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Sexual repression is a state in which a person is prevented from expressing their own sexuality. Sexual repression is often linked with feelings of guilt or shame being associated with sexual impulses. Defining characteristics and practices associated with sexual repression vary between societies and different historical periods. The behaviours and attitudes constituting sexual repression differ across cultures, religious communities and moral systems. Sexual repression can largely be categorised as physical, mental or an amalgam of both.
Sexual repression is enforced through legislation in certain countries, many of which are located in the Middle East and North Africa region, and South Asia. Common practices associated with sexual repression include child marriage, female genital mutilation and male circumcision. Individuals believed to have engaged in behaviours contradicting social, religious or cultural expectations of sexual repression, such as same-sex sexual activity, may be punished through honor killings, persecution or the death penalty.
Sexual repression can also be developed unconsciously from one's childhood or from undesirable sexual experiences.
Sigmund Freud was the first to use the term 'sexual repression' widely, and argued that it was one of the roots of many problems in Western society. Freud believed that people's naturally strong instincts toward sexuality were repressed by people in order to meet the constraints imposed on them by civilized life. Among many others, Freud believed renowned artist Leonardo da Vinci to have been a repressed homosexual, who he believed "sublimated" his sexual desires so as to achieve artistic brilliance. However, Freud's ideas about sexual repression have been subject to heavy criticism. According to sex therapist Bernard Apfelbaum, Freud did not base his belief in universal innate, natural sexuality on the strength of sexual desire he saw in people, but rather on its weakness.
In contemporary society, medication may be prescribed to registered sex offenders in order to lower the libido and ensure that further offences are less likely.
Sexual repression is a recurring prohibition in many religious contexts.
Many forms of Islam have strict sexual codes which include banning homosexuality, demanding virginity before marriage accompanied by a ban on fornication, and can require modest dress-codes for men and women.
Chemical castration has also been practiced upon male choristers prior to puberty to ensure that their vocal range remained unchanged. This practice of creating "Castrati" was common until the 18th century, and after a decline in popularity were only used in the Vatican up until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Marriage has historically been seen as means of controlling sexuality. Some forms of marriage, such as child marriage, are often practiced as a means of regulating the sexuality of girls, by ensuring they do not have multiple partners, thus preserving their virginity for the future husbands. According to the BBC World Service:
In some cases, parents willingly marry off their young girls in order to increase the family income or protect the girl from the risk of unwanted sexual advances or even promiscuity.
Female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, "comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". The practice is concentrated in 27 countries in Africa as well as Iraqi Kurdistan, Yemen and Indonesia; and more than 125 million girls and women today are estimated to have been subjected to FGM.
FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman's libido and therefore believed to help her resist "illicit" sexual acts.
FGM is condemned by international human rights instruments. The Istanbul Convention prohibits FGM (Article 38). FGM is also considered a form a violence against women by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women which was adopted by the United Nations in 1993; according to which: Article Two: Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following: (a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including [...] female genital mutilation [...].
Male circumcision is a religious tradition in Judaism and Islam. According to medieval Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides, male circumcision brings "about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible."
In the late-nineteenth century, circumcision of the penis was prescribed by John Harvey Kellogg as a "cure" for masturbation. William Acton, a leading authority on sexuality in mid-Victorian Britain, advocated male circumcision in order to prevent "undue excitement of the sexual desires … which it is our object to repress."
A "biocultural analysis" of male circumcision supports the hypothesis "that a practical consequence of circumcision, complementary to any religious-symbolic function, is to make a circumcised male less sexually excitable and distractible, and, hence, more amenable to his group's authority figures."
An honor killing is the homicide of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or community, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their relatives, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate, or engaging in homosexual relations. With regards to honor killings of women, according to a UN Expert Group Meeting that addressed harmful practices against women:
They [honor killings] stem from the deeply-rooted social belief that male family members (in some cases, mothers and other women are involved in planning or carrying out honor crimes) should control the sexuality of or protect the reputation of women in the family, and that they may contain their movements or kill them for blemishing family honor, even when rumors or false gossip are the reason for public suspicion.
Same-sex sexual activity
Homosexual sexual expression is a sensitive topic in many societies. As of 2014, same-sex sexual acts are punishable by prison in 70 countries, and in five other countries and in parts of two others, homosexuality is punishable with the death penalty. Apart from criminal prosecution, LGBT individuals may also face social stigmatization and serious violence (see violence against LGBT people).
Researchers such as Peggy Reeves Sanday have proposed a relationship between sexual repression and rape. Evidence has been found to contradict this hypothesis, with a study by Jaffee and Straus finding "no relationship between sexually liberal attitudes and rape."
Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, neither refutes nor confirms what he calls the "repressive hypothesis." Instead, he says sexuality has become an important topic to understand and manipulate for the purpose of nation building. Through categorization of sexuality, the idea of repression was born. While he agrees sexuality has become much more controlled, he equates it to necessity. Furthermore, it is through psychiatric and medical discourse on sexuality that it has become repressed.
Repression in various countries
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Reproduction-based sex was urged by Mao Zedong, but later politicians instituted a one-child policy. In a country where atheism is popular, the restriction cannot be ascribed to religion but to nationalist motives.
According to R.P. Bhatia, a New Delhi psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, middle-class India's "very strong repressive attitude" has made it impossible for many married couples to function well sexually, or even to function at all.
In the last few decades the United States has been gradually removing much of the legislation tied to sexual repression of various groups. The influence of religious and conservative groups however continues to influence American society and how sex is viewed, working to influence governmental affairs, pharmaceutical companies, and education.
The first half of the 1960s saw contraceptions such as the birth control pill and Intrauterine Device (IUD) become widely available, which contributed to sexual freedom for many people without having to rely on less reliable and uncomfortable physical contraceptives such as condoms or diaphragms. However, religious and conservative lobbying groups as well as the influence of neo-eugenics created push back on some other forms of birth control such as emergency contraception and tubal ligation. Emergency contraception was being developed and produced by Hoechst under the name RU-486. Conservative lobbyist groups with ties to various religious powers such as the Vatican, originally were promoting limiting healthcare coverage of items such as birth control, and once RU-486was made public knowledge these groups actively worked to threaten Hoechst by claiming they would cause the company financial hardship if they did not cease all activity pertaining to RU-486.
In terms of more permanent forms of birth control such as tubal ligation and hysterectomies, there has been a long history of eugenicists pushing for forced sterilization of non Anglo-Saxon or lower class women. This stemmed from a belief that this would contribute to the betterment of American society. However, neo-eugenics, which is the more modern iteration of the eugenics movement, additionally works to limit access of procedures of sterilization from those they deem “fit” to reproduce. The demographic targeted for this are mostly white middle-class women.
During the late 1990s and the Bush Administration (2000–2008) abstinence-only sexual education groups were given considerable government funding to develop programming for schools. These groups were mostly represented by Christians who believed it to be their responsibility to address what they deemed as society's regressions towards a sex-based culture. Abstinence advocates generally focus on prohibiting sexual contact before heterosexual marriage. This has been linked to instigating a culture of sexual repressiveness affecting adolescent sexual behaviors, regardless of their sexuality. Research concerning the effectiveness of different forms of sex education for adolescents shows the highest success from comprehensive sex education. Characteristics of comprehensive sex education include informing students on the forms of birth control and how to use them, and sexual anatomy. The Obama Administration (2008-2016) worked towards promotion of comprehensive sex education programming and pulled much of the government funding supporting abstinence-only program development.
Symptoms of sexual repression
Sexual repression can be expressed but not limited to the following:
- lack of sexual attraction
- disinterest in sexual activities
- shame and distress with sexual activities
- guilt or other negative feelings after having sex
- believing your body is unattractive or unworthy of sex
- Age of consent
- Bodily integrity
- Delayed ejaculation
- Free love
- Freedom of speech
- Human sexual activity
- Human sexuality
- Opposition to pornography
- Reproductive rights
- Right to sexuality
- Sex-positive movement
- Sexual and reproductive health and rights
- Sexual norm
- Sexual revolution
- Sexuality in China
- Victorian morality
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