"Civilized" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness

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"Civilized" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (German: Die „kulturelle“ Sexualmoral und die moderne Nervosität) is an article published by Sigmund Freud in 1908, in the journal Sexual-Probleme ("Sexual Problems").[1][2]

Referencing Christian von Ehrenfels' distinction between cultural and natural sexual morality, Freud explains the etiological significance of cultural sexual morality as a reason for neurosis. At the beginning, Freud states that cultural sexual mores impose constraints on the individual, which can cause damage to the person, which in turn threatens the culture as a whole. While von Ehrenfels argues primarily on the basis of Social Darwinism, saying social sexual morality may prevent male sexual selection in reproduction, Freud focuses on the consequences of socially-imposed repression of the sexual instinct as a cause of neurosis.[3]

Culture is based on renunciation of drives. There is therefore a tension between a person's body, which seeks fulfilment of drives, and the demands of culture to renounce desire. Those who cannot conform to these requirements imposed by society are either viewed as criminals and perverts - if they cannot fulfil society's demand for renunciation - or escape into neurosis when the drives are suppressed to such an extent that neurotic substitute pleasures are developed in their stead. Neurosis is thus the negative counterpart of perversion, "because they [neurotics] have the same appetites as the positive perverts in a 'repressed' state."[4][5]

Freud said that the "perverse" part of the libido is caused by a disturbance in development. The libido was originally meant for deriving pleasure, not only at the genitals but also at other erogenous zones; but education has the purpose of limiting autoeroticism and directing love towards objects other than oneself, finally achieving the "primacy of genitals put into the service of procreation".[6] Thus Freud was one of the first people who said that sexuality by itself does not generate any internal conflict, and explained that the conflict arises only through interaction with the outside world, with its social norms and its expectation of repression of instincts, which leads to disease (repression thesis). The suppressed perverse drives are ideally channeled through sublimation and harnessed for cultural work. The sex drive in humans is aperiodic[7][8] and is divorced from reproduction. Therefore, it can be metonymically shifted and applied to other areas. Thus, culture benefits to a great extent - and is even dependent - on sexual energy that is redirected through sublimation. Therefore, Freud concluded that a complete renunciation of the sex drive is detrimental to culture. Abstinence only produces "brave weaklings",[9][10][11] but not great thinkers with bold ideas.[12] Freud thus describes the dilemma of culture, which simultaneously calls for renunciation while still needing the sexual instinct to preserve itself. The repression model that imposes cultural sexual morality should therefore be abandoned in favor of a sublimation, displacement, and distribution model of sexual energies.


  1. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1999). "Die "kulturelle" Sexualmoral und die moderne Nervosität" ["Civilized" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness]. Gesammelte Werke [Collected Works] (in German). VII. Frankfurt on Main: Fischer Verlag. pp. 141–167.
  2. ^ Freud 2009.
  3. ^ However, Freud does not contradict Ehrenfels on this point, thereby supporting the latter's social Social Darwinist model.
  4. ^ Freud 1908, p. 120.
  5. ^ At this point Freud comments on the gender differences between neurosis and perversion, and writes of neurosis in women and perversion in men. This is explained by a weaker sex drive in women. However, Freud himself states that as a woman is subject to a more strict upbringing and rigorous instruction than a man, she needs to practice more abstinence than a man. Nevertheless, he interprets the "weak sex drive" in women as a biological fact and not a result of socialization.
  6. ^ Freud 1908, p. 118.
  7. ^ Freud 2009, p. 64.
  8. ^ Here Freud goes back to referring to the smell stimulus and the taboo of menstruation.
  9. ^ Freud 1908, p. 125.
  10. ^ Freud 1908, p. 128.
  11. ^ This statement underlines all sorts of remarks by Freud on homosexuality and masturbation, which allegedly lead to impotence in marriage.
  12. ^ At this point there is a conflict with the goal of psychotherapy: Perversion is to be "cured", but at the same time the therapist is also aware that perversion is useful for culture.


  • Freud, Sigmund (1908). "Die "kulturelle" Sexualmoral und die moderne Nervosität" ["Civilized" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness]. Sexual-Probleme [Sexual Problems] (in German). 4 (3): 107–129.
  • Freud, Sigmund (2009). "Die "kulturelle" Sexualmoral und die moderne Nervosität" ["Civilized" Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness]. Das Unbehagen in der Kultur und andere kulturtheoretische Schriften [Civilization and Its Discontents and other works on cultural theory] (in German). Frankfurt on Main: Fischer Verlag. pp. 109–132. ISBN 9783596902071.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)

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