Sexual Revolution. Provisional Paper for Conference Revolutions and Sexualities, Krakow 26-28 september 2007



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Sexual Revolution. Provisional Paper for Conference Revolutions and Sexualities, Krakow 26-28 september 2007.

Gert Hekma, Univeristy of Amsterdam


There are several texts that suggest what a sexual revolution should be like. I intend to discuss the work of some authors who have engaged in these debates to get an idea what the concept of “sexual revolution” (and related concepts more along lines of “sexual liberation”) mean to these authors.
Sexuality & Revolution

Strangely, researching the authors that in modern times suggested or promoted ideas on sexual revolution or liberation, I found that the oldest had the more interesting ideas. Must I say that with the gradual and limited liberation of Western societies sex radicalism has been tamed?

My notes are preliminary because I had not enough time to study the many books that have appeared throughout the modern period, but they point to many important and interesting issues already.

I will discuss the following themes that seem to me to be pivotal to modern ideas about sexuality: first questions of nature c.q. culture of sexual pleasures, second of men and women, third of sexual preferences and identities including homo and hetero, fourth on private and public, fifth on sex, love and relations and add finally something about ages of consent. Of course some authors remain silent on such issues, sometimes they seem uninterested, and sometimes other issues crop up.

We should address the critique of Foucault that the Western world has become always more talkative on sexuality, and that it may well be that all these proponents of sexual liberation or revolution in fact contribute much more to the formation of sexual disciplines than that they help to promote what they say to promote. The confession of being gay has become a veritable industry in some places, and seems to have indeed important disciplining consequences. The heterosexualization of the world has made great progress, parallel to a rising gay and lesbian culture but gay and lesbian rights and visibility remain marginal on most places. The tolerance for gays and lesbians may in fact contribute to the heterosexualization of queers (so we discussed last year same-sex marriage as embedding queers in straight culture). The answer of Foucault himself, by pointing to “the care of the self” or to some form of dandyism, seems me very individualistic, and totally helpless when we face contemporary sexual politics of which many people have given devastating criticisms, f.e. Don Kulick for Sweden, Josephine Ho for South-East Asia while myself trying to do the same for the Netherlands.

My interest in the theme also comes from my discontent with the political silence of most postmodern and queer theory – that have become too often an irrelevant academic fashion


The marquis de Sade

The sexual philosophy that we have to ascribe to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) because he authored none of his works, is the most radical sexual philosophy up to this day to such an extent that Annie LeBrun remarked that none of all philosophers that discussed his work, from Bataille and Adorno & Horkheimer to Foucault, failed to grasp it.

Sade uses the enlightened philosophy of nature to invert it, and to persistently suggest that incest, prostitution, self-stimulation, sodomy, pederasty and lust murder are all in nature, and not against nature as both the catholic church and the mainstream enlightened philosophers would have it.

Men and women are equally lustful. Perhaps more women have succumbed to the ideas of the church that they have to be chaste, and keep their sexuality for marriage, but the “curious” girl will soon enough understand once she gets her erotic chances that the teachings of the church are opposed to nature, and start sexual activities. Moreover the categories of male and female are not stable and Sade likes effeminacy in boys and masculinity in girls.

Sexual practices are for Sade a matter of preferences that are very diverse and include violence, bestiality and scat and piss sex. Sade himself prefers most being penetrated and whipped – so we could describe him as a passive sodomite and masochist. He nevertheless likes to revert services so he can be sadistic and perform anal penetration. The one thing he finds disgusting is coital sex. His libertines will only engage in it to commit incest or infect a virtuous women with a venereal disease. Sade is multisexual and in his work is nowhere the idea that people have certain fixed sexual identities, but they will have some strong preferences that don’t exclude other sexual activities.

Sex is not a private matter in Sade – his sex is often orgiastic with plural partners, or take place in boudoirs, semi-public places between bedroom and street. It takes place where lust arises which is everywhere.

Finally, sex has nothing to do with love or relations. Marriage and family are only good for enabling crimes such as incest and adultery. Because having sex within the family multiplies the chances of incestuous and adulterous relations (especially when it leads to procreation), it still has some charm for Sade’s libertines. The strict separation of love and sex doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist in Sade’s life or work. Especially his letters to his wife show a loving couple. In his work marriages are fun and plural. The libertines in The 120 days of Sodom marry the daughters of their partners in crime to create connections between them and also to be able to disrespect marital laws. Moreover they marry the young adolescents that were brought to the castle for the orgies, and the “male fuckers”, the young men that have been hired for anally penetrating the libertines.

A main point of de Sade at the time of the French revolution was to have as few laws as possible – interesting seen the very small number of sex laws the Code Penal would countain (in fact three: rape, the habitual debauching of youngster under 21 years and public indecency). Since, the number of sex laws has increased dramatically, f.e. with age of consent laws, laws against pornography (see Iacuba & Maniglier 2005).

The problem for subsequent sex reformers with Sade is his radicalism: the violence, a total disregard for consent and for loving relations beyond sexual practices. His work remains nevertheless outstanding because the poetic way in which he indicated the many weak points of the enlightened sexual philosophy –its rationalism, its reliance on a good nature, its heterosexuality (before the word was coined) etc.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837)

Love is the first among the passions (love = love + sex). The passion best suited to create social ties.

The repression of love is a double political absurdity because first it brings all citizens in a state of secret insurrection, and second, it leads to poverty, oppression, deceit. Art and culture result of lived (and not repressed) sexual passion. So he sees a positive relation between sex and culture, while Freud would see the relation as negative.

Because nature loves contrasts, the young generally will go for the elderly. For Fourier, love needs social differences for stimulation – opposed to present-day ideas of the necessity of equality.

Also space for sapphists and pederasts, so for sexual diversity but not as radical as in Sade.

Exclusivity is radical vice of civilization (to be avoided); love is rallying – plural as Rene Scherer explained on our Amsterdam conference. Different from the egoism of the couple rallying love creates social cohesion.

Family life socialized in “phalansteres”.

Young people have no sexual desires – neuter until puberty, but then free.


The World League for Sexual Reform

The WLSR was on organization that represented the views of liberal and progressive sexual specialists, mainly medical doctors. The organization was established by Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis and August Forel in 192*. The aims of the new organization were rather tame. The great example of sexual law reform at that time was the Soviet Union and many experts from that mother-country of socialism visited the conferences of the WLSR.

Seen their background, the general idea was the naturalness of sexual expression. Seen the theories of Hirschfeld, male and female would be perceived as relative by some of the members, but this was not mentioned in the stated aims. Those spoke of equal sexual rights for men and women. The radical sounding “liberation of marriage” meant that married couples should be allowed to divorce. Prostitution was mentioned together with venereal diseases as something that should be prevented. The heteronormativity is clearcut in other aims that defended the right to birth control or protection of unmarried mothers. Rational attitudes were proposed “towards sexually abnormal persons” which apparently referred to homosexuals although the German and French versions speak of “intersexual” instead of “abnormal persons”. Still these intermediate variations of sexuality and gender were labelled in the Englsih version “abnormal” leaving normalcy to heterosexuality. Sexual acts between responsible adults undertaken by mutual consent ought to be regarded as the private concern of those adults and not to be criminalized. It is remarkable to read just before Hitler’s rise to power that the WLSR proposes eugenics for racial betterment.

Most of these points are still worthwhile to be defended, while some have seen great progress and others are outdated or remain controversial. Eugenics is completely disqualified by the Nazi-crimes against “unworthy” people. The rational attitude towards homosexuals is fine, but what was the meaning of them being “abnormal” in the English version? (for Hirschfeld, its German leader; intersexual stood for all the gender and sexual positions between male and female). Prevention of prostitution remains a contested issue while a few countries legalized prostitution (Netherlands, Germany).


Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)

We can be rather short on freudomarxist Wilhelm Reich. His ideal is straigtforward and fits the common socialist perspectives on sexuality. Young people should be left free to discover their sexuality and if so, they will without many problems, one might say following their nature, get into monogamous heterosexual relations. Because some people get confused on their sexual or relational desires, the possibility of divorce is suggested. Men and women are equal and instead of the men being allowed to be promiscuous and visit prostitutes, they will be monogamous under socialism as women already often are. Sex without love or intimacy simply for pleasure would neither exist under socialism. Homosexuality and masturbation should not be forbidden, but all youngster will get over such infantile behaviors in the socialist utopia. Marriage will have less importance because the family life including the education of children will be socialized. So it will be mainly an intimate relation. The main contribution of Reich to sexual theorizing was the attention he gave to the repression of sexuality as essential for capitalist exploitation of the working class. In the socialist regime, people would do their labor voluntary and disciplined. So the Reichian utopia is monogamy and only sex in loving relations for the sake of disciplined labor relations.


René Guyon (1876-1963)

René Guyon was a French lawyer and philosopher who lived the last third of his life in Thailand where he contributed to the law making process of the country. He adamantly opposed before the War the efforts of the World League of Nations in moral issues, in particular White Slavery, and after the War he wrote a short text to denounce the focus in the Declaration of Human Rights of the UN on marriage and the nuclear family, and the neglect of issues of sexual freedom – a tendency that has not changed since.1

Guyon sees sexual acts in this book as mechanical acts and it makes no difference which form they have: onanism (probably more common than heterosex accoring to Guyon), coital, oral, anal, homosexual, bestial acts. From a rational point of view they are equally legitimate. The only exception he makes are sadism and masochism because they are conflated with violence, and therefor he remains silent on this variation. Enjoying sexual pleasures is normal, abstinence or platonic love abnormal. He continuously criticizes Western culture (which is largely Christian) for having created taboos on all sexual acts except for coitus in marriage. He compares them with the greater liberties of the orient where these private pleasures are no themes of moral concern.

His perspective on gender is highly mysogynist. He sees women as parasites who make themselves dependent on man, the superior being. He however states that women have greater physiological capacities for sex, which makes them easily into prostitutes, or as he rather likes to call them, courtesans. One of the reasons he thinks the fuss about white salvery is non-sense is because it is a common experience for women to be bought and sold, in marriage, prostitution; and he gives several examples of women that desired their (sexual) submission.

He argues against the idea of eternal love (in or outside marriage) and sees what he calls individualized love as something that can only be temporary because all sexual desires fade away. Routinism robs the sexual act of its charms. Love is possessive and therefor creates jealousy. He doesn’t acknowledge a more general love beyond the sexual field, so for him love is simply sex and sex is for the moment, or short periods.

He bases his sexual theory on the work of Freud, but gives a more political and radical turn and criticizes psycho-analysis for taking a turn to convention (a word that provokes disgust in Guyon). The book is very refreshing because of its rational perspective on sexuality, but it is completely neglects the emotional side of sexuality, and remains – although giving perfunctory support to women and homosexuals – utterly male and straight. He even says that by allowing sexual freedom, perhaps more people wil make coital choices – because repression favors homosexual relations among men. In this book, there is no mention of ages of consent but his statement “before eight or ist is too late” makes his position clear (I have to say I didn’t yet come across this quote). He also see sexual acts as private; so pays insufficient attention to its social, political and cultural sides (because these make sex public) . Stressing they are mechanical and physiological, he totally neglects the subjective side – on how the social invades the individual and private, how people identify and socialize along sexual lines.


Alec Craig, Sex and revolution, London George, Allen & Unwin, 1934

Kind of socialist; quotes Guyon; and great supporter of USSR sexual politics.

Sex is natural (sex education should be about physiology) and should be expressed: “Unsatisfactory sexual life is the greatest cause of waste of energy, intelligence and altruistic urges.” (91) Very much opposed to ideas of chastity and purity.

Men and women are equal

Supports some sexual diversity; homosexuality should not be criminalized but prevented; and masturbationn infantile behavior – OK for children not for adults.

Sex combined with love, opposed to promiscuity and lust. Marriage at the moment not a good institution, should be socialized: “The waste of time and energy involved in the system of individual homes, each entirely cut off from the other, is enormous.” Proposes communal living, nursery homes and kindergartens; coeducational boarding schools, communal kitchens and recreational clubs

Nudity or sex in public no problem; only for the puritans for whom sex is a taboo.

Six main points (61-63): sexuality and reproduction separate, equality between men and women; only justification for sexual coition is mutual sexual attraction; no money should be involved; practical (against ‘Moral Law’); promoting sexual knowledge (against ignorance)

No legal constraint on sexual behavior (for example homosexuality); on people who are not married; and on the dissemination of useful information and discussion of sexual subjects (67-71).

Modernist programme (104-105): 1. rational education for all; 2. equality of the sexes; 3. sex life is the own concern of adults; 4. voluntary parenthood

Abortion “Of the various reforms proposed, the legalisation of abortion is probably by far the most important”
E. Armand (pseudonym of Ernest-Lucien Juin, 1872-1962), La revolution sexuelle et la camaraderie amoureuse, Paris Critique et raison, 1933

A text I have to read more extensively but his main points are sexual promiscuity and loving comradeships (camaraderie amoureuse); so in favor of equal hetero- but also homosexual relations. Sexual pleasure is given to humans to be enjoyed, not to be forbidden. This sexual communism of this libertarian anarchist parallels his economic communism.





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