To recognize a social structure in sexuality it is necessary first to see sexuality as social. The following analysis therefore presupposes the argument, made in Gagnon and Simon’s Sexual Conduct, Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Weeks’s Sexuality and its Discontents, that sexuality is socially constructed. Its bodily dimension does not exist before, or outside, the social practices in which relationships between people are formed and carried on. Sexuality is enacted or conducted, it is not ‘expressed’.
There is an emotional dimension, and perhaps an erotic dimension, to all social relationships. However the focus here will be on what are called ‘sexual social relationships’ by the Red Collective in The Politics of Sexuality in Capitalism.’, relationships organized around one person’s emotional attachment to another. The structure that organizes these attachments I will call the ‘structure of cathexis’.
Freud used the term ‘cathexis’ to refer to a psychic charge or instinctual energy being attached to a mental object, i. e., an idea or image. Here I am generalizing it to the construction of emotionally charged social relations with ‘objects’ (i. e., other people) in the real world. As with Freud’s usage, it is important to note that the emotional attachment may be hostile, not only affectionate. It may also be hostile and affectionate at the same time, i. e., ambivalent. Most close relationships have this degree of complexity.
Of course sexual practices are governed by other structures as well. Emma Goldman put this pungently when trying to deromanticize ‘the traffic in women’: ‘It is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of women is responsible for prostitution.’ Yet psychoanalysis and the sexual liberation movements both point to the constraining power of patterns of emotional attachment in their own right. It should be possible to analyse them without falling into romanticism.
The social patterning of desire is most obvious as a set of prohibitions. The incest taboo, and specific laws about rape, age of consent and homosexuality, all prohibit sexual relationships between certain people. (Strictly speaking the laws prohibit particular actions, but the intention is to destroy the relationships.) Psychoanalytic theories of the Oedipal crisis and the super-ego interpret the impact of society on emotions mainly in terms of the internalization of prohibitions. Yet the prohibitions would be pointless without injunctions to love and marry the right kind of person, to find such-and-such a kind of masculinity or femininity desirable. The social pattern of desire is a joint system of prohibition and incitement.
Two principles of organization are very obvious in our culture. Objects of desire are generally defined by the dichotomy and opposition of feminine and masculine; and sexual practice is mainly organized in couple relationships.
Historically and cross-culturally, sexual attachment has not always been organized in terms of a dichotomy. Nevertheless in the rich capitalist countries at present sexuality is firmly organized as either heterosexual or homosexual. If it is not, we actually label it as mixed: ‘bisexual’. Though coupling is often seen as the basic structure of attachment, the gender dichotomy of desire seems to have some priority. When couples break up and their members form new attachments, it is almost universal practice for the new companion to be of the same sex as the old one, whichever that was.
In the pattern of desire that is socially hegemonic, cathexis presupposes sexual difference. ‘Woman needs man and man must have his mate’, as time goes by. The solidarity of the heterosexual couple is formed on the basis of some kind of reciprocity, rather than a basis of common situation or experience. This is in marked contrast to solidarities generated by the structures of labour and power. The latent contradiction here has often been noticed, indeed is a theme of romantic literature, as well as a political issue of some importance in feminism in the last decade. More, the sexual difference is a large part of what gives erotic flavour to the relationship. Hence it can be emphasized as a means of intensifying pleasure. This goes some way to explaining the systematic exaggeration of gender differences discussed in chapters 4 and 8.
But ‘difference’ is a logical term, and social relationships are more loaded. The members of a heterosexual couple are not just different, they are specifically unequal. A heterosexual woman is sexualized as an object in a way that a heterosexual man is not. The fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, and the content of mass media are tangible proof of this. For instance, the glamour shots on the covers of women’s magazines and men’s magazines are pictures of women in both cases; the difference is in the way the models are dressed and posed. Broadly speaking, the erotic reciprocity in hegemonic heterosexuality is based on unequal exchange. There are, as Emma Goldman noted, material reasons why women participate in unequal relationships. The ‘double standard’, permitting promiscuous sexuality to men and forbidding it to women, has nothing to do with greater desire on the part of men; it has everything to do with greater power.
The process of sexualizing women as objects of heterosexual desire involves standardizing feminine appeal, as the term ‘fashion’ itself implies. There is a complex of tensions and contradictions around this. Though hostility can be and often is directed at a whole gender category (misogyny, misandry, homophobia), attraction is not. Rather, heterosexuality and homosexuality as
structural principles are definitions of the social category within which a partner can be chosen. Perhaps the implication is that both are constructed mainly by blocking out the category from which the partner is not to be drawn.
At the psychological level this implies repression and at the social level prohibition. Both imply some attraction to the negated object. Classical psychoanalysis made us familiar with this under the name of ‘ambivalence’. Its significance in understanding the construction of masculinity will be discussed in chapter 9; here I want to raise its structural implications. In The Ego and the Id Freud noted that the ‘complete Oedipus complex’ is twofold. Underneath the familiar triangle of love and jealousy is another set of emotional relations where the attachments run the other way: ‘A boy has not merely an ambivalent attitude towards his father and an affectionate object-choice towards his mother, but at the same time he also behaves like a girl and displays an affectionate feminine attitude to his father and a corresponding jealousy and hostility towards his mother.’ Carl Jung proposed as a general rule that what is repressed is emotion that cannot be expressed in social practice, with the result that the unconscious comes to be a negative of the conscious mind and public life.
If we take these ideas seriously, it can be argued that the visible structure of emotional relationships coexists with a shadow structure whose sense is very different. It is a familiar fact that public affection in a married couple often coexists with private hostility. The Red Collective has suggested a great difference between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of couple relations in general. Gay men have often suspected that the hostility they receive is sharpened by unconscious desire. Bringing up small children is virtually guaranteed to produce both love and hostility on both sides and to a strong degree. Since most of this parenting is done by women, relationships involving mothers are likely to be highly ambivalent, a theme stressed by Nancy Friday in My Mother/My Self.
There is so little research that gives depth-psychological information and has a sense of social context that it is difficult to do more than speculate on how this shadow structure is organized. All that is clear is that the structure of cathexis must be regarded as multilevelled, and major relationships as ambivalent, in the general case. The old cliches about how easily love and hatred turn into each other, and the power of fables on this theme like
Puccini’s Turandot, make better sense if sexual practices are generally based on structural relationships in which both love and hatred are already present.
Nancy Friday’s argument points towards another principle of organization. She remarks that when girls develop a desire for men, it is more security than sexuality that they want. It is often said of teenage sex that the girls want alfection and the boys want sex. Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette in Puberty Blues add that in teenage peer-group life, the sex is as much for symbolic purposes as for physical pleasure. This is probably true of adults too. The argument connects with Herbert Marcuse’s observations in Eros and Civilization about the development of genital primacy and the de-erotization of the rest of the body under the rule of the performance principle. It appears that a broad opposition has been constructed between genital performance and diffuse sensuality. In contemporary hegemonic heterosexuality these forms of eroticism are defined as masculine and feminine respectively. But they need not be. In other cultures they certainly are not, as the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana illustrates. It is wonderfully ironic that this compendium of mannered and leisured sensuality is now (in the West) mainly sold in porn shops dedicated to the mighty erection and the quick climax.
With labour and power, the structure can be the object of practice; with cathexis, it commonly is. One of the striking things about sexuality is that the structure itself can be cathected. Hence, for instance, the erotic value of gender difference already noted. Hence the gender element in narcissism, the extent to which cathexis of the self is focused on the diacritical marks of gender. Hence, most strikingly, the erotic circularities of sexual fetishism, where the symbolic markers of social categories (lace handkerchiefs, high-heeled shoes, leather jackets) or structural principles (for example, dominance) get detached from their contexts and themselves become primary objects of arousal.
This kind of practice can be captured for profit-making or repression, as it is by the advertising industry. But another practice directed towards structure is possible, the attempt to rework patterns of attachment in an egalitarian direction. Autobiographies of this practice, like the Red Collective’s book, or Anja Meulenbelt’s account of personal life, feminism and the Dutch Left in The Shame is Over, show the difficulties more readily than the potentials. David Fernbach, who argues in The Spiral Path that there is an inherent egalitarianism in gay relationships because of their transitive structure (my lover’s lover can also be my lover), is more sanguine.