Sex Nullification

Reverend Gary Davis

Reverend Gary Davis

“You see, control can never be a means to any practical end….It can never be a means to anything but more control….Like junk….”
William Burroughs

“However when we observe the sexual proclivities of persons placed in positions of power and control over other human beings, we can see these principles at work. Priests and altar-boys, heads of state and their dalliances with prostitutes and subordinates, and the insistence within the neo-feudal theocratic movements of complete domination of females by males both in society and marriage, are but a few ugly signs of the sexual nature of authoritarianism.”
Dan Mage

There feels like there are several cultural trends going on at once lately. I sense a new Puritanism rising up from, mostly, what passes for the left. The left has always been concerned with purity. Parties of six people will form expulsion committees. But this is a Puritanism that coincides with an already established Puritanism on the right. Well, you could call it the middle, because the middle IS the right. The Right is …well, sort of neo-Royalist. Anyway, there is also a sense that mainstream culture, whatever that is, I guess white culture, is digging in their heels and defending their privilege even if it means alligning themselves with the most reactionary elements in the country. Third, the new age of the victim is upon us. And this third issue, in a strange sort of way, makes its circuitious way toward a discussion of sexuality and repression.

There was a big debate (well, ok, not THAT big) at several feminist blogs about the term sex positive. About the use of sex-positive and this all seemed to spill over from the moronic Sinead O’Connor open letter {sic} to Miley Cyrus. The problem with most of this discussion, which frankly starts to feel very much like a first world laundry list of concerns, is that repression seems left out of the analysis. Its a rape culture, which is now increasingly in the open. And I have read several pieces by feminists that suggest sex positive notions are an expression of a hegemonic class. That not everyone wants sex. At this point I think its useful to mention Wilhelm Reich. The authoritarian state, the capitalist western state, raises children as if they were small model prisoners in a giant prison/factory. It is true not everyone wants sex, and not everyone ever has satisfying sex, and more significantly, this is because we live in a deeply unhealthy society.

Ruth Fowler’s very good piece elicited a good deal of criticism.

Before we go twerking down this path, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit Reich.

Man takes great pains to disassociate himself from the vicious animal and to prove that he “is better” by pointing to his culture and his civilization, which distinguish him from the animal. His entire attitude, his “theories of value,” moral philosophies, his “monkey trials,” all bear witness to the fact that he does not want to be reminded that he is fundamentally an animal, that he has incomparably more in common with “the animal” than he has with that which he thinks and dreams himself to be. The theory of the German superman has its origin in man’s effort to disassociate himself from the animal. His viciousness, his inability to live peacefully with his own kind, his wars, bear witness to the fact that man is distinguished from the other animals only by a boundless sadism and the mechanical trinity of an authoritarian view of life, mechanistic science, and the machine. If one looks back over long stretches of the results of human civilization, one finds that man’s claims are not only false, but are peculiarly contrived to make him forget that he is an animal. Where and how did man get these illusions about himself?
Man’s life is dichotomized: One part of his life is determined by biologic laws (sexual gratification, consumption of food, relatedness to nature); the other part of his life is determined by the machine civilization (mechanical ideas about his own organization, his superior position in the animal kingdom, his racial or class attitude toward other human groups, valuations about ownership and nonownership, science, religion, etc.). His being an animal and his not being an animal, biologic roots on the one hand and technical development on the other hand, cleave man’s life and thought. All the notions man has developed about himself are consistently derived from the machine that he has created. The construction of machines and the use of machines have imbued man with the belief that he is progressing and developing himself to something “higher,” in and through the machine. But he also invested the machine with an animal-like appearance and mechanics. The train engine has eyes to see with and legs to run with, a mouth to consume coal with and discharge openings for slag, levers, and other devices for making sounds. In this way the product of mechanistic technology became the extension of man himself. In fact, machines do constitute a tremendous extension of man’s biologic organization. They make him capable of mastering nature to a far greater degree than his hands alone had enabled him. They give him mastery over time and space. Thus, the machine became a part of man himself, a loved and highly esteemed part. He dreams about how these machines make his life easier and will give him a great capacity for enjoyment. The enjoyment of life with the help of the machine has always been his dream. And in reality? The machine became, is, and will continue to be his most dangerous destroyer, if he does not differentiate himself from it.”

Wihelm Reich

U.S. Congress, Nancy Pelosi

U.S. Congress, Nancy Pelosi

A good deal of discourse today demonstrates a perspective that has people treated as children. And this includes debates about sex-positive or sex-negative feminism. What seems utterly lost in all this is the idea that repression exists, and more immediately, that critiques stop short of examining capitalism as the source of mental angst and illness. There are many reasons: and as I say, the violence in this society cripples many people both physically and psychologically. Actually, it probably cripples everyone to some degree. So it is certainly true that compassion for victims of various oppressions and violence is important. However, once the lack of sexual health (whatever its specific cause, it’s more general cause is the fact that this society is oppressive and sick) is legitimized, in a ‘confusing of category’ sense, the idea of that societal oppression is distanced. In other words, sexual health coincides with an anti-repressive society, an anti authoritarian society, and an anti patriarchal society. If an argument denies sexual health and social change as belonging together, because this somehow is insensitive to those who have suffered sexual, or really, any violence and oppression, then real social change is pushed further away.

Racism, poverty, state violence, the perpetuation of oppressions, authoritarian values, and mostly just capitalism. The manufacturing of inequality.
These are what create a devestating climate for women who mostly continue outside the mainstream view. So while I think its important — in fact crucially important — to critique mass culture, it’s pretty significant that one remembers the vast numbers of people completley outside this society’s system of representation. And one of the effects of this system of poverty and inequality is the draining of life, literally, out of people. The brutalizing and dehumanizing work, slavery, and hopelessness of the poor, extracts a physical toll. One of the reasons western media hides images of the poor is because the reality of poverty is ugly. It is disturbing. The idea of sex positive health crosses gender lines of course. Men suffer the same impaired physical openess, and sense of life. I have always been struck by how the most unnatractive people in the world are the most repressed, the most authoritarian, the most worshipful of power. The FBI agent, the cop, the politician. No amount of TV cop show fantasy can make real life police very appealing. Or worse, the button downed anality of politicians and insurance salesmen and CEOs. Bankers are not generally high on the list of desirable. It is a paradox in a way, that often the underlcass creates the radical voice culturally, creates new style codes, and manifests a life-force lacking in the terminally dead anti life (and sex negative) members of congress (for example).What we are talking about is a sense of life. Of being alive. My sense of the western states today is one of bloodless enervated and deeply compromised libidos. For both genders.

Jan Van Eyck, detail The Ghent Alterpiece, 1425

Jan Van Eyck, detail The Ghent Alterpiece, 1425

The problem I have with an awful lot of feminists in this discussion, is represented by how negatively Ruth Fowler has been recieved in her short posting on Sinead O’Connor’s tone deaf and patronizing scolding of Miley Cyrus. Now, first off, Cyrus is the privileged daughter of no talent Billy Ray, one of the original mullets of show buisness (or, The Missouri Compromise, if you prefer). Miley then was pushed into show business as Hanna Montana, and became the stuff of self parody.

So right off the bat, when I hear how Miley and her twerk (a word now in the Dictionary, I’m told) were “appropriating black women’s bodies” I really did have to chuckle. Firstly, Miley doesnt rise to the level of appropriation. Second, you cant find a white pop musician who is not stealing, or sampling, or borrowing from black music. Thats a given. That’s the baseline here. American music is black music. Yes there was great Cajun, and White church music, that eventually gave birth to performers like The Carter Family, and Roy Acuff and Hank, Woody Guthrie. But by and large, the roots of American music, and a huge chunk of the genius of American culture, can be found by tracing the outlines of black music. The roll call of genius is endless here…Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, Reverand Gary Davis, Fats Waller, Albert Ammons, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, John Coltrane, Mississippi John Hurt, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Little Walter. As I say, the list is almost endless. That music, black music, informed dance, it informed most everything. The blues were, as Geoffrey O Brien put it, the secret knowledge of the United States. It was the secret literature. So yes, a very large amount of dance came from black women, and black men. Wynonie Harris gave birth to Elvis, who took generously from Harris’ stage performance. Elvis took a lot of stuff from a lot of black artists. Bill Haley had a hit, while countless black artists didn’t. But if we fast forward to 2013, in an era of corporate homogenized junk, its pointless and perhaps even counter productive to talk about Miley appropriating black female bodies. One reason is that at this point, in a culture of sampling, we have black musicians immitating white musicians who imitated black musicians. In music, in dance, in film even. Certainly in literature. The Beats borrowed heavily from black streets. White America always has. But I think somehow to point fingers at Miley Cyrus, especially college educated white fingers, petit bourgeois white fingers, in the name of faux radicalism, is just barely reaching a water mark labeled embarrasing. It might be sub embarrasement. Why should you care at this level of stupidity? There are serious artists of all colors starving out there. Serious people working at the community level in various fields. Working in sustainable perma culture zones, in autonomous spaces, and working to end the death penalty, and working to feed hungry children. Children in Appalachia and in Detroit and in Oakland and in Imperial County, California. Now, having said all that, if we want to be accurate, YES, Miley is aping black music and culture, a world of which she has scant intellectual grasp, and even less emotional affinity. But yes, and yes it’s offensive. I just can’t get myself to the point where I give a shit.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington

But to sex negativity. I think the short version of what I’m trying to say, is that the impulse to police is authoritarian and patriarchal. It is evident, and barely hidden anytime the faux left starts demanding purity, or monitoring bad behavior on a personal level. It is there when feminists shame other women, or demand adherence in other women thinkers or writers, to a particular and usually narrow definition of behavior. It feels very much like junior high hall monitors. It coincides easily with a snitch culture. Snitching passing, again, for responsibility. Fowler is again, very good on some of this. First world white problems. Don’t wear high heels or whatever. It is much like Bill Cosby, millionaire several times over, hectoring poor black inner city families about “responsibility” (that word again). People have to pay the rent. Everyone does what they have to at different times. What policing does is reproduce the worst patriarchal authoritarian tendency. It is about control. It is about prohibition. And anytime people, of any gender, start making lists of what one CANNOT do, I start to check out. This was one of the problems with Sinead O’Connor’s letter, this idea about doing it for Miley’s own good. Well, I mean, again, Miley is a sub literate child of a mullet wearing millionaire and not exactly worth the ink. But this question of sex negative, and sex positive…

“The sexual morality that inhibits the will to freedom, as well as those forces that comply with authoritarian interests, derive their energy from repressed sexuality. Now we have a better comprehension of an essential part of the process of the “repercussion of ideology on the economic basis”: sexual inhibition changes the structure of economically suppressed man in such a way that he acts, feels, and thinks contrary to his own material interests.
Thus, mass psychology enables us to substantiate and interpret Lenin’s observation. In their officers the soldiers of 1905 unconsciously perceived their childhood fathers (condensed in the conception of God), who denied sensuality and whom one could neither kill nor want to kill, though they shattered one’s joy of life. Both their repentance and their irresolution subsequent to the seizure of power were an expression of its opposite, hate transformed into pity, which as such could not be translated into action.
Thus, the practical problem of mass psychology is to actuate the passive majority of the population, which always helps political reaction to achieve victory, and to eliminate those inhibitions that run counter to the development of the will to freedom born of the socio-economic situation. Freed of its bonds and directed into the channels of the freedom movement’s rational goals, the psychic energy of the average mass of people excited over a football game or laughing over a cheap musical would no longer be capable of being fettered. The sex-economic investigation that follows is conducted from this point of view. The Authoritarian Ideology of the Family in the Mass Psychology of Fascism.”

Wilhelm Reich

Church diorama, Lisbon.

Church diorama, Lisbon.

For Reich, the ideas of the ruling class, those who owned the means of production, imposed, one way or another, their values on the society as a whole. Own the material means, and you own the ideological means.

“the contradictions of the economic structure of a society are also embedded in the psychological structure of the subjugated masses”.

This is the heart of Reich’s critique. The surpression of sexuality leads to substitute gratifications. In former times it was, in a more cosmetically clear Patriarchy, notions such as honor and duty. Today, honor is replaced by responsibility. The liberal class is the new bearer of the authoritarian impulse. Reich believed natural aggression became vicious sadism as the repressions mount. Today, these dynamic remain true, only they are fed by tributaries of deterritorialized labor and loss of community, by marketing and a hyper branded reality, a reality shorn of direct experience, and pyhysical health awash in unseen electrical fields, currents, and radiation and toxic food; with overall an ever more tenuous hold on what we desire. What we think we desire. And in which the instruction in duty and responsibility is hammered home every minute of every day. The bourgeois feminist often is identifying with ruling class men, and taking on their values as her own. If Laurie Penny wants to police certain areas of behavior, it is with an eye to her role as part of a priest class, an expert, an expert priest-cop, but a hip one. Sinead O Connor is hectoring as if Miley were a child, a junior high school student, and is doing so from the lofty realm of society elder, an experienced practioner of the secret arts of careerism, or at least a junior school assistant principle. The fact of the matter is, that so mystified is human sexuality, that the debates endlessly avoid the real topic. Sex negativity has nothing to do with having sex, a lot or a little. It has to with the surpression and deformation of the libidinal energy of each human. The surpressing of this energy, an orgiastic energy (for Reich) has little relationship to intercourse. Sex positive has little to do, in the end, with having sex. Lots of people have lots of very dead sex. Usually though, in theory, it means yes, sex is enjoyable. But, once that libidinal energy, that desire, spreads beyond the genital, then the release of this energy allows for emotional health (relatively speaking). And that health flows toward the liberatory and anarchic. Now, what Reich called ‘The emotional plague’ is simply sexual unealth, character armoring, the tensions resulting from basic repression, and it manifests itself in a desire to control others. For control is essential. These tensions, according to Reich are held in various parts of the body. In what he called segmental armoring. This stiffness, or blindness (eye block), or pelvic stiffness, all of this is sex negative. Authoritarian actions are sex negative. This inflexible anxiety is the currency of the liberal class today. Inflexible, and always knowing what is best for YOU. For you are a child. It is the driven need to police, to regulate, and to track.

Here is a bit more of Ruth Fowler………
“The fight for political, social, and economic equality is, of course, not over, but the disparities are felt most cruelly by low-income women of color. Feminism is, for the most part, steered by Western women who are not low-income women of color and who espouse liberalism: the appropriation, domestication, and commodification of radical ideas. They are educated and white and privileged, like me, and they do not discernibly suffer from income inequality, unlike me. Most of them—yes, let me be glib here, let me make the sweeping generalization I have observed of the Feminist Gatekeepers—most of them went to private schools. They have friends and family in major cities who can put them up rent-free post-graduation. They don’t ever have to worry about childcare, because they have grandparents who can help them or a sufficient salary to pay for it or a husband with money. They dabble with burlesque because it is risqué, they decide Botox is antifeminist before they ever have any need for it, and they have no problem claiming to be feminists, not like I did.”

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud

At a certain point, fear becomes habitual. People are afraid of fear. Afraid of being afraid. The authoritarianism that is built into Capital, has been part of the industrial society since the formation of nation states four hundred years ago. That today, the ersatz new critical left, and bourgeois feminism, have come to reflect a good many of the characteristics of emotional plague. Shaming and stigmatizing other women, the demand for apology or just the self righteous indignation all reflect this tendency toward policing. Honor and duty are now policing and responsibility. There is a creepy vibe of smug entitlement in liberal thinkers today. And all of this expressed in an ever more infantile grammer.

And state secrecy suggests a generation now in power with an even deeper emotional plague than twenty five years ago. If Reagan appears now as a genial dim wit who piddled on himself in the presence of money, Obama seems more a affectless android, a man of deep segmented blocks.

It was an obsevation I made early about Obama, a sense of narrow chested inward turning anger. If Dick Cheney resembles the schoolyard bully, a toadying social climber, nouveau riche, and eager to please his superiors, then Obama more resembles the dead lizard eyes of a small town DA, cut off, a distant glazed stare, now with that learned and practised smile for use when he turns to face the jury. But there is no energy in his smile, no weight or joy or apetite. For all his marketed virility, he is small and physically restricted, and morally pinched.

But I digress. The point regarding debates about sex negativity, or positivity, is that neither provide much real meaning, and neither by themselves explains anything about a society which has inculcated several centuries of patriarchal authoritarian households, and repressive offical religions, and worse, harsh factory like conformist schooling. The systematic repressive methods and structures of public education, especially in terms of children, now accompanied by chemical assistance, has produced an ever less expansive emotional foundation for this generation. While much feminist writing has graphed the codes of patriarchy, and unpacked the images and concepts of a male dominated society, a misogynistic society, there remains now a self branding that seems to take place alongside these truths. The overall enforcing of strict relations of power; the class polorization, the growing policing of the entire society, the surveillance, the random bursts of sadism and violence, all seem evidence of a general breakdown of emotional health. The desire is to police…to shame, not to empathize, or include, or accept. But to throw miscreants into the stocks. Tar and feather. Burn. There is a feeling of religious zeal to many critiques I read. But it is a religion of and for children. The new reactionary drivel of a Zizek, now predictable and increasingly boring, but no less reactionary, is just the flip side to the Laurie Penny or Jodi Dean show. Or Eve Ensler, whose sense of taking the wrong position on everything she addresses is actually uncanny. Radical and righteous anger fuels revolution, but the anger of emotional deficit is one of resentment and pique, it is moralistic and almost always personal. John Brown’s rage was magestic, and propelled by religious wrath. One feels only an irritation and impatience in too many critics now, a refusal to call out collegues lest they put their job at risk.

Will Cotton

Will Cotton

What is not addressed in most all of the discussions of sex-positivity I have read is the understanding that everyone is deformed and crippled emotionally. Everyone. That it is all but impossible to not suffer trauma in childhood, above and beyond the primordial problematic of our essential split. Our desperation to cling to a bourgeois idea of identity, coupled to the patriarchal and authoritarian family structure, and that in turn coupled to the alienated and reified commodity and consumer culture yields only violence where love and compassion should be. The U.S. is now a nation addicted to gadgets, to masturbatory and compulsively reptitious technological distractions, and which drifts further and further from any historical perspective on itself, both individually and collectively. Our sex positivity is usually deeply mediated by extreme objectification of the body, a simulacra body that is itself the product of corporate manufacturing. What is far more significant than sexual activity is the stronger drive to buy and own, and as reward the permission to violate. The society of punishment eclipses both shopping choices; sexuality is a commodity. More pleasure is wrung from the opportunities to police, to express aggression under cover of responsible lifestyle choices. Condeming or shaming others becomes sexual. Being offended becomes sexual. Sex becomes an activity one permits oneself if reward is percieved to be attached. Autonomy has historical limits, and as experience is more and more mediated ideologically, the sex act becomes just more risk management.

Gaston Lachaise

Gaston Lachaise

In this landscape of social domination, it is not surprising that a rape culture continues to grow. A recent fraternity published a guide to ‘luring rapebait’ for the freshmen pledges. The military can no longer seperate its various forms of violence. Raping fellow soldiers is interchangeable with firing tomahawk missiles on wedding parties. So, the discussion of sex negative or sex positive is rendered mostly moot. For a society that increasingly feels the violence and pathology of its ruling class, the identification with authority means that all relationships bear this imprint. The society at large, but certainly in what passes for a middle class today, continues to clap like trained seals at the tiny shrunked rewards they are granted, meanwhile toiling longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. The underclass, however punished and brutalized their lives, remain more alive today. The ability to see the truth, or some part of it, suggests a libidinal freedom, and that is what the zombie liberal class won’t tolerate. They will squash it and imprison it, and torture it. They will starve it and stigmatize it and humiliate it. The white liberals I know feel to me already well along their private and collective trajectory of acute hyper resentment. Snark is soon not enough. I expect entertainment in which the underclass are made to suffer much more intensely than they do now. A reality TV show has to be coming in which homeless people fight with tire irons, scrounge for pet food or gutter scraps, or sneak bacterial agents into each other’s food…something….for the final frontier for bourgeois entertainment is going to be murder.

This is a culture of apology. Everyone apologizes all the time. And rarely are apologies accepted. But grovel you must. Express remorse. One of the things that always astounded me, in my misspent youth, was the courts and DAs expecting remorse. I swallowed a lot in those years, but I never said I am sorry. And I instinctively knew, that the worst thing you can do to anyone is to humiliate them.

Fetishizing offront and insult simply obscures the real violence at the heart of all relationships. A friend wrote me recently to say she was accused of being “abusive” by someone she knew, a friend. Her abuse was to state a very negative opinon of someone. So criticism is equated with being abusive. A culture that accepts lying, that accepts and rewards cheats and sadists, and whose elected officals stand to applaud the police murder of a disturbed and unarmed woman is never going to provide any meaningful distinction between sex positive and sex negative.


  1. Great…the last line surprised me in that revelatory way. I would want to throw the Eeichian Theweleit in to the ste w here. He rejects the idea of a death drive. His Nazis are trying in their damaged way to strain pleasure. No distinction as you say between sex positive and sex negative. Murdering the Red Woman – slutty sex pos animal – was their eroticism, their orgasm. They told Rosa Luxemburg “we are going to tear you apart so everyone can have a piece if you” before they killed herwith butts of rifles

  2. To attain pleasure that should say

  3. john steppling says:

    I like “strain pleasure” though.

  4. john steppling says:

    and yes, I thought about Theweleit when I was writing this. I have his books up at the cabin though………but yes, he is very pertinent.

  5. Fucking brilliant. Thank you.

  6. Criticism endangers ppls brands….I thought Fowler was terrific and rare in actually correctly noting the preoccupations of privilege…Penny is a foul Zizrkian of course…but lately the label “first world problems” has been used as snark to scold resisting fire workers and associate wage demands and worker militancy with upper middle class egotism and complaints you can’t get good help anymore. This subtle vitiation of left colloquial discourse is a zizney achievement too. Fowler was really good making the point that its not a questionof attacking or defending Cyrus personally but how attacks on her functions in spectacle as proxy witch burnings of all who may be lectured as “young lady”. Cyrus tho did put on an aggressively racist spectacle.

    But Id love to explore more this revival of the classic late 19th early 20th century parqdigm of the human as animal with a governor spirit, the psychanslyric adaptation of enlightenment humanism It seems so obvious to us we can forget how ideological it is …mind high and body animal low…animal=child=cruelselfish/Id=savages, ego as government and resource exploiter …

  7. John Steppling says:

    @molly, yes thats right, the fast changing landscape of language. The co-opting of words, so that something will mean, usually, its opposite. That new Jacobin or In These Times, Mother Jones…though jac pretends to be academic-ish in some way, they are all promoting writers like ziz, penny, and they write fan reviews of pop culture, not analysis…..and snuck into these pieces are these reversals of meaning. That post gonzo tone, too……its part of the act. ‘Why so serious’…..serious is so old fasioned, so five minutes ago. As for animal and manimal, I am always reminded of those human zoos…colonial zoos, (i posted about them a while back too) which were there to display the more animal like nature of the savages. They were closer to animals. And animals were childish. Children were little animals in a sense, a bit beastly. And this is all mediated with sexual overtones. This is the Victorian dynamic in a sense, with this idea of the beastly underclass, which was also the slave, Mandingo, and there was a subtle confusing of content and process ….in a sense anyway……the torn bodice, was also in the process, while submitting to savage lust, recorseting the status quo in some way, because it always gets put back on.. and here guilt intersects, and christian repressions. But the government, as ego…Yes!,. and the Jekyll & Hyde , Frankenstein etc. Then onwards…..Pavlov…..skinner. So I wonder how this mechanical model….the brain is a computer is the latest to be sustained……….how that was an outgrowth of all this. The more mechanical the better.

  8. traxus4420 says:

    ” A reality TV show has to be coming in which homeless people fight with tire irons, scrounge for pet food or gutter scraps, or sneak bacterial agents into each other’s food…something….for the final frontier for bourgeois entertainment is going to be murder.”

    remember Bumfights? paying the homeless to beat each other for the enjoyment of TV viewers happened years ago:

  9. John Steppling says:

    yeah, 2002. Not quite murder though. But i guess thats the obvious direction….echoed in hunger games and what not. Rollerball was the 70s I think. But Bumfights removed the sci fi aspect, the dystopian future. And you also have that cop sting reality shows, or

    Now, Cheaters is interesting because it sort of encloses masochism, sadism, and a lot of porn elements, and also sex becomes equated with surveillance and with pseudo swat team raids on your sex life. This weird confessional aspect, the remorse or apology aspect, and all of it links to sex.

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