Footnote 7 – Polymorphous Perversity

As a variation on the concept of repression, Freud introduces the term “sublimation,” understanding by that the mental operation through which problematic libidinal impulses are provided with an outlet. Such outlets for sublimation would include any activity—art, sports, manual labor—that permits use of the sexual energy considered to be excessive by the canons of our society. Freud draws a fundamental distinction between repression and sublimation by suggesting that the latter may be salutary, insofar as it is indispensable to the maintenance of a civilized community.


This position has been attacked by Norman 0. Brown, author of Life Against Death, which on the contrary favors a return to the state of “polymorphous perversion” discovered by Freud in infants, and thus implies the total elimination of repression. One of the reasons adduced by Freud in his defense of partial repression was the necessity to subjugate the destructive impulses of man, but Brown, as well as Marcuse, refutes this argument by maintaining that aggressive impulses do not exist as such, so long as the impulses of the libido - which are preexistent - find a mode of realization, that is to say, a means of satisfaction.


The criticism directed at Brown, in turn, is based upon the supposition that a humanity without bounds of restraint, that is to say, without repression, could never organize itself into any permanent activity. It is here that Marcuse interjects his concept of “surplus repression,” designating by such a term that part of sexual repression created to maintain the power of the dominant class, in spite of not proving to be indispensable to the maintenance of an organized society attending to the human necessities of all its constituents. Therefore, the principal advance that Marcuse presupposes in opposition to Freud would consist of the latter’s toleration for a certain type of repression in order to preserve contemporary society, whereas Marcuse deems it fundamental to change society, on the basis of an evolution that take into account our original sexual impulses.


Such could be considered the basis of the accusation which representatives of the new tendencies have leveled against orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, to the effect that the latter had sought - with an impunity that became undermined toward the end of the sixties - that their patients assume all personal conflict in order to facilitate their adaptation to the repressive society in which they found themselves, rather than to acknowledge the necessity for change in that society.


In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse asserts that, originally, sexual instinct had no temporal and spatial limitations of subject and object, since sexuality is by nature “polymorphous perverse.” Going even further, Marcuse, gives as an example of “surplus repression” not only our total concentration on genital copulation but also such phenomena as olfactory and gustatory repression in sexual life.


For his part, Dennis Altman, commenting favorably in his own aforementioned book on these assertions by Marcuse, adds that liberation must not only be aimed at eliminating sexual constraint, but also at providing the practical possibility of realizing those desires. Moreover he maintains that only recently have we become aware of how much of what we considered normal and instinctive, especially with respect to family structuring and sexual relations, is actually learned, and as a result how much of what up to now has been considered natural would have to be unlearned, including competitive and aggressive attitudes outside of the sexual realm. And along the same lines, Kate Millett, the theoretician of women’s liberation, says in her book Sexual Politics that the purpose of sexual revolution ought to be a freedom without hypocrisy, untainted by the exploitive economic bases of traditional sexual alliances, meaning matrimony.


Furthermore, Marcuse favours not only a free flow of the libido, but also a transformation of the same: in other words, the passage from a sexuality circumscribed by genital supremacy to an eroticization of the whole personality. He refers therefore to an expansion more than an explosion of the libido, an expansion that would extend to other areas of human endeavor, private and social, such as work, for example. He adds that the entire weight of civil morality was brought to bear against the use of the body as mere instrument of pleasure, inasmuch as that reification was considered taboo and relegated to the contemptible privilege of prostitutes and perverts.


Differing from this position, J. C. Unwin, author of Sex and Culture, after studying the marital customs of eighty uncivilized societies, seems to support the very generalized assumption that sexual freedom leads to social decadence, since, according to orthodox psychoanalysis, if an individual does not perish from his neurosis, the imposed sexual constraints can help to channel such energies towards social useful ends. Unwin has concluded from his exhaustive study that the establishment of the first foundations of an organised society, its subsequent development and appropriation of neighbouring terrain – in other words, the historical characteristics of every vigorous society - are evident only from the moment when sexual repression has been instated. While those societies in which freedom of sexual relations is tolerated - whether prenuptial. extraconjugal or homosexual - remain in an almost animal state of underdevelopment. But at the same time Unwin says that societies which are strictly monogamous and strongly repressive do not manage to last very long, and if they do in part, it is by means of the moral and material subjugation of women. Therefore, Unwin claims that, between the suicidal anguish that the minimizing of sexual necessities provokes and the opposite extreme of social disorder attributed to sexual incontinence, a reasonable medium ought to be found which might provide the solution to such a critical problem - that is to say, an elimination of the “surplus repression” about which Marcuse speaks.