Freud and the Injustices of Societal Sexual Repression

In one of his most compelling and recognized works, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud ponders the utility and origins of sexual restrictions within a civilization and questions why monogamous sexual relationships between a man and a woman came to be so glorified, as well as how extra-marital sex, homosexual relations, and polyamorous relationships (among other a-typical sexual encounters) became vilified societal practices. Freud believed the very nature of civilization to be restrictive on human beings and to inevitably cause “discomfort”. In Civilization, he notes how impossible it is, “to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct” (Freud, Civilization), and with regards to human sexuality in particular, he believed, “the sexual life of civilized man is notwithstanding severely impaired” (Freud, Civilization). However, since Civilization was written in 1929, many sexual practices such as extra-marital sex, homosexual acts, and even gay marriage have lost their once tabooed mystique. But is Freud correct in his belief that societal repressions of sexuality between consenting adults are unwarranted and harmful? In tracing America’s historically complicated relationship with sexual norms, one can easily reach Freud’s conclusion that the societal repression of extra-marital sex and homosexuality, amongst other a-typical sexual practices, “cuts off a fair number [of people] from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice” (Freud, Civilization). Up until the “sexual liberation” movements of the 60’s, the undue shame associated with extra-marital sex prevented individuals, and especially women, from exploring and enjoying their sex lives for centuries. Guilt and harmful misconceptions have plagued the practice of homosexuality throughout history, and the increasingly favorable societal views of homosexuality not only help to dispel harmful myths surrounding gay behavior but can also save lives in the process. The common belief in Freud’s day that only procreative practices legitimize sexual interaction is thankfully (for the most part) a relic of our hyper-traditional past, but a continued normalization and push for societal acceptance regarding non-traditional sexual behaviors will undoubtedly assist in quelling the burdens Freud believed all individuals endure as a result of civilization’s membership.

A look inside the most recent issue of a Cosmopolitan magazine or watching an episode of Sex and the City would likely make Freud smile; people (and women in particular) have more sexual autonomy and freedom than at any point in history, but has Freud’s ideal societal normalization of extra-marital sex been of benefit to individual well-being? Although sex, within the confines of marriage, served the purpose of protecting women from the societal scorn of unwed pregnancies throughout the greater part of human history, the advent of hormonal birth control and access to legal and safe abortions all but eliminated marital necessities with regards to sex. The invention of the pill in the 1960’s marked the beginning of America’a “sexual liberation”, a movement towards normalizing non-traditional sexual practices including, but not limited to, premarital sex and sex outside of marriage. Freud’s views on sexual repression, in no small part, contributed greatly to this movement. Long before the revolutionary sexual writings and studies from the likes of Dr. Alfred Kinsey or Dr. William Masters were penned in the mid-century, Freud expressed open disdain for the common societal notion that, “sexual relations are permitted only on the basis of a final, indissoluble bond between a man and woman; [and] that sexuality as a source of enjoyment for its own sake is unacceptable…” (Freud, Civilization). It was no small wonder, Freud believed, that humans harbor such a peculiar level of hostility towards their own civility, that the very structure which affords us so many luxuries is also responsible for inhibiting our most natural human instincts, especially our sexual desires. The result, according to Freud, is a feeling of guilt for, and a discontentment with, the society to which we belong. The efforts to liberate extra-martial sex in the past fifty years have resulted in an exploration and freedom of sexuality unlike America has ever seen before. While the choice to only partake in sexual interactions within the marriage bond is a respectable and understandable choice, the societal freedom to make that decision for oneself without the shame and guilt of one’s surrounding community is an unquestionable improvement to the quality of sexual life.

Arguably, no other sexual practice in history has been accompanied with guilt quite like homosexuality, which makes Freud’s liberal outlook on sexual freedom all the more necessary, even in the progressive society we live in today. For many homosexuals, as Freud noted, the price of living in civilization is, “paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (Freud, Civilization). The guilt and humiliation of being gay in a society which condemns it, according to Freud, will be felt before, during, and after a sexual experience, and even the thought of enjoying gay interactions would be enough to ignite strong feelings of shame. This lack of societal belonging contributes greatly to the widespread epidemic of suicide and depression within the LGBT community, with LGB youth being almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth (The Trevor Project). However, thanks to significant advancements in science providing a deeper understanding of the sexual mind in the past century, homosexuality has slowly but surely become a more accepted and embraced sexual practice. Findings from the extensive scientific research regarding gay behavior helped dispel harmful and widely shared myths that homosexual behavior directly related to mental disease and criminality. Scientists also discovered that homosexuality is largely inherited, not the free choice that many believed it to be. These progressions in science coupled with the force of LGBT activism have left a staggeringly positive effect on society’s views of homosexuality. Sodomy has been federally decriminalized since Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, same-sex marriage was legalized with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, and according to recent Gallup polls, over 70 percent of Americans approve of these rulings. Research suggests that gay stigma, discrimination, and prejudice significantly contribute to the high risk for mental health issues prevalent in the LGB community; this means that not only can societal acceptance of homosexuality allow for more opportunities of enjoyable sexual exploration, this tolerance can save lives as well.

But are there sexual practices which society should not accept? Freud rightly believed, “psychologically it is fully justified in beginning by censuring any manifestations of the sexual life of children, for there would be no prospect of curbing the sexual desires of adults if the ground had not been prepared for it in childhood” (Freud, Civilization), but are there certain sexual practices amongst consenting adults which warrant societal censuring and even scorn? Freud listed polygamy alongside extra-marital sex and homosexuality as an example of sexual behaviors which society need not condemn, but I believe civilization’s disapproval of polygamy to be warranted in a way that the scorn for homosexuality or extra-marital sex is not. While Freud and I agree that all consenting adults should be afforded the freedom to enjoy and express themselves sexually however they see fit, prohibiting the legalization of plural marriage and celebrating monogamy as a societal ideal proves to be of invaluable worth. Supporters of polygamy share Freud’s belief that in modern society, “genital love…is further circumscribed by the barriers of legitimacy and monogamy” (Freud, Civilization) and find these strict boundaries to be antiquated and discriminatory. I, however, share the opinion of every preceding court case in U.S. history that polygamy, as a social ideal, is a regression rather than a progression. A careful analysis of polygamous social systems in comparison to systems that endorse monogamy shows troubling trends with regards to societal stability, and more specifically, the treatment of women. Polygamous societies are closely related to elevated instances of domestic and sexual violence, psychological distress, and a patriarchal control of wives. Women are also more likely to die in childbirth and are less likely to be educated at the rate of their male counterparts (McDermott, Expert Report). In light of these findings, the government has a more than substantial reason to forbid polygamous marital practices legally, and civilizations are warranted in celebrating monogamous relationships as a societal ideal worth promoting. Polygamy, despite Freud viewing it as yet another milestone of the sexual revolution, has yet to prove itself as a clear step forward for the rights of women or for the betterment of society. Freud viewed monogamy to be glorified only for its ability to be easily replicated with future generations and, “as the hitherto irreplaceable means of multiplying the human race” (Freud, Civilization), but I believe monogamy to be rightly celebrated as the liberal progression of intimate relationships and sexual behavior.

While Freud and I disagree on the utility of promoting monogamy, we share the conviction that civilization’s constraints on consensual adult sexual practices has proved harmful, unnecessary, and at times, even dangerous. The shame which once surrounded pre-marital or extra-marital sex, while understandable before the advent of birth control, only burdened individuals (and especially women) with unnecessary guilt for partaking in normal, healthy sexual exploration. The societal repression and condemnation of homosexuality for centuries has proved to not only be unfounded but entirely dangerous, the consequences of which include staggeringly higher rates of mental illness, depression, and suicide amongst LGB individuals. However, though the battle against repressive sexual stigma within modern society is far from over, I can’t help but think that Freud would marvel at what monumental strides in sex liberation have taken place since the writing of Civilization in 1929. Freud believed, “the two urges, the one towards personal happiness and the other towards union with other human beings must struggle with each other in every individual” (Freud, Civilization), but the major advances in sexual freedom since these words were written provides a certain hope to someday see a healthy coexistence between sexual pleasures and societal acceptance.

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