issue 158 - April 1986
Rape and incest, porn and brutality: the dark side of sex undermines our every attempt to gain mutual physical pleasure. Debbie Taylor reports.
Mark Edwards & Claude Sauvageot
If sexual pleasure was meant to be the brightness in our lives, then the light has been snuffed out. Because our world is dark, dark, dark.
And in the darkness there are terrible sounds: the rhythmic grunts of an invading soldier pounding into the petrified body of a farmer's wife; the jeers and cheers of his mates - bayonets at the ready - awaiting their turn; muffled sobs of a child in bed, clutching her nightdress around her, edging away from the place where the sheets are still warm, the place where her father had lain; the screams of an infibulated bride on her wedding night as her husband plunges in the knife to open a way for his penis; the almost-silent thuds of a pimp's fist and foot against a prostitute's soft flesh; footsteps on a wet pavement, the whir of the pornographer's camera
These are not the sounds of other people. If you listen you'll hear them everywhere: in the house next door, at the cinema down the street, in the playground at school, in your own bedroom.
Let me tell you about some people I know: Julie, a psychologist, raped by a doctor on their first date; Paul, a young boy, molested by a lay preacher while his parents were out; Karen, a writer, gang-raped in an alley after she accepted a lift from a man at work; Jill, one of five daughters of a man who raped at least one of them, every night of the week.
Friends of mine. Friends of yours. You. Me. Everyone.
Eighteen million American men reading pornography each month; 100,000 prostitutes in Thailand; incest in one in four US families; one in eight UK women raped; 74 million African women with their clitorides cut off; a third of a million Bengali women raped by Pakistani soldiers ..
Is your sexual relationship exempt? How can it be, when we all learn about sex under the shadow of all this pain - or, worse, with the actual memory of it? What woman is free of the fear of rape, or dares refuse a husband whose wages pay the bills? What man escapes the images of porn? What an ugly, sordid, tragic mess we've made of sex.
The tragedy is that so many of us have a sense of what sex could be, should be, of what we want it to be. 'It is the closest you can be to a person', writes a man in response to one of The Hite Report questionnaires2. 'For a moment, or an hour, it overcomes the loneliness and separation of life.' 'It's the most intense pleasure two people can give each other,' writes a woman,' and the closest you can be to another person.' And it's not just orgasms they're talking about. The kind of sex they want is about touching, eye-contact, giggling in the early hours, arms and legs entwined; about the smell, the taste, the feel of another person's skin.
Even if we've never experienced sex like this, a part of us longs for it and just knows that it's possible. And, if we do know, it's because we remember.
Long before the waves of incest and rape and porn ever broke over our heads, most of us knew about sexual pleasure. It was rocking, bathed in warm liquid, our ears full of the beating of another person's heart. It was searching, with soft open lips, across an acre of silken skin. It was sucking sweet liquid from a nipple that filled our mouths. It was curling our toes, staring up into the only pair of eyes in the world, reaching out to touch her cheek, smelling the scent of her armpits.
The contact between a mother and her baby: the most human, the most animal, the most mutual, complete and pleasurable of all sensual experiences. If it's what we know, and it's what we want, why on earth can't we carry this kind of sex with us into adulthood? What is it that turned each and every American GI into a rapist in Vietnam? 'Rape?' said one sergeant to Susan Brownmiller3, 'That's an everyday affair. You can nail just about everybody on that, at least once. The guys are human, man.' Ordinary all-American guys, cuddled and suckled by their mothers as babies - turned into rapists by the age of 19. By what? Certainly not by their instinctive sex urges. Whatever part of human sexuality there is that is 'instinctive' and 'uncontrollable' can be easily eased by masturbation. And for those men wanting something more, every army base was provided with its own brothel. No. Rape is no more instinctive than war. There must be another explanation for how sex, from such tender and hopeful beginnings, is degraded to a crude act of domination.
Strangely, writers as different as Sigmund Freud4, Friedrich Engels5 , Herbert Marcuse and Marilyn French7 have all - often from totally opposed positions - come to more or less the same explanation. They all start in prehistory; they all begin with mothers and babies. And their story goes something like this:
Once upon a time, at the dawning of humanity, men, women and children lived happily together. Like monkeys they groomed, sniffed and licked one another; wrestled, suckled, mated, gave birth, fought, and slept. Sexual intercourse - the mating of female with male - was just one of a myriad sensual experiences individuals shared with one another. And its importance was dwarfed by the exhuberant, subtle, and complex physical and emotional experiences mothers had with their infants.
Sex was done for its own sake, for pleasure. Babies were conceived and born. They clung to and loved their mothers; they did not even know their fathers, since their was no marriage to bind woman to man. So women were the centre of society, honoured as goddesses of fertility, kept secure in that position by their bonds with their children.
Then, gradually, men came to understand the male role in procreation. They began to see that women's power lay in their sensual bonds with one another and with their children. And that this power could only be broken if men first shattered their own bonds with their mothers and then bonded, instead, with one another in an all-male clan. Freud: 'The primal father prevented his sons from satisfying their directly sexual tendencies. He forced them into abstinence and, consequently, into emotional ties with him and with one another.' With the support of the rest of the man-clan, individual men could then claim a woman for a wife, insist on her fidelity, and thereby claim father-right over the children she bore. The fruits of her labour and their labour would then belong to him. Engels: 'The wife sells her body into slavery once and for all.'
Women did not yield willingly to their enslavement, however. And one of their only ways to resist would have been to refuse to have intercourse with their husbands, so that there would be no children for the men to rule. And men's response to women's refusal was rape. Patriarchy was born at that very moment: the moment when men's power over women became coercive.
But men's domination of women was not complete. It was threatened constantly by sensuality: by men's memory of their baby- hood, by erotic sexual experiences with their wives. The solidarity of the man-clan - patriarchy - was constantly being undermined by individual members' love of sensual women. Psychoanalyst Otto Rank: patriarchy was 'not effective enough to cope with the desire to return to the mother.' The clan's response to this continuing threat to its power was twofold: the gradual domination of religion and the suppression of sexuality, particularly women's sexuality. Nigerian sociologist Esther Ogunmodede, writing about clitoridectomy:
'Our ancestors were no scientists. But they knew where the seat of sexual pleasure in a woman was - so they chopped it off before she could discover it.'
Patriarchal religions, with their all-powerful male gods, gave individual men something strong to identify with. Meanwhile the temptations of sexuality were firmly dealt with by instituting heterosexual penetrative sexual intercourse as the only acceptable form of sexual activity, the minimal act necessary for the production of babies. Sean O'Casey: 'The one lovely world he knew, was, according to preacher and prelate, the one to be least in his thoughts. He was recommended, ordered, from the day of his birth, to bid goodbye to it.'
Photo: Henning Christoph
Power was enthroned as humanity's guiding principle. And pleasure began to disappear from the face of the earth. Restricting pleasure had two important effects. In addition to undermining the sensual bonds between men and women, it also meant there was more time and energy available for work. Freud: 'What motive would induce man (sic) to put his energy to other uses if he could obtain fully satisfying pleasure?' Marcuse: 'The pleasure principle was dethroned because it militated against a civilization whose progress perpetuates domination and toil.'
This is why patriarchy and capitalism are so inextricably entwined. The denial of sexual pleasure and the domination of man over woman are central to both. The difference is that, under capitalism, man dominates man, too, in the struggle to accumulate wealth and power. So, while the patriarchs were content merely to stone adulteresses to death, murder nine million women as witches, force wives to wear chastity belts or veils, and cut out 74 million clitorides, the capitalists began to wage war on men's sexuality too.
Marcuse again: 'For the duration of work, pleasure is suspended and pain prevails. Body and mind are made into the instruments of alienated labour. The libido becomes concentrated in one part of the body, leaving most of the rest free for use as the instrument of labour.'
Men's predicament is expressed perfectly by another man from The Hite Report: 'Intercourse proves I'm alive. Other. times I feel just like a robot.' A robot: the archetypal instrument of work.
The attacks on sexual pleasure that began at the birth of patriarchy intensified as more and more people's working lives became dominated by capitalism. And the attacks were chiefly aimed at what came to be known as perversions - that is, every kind of sexual activity that does not involve penetration and ejaculation. Children, women and people who preferred homosexual relationships received the most attention, because they were the ones most likely to indulge in the 'perversions'. Children were policed by parents and teachers; women and homosexuals by the medical profession. Masturbation was the practise most suppressed in children. But almost any expression of sexuality in women was deemed neurotic or sick. While homosexuality was completely beyond the pale. Marcuse again: 'Against a society which employs sexuality as a means for a useful end (the production of children), the perversions uphold sexuality as an end in itself. They establish libidinal relationships which society must ostracise because they threaten the process of civilization which turned the organism into an instrument of work.'
That 'process of civilization' is almost complete now in the industrial world. And the life-cycle of every boy baby born into our society now mirrors humanity's history, as he is gradually turned from a sensual dependent infant in love with his mother, to a repressed, alienated industrial robot who treats all women with suspicion.
But he's a robot obsessed with sex. Another man from The Hite Report explains: 'Sex strengthens your image of yourself as a lovable person, so that you can go back out and keep up your identity in an alien world.' The more mind-numbing and alienating his working life is, the more important sex - one of his only sources of pleasure - becomes. Marcuse: 'Happiness takes place part-time, during the few hours of leisure.'
It's a curiously schizophrenic situation. In order to put up with alienating work in the first place, men's sensual natures have to be suppressed. At the same time, the very inhumanity of many men's working lives makes them desperate for sexual contact and pleasure. Sex has become a kind of psychic crutch that makes alienated work possible. But what kind of sex is it? Open-ended sensual exploration - or goal-oriented genital thrusting? Men today look for pleasure in an act that was devised to ensure procreation alone, an act in which sensual pleasure is curtailed as much as possible, in which sensation is limited almost entirely to the penis: heterosexual intercourse.
Premature ejaculation in men and lack of orgasm in women are the almost inevitable consequences of penetrative heterosexual intercourse. Indeed, because sexual intercourse was originally restricted in order to minimise pleasure, they were once the desired consequences. True, some couples manage, with patience and creativity, to overcome the formidable obstacles to mutual pleasure created by the physiological reality of penetrative sex. But the majority find it a losing battle. Three out of four men ejaculate prematurely, and only one in three women manage to orgasm from the sensations associated with penetration. For him, sex is a struggle against pleasure; for her it's a struggle to achieve it with inadequate stimulation. Not surprisingly many just give up completely: he becomes selfish and perfunctory; she becomes cold and unresponsive. Women quoted in The Hite Report8: 'He only lasts 20 thrusts'; 'I've had a vision of myself as a hole in the mattress'; 'It's very frustrating repeatedly to become aroused and not orgasm. So now I refuse to let myself become aroused.'
So why do so many women put up with it? For the same reasons they have always endured restrictions on their sexual pleasure: they have no choice. Since the day of the first rape, men have exerted social, physical and economic power over women. The Hite Report again: 'I feel obligated because I'm his wife and, after all, he does pay for everything.' Sex in return for bed and board is prostitution in everything but name.
But what kind of man can enjoy sex under these circumstances? How can a husband ejaculating into an inert wife, or a 'trick' being masturbated by a prostitute, feel pleasure? He can only do it by turning off his sense of human compassion, by getting 'carried away' and 'overcome by lust', by blotting out the humanity of the person he's fucking. Robot by day, despot by night. From this point onwards sexual pleasure is nothing more than the pleasure of domination. And rape is but a breath away. Susan Brownmiller relates one case of a man who raped a 14-year-old girl, then asked if he could date her the following night For him ordinary sex and rape were indistinguishable.
This is how it is possible for entire populations of 'ordinary' men to rape during war-time. When normal sex has such a strong element of domination built in, it becomes almost inevitable that other acts of domination should excite men to rape. Significantly, it is only the invading army that rapes: Americans in Vietnam, Japanese in China, Germans in Belgium, Pakistanis in Bangladesh...
So what's the answer? How can we begin to reclaim sexual pleasure from the dark morass of domination and pain.
I believe we have to throw it all away and start again. From the beginning. From mothers. And babies. Sex therapists Masters and Johnson9 have given us a clue. The treatment technique they found that worked best with couples suffering from 'sexual dysfunction' was what they called sensate focus'. They forbade couples even to attempt genital intercourse and instructed them just to caress one another in a relaxed, intimate, non goal-oriented way: like mothers and babies; skin to skin, mouth to breast, hand to face.
But the mistake they made was to maintain male-defined penetrative sex as the final goal of their therapy, rather than as just another sensual option. That's like releasing people from a restrictive straight-jacket, allowing them to breathe a little, and then strapping them in again, only marginally less tightly than before. And it's the reason the so-called sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies did so little to increase sexual pleasure - especially women's sexual pleasure.
That is why it's so important to insist that mothers and babies - those people most damaged by the consequences of male-controlled sex - define the next sexual revolution. With them as guides, it may be possible to recreate the conditions necessary for sexual pleasure. I know this will sound idealistic. I know that creating the space and time to explore this kind of sex means changes in work, changes in patterns of parenting, changes in the power of women. But I also believe that making any kind of humane social and political change will also entail reclaiming pleasure, rather than power, as a guiding principle.
I'm not advocating a sissy, sanitised, soft-focus kind of sex. There's fierceness and passion as well as diffuse tenderness in an infant's sexuality. And, yes, the second sexual revolution will probably involve us immersing ourselves in every kind of perversion. But I think Woody Allen summed it up when he said: 'Is sex dirty? Only if you do it right.' 13
1 For individual sources of these figures see Facts.
2 Hite, S, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality Macdonald 1978.
3 Brownmiller, S. Against our Will Penguin Books 1976.
4 Freud, S. Civilization and its Discontents London. Hogarth Press 1949.
5 Engels, F. The Origin of the Family, Private Properly and the State, New York 1978.
6 Marcuse, H. Eros and Civilization Beacon Press 1966.
7 French, M. Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals, Jonathan Cape 1985.
8 Hite. S. The Hite Report Summit Books 1977.
9 Masters, W.H. and Johnson, V.E. Human Sexual Inadequacy Churchill, London, 1970.
This special report appeared in the give and take sex - the politics of pleasure issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.