A Paean to “Warm-Hearted Sex”

The upper-class married men of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna, like those of Tolstoy’s aristocratic milieu, often led debased, clandestine sexual lives which clashed with their more genteel, conjugal relations. They had invariably married within their own class, of course: unblemished young ladies from good families, versed in the arts of cultured conversation and amateur musicianship. Young ladies who had saved their “treasure” — only to find themselves shocked and unprepared for the raw male passions of the bridal suite.

Such men, by contrast, were certainly “experienced.” Since their days in college and in military service, they had freely visited brothels in the customary red-light districts.  Moreover – to our present-day dismay – children as young as 14 could legally become registered streetwalkers. Such poor children, probably abused in earlier years and desperate for cash, were easy prey for such well-heeled “gentlemen.” Sexual release was sought and obtained–but with the usual hangover of queasy shame. In short, as Freud realized, these men admired women whom they could not desire, and desired women whom they could not love. (There were exceptions – one of Leo Tolstoy’s older  brothers warmly loved and married a prostitute.) But generally, as Freud described, these upper-class males experienced a conflicted eroticism: affectionate tenderness vs. uninhibited sensuality. The outcome was devastating for so many of these genteel
couples: often impotent husbands, often frigid wives.

But what possible relevance could Freud’s observations in Vienna, well over 100 years ago, have now? Well, as I wrote briefly in my book Riddles of Eros (1994), researcher Alfred Kinsey’s tremendously influential books on human sexual behavior (1948, 1953) introduced an unfortunate misconception – that sexual behavior occurs simply to discharge sexual tensions. The preposterously overpraised Kinsey researchers not only promoted the misguided notion that sex is nothing more than such “release,” but also that there are six equally valid “outlets” in which to achieve it. (Bestiality, anyone?). Like hunger or the need to “evacuate,” the sex-drive merely urgently sought for tension-reduction (ejaculation, climax, whatever).

Since the 1960s, the generally easy access to reliable contraceptives has been a great boon for “planned parenthood.” And, more recently, with the availability of generally reliable “morning-after” pills (still under-publicized to uninformed teenage girls), the numbers of abortions performed per annum should have dropped precipitously. But they haven’t, at least in the U.S . — and one explanation is that, while the product is over-the-counter in most states, its price may discourage purchase. (Of course, these products are freely provided in many other countries).

After Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and Wilhelm Reich (who insisted that only total orgasms would lead to emotional health), the prevailing conception became a purely physiological one. Like other bodily functions (e.g., hunger), sexual tension could be pleasurably released through satisfactory sexual activity with an available “partner.”

What resulted, for so many starved for real human contact, was a depersonalized casualism. For the sexual encounter, Kinsey notwithstanding, is by nature a highly intimate one. Human touching and embracing are not only sexually arousing, but highly emotionally communicative, extending a trusting vulnerability which for a time transcends emotional isolation. Such contact, when defensive dissociation is overcome, is of the utmost intimacy far transcending mere conversation. Such misunderstanding of sexual intimacy has, in my opinion, devalued its subjective, uniquely personal quality – and reduced varied sexual encounters for many to merely an impersonal consumption of pleasure.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.