Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Sexual Repression: The Malady That Considers Itself the Remedy

Adultery causes earthquakes? Sexual repression can cause much worse.

Nothing inspires murderous mayhem in human beings more reliably than sexual repression. Denied food, water, or freedom of movement, people will get desperate and some may lash out at what they perceive as the source of their problems, albeit in a weakened state. But if expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression. (If it did, perhaps we'd be reading of abused priests rather than priests as abusers.)  Instead, the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame, and ignorant pride.

Today, the BBC reports that Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, an Iranian cleric, has declared that, "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes." I think we can assume he said this with a straight face, Iranian clerics not being known for their impish sense of humor.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Lest we dismiss this as just another example of distant fundamentalist craziness, we might take a look at some examples a bit closer to home.

We can start with Christianity, a religion centered upon a figure whose holiness begins with his having been conceived asexually. Mark Twain noted the bizarre anti-eroticism of Christianity when he considered heaven:

[Man] has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race . . . sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!

(Letters from the Earth)

There's little question that the centuries-long campaign of child rape enabled by  institutional cover-up is a direct result of the Church's inhumane teachings concerning human sexuality. If priests—gay, straight, and bi-sexual—were allowed to form erotic connections with consenting adults, who can doubt that countless children would have been spared outrageous torture at the hands of these sick, distorted men?

Gay, conservative, Catholic author Andrew Sullivan has written that "the suppression of these core emotions and the denial of their resolution in love always always leads to personal distortion and cumpulsion and loss of perspective."

Of course, it's not just a question of repressing homosexuality, but of all sexuality. And religions aren't the only institutions to champion such abuse of spirit and body; medical doctors have participated in some of these shameful crimes against humanity.

In 1850, the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal declared masturbation public enemy number one, warning: "Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society."

"Scientific" declarations like these inspired Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (brother of the Corn Flakes Kellogg) in his campaign to eradicate masturbation from the United States.

Though widely considered to be one of the leading sex educators of his day, Kellogg proudly claimed never to have had intercourse with his wife in over four decades of marriage.

As a medical doctor, Kellogg claimed the moral authority to instruct parents on the proper sexual education of their children. If you're unfamiliar with the writings of Kellogg and others like him, their gloating disdain for basic human eroticism is chilling and unmistakable. In his best-selling Plain Facts for Old and Young (written on his sexless honey- moon in 1888), Kellogg offered parents guidance for dealing with their sons' natural erotic self-exploration in a section entitled "Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects:"

A remedy which is almost always success- ful in small boys is circumcision. . . . The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. . . . [emphasis added]

If circumcising a struggling, terrified boy without anesthesia wasn't quite what a parent had in mind, Kellogg recommended "the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection. The prepuce, or foreskin, is drawn forward over the glans, and the nee- dle to which the wire is attached is passed through from one side to the other. After drawing the wire through, the ends are twisted together and cut off close. It is now impossible for an erection to occur. . . ."

Parents were assured that sewing their son's penis into its foreskin "acts as a most powerful means of overcoming the disposition to resort to the practice [of masturbation]."

Circumcision remains prevalent in the United States, though varying greatly by region, ranging from about 40 percent of newborns circumcised in western states to about twice that in the Northeast. This widespread procedure, rarely a medical necessity, has its roots in the anti-masturbation campaigns of Kellogg and his like-minded contemporaries. As sexologist John Money explains, "Neonatal circumcision crept into Ameri- can delivery rooms in the 1870s and 1880s, not for religious reasons and not for reasons of health or hygiene, as is commonly supposed, but because of the claim that, later in life, it would prevent irritation that would cause the boy to become a masturbator."

Lest you think Kellogg was interested only in the sadistic torture of boys, in the same book he soberly advises the application of carbolic acid to the clitorises of little girls to teach them not to touch themselves. Kellogg, the Catholic church, and Iranian clerics all demonstrate that sexual repression is a "malady that considers itself the remedy," to paraphrase Karl Kraus's dismissal of psychoanalysis.

(The actual logo for Catholic Youth Diocese.)

 

Book news: www.sexatdawn.com

Facebook page: sex at dawn

On Twitter: #sexatdawn

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

more...

Subscribe to Sex at Dawn

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.