Sexual repression is a state in which a person is prevented from expressing their own sexuality. Sexual repression is often associated with feelings of guilt or shame being associated with sexual impulses. What constitutes sexual repression is subjective and can vary greatly between cultures and moral systems. Many religions have been accused of fostering sexual repression.
Some ideologies seek to repress certain forms of sexual expression, such as homosexuality, and some cultures even use violent practices such as genital modification and mutilation, honor killings, or stoning, in an attempt to regulate human sexual behavior.
Sigmund Freud was the first to use the term 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. However, Freud's ideas about sexual repression have not been without their critics. 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 some periods of Indian history anaphrodisiacs were utilised in order to lower libidos.
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.
Various countries have laws against sexual acts outside marriage. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Oman, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Yemen, any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.
Marriage has been seen as a 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 several partners, thus preserving their virginity for the future husband. 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 has been practiced as a surgical means of sexual repression in some cultures, although it may be practiced for various reasons, with the World Health Organization recommending it as a means of reducing HIV/AIDS. Circumcision is also a religious tradition in Judaism and Islam. According to medieval Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides, the "reason" for male circumcision is "the wish to bring 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.”
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. According to a UN Expert Group Meeting on good practices in legislation to address 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
Various cultures attempt to repress homosexual sexual expression. 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).
Some researchers have hypothesized a relationship between sexual repression and rape. However, they have been unable to find any support for this hypothesis - whether the tremendous difficulty of measuring sexual repression is to blame, or whether the theory is simply false, is unknown.
Michel Foucault, in his The 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.
Foucault argues that religious confession as well as psychiatric procedure codify confession within as a means of extracting truth. Because the mechanisms of sex were obscure, it was elusive by nature and its mechanisms escaped observation. By integrating it into the beginnings of a scientific discourse, the nineteenth century altered the scope of confession. Confession tended no longer to be concerned solely with what the subject wished to hide but with what was hidden from himself. It had to be extracted by force, since it involved something that tried to stay hidden. This relationship of truth scientifically validated the view of the confessed which could assimilate, record, and verify this obscure truth.
Repression in various countries
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Many countries have developed a much more liberal attitude towards sexuality, but in some it has become less so:
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.
- Age of consent
- Delayed ejaculation
- Opposition to pornography
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