Issue #10, December 1993
As many have written, the journey to freedom is not romantic.'
— Andrea Dworkin, from Woman Hating (1974)
I recently found myself wondering what makes people want to have sex. Having sex is, of course, an act which is supposed to generate pleasure. But it is by now 'common knowledge' in American culture that sex is equally likely to generate pain, or humiliation, or even mocking laughter — certain sexual acts, like rape, are in fact now rightly understood to be forms of brutal assault. And yet, I think it is undeniably the case that Americans ultimately conceive of sex as that pleasurable act by which all other pleasures can be measured. That is, we tend to express a sense of pleasure in sexualized terms; and non-sexual forms of gratification often come to be associated with sexual pleasure. For instance, 'eating' is both a non-sexual form of pleasurable satisfaction and a slang term for any number of oral sexual acts.
At this point in history, having sex is largely divorced from the act of procreation and therefore from the realm of necessity. What I mean by this is that human beings no longer need to have sex in order for our species to survive. In fact, our species at this point has a serious global overpopulation problem. Unlike eating or sleeping, then, having sex is not a biological necessity by any means; certainly some people need to procreate, but the vast majority of sex acts do not — and probably should not — serve this purpose if our species wants to remain healthy. Furthermore, bio-technological procedures which enable humans to reproduce without having sex already exist. All this is to say that people are having sex in the late 20th Century for reasons that have almost nothing to do with biological necessity. While one might offer a range of reasons for the continued widespread pursuit of sexual activity in human beings, I would argue that it is most important to understand that people are having sex because it has become a desirable idea, rather than a necessary act in itself.
Part of the sexual idea is that everyone should have sexual intercourse. Most cultures do have a tradition of excluding particular people or institutions from the sex act (for example, the clergy in the Catholic Church), but this should heighten our sense that sex functions largely as an idea rather than a biological 'need.' Excluding oneself, or being excluded from, participating in sex is a profoundly cultural and social act; people who do this in a given culture generally occupy a specific social position which is supposed to make them 'extraordinary.' Not having sex in order to be exceptional also reinforces the idea that the sex act is something every 'normal' person performs. In a nominally secular country like America, not having sex — or not planning on having sex at some point — is deemed quite aberrant indeed.
If having sex is not something that everyone needs to do in order to ensure their own health or the survival of our species, what does it mean that most people believe everyone should have sex at some point? Other kinds of pleasure which are unnecessary to survival are rarely cast as social injunctions in the way sex has been. While it is known that some people enjoy coffee, or basketball, it is hardly considered suspicious if a person does not plan to drink coffee or play basketball in their lives. It might be unusual, but it would be no cause for shame or avid speculation. If, for instance, I said to my friend, 'I have never played basketball, nor do I intend to either,' he would no doubt offer a fairly neutral rejoinder. But if I were to say to this same friend, 'I have never had sex, nor do I intend to either,' he would probably experience shock, bewilderment, and even embarrassment. He might offer me condolences, since such an admission would inevitably be associated with grief or loss. However, if I were to say to my friend, 'I want to have sex all the time! I have to have sex at least once a day or I'm not happy!' I think he might laugh or shrug — this would be a little over-enthusiastic, but normal. Now imagine that I tell my friend, 'I want to shoot heroin all the time! I've got to have it once a day!' He would call me an addict.
I've walked you through this series of imaginary conversations to make an obvious point: while we evaluate pleasure in terms of sex, the sex act is not evaluated in the same way other pleasurable acts are evaluated. We know sex is not necessary for everyone, and yet we behave as if it is; we know sex can be an addictive — hence self-destructive — pleasure, and yet we rarely recognize it as such. Nymphomania (sexual addiction), while one of the few most commonly recognized medical terms for a mental illness, is rarely classed as a socially destructive addiction like alcoholism or cigarette smoking. It is, in fact, not generally recognized as an addiction or illness at all. Nymphomaniacs are called 'sluts,' 'promiscuous,' 'sexually liberated,' or 'studs' depending on their gender and/or social context. That is, nymphomania is considered a kind of character trait in some people, rather than a possible form of pathological self-abuse. Moreover, there is no recognizable social equivalent to 'being on the wagon' for the nymphomaniac; celibacy is not understood as a kind of 'recovery,' but rather another possible behavioral aberration.
What I propose to investigate here is a peculiar constellation of effects the sexual idea has generated in American — and, to a certain extent, global — culture. Sexual relations have come to stand in for all the social relations people value most highly: those associated with love, affection and respect; those associated with the family; and those associated with our sense of a shared history or tradition. I would argue that believing sex should be 'mandatory' is therefore in many ways idealistic, for it signals that most people are confident that everyone should enjoy happiness in social relationships with others. But to the extent that people end up confusing a sexual encounter with other kinds of pleasurable social encounters, our need to impose sex upon everyone is also an indication of certain fundamental failures in our ability to achieve truly satisfactory social relations.
We tend to credit Sigmund Freud with the idea that sexuality can be talked about rationally, and even analyzed. Freud is also famous for the proposition that people have an 'unconscious,' an aspect of their minds which is not under their control, and usually inaccessible to them while they are 'conscious.' Freud used the techniques of hypnosis and dream analysis to gain access to his own and other peoples' unconscious minds. The unconscious, Freud argues in The Interpretation of Dreams and elsewhere, works very differently from consciousness — whereas conscious thought is often characterized by logic, causality, and 'socially appropriate' ideas, unconscious thought works by free association, memory, and symbolic representation. Of course, it is virtually impossible to have a completely conscious thought, or a completely unconscious one. Both kinds of thought tend to work together in the human mind, although sometimes one dominates the other: in dreams, for example, the unconscious is dominant.
People become mentally ill or uneasy usually when they are having difficulty with the boundaries between their conscious and unconscious minds. For example, a person might unconsciously desire something which her conscious mind deems socially unacceptable — this was a problem Freud's homosexual patients ran into a great deal in the early 20th Century. When a person tries to use her conscious mind to shut out unconscious desires, the unconscious 'revolts' or 'returns' in the form of pathological symptoms. The unconscious works largely by symbolic representation and association, and often symptoms take the form of uncontrollable physical habits which 'act out' what the conscious mind refuses to think about. A simple way of imagining this would be to recall the way a person who is nervous about giving a public presentation will often bite his nails or cuticles beforehand. Because he is attempting to shut his nervousness or unease out of his conscious mind, his unconscious acts out this unease by making him feel literal, physical discomfort in those self-bitten fingers. Bitten fingertips, you might say, symbolically represent his interior sense of discomfort and worry.
Freud believed the unconscious was filled with sexual and erotic desire. Subsequently, other philosophers and psychoanalysts have discovered the unconscious may be filled with just about anything, but I think it is safe to say that Freud's initial contention that the unconscious is largely erotic has colored much of what has been written and said about the unconscious since he invented it. Ultimately, Freud was probably right, especially as he was dealing with unconscious minds forged during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The unconscious, like the conscious mind, is as much a product of social context and history as anything else; therefore, finding sex in the unconscious minds of people taught to believe that sexuality is mostly 'socially unacceptable' is pretty unremarkable. In their attempts to repress sexual or erotic thoughts from their conscious minds, Freud's patients burdened their unconscious minds with them. Often they would act out sexual desire symbolically in dreams — hence the well-known joke about dreaming of wet, dark tunnels being penetrated by big, long trains.
One of Freud's most famous commentators is Jacques Lacan, a French philosopher, psychoanalyst and linguist who wrote and lectured during the mid-20th Century. Lacan can be credited with essentially reinventing and reconstructing Freudian psychoanalysis, and his work is even more popular than Freud's in contemporary academic circles. Perhaps Lacan's best-known proposition regarding the unconscious mind is that it is 'structured like a language' (Ecrits, 1966). This analogy makes it far easier for us to explain Freud's discoveries about interactions between consciousness and unconsciousness. Both speak languages, but different languages. Hence we might say the problem with thought is that everybody speaks two distinct languages in their heads which are so structurally different that often people get bogged down with translation difficulties.
Anyone who has ever asked themselves, 'Why did I do that?' is running into this problem. Their unconscious mind is trying to send them a message by acting out, but their conscious mind can't figure out why or what the message might mean. Let me offer a simple example to illustrate Lacan's idea. Imagine that I am walking to meet a person I am falling in love with, but I am not sure this person shares my feelings. Consciously, I say to myself, 'Be sure not to let on what you're thinking. This person should not know.' So I try to repress my desire. But my unconscious mind does not understand what I have just told my conscious mind, because it doesn't speak the same language. My unconscious probably hears something like this: 'I desire. I am scared. I am about to see a person who is associated with both feelings.' When I reach my destination and see this person, I trip and end up falling — I am forced to put my arms around them in order to maintain my balance. This is an 'accident,' but it is also a symbolic acting out of an affectionate embrace. My unconscious is trying to tell me and this person how I really feel in its own peculiar language.
One extremely important aspect of unconscious language is that it does not lie. Unfortunately, it is often so difficult to translate that it might as well be lying, or 'accidental,' and therefore useless. However, in one particular area of psychological study, doctors and therapists have become quite proficient in their ability to understand the unconscious. This area deals with people who have been traumatized psychologically or physically. Judith Herman, in her recent book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992), explains several common ways in which the unconscious tries to communicate traumatized feelings the conscious mind would rather forget. She writes:
'Traumatized people find themselves reenacting some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form, without realizing what they are doing...there is something uncanny about reenactments. Even when they are consciously chosen, they have a feeling of involuntariness. Even when they are not dangerous, they have a driven, tenacious quality...Most theorists...speculate that the repetitive reliving of the traumatic experience must represent a spontaneous, unsuccessful attempt at healing.'
When Herman says traumatized people 'reenact' their traumas, she is referring to what I have been calling the unconscious 'acting out.' Because people consciously prefer to repress memories of trauma, often their unconscious minds end up remembering for them by acting out the trauma again, habitually. Herman offers the example of an incest survivor who enjoyed playing 'chicken' with male truck drivers on the highway. While this woman did not want to think about her abusive childhood, she unconsciously placed herself in situations where men menaced her; ultimately she got into a terrible car accident, and realized she had been trying to tell herself something about how her childhood made her feel. This woman had become addicted, as it were, to placing herself in dangerous situations because she could not bear to think about the danger she suffered in the past. Uncontrollable addictive behavior is therefore one way in which everybody's unconscious tries to make itself understood. Habitual actions are like a series of letters the unconscious is sending to the conscious mind. The unconscious, being persistent and honest, will send the letter until it is received.
We Are Exchanged
In The Addictive Organization (1988), Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel describe the manner in which particular kinds of social organization work like addictive substances. Certain business organizations operate in morally questionable ways, but retain their employees by promising them that they are in fact performing constructive social work. In other words, these organizations hook their employees on the pleasure of a stated socially constructive work goal to encourage them to overlook the problems with how this goal is being carried out. Schaef and Fassel suggest 'workaholism' is an addictive pattern not because of the nature of the work itself, but because 'employees become hooked on the promise of the mission and choose not to look at how the system is really operating.' Here 'the mission' refers to socially constructive ideas about working, rather than most work as we know it in material reality.
In many cases, Schaef and Fassel argue, capitalism itself is that social organization which structures employees' addiction to work. They write, 'We believe that denial about workaholism is so pervasive because underneath this addiction is an attachment no one is willing to face; it is the attachment to an economically based system, capitalism.' If we understand workaholism as a letter from the unconscious, Schaef and Fassel's proposition makes it clear that a lot of people are trying to tell themselves something about the way capitalism works on them. People need to become 'hooked' on the idea of a constructive aspect to their organizational work because they must work in order to survive. Only in extremely rare cases is a person able to participate in 'normal' social relations without working for money. Hence people frequently motivate themselves to work by consciously choosing to lie about what it is they are doing and why. They are addicted to an idea of work because they know that if they cannot make themselves work somehow, their lives will essentially be over.
Like having sex, doing work is an activity nearly everyone is expected to perform at some point in their lives. But whereas telling someone you don't want to have sex will be greeted with incomprehension, telling someone you don't want to work will be understood universally. In fact, enjoying your work is thought to be a little strange, and at the very least unusual. While there are many reasons to dislike work in capitalist culture, paramount among them is a sense of being anonymous, a cog in the wheels of some larger system over which you have no control. This feeling is especially intense in large organizations where vast numbers of employees perform the same kind of work day after day.
Karl Marx, in his philosophical and economic treatise Capital, describes the workers' sense of anonymity as 'alienation.' One basic cause for a sense of alienation is linked to the way a capitalist economy relies upon the idea of 'exchange value' in order to regulate commercial and social interactions. In a purely capitalist culture, everything can be exchanged for everything else because value is measured in terms of capital (money) rather than usefulness. For instance, a car in a capitalist culture is interchangeable with a library because both can be converted into a certain amount of capital and then exchanged. If I sell my books for $10 thousand, I can buy a Toyota. Hence my books are rendered equivalent to a car, although both objects are intended for radically different purposes. The opposite of exchange value is 'use value,' a term which Marx uses to designate measuring objects in terms of how they can be used. A society which measured objects in use value would be startled by my proposition that I might exchange my library for a car. It is, however, easy for a culture which measures equivalence in the exchange of capital to associate the value of reading with the value of driving.
In capitalism, people are also exchanged and interchangeable with objects. The exchange value of my day at work might be equivalent to the exchange value of a dinner at McDonald's. Furthermore, the exchange value of my yearly salary as a teaching associate is equivalent to the exchange value of another person's yearly salary as a teaching associate. Hence, I end up being exchangeable with my fellow employees. This is not a good feeling, especially because being exchangeable also means being expendable. I have no individual use value, so another graduate student could take my job next year and no one would notice the difference. Certainly, for the organization that I work for, it would be a perfect exchange. It would make little difference if my knowledge (my use value as a teacher) were different from my replacement's knowledge — both of us can work, and both of us will earn the same amount of capital.
Now we are in a better position to understand why people become addicted to work. No one wants to think about being exchangeable or expendable, so they attempt to put this idea out of their conscious minds. Consciously, they tell themselves (as Schaef and Fassel note) that they are performing constructive work, or useful work. But unconsciously, they know this isn't so — and therefore they act out by working so much that it becomes destructive to themselves and those around them. They place themselves in situations where they become nothing but exchange values; and they neglect aspects of their lives in which they might be appreciated for their unique 'use values' as friends, lovers, or family members. I would suggest that these kinds of workers are addictively reenacting a kind of unconscious trauma at having to become objects of exchange in order to survive.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the intersection between capitalist notions of exchange value and the sexual idea is in the 'sex industry.' Andrea Dworkin, a radical anti-pornography activist, writes in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) that the problem with pornographic sexuality is that it encourages men to view women as degraded objects of exchange. She believes that pornographic sexuality is much like ordinary sexuality — that most people understand 'having sex' as the relationship between a dominant male person and a degraded female object. 'The ideology of male sexual domination posits that men are superior to women by virtue of their penises; that physical possession of the female is the natural right of the male; that sex is, in fact, conquest and possession of the female,' she writes. In other words, Dworkin sees the role of women in pornographic sexuality as roughly equivalent to the role of commodities in capitalist systems of exchange.
What Dworkin does not wish to think about in her analysis of pornography is the way it converts all aspects of sexuality into exchange values. Women are not the only 'possessions' who may be exchanged: in pornography, men may degraded and exchanged too, and ultimately the sexual act itself is exchanged for and made equivalent to other forms of social interaction. I would agree with Dworkin that pornographic sexuality is in many ways like ordinary sexuality, but not simply because it reproduces sexism and sexualized violence. Rather, it would seem to me that pornographic sexuality resembles everyday acts of having sex particularly in the way that we understand it as an exchange value rather than a use value. That is, human relationships as well as humans themselves become exchangeable in a capitalist culture. Obviously, the sexual relationship in pornography is literally exchangeable with an economic relationship. But in everyday life, people tend to believe that having a sexual relationship can be exchanged for having a social or friendly relationship. Sometimes people have sexual relationships instead of having social relationships because they see both relationships in terms of exchange value — one may be substituted for the other, and one therefore may be expendable.
Having sex, people tend to substitute a biological act for an idea of what constitutes a loving relationship. And at work in their organizations, people tend to exchange an idea of socially productive relations for purely economic ones. Work and sex are mandatory addictions in contemporary culture because, in one way or another, people are acting out something destructive or traumatic that they do not wish to acknowledge consciously. However, it is equally the case that they are acting out a desire for other forms of action, or other kinds of human relationships. Most people do not go to work because they want to be alienated, nor do most people have sex because they want to degrade each other. As I said earlier, he workaholic is addicted to — hence acting out — an idea of socially constructive work; and I believe the nymphomaniac is addicted to an idea of intimacy and mutuality in social relationships.
In culture as we know it, the sex act is one of the ways the unconscious speaks its language. That is, when we have sex, we are trying to communicate with each other — to tell each other something about how we understand and feel about our social relationships. As I asserted early on, the sexual act is associated for the most part in American culture with loving relationships and traditional family relationships. This is one reason why it has been so difficult to prove that acts of sexualized violence are not properly affectionate acts, but assaultive and criminal ones. Therefore, I think it is generally true that we have sex because we do love each other, or at least we wish deeply that we could. Even in pornography, one of the most highly valued sexual acts is known as 'coming together.' Technically, this means two or more people having simultaneous orgasms, and it's a pretty difficult act to perform. As a symbolic representation, or a word from the unconscious, coming together might mean reciprocal pleasure and equality in a social relationship.
No wonder then that everybody wants to come together when they have sex. In a culture divided up into dominant and subordinate classes of people, a relationship of mutuality is nearly impossible to maintain. Mutuality, in capitalism, is measured in exchange values. It is for this reason that people allow themselves to exchange an unconscious language of sexuality for self-conscious forms of loving communication. The two languages are not equivalent. But we are in the habit of exchanging having sex with socially constructive intimate relationships. Having sex is not exchangeable with having a self-conscious conversation. Believing that the two may stand in for each other in social relationships is just as dishonest as believing that a library can stand in for a car.
Dworkin, in her book Woman Hating (1974), writes:
By redefining human sexuality, or by defining it correctly, we can transform human relationship and the institutions which seek to control that relationship...Sex as community between humans, our shared community, is what we must build.'
As human beings, it is clear that we want to have sex. But, as Dworkin points out, we have inappropriately defined sex. We have called it an exchange value. We have exchanged sex for work, for family relationships, and even for social identity in historical traditions. Here we might understand Dworkin to be anticipating a future world in which sex and human community will not be mutually exchangeable, but will exist side by side as use values.
I began by asserting that ultimately the use value of the sex act is no longer procreation. One must also then realize that the use value of a loving, or family, relationship is not that it can be sexualized. Having sex is not the same thing as making love — no more than working at public relations is the same thing as planning to distribute adequate health care to the American public. To reassert use values over exchange values is to align ideas with their proper acts: hence, sex is for bodily pleasure, and love is for intimate mutuality. Work is that act which can make idealistic thoughts into a built reality. A 'human relationship' outside exchange value would use sex to express itself sometimes, and use community building (socially constructive work) to articulate itself at other times. Perhaps this would be a relationship in a world where the unconscious would not have to tell our truth for us.
Annalee Newitz is a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley currently writing her dissertation on monsters and psychopaths in contemporary American popular culture. She is also Senior Editor of Bad Subjects. She can be reached at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.