Repression: Not What You Think It Is

A culture of sexual repression

A culture of sexual repression

Misconceptions surround sexual repression. And both women and men can be confused.

Some women feel insulted if anyone suggests they might be repressed.

And conversations with guys have made me realize that plenty of them think that repression means, “I really want to have sex with you but I’m going to consciously repress the idea.”

Repression isn’t quite like that. 

Consciously blocking desire becomes an inability to feel

Yes, in the early stages repression can be at least partly conscious. A woman may have sexual feelings and actively work to block them from fear of punishment by God, her parents or “gaining a reputation” — and not a good one — in high school.

But after a while she’s not consciously blocking anything. She simply loses sexual feelings and energy.

And it’s not just punishment that represses.

Society tells girls that sex is shameful

Society bombards girls and women with the idea that their sexuality is sinful:

  • Women are still routinely put down as “sluts” and “ho’s.” Which means: women’s sexual desire is bad and dangerous
  • Dad may brag about his son’s sexual prowess but feel relieved that his daughter hasn’t dated yet
  • Viagra is openly advertised but products aiding women’s sexuality are not
  • How many movies tell stories about girls trying to lose their virginity?
  • When I ask students what they call a penis and a vagina, two responses stand out: “cock” and “down there.” A “cock” is proud. “Down there” disappears
  • The fear of sexual violence — or actually experiencing it — makes sexuality seem fearful
  • And be careful girls, or you may get f’d or screwed
He takes the walk of fame. She takes the walk of shame.

He takes the walk of fame.
She takes the walk of shame.

The result: sexual dysfunction

It all gets internalized — society gets in our heads.

And so you get statistics like these:

Nearly half of American women have experienced dysfunction: no or low interest, pain, difficulty climaxing or an inability to orgasm, for instance. About one-third of women under age 35 frequently feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex. One study found that only 29% of women always climax with their partners. And many orgasmic women need a vibrator.

Even after a woman marries and “it’s okay,” she may not be that interested — if she is deeply injured.

Otherwise, she may be sexually turned on at first. But after she’s been with him for a while she may lose interest. That’s common. It’s also a sign of repression.

I have probably experienced more problems with this than most, between being raised in one of the most sex-negative religions out there, and in a sex-negative family, with sex-negative friends from my church. Now add some adolescent slut-shaming — even though I had never had sex. And was afraid of it.

I was much more interested in sexuality at age 10 than at age 20.

That’s culture, not biology.

Women raised in sex-positive societies are easily and multiply orgasmic. And they don’t need mechanical equipment.

Most women living in modern societies aren’t as healthy as they could be. Maybe none are.

But it’s not their fault. It’s society’s fault.

So how to deal with it? That’s a big topic, which I will save for later.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 27, 2014, in feminism, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. I come from a semi-repressed family. My father is a New England WASP whose family wouldn’t even use medical terms to discuss cancer. My mother is a Connecticut Jewess whose family would discuss bowel movements at the dinner table. Due to the times, my domineering father was the head of the family, so any signs of physical affection or intimacy was verboten. Sex was only talked about in clinical terms and only in reference to procreation. Good girls “didn’t” do “it” and certainly not before marriage. My mother helped perpetuate that lie until they divorced.

    The non-discussion of sex and sexuality was in complete contrast to my hormonal desires. I had a difficult time reconciling my desire to kiss and touch a boy with sternness of my father and his constant, judgmental gaze. I feared his wrath and didn’t want to disappoint him, so I kept to myself most of high school.

    My first sexual experience was embarrassing and humiliating. I had a wonderful weekend planned with a guy I was crazy about. We made out all night long. He was such a good kisser. We were all in and moved towards the bedroom. We got naked and all was still wonderful. We got into position and then… Nope. He couldn’t get it in. We kept trying and trying, but that door was shut. Tight. We tried different positions, but nothing. Eventually, he just rolled over and went to bed. He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t have any words to describe what was happening with my body. He left early the next day and we didn’t see each other again for a long time.

    It turns outs, I had suffered from vaginismus. Somewhere along the lines, the message that good girls “don’t” won out in my subconscious. It took some therapy and a great college human sexuality course to get me to , um, open up.

    I am now raising two teenagers, a boy and a girl. Sex, sexual desire and all questions are discussed at the dinner table without judgment. Books about sex and human sexuality are on the eye level shelf of our bookcase. I know I embarrass them with my frank talk, but I don’t care. I think it is important that they both know sex is natural, wonderful and should never be shameful or feared.

  2. I get it how a woman can be insulted if anyone suggests they are sexually repressed. Any time one is analyzed, or given unsolicited advice it can be fairly annoying.

    I wound up in a repressive environment in my 20’s (as well as others earlier in life), where being free in such a way could easily be regarded as hypocrisy; one could be ostracized, cut off, given ultimatums, or subjected to a sort of sexual repressive treatment or counselling. It does sound horrible, but that was basically all in theory, I’m not entirely sure it would have been implemented in every case, though I had seen it implemented and heard stories of others being asked to leave the group until they met certain standards (the uncertainty could be regarded as another instance of “brainwashing’). It took me some serious searching, to find answers to the contrary, and the fact I subjected myself to this likely goes back to issues at home, under different standards.

    I will admit that the comfort provided in that repressive environment, and the teachings that went along with it prepared me for much in life that had been neglected when younger. Also as hinted at elsewhere in your blog, what’s forbidden often becomes one’s own deep desire, which can make sitting in a group of repressed people, a little steamy, almost unbearably.

    Even bringing up repression is an uncomfortable thing, and my personal view is that the only possible solution (or one of them) is to admit that one is, and act as if, we all all just carnal animals, basically with the most basic desire, to procreate and extend the survival of the species, or otherwise, just to have sex (possibly a male perspective, and I wouldn’t advise everyone to procreate, and I’m not excluded form that assumption).

    I do think men can be as repressed as women, for the reasons you mentioned, and I can think of a few others, and I realize you hadn’t said they couldn’t. Perhaps it may be easier for men to free themselves but I’m not always sure that’s the case.

    I had a few more thoughts on the subject previously and can’t quite remember at the moment. I had read somewhere that in France a few centuries ago, that doctors would prescribe orgasm for women, most often performed by the doctor, for what they called hysteria, which might have been anxiety or other mental ailments. I can say this may seem outdated, but I’m not fully opposed to bringing this back, for men and women. Also, I believe in the Netherlands, even today, doctors will prescribe surrogate sex, that is paid for by the government. Makes me think how incredibly backwards our society is in not acknowledging to the extent which may be necessary, how beneficial to health consensual intimacy can be, and I would say the extent necessary would be somewhere in the realm of the previous two scenarios.

    I wouldn’t typically respond in a comment section, because I feel most people who do so just like to see their own rant, and subject others to nonsense when no one asked their opinion, and I wouldn’t typically bring up my personal issues, but the topic is one that I can relate to, and I do appreciate your perspective.

  3. Good points, but I have a hard time believing that the use of a vibrator has to do with sexual repression. No matter how sex positive you are, the human hand will never move as fast as a vibrator. It’s just not physically possible. In my opinion, it is state laws against the sale and purchase of vibrators that are repressive. Also, I’m not sure losing sexual interest after being with the same partner for a long time is a sign of repression. Monogamy just gets boring after a while (for both men and women) and a new infatuation is more exciting – not that I condone cheating, of course. There are other alternatives – recreating your early dating behaviors to get that spark back, for example and/or trying new things in the bedroom with your current love.

    • In our culture, which shames women’s sexuality, Women need a vibrator.

      In sex-positive cultures women have orgasms — easily and multiply — sans vibrator.

      Given that women in our culture so often need one, I certainly have no problem with them. I’m complaining about the repressing culture, Not the vibrator.

      And men’s interest in long-term partners only dips slightly overtime. While women’s plummets. I don’t have proof positive that sex-negativity is the reason, But it makes some logical sense.

      And even if it weren’t the case, wouldn’t we all be better off with a more sex-positive society that didn’t shame women?

  4. Wow. This is really interesting.
    Sometimes I wonder:
    How do boys first become exposed to porn, and at what age? Does age of first exposure have an influence on how often a boy watches porn when he’s older? perhaps that could be a reason boys watch more porn than girls.
    And perhaps the reason boys masturbate more often is because it’s easier for them to figure it out at an early age. They hold their dicks in their hands multiple times a day. They get erections at random times, even when not necessarily horny, which begs them to release it.
    whereas, I remember touching myself when I was about 5, but by age 16, I had been utterly repulsed by my vulva for many years, and touching it made me want to dry heave. That was obviously societally induced. I then had to retrain myself into viewing my vulva as nondisgusting. now I’m 18 and still getting to know myself, I haven’t managed to acquire orgasm yet. It’s tricky. I feel like it would’ve been much easier had my sexuality not been suppressed from a young age.

    Sorry for the rambling, lol.
    BTW, the link to “women in sex positive societies are easily orgasmic” is broken. I’d love to see what the link was though!

    • The average age for boys to become exposed to pornography is 11 years old, Researchers think. Often just by exploring Internet, I assume. I mean it’s kind of hard not to run into it that way. But I don’t really know.

      And I agree with your other point. See this: Sex Lessons from Mom and Dad

      “women in sex positive societies are easily orgasmic”
      That information is in a lot of different places. But one is “Why women have sex” by University of Texas, Austin psychologists.

  5. What about “asexual” females (and males)? I don’t think sexual repression accounts for everyone with low or absent sexual desire and I question how to truly decide what is and isn’t sexual repression vs. what’s an innate sexuality.

    • One of my students wrote a paper on her a sexuality, and I edited it for my blog. So you should see it sometime. I can’t remember when I have a edited it for my blog. So you should see it sometime. I can’t remember when I have it schedule for.

      We are all a mix of our natural biology/personality + social interactions + culture. Some people may be a sexual purely due to biology. Others are because of culture. When nearly half of women have low or no interest in sex, that is almost certainly do to culture – a culture that punishes and represses women sexuality. In my own case I am pretty asexual and I know that it’s due to culture because when I was young I was very interested and sexuality. But the older I got the less interested I got. And I am very aware of the many repressive forces that have affected me. I’ve written about it a little but I will be writing about it more.

      Bottom line: we must stop punishing women’s sexuality.

  6. Pineet Grewal

    This post brings up some really great points. I think that this topic is often something that is widely felt in not only American society but places all around the world but rarely discussed on a public level. It almost feels like it’s wrong to even acknowledge let alone have an open conversation about women’s sexuality.
    When talking about gender roles, the idea of the private versus the public sphere is often discussed. The public sphere is where the man belongs where the private sphere is the woman belongs. While men get to have a respected say on topics involving the public such as war or government affairs, women are ultimately expected to bear and raise children and take care of the household.
    I feel that sexuality works in the same way. In the public sphere, men’s sexuality is not only present but very much celebrated whereas women’s sexuality is immensely repressed and discouraged. However in the private sphere is where women’s sexuality is not only present but largely encouraged. For example, the lingerie industry thrives off of the intimate wear for women that are encouraged to please their partners in the bedroom. In addition, how about the saying “lady in the streets but freak in the sheets”. This is a perfect example of expectation of women’s sexuality in society. In the public sphere, the woman must be a “lady” which is defined as a woman with high social position or class. While in the bedroom, she is expected to openly reveal her sexuality. And a woman, according to societal norms, can’t be a “lady” and be openly sexual as the article discusses because then she is referred to as a “hoe” or “slut”.
    I also found it interesting how the article pointed out the double standard in TV commercials about men’s and women’s sexuality. Viagra is a commercial that I have seen on various TV channels for years but anything relating to enhancing women’s sexual pleasure does not compare.

  7. I believe that sexual repression among women is more of a common issue then people today realize. There is a great deal of pressure on women nowadays to perform well in sex and satisfy the male and not enough emphasis on the importance of satisfying the female or allowing her to attain an orgasm. Even though the women’s orgasm plays just as vital of a role as the men’s orgasm does, both men and women are often to concerned with satisfying the man solely. I had my first boyfriend when I was sixteen and you could say I was inexperienced in many love matters, including sex since I had never had it before. My boyfriend invested no time in foreplay and focused solely on his own orgasm which was ultimately more painful for me and left me unable to experience an orgasm. This continued for the length of our relationship until I voiced my concerns where he bluntly replied that there must have been something physically wrong with my vagina in order for me to feel that way. For the next two years I had trouble experiencing sexual pleasure because I had believed that I had something wrong with me. Eventually I lost the habit, but it took a very long time since many of my female peers were experiencing similar issues but struggled to voice them. Cultures influence on my boyfriend and I led to the internalization that if women didn’t experience an orgasm once for every sexual encounter, there was something biologically wrong with them.

  8. Many schools do the sexual education well, but there are still a lot of teenagers who are anxious when they lose their virginity. In fact, such pressure is very serious for a child, but why does a child have such concept? Personally, I think it is the saying left by some religions, and it is also very important for children that the elders’ teaching and indoctrination about sex. If you just tell a child how important the virginity is blindly, it will just put pressure for them. You should teach them through proper channels. As long as there is not promiscuity, it is not important whether losing their virginity or not.

  9. Sex has become in Western society a means for boys to become men, while if girls choose to be sexually active “too young” (according to society) then they are viewed as “loose”… it’s double standards for sure. Well written post, as per usual!

  10. Excellent post… I agree with many of the ideas are… particularly with the statement: “Consciously blocking desire becomes an inability to feel”… It is odd that we may feel or dream things we would never feel able to do or think in a “Conscious” state of mind… I wonder why stereotypes and constraints are so powerful… Which is the punishment if we disobey them… rejection, though judgements over us.. Well considered those are just extensions of the coercive power underneath the “implicit rules”… We do what we were taught to do… Thus our actions are absolutely constrained by our social and cultural circumstances… Which is as relative as certain moral patterns.
    Best wishes to you, Georgia ⭐ Aquileana 😀

  11. So interesting that cultures where there is an obsession about sex really do have the most dysfunction. Male sexual dysfunction is a big one as well to my understanding. We all want to feel alive in our bodies yet society seems to be adept at finding ways to deaden us to our own ability to open to our own sensations.

  12. Yes, I have seen such cased where guys are not told anything about losing virginity but if a girl loses it then she is counted as slut!

    • Unfortunately, that happens plenty often.

    • Yes, men are harmed, too. They just get way fewer sex-negative comments, so it’s less of a problem for them.

      • Changing this must start in the family, especially with fathers talking to their sons about the harm of words very early in their life. Even outside of a traditional two parent family, fathers must lead. It is not just about words. It is about thinking. Changing the mindset of boys. Very few men want their mothers, sisters, girlfriends to be called these words. Yet, so many men say these words to and about other women.
        I have a 17 year old son. I can remember coming into his room while he was on his PlayStation gaming online. I heard him say the B word in reference to another guy. He called the guy a little b&^&ch!.He was 10. That’s when I sat him down and talked to him about the B word, the C word, the S word, and N word, etc.
        Over the years, I have talked to him about the history of oppression that women have suffered. How women were beaten by husbands, could not vote, forced to endure lousy marriages, were unable to work…How women could not live out their dreams as human beings and Americans. They were not allowed the pursuit of happiness. Parents must have this conversation early.
        Now, he tells me that the girls in his high school say these words just as often as the boys. Sigh. Just like Black people liberal use of the N word. Sigh again.

      • Yes, it’s so important for both mothers and fathers to take the lead in talking to their sons about this sort of thing. And on your other point, a number of groups have tried to take back words that have been used to hurt them by using those words themselves. On some level it may help. But on another level it can seem to give permission to have people call you those words.

  13. Sad that something so normal, I mean, it’s great but it’s also in many ways a very ordinary thing that most of the population does and always have done, has to have all these shame and rules, especially for women.
    I was readin recently about pharmaceutical companies trying to push-drugs for female sexual problems like low libido ect, I think these problems would be a lot less prevelant in a sex-positive society.

    • Yes, I think so, too.

      Now that I teach this stuff, and have worked to overcome the problem, I feel somewhere in the middle. I have a very strong sense of both the sex-negative and positive sides, and I’m oddly shocked by both sides, all at once.

  14. Many teenagers and adults too believe in maintaining their privacy when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health. Instead of visiting a doctor and clearing their doubts regarding sexual health, they turn toward searching the required information on the Internet. Since this information may not be valid in all cases, it could be dangerous to rely on it.

    There are several myths related to sexual health. Instead of believing any information on the web, one should consult the doctor to learn the facts and find accurate treatment.

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