Sexual repression

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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.[1] What constitutes sexual repression is subjective and can vary greatly between cultures and moral systems.


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.[2] 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.[3] In some periods of Indian history anaphrodisiacs were utilised in order to lower libidos.[4]


Most forms of Christianity strongly discourage homosexual behavior.[5]

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.[6]


Various countries have laws against sexual acts outside marriage. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,[7] Afghanistan,[8][9] Iran,[9] Kuwait,[10] Maldives,[11] Morocco,[12] Oman,[13] Mauritania,[14] United Arab Emirates,[15][16] Sudan,[17] Yemen,[18] any form of sexual activity outside marriage is illegal.


Marriage has been seen as a means of controlling sexuality.[19] 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 multiple partners, thus preserving their virginity for the future husband.[20] According to the BBC World Service:[21]

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[edit]

Prevalence of FGM in Africa

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".[22] 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.[22]

FGM does not have any health benefits, and has serious negative effects on health; including complications during childbirth.[22]

FGM is used as a way of controlling female sexuality; the World Health Organization (WHO) states:[22]

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).[23] 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 [...].[24]

Male circumcision[edit]

Male circumcision prevalence by country according to a World Health Organization's 2007 review.[25]

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.[26] 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."[27]

In the late-nineteenth century, circumcision of the penis was prescribed by John Harvey Kellogg as a "cure" for masturbation.[28] 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."[29]

A "biocultural analysis" of male circumcision supports the hypothesis "that a practical consequence of circumcision, complementary to any religious-symbolic function, is to make a circumcised male less sexually excitable and distractible, and, hence, more amenable to his group's authority figures."[30]

Honor killings[edit]

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.[31][32][33][34][35] According to a UN Expert Group Meeting on good practices in legislation to address harmful practices against women:[36]

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[edit]

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.[37] Apart from criminal prosecution, LGBT individuals may also face social stigmatization and serious violence (see violence against LGBT people).


Some researchers[who?] 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.[38]

Sexual repression is often viewed as a key issue within feminism,[39] although feminist views on sexuality vary widely. Among the factors that might trigger appearance of sexual repression are cultural and societal norms that might be perverted in specific communities compared to wester society.[40]

Michel Foucault[edit]

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.[41]

Repression in various countries[edit]

Many countries[which?] have developed a much more liberal attitude[citation needed] towards sexuality, but in some[which?] it has become less so.[citation needed]


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.[42]


According to R.P. Bhatia, a New Delhi psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, middle-class India's "very strong repressive attitude" has made it impossible for many married couples to function well sexually, or even to function at all.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Karen A. McClintock, Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. (ISBN 0800632389) (2006).
  2. ^ Wilf Hey. "Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalysis and Sexual Repression" Archived 2008-05-18 at the Wayback Machine,
  3. ^ B. Apfelbaum. "Sexual Reality and How We Dismiss It." Archived 2009-07-04 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Ferreira, Mariana Kawall Leal (1996). Sweet Tears and Bitter Pills: The Politics of Health Among the Yuroks of Northern California. University of California, Berkeley with University of California, San Francisco.
  5. ^ liberal media Free Lance-Star retrieved 27 January 2012
  6. ^ Sex and Society Volume 3 - Page 722
  7. ^ "Human Rights Voices – Pakistan, August 21, 2008". Archived from the original on January 21, 2013.
  8. ^ "Home". AIDSPortal. Archived from the original on 2008-10-26.
  9. ^ a b "Iran". Archived from the original on 2013-08-01.
  10. ^ "United Nations Human Rights Website – Treaty Bodies Database – Document – Summary Record – Kuwait".
  11. ^ "Culture of Maldives – history, people, clothing, women, beliefs, food, customs, family, social".
  12. ^ Fakim, Nora (9 August 2012). "BBC News – Morocco: Should pre-marital sex be legal?". BBC.
  13. ^ "Legislation of Interpol member states on sexual offences against children – Oman" (PDF). Interpol. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 May 2016.
  14. ^ "2010 Human Rights Report: Mauritania". 8 April 2011.
  15. ^ Dubai FAQs. "Education in Dubai".
  16. ^ Judd, Terri (10 July 2008). "Briton faces jail for sex on Dubai beach – Middle East – World". The Independent. London.
  17. ^ "Sudan must rewrite rape laws to protect victims". Reuters. 28 June 2007.
  18. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Refworld | Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa – Yemen". UNHCR.
  19. ^ Murray, Melissa (2012-01-01). "Marriage as Punishment". Columbia Law Review: 1.
  20. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-05-31. Retrieved 2014-05-30.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^ "Article 16: Right to marriage and family and to equal rights of men and women during and after marriage". BBC World Service. Retrieved June 8, 2016.
  22. ^ a b c d "Female genital mutilation". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  23. ^ "Full list". Treaty Office. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  24. ^ "A/RES/48/104 - Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women - UN Documents: Gathering a body of global agreements". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  25. ^ "Male circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability" (PDF). World Health Organization. 2007.
  26. ^ "WHO | Male circumcision for HIV prevention". WHO. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  27. ^ "Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed: Circumcision". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  28. ^ "The Project Gutenberg e-Book of Plain Facts for Old and Young, by J. H. Kellogg, M.D." Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  29. ^ Acton, William (1862). The Functions and disorders of the reproductive organs in childhood, youth, adult age, and advanced life, considered in their physiological, social, and moral relations. Churchill.
  30. ^ Immerman, Ronald S. & Wade C. Mackey (1997) "A biocultural analysis of circumcision." Social Biology 44: 3–4, p. 265.
  31. ^ "BBC - Ethics: Honour Crimes". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  32. ^ "Definition of HONOR KILLING". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  33. ^
  34. ^ Ivan Watson. "Shocking gay honor killing inspires movie". CNN. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  35. ^ "Iraqi immigrant convicted in Arizona 'honor killing' awaits sentence". Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  36. ^
  37. ^ "Where is it illegal to be gay?". 2014-02-10. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  38. ^ Mary E. Odem, Jody Clay-Warner, Confronting rape and sexual assault, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, p. 104.
  39. ^ Shulman, Alix Kates (1980). "Sex and Power: Sexual Bases of Radical Feminism". Signs. University of Chicago Press. 5 (4): 590–604. ISSN 1545-6943. JSTOR 3173832 – via JSTOR.
  40. ^ "Feeling sexually repressed? - Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  41. ^ Michel Foucault (14 April 1990). The history of sexuality. Vintage Books. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  42. ^ Yuehong Zhang, Everett (September 2005). "Rethinking Sexual Repression in Maoist China: Ideology, Structure and the Ownership of the Body". Body & Society. 11 (3). doi:10.1177/1357034X05056188.
  43. ^ Stevens, William K.; Times, Special To the New York (1983-04-22). "Sexual Repression in the Land of the Kama Sutra". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-21.