “consenting adults” is the age limitation. We take this for granted, as all customs generally are. But it is palpably constructed by social regimes, as we can easily see by comparing laws and customs in different historical periods. In this area, instead of a post-Freudian trend of increasing sexual liberation, sexual repressiveness has historically increased.

The strongest contrast is sex in tribal societies. One of the most detailed is Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islands north of Australia. The Trobrianders have almost the opposite of the official American position (that adults are sexual and children are sexless, unless adults impose sex upon them). In this tribe, childhood is the time for unrestrained sex; whereas adults are expected to settle down and devote themselves to work. Both girls and boys flaunt their sexual activity; both sexes go off on group sex-seeking expeditions; both show off marks of love-bites and scratches on the skin as proud tokens of sexual passion. This happens almost exclusively among what modern Americans legally define as children.

Among the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, there is a homosexual version (Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes). The normal life-course pattern is for an adolescent boy to become the sexual partner of a young man, the older initiating the younger into sex simultaneously with the mysteries of the warrior men’s house. It is not lifetime homosexuality but a stage of age-graded promotion. The boy is shown the sacred flutes and also taught to suck the man’s penis and swallow the sperm, religiously interpreted as giving manhood. As William Graham Sumner said, the social mores can make anything legitimate.

A similar pattern existed in ancient Greece. Young men of the upper classes, in the long wait for marriage to upper class women (who were snapped up very young by older men), had love affairs with boys of their same social class– preferably adolescents before the beard and pubic hair had grown. These were genuinely passionate love-affairs that would be recognizable today, except that young males rather than females set the ideal of bodily beauty. The ideal eventually became transferred to the female body, once Greek and Roman women became more emancipated. [Dover, Greek Homosexuality; Keuls, Reign of the Phallus]

This is a striking reversal of modern homosexuality, which is legitimate among adults but harshly penalized across age lines. For the ancient Greeks, homosexual relations among adult men was considered ludicrous; and anal sex– the predominant form of modern male homosexual practice [Laumann et al. 1994]– was regarded only as a humiliating punishment.

What can we get out of these comparisons other than that societies change and can decree anything is right and wrong?

Sex between adults and “children”– generally defined by the cutting point of age 18– is now labeled child sexual abuse. It is the most stigmatized of contemporary crimes. The rationalized argument is that the child has no power of consent, and that any adult must automatically be considered as taking advantage of them. This is a legal judgment, not a sociological one.

Where sociological evidence does exist is for the pattern that children who have had sex with adults– victims of child abuse– have many more life problems. [Finkelhor 1986] They have more drug use and alcohol excess; more unstable marriages and sexual partnerships; they are more likely to become victims of spousal abuse and violence; to have more trouble with education and jobs. The data analyses do not always control very well for confounding factors, such as lower social class and broken family structure; but on the whole, one can make out a sociological case why child sexual abuse is a very bad thing in its consequences.

Social shame causes the damage

There is one major problem: what is the causal mechanism? One might assume that a child who has sex with an adult feels traumatized; but this is not always the case. Sometimes the adult uses force, but in many cases the adult is a parent or close relative, often when the opposite-sex spouse is absent, and the child gets an early sense of intimacy and initiation into adult sexual privileges. The mechanism that causes the trauma, most typically, is shame. Shame produced by the reaction of the larger society, shame transmitted to the child by having to keep the sexual relationship secret. Shame and humiliation when the case comes to official notice; even bureaucratic policies to keep such cases secret (as far as the child’s identity is concerned) have the effect of segregating the child in an atmosphere where the secrecy is itself a mark of shame. This is shown in studies of juvenile facilities where children in such cases are segregated; and where a culture of precocious sexuality is further enhanced, since the one thing these kids have over others is more sexual experience, and they share it among their peers.

Social labeling theory has been applied to explaining mental illness, retardation, and numerous other things. The theory has not always held up when controls are applied to the data. But in the case of the life-long effects of being labeled a victim of child abuse, the labeling process is by far the strongest explanation of the debilitating consequences.

As social psychologist/family therapists Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger have shown, shame is the master motive of social control. Even tiny episodes of shame from broken attunement in a conversation bring hurt reactions; and if the shame is not overtly expressed and resolved, but hidden away (by embarrassment, by shame about being ashamed) it comes out in long-term destructive rage, against self and others. In my own theory of successful and unsuccessful Interaction Rituals [Collins 2004], disattunement and its concomitant shame lead to difficult social relationships; to loss of emotional energy, and instead to a cycle of depression, passiveness, and interactional failure. Via the shame mechanism, it is possible to explain why many sexual relationships between adults and children result in very negative life consequences for the children as they grow up.

Many sexual relationships, not all of them. We know that because of societies like tribal New Guinea and ancient Greece, where adult-child sex was honorable and celebrated, not regarded as shameful at all. In those societies, it had no negative consequences.

The purpose of this discussion is not to make sexual policy; but here is a point where sociological theory suggests what is being done wrong, and what could be done to solve it. The negative consequences of adult/child sex could be eliminated if society stopped treating it as shameful.

Who Can Touch Who When?

The formula “between consenting adults” has similar limitations in explaining the tacit social norms about touching another person.

Consider the range of touches that exist in our society, whether commonplace, restricted, or forbidden:

— shaking hands
— patting on the shoulder (usually clothed)
— kisses of all varieties: air kisses, cheek kisses, gentleman-kissing-lady’s-hand, kissing the Pope’s ring, lip kisses, tongue kisses, tongue-to-genital kisses

Notice, apropos of consenting adults, hardly anyone ever asks, “Can I kiss you?” (although social consent is explicit in the traditional wedding ceremony, with its climax “You may now kiss.”) When persons kiss, and what kind of kiss it is, is a tacit, unspoken part of a particular kind of social relationship. If it is the wrong social relationship, or the wrong kiss, there are repercussions. This is a sociological rule for all forms of touching.

Similarly with hugs. The style has palpably changed in American society, with a big shift in the 1970s towards much more hugging– not necessarily spontaneous, because it has become so strongly expected in particular situations. Take a look at the polite hugs which are now de rigueur in social gatherings of the higher classes– hugs around the shoulders, leaning forward, avoiding full body contact. In the 1940s, an enthusiastic hug consisted in grasping the other person’s arms with both hands, above the elbows– more enthusiasm shown by more body contact, within the limitations of the time. The ritual of sports celebrations (victories; home-runs crossing the plate) has shifted from merely verbal, to hand-shaking, to the now-required full-body pile-on. It is notable that body contact among American men is more extensive the more violent it is; swinging high-fives, forearm smashes, chest bumps, pile-ons are more favored than gentle contact, probably because the violence sends the message that it isn’t sexual.

Historical comparison helps explain the meanings of body contact vary. In traditional societies such as Arabs, it was common for groups of men in public to walk along holding hands or linking arms. Similarly, women in traditional societies linked arms in public. It was an explicit show of group tie-signs. It had nothing sexual about it; it expressed the politics of the situation when kin-groups and other close solidarities were all-important. As modern societies have become more individualized, tie-signs such as hand-holding or linking arms have narrowed in meaning, explicitly confined to sexual ties. It is the same with the decay of old kissing rituals like the French official who kisses the recipient on both cheeks after pinning on a medal.

In our sexually liberated age, many bodily gestures are restricted, because the default setting is to take them as sexual.

Four causal mechanisms that control sex

[1] Sexual property regimes
[2] Sexual markets
[3] Sexual domination and counter-mobilization
[4] Sexual distraction and sexual ugliness

These mechanisms, in one degree or another, have existed in every society. What varies is the strength of the ingredients that go into each mechanism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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