The Sexually Oppressed


In the 18th century a philosopher allegedly told one of his opponents: "I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." This noble maxim perfectly summarizes the spirit of an enlightened age which struggled to free itself from intellectual and moral bondage, and which, for the first time in human history, proclaimed universal liberty, equality, and brotherhood. This same spirit also guided the American founding fathers when, in the Constitution of the United States, they guaranteed every citizen freedom of speech, of religion, and of the press.

In the meantime these freedoms have found advocates in many other parts of the world. Over the last 200 years the ideals of tolerance, individualism, self-determination, and personal privacy have been incorporated into the laws of most modern nations. Indeed, our own century has seen a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which all member states of the United Nations pledge their support for these ideals. Thus, at least in theory, the liberation of the human race seems almost complete.

Alas, as we all know, in actual practice things are much less encouraging. Officially, governments may wery well subscribe to the famous maxim of that enlightened philosopher, but unofficially many of them still treat all dissent as treason. As a matter of fact, in spite of their libertarian rhetoric, some modern states are more oppressive than the worst medieval kingdom.

All of this is, of course, quite obvious and therefore does not warrant any  further discussion here. However, it is not often realized that even in the most tolerant Western countries the tolerance does not extend equally to all spheres of human life. Most notably two kinds of behavior continue to suffer irrational and often severe restrictions: the use of drugs and sexual activity. No public official is yet willing to say:"I disapprove of the drugs you take, but will defend to the death your right to take them", or "I disapprove of your sexual interests, but will defend to the death your right to pursue them." Such pronouncements would still be considered scandalous and irresponsible by most citicens. Drugs and sex remain the great taboos of our civilization.

Actually, in recent times drugs and sex have also begun to be feared by many formerly permissive societies which have been subject to Western influence. It is therefore hardly surprising to find that the celebrated "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" says nothing about people's right to control their own bodies. The document only cites the "right to marry and to found a family" and to choose one's marriage partner freely (Article 16). There is no mention of a right to sex education or sexual fulfillment, the free choice of a sexual partner or type of sexual activity, a right to contraception or abortion. Nor is this merely an oversight. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that even today the General Assembly of the United Nations would overwhelmingly reject any official declaration which dared to affirm these rights. Too many member states still consider sex legitimate only within marriage and for the purpose of procreation.

However, it should be well understood that societies which make procreation the only permissible function of sex thereby implicitly condemn most actual human sexual behavior as abnormal or deviant. Thus, solitary masturbation, sex play among children, adolescent sexual experiments, premarital and noncoital forms of marital intercourse, homosexual activity, sexual contact with animals, sex after the menopause—all of these and many other harmless forms of sexual behavior come to be seen as heretical practices which have to be suppressed. This suppression, in turn, creates a universal feeling of guilt and anxiety. Furthermore, since the suppression can never be complete, the development of a sexual double standard and widespread hypocrisy are virtually inevitable. In short, narrow sexual dogmatism always leads to social conflict and a great deal of human misery.

As we have seen earlier in this book, our own Western, Judeo-Christian culture has long been extremely rigid in matters of sex, and thus there is also more sexual hypocrisy and more sexual misery in the West than in most other parts of the world. Our pious forefathers have left us a legacy of intolerance that is difficult to ignore, and which continues to poison our lives to this very day. They were never content with extolling the virtues of procreation, but took the most savage and appalling measures to punish the nonprocreative vices. Sexual nonconformists who were easily tolerated or even esteemed in other societies were stoned in biblical Israel and tortured, mutilated, burned, hanged, or buried alive in Christian Europe.

For example, male homosexuals could be regarded as model citizens in pagan Greece, but for the believers in Yahweh and Jesus they have always been the scum of the earth. The Old Testament demanded the death penalty for sex between males, and so did baptized Roman emperors, Spanish inquisitors, English monarchs, and American colonists. Later, when religion lost some of its public influence, psychiatrists declared homosexuals to be sick and proceeded to treat them, often against their will, with shock or aversion therapy, "psychosurgery", and castration. Finally, in Nazi Germany the "healthy sensibility of the people" allowed homosexuals to be sent to concentration camps where they had to wear a pink triangle on their uniforms. They were killed by the thousands, and only a few survived. However, unlike the other victims of Nazism, they were never compensated for their suffering. On the contrary, they remained ostracized or were even imprisoned all over again. Indeed, at the present time homosexual behavior is still a felony in most states of the United States, and homosexuals are still being sentenced to long prison terms or committed to mental hospitals as "sexual psychopaths". Even if they are never convicted of any crime, they cannot immigrate, become citizens, or join the Armed Forces. Futhermore, there are still Christian churches which oppose any legal reform and which actively work for the defeat of homosexual civil rights legislation.

Needless to say, all of these barbarities have always been and are now being committed in good conscience by "decent" people with the loftiest motives. Sexual oppression, no matter how harsh or unjustified, has never lacked for rationalizations. These may range from simple religious dogmas to sophisticated pseudo-scientific theories, but regardless of their particular form, they all share one fundamental characteristic: They are not open to logical challenge. Even if they do not make sense or are disproved many times over, they are nevertheless repeated. After all, their real function is not so much to convince the skeptical as to ease the conscience of their proponents, and this task they have always performed remarkably well. Thus, to stay with our example, apart from scriptural quotations, one can now often hear claim's by professional "experts" that homosexuality somehow "threatens the survival of the species" or that it "undermines the institutions of marriage and family". The fact that these claims are patently absurd does not in the least prevent them from being put forward. It has often been pointed out that the Islamic and Buddhist societies of Africa and Asia which are well known for their tolerance of homosexuality are also well known for their high birth rates, stable marriages, and strong families. Everyone knows that the world is now threatened with overpopulation. Obviously, the institution of marriage has nothing to gain from being imposed on homosexuals who have no interest in making it work (to say nothing of the injustice perpetrated against their heterosexual partners). On the other hand, there have never been valid grounds why homosexuals should not keep close ties to their relatives and make valuable contributions to family life. However, none of this makes any difference to the intolerant. Since their beliefs are not based on reason, they cannot be shaken by it. In short, when it comes to sexual oppression of this kind, we are dealing not with sober and well-considered judgments, but merely with prejudices.

The oppression of homosexuals is perhaps the most striking and instructive example, but it is, of course, only one among many. The "reproductive bias" of our sexual morality has always produced many other oppressed minorities. Persons with specialized sexual interests, the institutionalized, the infirm, the handicapped and disabled, the aging, children and adolescents, indeed, married couples who practiced contraception or engaged in noncoital intercourse have also been victimized at different times and in various degrees. Moreover, for thousands of years a "double standard" has discriminated against the female sex as a whole. Therefore, if we take them together, we find that the sexually oppressed groups in our society actually constitute an overwhelming majority of the population.

This insight alone should give us serious pause. Indeed, it raises some fundamental and very disturbing questions. For instance: Why would a society first create and then maintain sexual standards that are sure to be violated by most of its members? In other words, why would the majority of any population choose to oppress itself? Or, to give a concrete illustration, why do the American people cling to sex laws that would put virtually everyone behind bars if they were truly enforced? Why would a whole nation want to define itself as a nation of sex criminals? Why do we have this desperate need to feel guilty? What is behind this general urge to be punished?

When these and similar questions, are asked, the usual "experts" are, of course, also ready with their prefabricated answers. The religious dogmatists simply talk about "original sin" or "Adam's fall", and since this is strictly a matter of belief, there is no point in arguing about it. However, the same view is sometimes expressed in secularized form by people who speak of an inherently perverse, destructive, or aggressive "human nature". Thus, sexual oppression and self-oppression in America would be nothing more than a manifestation of universal human tendencies, regrettable perhaps, but hardly avoidable. Yet, this hypothesis cannot explain why so many other societies are so much more tolerant. At this point a third explanation is often presented which ascribes all our sexual problems to the evils of our political and economic system. Capitalism, so runs the argument, creates sexual oppression as a drought creates dust; abolish capitalism and you free the sexually oppressed! Unfortunately, this naive assumption is disproved by the continued or even increased sexual intolerance in so-called communist countries, from Albania and Cuba to the Soviet Union and the Peopel's Republic of China. In short, the mere fact that the government takes control of the means of production does not guarantee sexual freedom. The social liberation of the "working class" and its sexual oppression can very well go hand in hand.

The latter example also shows once again that sexual intolerance does not have to be based on divine revelations. To point to religious belief as the cause of sexual oppression therefore explains nothing. It then still has to be explained why some religions are sex-negative and others are not. Even the Bible contains enough material for the support of a tolerant attitude, and, in fact, this material is often quoted by liberal Jews and Christians. Nevertheless, by and large, the sexually positive biblical statements are ignored while the negative ones are stressed. By the same token, the dietary laws of Moses are now widely shrugged off as obsolete, and so are some of his sexual laws, but certain others are fiercely defended, although they are just as archaic. The deeper reasons for this selectivity remain as mysterious as ever.

Under the circumstances, we seem to have little choice but to await further research in this area. In the meantime, however, we do not really have to understand the causes of sexual oppression in order to disapprove of it and to fight against it. Its baneful consequences have been too obvious for too long. Indeed, it is the contemplation of these consequences more than any radical temperament that has always prompted enlightened people to preach greater sexual tolerance. We have, at the beginning of this chapter, quoted a philosopher of the 18th century and mentioned the American founding fathers. They represent a libertarian tradition in our history that can still furnish the means of our emancipation.


Although sexual oppression usually imposes external restraints on people, it often also produces internal fears and inhibitions. Thus it is entirely possible for men and women to end up as their own oppressors.

Illustration from a 15th-century manuscript showing a female chastity belt. Such a belt was put on a woman by her husband who kept the key, thereby hoping to prevent her from committing adultery in his absence. The custom illustrates that wives were the property of their husbands who had the right to keep them under lock and key.

A 19th-century male chastity belt. Such belts or similar contraptions were put on young men by their parents who thereby hoped to prevent them from masturbating. Some worried adult men also put the belts on themselves, because psychiatrists had told them that masturbation would lead to insanity. For a long time this and other absurd psychiatric doctrines were used to justify sexual oppression.

The authors of the United States Constitution knew the danger of religious and political tyranny and therefore took care to protect the rights of dissenters and nonconformists. Since then, these rights have been further strengthened by numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Indeed, in recent decades the protection of dissent and nonconformity has gradually been extended to the sexual sphere. Thus, Americans now have a constitutional right to marital privacy (Griswold vs. Connecticut, 1965), contraception (Eisenstadt vs. Baird, 1972), and abortion (Roe vs. Wade, 1973). They also may possess and enjoy sexually explicit materials in the privacy of their own homes (Stanley vs. Georgia, 1969). These sexual rights may still be limited, but they provide a basis on which other rights can be built. At any rate, the demand for greater sexual freedom persists and is growing. Even if the Supreme Court, Congress, and the various state legislatures should temporarily try to stall further progress, they will, in the end, have to give in if they want to preserve the principles to which they owe their existence. Democratic government requires autonomous citizens, and if it is an absurdity to deny such citizens the right to their own opinion, it is equally absurd to deny them the right over their own bodies.

Within the last few years, several sexual minorites have formulated their own "bills of rights", thereby challenging the majority to abandon its prejudices. These documents spell out many detailed demands, but, in so doing, they also illustrate the extent of sexual oppression in our society. Finally, and quite appropriately, those who deal with sexual problems in a professional way have felt obliged to summarize the issues in a more general statement. Thus, at the initiative of the sexologist Lester A. Kirkendall, a number of prominent sex researchers have now signed A New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities (in The Humanist, Jan./Feb. 1976). Among other things, this bill calls for the abandonment of our "reproductive bias" and affirms people's rights to free sexual expression as long as they do not harm others or interfere with their rights. In short, it demands the same freedom with regard to sex that we now take for granted with regard to speech, religion, and the press.

There is, of course, still a great deal of resistance to sexual liberation. Authoritarian politicians, dictatorial judges, orthodox psychiatrists, conservative civic groups, and puritanical churches claim that any loosening of our sexual norms will lead to moral decay and ultimately to the destruction of our society. In support of this claim they usually cite the decline and fall of the Roman empire or some other great nation. However, no competent historian takes this kind of argument seriously, since it cannot be proven. For example, there simply are no statistics about any change in Roman sexual behavior from early to late imperial times. What little we do know does not indicate any significant change between the reigns of Nero (1st century A.D.) and Constantine (4th century A.D.), for example. In any case, Rome fell only under Romulus Augustulus (5th century A.D.), more than a hundred years after it had embraced Christianity and its ascetic sexual doctrines. The conquering heathen barbarians, on the other hand, were sexually much less inhibited. Certainly, classical Greece, Renaissance Italy, and Elizabethan England were quite "permissive" compared to other, less glorious civilizations. Therefore it is rather doubtful that sexual oppression has ever been beneficial to anyone. Indeed, very often it has been the hallmark of sterile and reprehensible cultures like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Those countries that are dedicated to the ideals of individual liberty will have no difficulty finding their proper course. Sooner or later they will recognize that this liberty is meaningless unless it is extended to the sexual sphere.

The following pages describe the problems of various sexually oppressed groups in our society. One may, of course, with good reason include women as a group among the sexually oppressed. However, since they constitute slightly more than half of the human race, and since their oppression requires a more detailed analysis, they are discussed in a larger special section of this book (see "The Social Roles of Men and Women"). It should also be pointed out that many people belong to more than one group, such as the handicapped teenager, the prisoner with specialized sexual interests, or the aging homosexual who is confined in a mental hospital. Needless to say, in these cases the sexual oppression is all the more severe.

[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [The Social Roles] [Conformity & Deviance] [Marriage and Family] [The Oppressed] ["Sexual Revolution"] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]