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Freud, Sexual Perversion and the Renewal of Western Eroticism

By Miss Regina Snow


Freud did not "invent sexual perversion." That honor goes to Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who viewed human sexual behavior as a collection of loathsome diseases. "For more than three quarters of a century his Psychopathia Sexualis was the chief vehicle for transmitting that doctrine from country to country and from generation to generation. It probably did more to elict disgust with sex than any single volume." (Brechner, History of Human sexual Research and Study)
ELIOT HANDELMAN This letter is a Response to "A New Sexual Perversion" By Miss Regina Snow. Miss Snow replies":

Thank you for this correction. In my attempt to cover a compex subject in a simple and readable way, I have undoubtedly carried simplification too far. Krafft-Ebbing may well have originated the concept of "sexual perversion", although we might look even further back for its origins, perhaps to works like that of Dr. Johann Heinrich Meibom who wrote De Flagrorum in Re Veneria et Lumborum Renumque Officio (published 1629). Freud's work on sexual perversion owed a great deal to Krafft-Ebbing (who recomended Freud for his position at the University of Vienna).

We have no wish to claim that Freud had no intellectual antecedents (a thing that never happens in the history of thought) or even that he had no close precursors. However We do hold that the way in which people now look at "sexual perversion" and "sex" in general is shaped by notions which are specifically Freudian. That these notions themselves owe a lot to Krafft-Ebbing and to others, very decidedly including "Darwin" (I enclose Darwin in inverted commas because I am referring more to the supposed implications of, and climate created by, Darwinism than to anything Darwin himself may actually have said), is not disputed.

We would also stress that Freud is no mere accident of history. His interpretation was accepted (as was Darwin's) because the time was ripe for it. It merely clarified and confirmed the things that people were already starting to think, and we feel sure that if Freud had never lived, very similar theories would have been put forward by some one else and the course of the 20th century would not have been materially different. This is not to say that society might not have taken quite another turn; but that the turning it did take is not simply the result of the work of a particular theorist. When, therefore, we use the terms Freud and Freudian, we should prefer these to be understood as symbolic of a particular stream of thought, rather than as specifically personal and historical.

The Freudian view of "sexual perversion", founded on what may broadly be termed a Freudian-Darwinian view of sex and of the human condition in general, is the basis for all modern thinking on the subject. It is true that some modern thinking is much less condemnatory than Freud's (or Krafft-Ebbing's), but that is really only incidental. Modern thought on sexual perversion either accepts the Freud-Ebbing diagnosis with its associated value-judgement or accepts the diagnosis and rejects the value-judgement. But it is not merely the value judgement we wish to question: it is the diagnosis itself. Not only do we challenge the word "perversion", we also challenge the word "sexual".

The Freudian view is based on the doctrine that, since human beings are merely "evolved" animals, all their aspirations and achievements, their myths and rituals, their beliefs and dreams, must have their ultimate roots in a few very simple animal drives, most notably the "sex-drive". This is very much a late-19th-century preoccupation. It is paralleled in "theology" by the work of Bultmann and Dibelius who wished to "demythologise" religion; that is, to strip it of all that pertained to mysteries and depths beyond the mundane, the moral and the material-historical.

It follows from this line of thinking that if something (like those phenomena that are termed "sexual perversions") contains a sexual component, then that component must be the essence of the thing. We need look no further to explain it. It is simply the "sex drive" under one of its guises. Whether we call that guise a "perversion" (meaning that the drive is "turning away" from its true animal function) or whether (as is increasingly likely in a society which dissociates "sex" from its normal marital and procreative context and regards it as a recreational commodity) we see it as a creative eleboration, is really beside the point. We are still adopting the Freudian-reductionist view of the matter. We are simply rejecting (or reversing) the value-judgement.

What we are suggesting is that so-called "sexual perversions" are not necessarily mere variants on the sex-drive, or "ways of spicing up sex". They may be nuances of human sensibility which, while they become closely associated with sexual feeling at various points, neither begin nor end with it. Further we would say that the "sex drive" itself is rarely found in isolation in human beings. It is nearly always -- probably always -- associated with aesthetic, imaginative and other considerations. Freud (and with him the entire modern world) assumes that the "sex drive" lies at the base of these and is the "reality" behind them, but it may not be so.

I and many of the girls most closely associated with me have been living in a world where discipline, including corporal punishment, has been practised among us. I should be the last to deny that there may be a sensual thrill associated with this, and that it adds a depth and a tingle to life. But I know very well from my own experience, that this thrill is very far from being the point of the thing; that discipline is something in which we genuinely believe and feel that in a world which is becoming increasingly undisciplined and loose, the creation of a framework of strictness about our self-created world helps it to be real and upright and good.

Discipline for us is certainly not a "sex game". It is enforced by our own rules and structures whether we are feeling like it or not, and the undeniable thrill associated with it is often in inverse proportion to the degree to which one is seeking or expecting it. I have always felt that is why the "sadomasochist" fringe goes to madder and madder extremes. It is like a drug whose power to stimulate diminishes with use, so that more and more excessive doses must be taken to keep up the waning sensation.

Discipline as a sensual stimulant only really works when it is genuine discipline and the sensual element is only one part of a much more complex, rounded and satisfying whole. Those who try to isolate the "sexual" thrill of discipline while abandoning its authentically disciplinary function are like people who wish to keep the pleasure a flower gives while throwing away the flower.

The idea that the "sexual" can be cut off, isolated and pursued for its own sake is a particularly masculine fallacy. Suzanne speaks of the view of "sex", which became prevalent in the 1960s, that the only way of enjoying it was through intercourse. There have always been men of a rather coarse stamp who took this view, but in most ages and forms of society, the things we reduce to "sex" have been surounded by a complex of aesthetic and ritual or quasi-ritual considerations, all of which were exciting in themselves and not necessarily leading to consummation; and, if we are not bound by the dogma that people are merely animals and that copulation is really the only "point" of it all, then we may conceive it possible that these ritual and aesthetic delights -- be they a troubador's serenade or a frill of nylon lace -- correspond to things in us higher than the animal, things that are reflected, but do not originate, on the earthly plane.

The idea that these things are all mere by-play and that copulation is the "only real thing" is the stuff of the 20th century attitude, but the facts hardly sustain it. It is notorious, for example, that the married man often finds a flirtation with a glamorous girl more exciting than copulation with his wife. How could this be if copulation were the sole end and purpose of the drive?

But let us look at it in broader terms. In the 1960s, I have been informed by some one who worked there, the B.B.C. was led by a new group of young men (mostly brought in by the new Director-General, Mr. Hugh Carleton-Greene) who believed that a "frank and open" attitude to "sex" was the key to human happiness and that if the "repressiveness" of public attitudes could be done away with and "sex" brought out into the open, we should have a new era of happiness, contentment and human fulfillment. Presumably, judging by the policies they followed, other broadcasting services in the Western world were similarly staffed by paperback-Freudians.

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. These young men had their way to the fullest possible extent. Three decades later, "sex" is out in the open. It is paraded in its crudest and most undisguised form in every public place, on every billboard, on every television station, in every magazine. Chastity is a word no one even laughs at any more; they have forgotten it ever existed.

And is the world happier as a result? Have we entered a new realm of joy and contentment? Or are we living in a world more neurotic, more violent, more unhappy, more fundamentally discontented than any equally prosperous society has ever been? Surely the crime rates, the suicide rates, the rates of mental illness, all soaring to unprecedented levels, tell their own story.

We do not say that the "sexual revolution" is entirely responsible for this state of affairs (though certainly the positive claims made for it, that it would make people happier and more contented are by now in discredited shreds), but we do say that it is far more responsible than people realise. What it has done is to destroy much of what made life worth living. All the multifarious thrills and mysteries of erotic life have been explained away by a simplistic pseudo-philosophy which reduces them to mere copulation.

"There was never anything more to it than that," they are told; and they believe it. And all of a sudden the world is a flatter, greyer, emptier place. They, especially the men, seek out copulation, find it easily enough, and discover that it doesn't satisfy their yearnings. And then what? There is nothing else, they have been told. In England, the suicide rate for men between the ages of 15 and 24 (the most sexually-preoccupied section of the population) has risen by 71 per cent in the last decade.

Life has been voided of its depth and its resonance. All that is left is a dull, impoverished, mechanistic world, in which increasing garishness and neurotic display seems the only way to maintain some flicker of interest or excitement and to ward off the yawning void of nothingness. Everything has been explained away. We know the secrets of everything (or imagine we do); and those secrets are insupportably banal.

We dress in a way that reflects this philosophy; no longer tyring to look attractive or dignified (what has this banal and rather pathetic animal to do with dignity? What is attractiveness more than a precursor to copulation, which can now be obtained without it?), but draped in the loose-fitting tatters of tramp or clown, or else in some "outrageous" style that hopes against hope to shake some vestige of a sensation from the deadened universe about it. We no longer respect ourselves (how could we, now that we "know" what we are?) and we dress accordingly.

The late 20th century is Freud taken to his logical conclusion.

A recent correspondent to this site wrote:

I am also fascinated by the realization that this is not all directly connected to sex. My marital relationship is more than satisfying that way, yet I'm drawn to Aphrodite like a fly to sugar. So, something else is definitely going on.
This is a strange and indefinable realisation to the post-Freudian mind. A reality that challenges its whole accepted world-view. Yet it is true. There is "something else", something that is erotic without being reducible merely to "sex". Something higher and finer and subtler that pertains to us as human beings and does not pertain to the animal species. Something connected with the non-material part of our being, with the deeper mysteries of life, without which human existence becomes (and has become) intolerably shallow and ultimately worthless.

If Freud is right, then we have nothing further to look forward to. The mask has been torn off our centuries of human beauty and human aspiration and we have seen thet beneath them all lies nothing more than the activity of two cats in an alley.

But if Freud is wrong then the emptying and impoverishment of our civilisation is the result of a terrible mistake. Not a mistake due to one man, but to the whole false turn of an overly masculinised civilisation; or rather to two false turns: one in the mid-to-late 19th century and another, one, more deeply and directly affecting society at large, in the 1960s. The fact that Freud (or at any rate the popular Freudians) were wrong is shown by the results of the widespread application of their theory. Scientific theories are tested by their predictiveness. When a theory states that if conditions A and B are met, C will be the result, then if conditions A and B are met and C is not the result, the theory is known to be false.

Now the application of Freudian theory to modern western life; the release of "sexual repression", and the polularisation of Freudian "truth" about human nature has not had the predicted result. We are not happier, more contented, less violent and so forth, and what is more we have not ceased to need something deeper. Some of us may have ceased to look for it, because we have been persuaded it is not there, but we are not happy without it. If Freudian reductionism was right; if animal drives were all there is to life, then they ought to satisfy us. But they don't.

This being the case, we may fairly conclude that a great deal of the post-'60s world is founded on a very deep and fundamental error, and the only way out of the malaise in which we find ourselves is to set that error right.

How exactly this might be done can hardly be gone into here, and in any case, as has been said elsewhere the feminine approach is not to draw up blueprints for a "new society", but to attempt to find, by living it, a new sensibility. Some theoretical awareness of the metaphysical depth of life will be necessary; but also a new flowering of the feminine side of human nature and human sensuality, which has been so utterly repressed since the 1960s.

There must be a re-nurturing of the inner secrets of our erotic nature; a nursing back to health of the delightful subtleties and delicate shades of sensual reality that have been bludgeoned into bruised quiescence by the crushing weight of masculine reductionist theories.

This is a thing that can only be done by girls; and, I suspect, only by girls with girls, for after all the flattening and hammering and brute unsubtlety, a temenos, a feminine sanctum and gentle protected place will be needed, in which a delicate flower can grow and regain its strength, unchoked by nettles and gross weeds.

And that is the point of Aphrodite.


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