Sex and Power


Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump.  What they have in common is unmastered sexual desire, serviced by a sense of power and privilege. Is the motive power or sex?  I think without certainty that sex is the motive and power the means.  Or perhaps the answer varies, depending on the individual case.  In any event, they are not aberrations; they constitute a widespread and long standing, immemorial phenomenon.  What is new is the ubiquitous, unrelenting presence of the media.  The hope is that bringing what was in the dark to light will diminish, if not end, predatory sexual behavior.  It will not end sexual desire or bad marriages or infidelity or sexual jealousy or sexual violence.

The behavior of the predators is a clear abuse of power.  But what of the power they have over themselves, that is, the power of sex.  In a recent column in The Times (Oct. 25), Frank Bruni addresses what he believes to be Weinstein’s “self-pitying” displacement of responsibility in his vowing to “conquer my demons.”  Even if he suffers from a pathological addiction, he is not off the hook, but judgment of his behavior should perhaps be qualified by an understanding of his condition.  Bruni will have none it.  “Maybe he and his kind are sick.  Maybe, they’re just predators.”  Bruni comes down on the latter.  He is right to warn against a self-justifying use of the language of pathology as “agency depriving…Free will is removed.  Responsibility is expunged.”  But does that leave the question of whether there is such a thing as sexual addiction answered?  Bruni seems too easily content with the fact that the psychiatric community has not officially recognized it as such.  That community hardly has an unblemished record in its judgments of what constitutes disease.  Recall its diagnosis of homosexuality.  I would keep the question open.

I recently reread Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which I had read decades ago at the time of my divorce from my first wife.  I remember teaching it at M.I.T. with a singular passion.  Narrated by a listener to the husband’s account, the story is about a bad marriage, the suspected infidelity of the wife, his fierce sexual jealousy, resulting in her murder.  The account is preceded by the husband’s long reflection about the role of sex in the relations between men and women.  He surprises the reader, or at least this reader, with a proto-feminist statement that so long as men regard women as sexual objects they cannot achieve equality.  “The Kreutzer Sonata” has its biographical origins in Tolstoy’s fraught relations with his own wife, which, fortunately, did not result in murder.  I have been meeting with a group of elderly friends (ages range between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties).  One of the group referred to “The Kreutzer” in describing a project he had been working on.  We agreed to read and discuss the story.   My friends are two psychiatrists, an internist, a professor of literature (he brought up the Kreutzer) and an advisor to a university president.  The psychiatrists were initially repelled by the story, deeming it unworthy of Tolstoy’s genius.  One of them viewed the psychotic behavior of the protagonist as a symptom of Tolstoy’s own pathology. He was particularly taken aback by Tolstoy’s epilogue to the story in which he advocates chastity and celibacy.  (More about this later.)  The other psychiatrist was incredulous that the same author could have written Anna Karenina and “The Kreutzer.”  I pointed out that thematically both works had much in common: disastrous marriages, disastrous infidelities and violent endings, suicide in one case and murder in the other.  Anna Karenina does end with a fantasy about a happy marriage between Levin and Kitty, which, however, will probably be shattered “ever after.”  Marriage in 19th century Russia was no idyll; it was too often the scene of alcoholism, sexual abuse, infidelity and domestic violence.

But 19th century Russia was not alone.  Tolstoy experienced sex as a destructive drive.  He wasn’t alone.  It’s in the Christian tradition.  It is also in ancient Greek and Roman literature.  In Plato’s Republic, Sophocles is cited as having said in response to the question of how he felt about the loss of sexual desire in old age: “to my delight, I feel as if I had escaped from a frantic and savage master.”  Same for Seneca.   Think of the modern American scene and the depictions of marriage and sexual adventure by major novelists such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike, and earlier, Hemingway, who in The Sun Also Rises presents his narrator, the most admirable character in the novel as sexually impotent, while the sexual encounters of the other characters are disasters.

What any serious reflection about marriage discovers is that marriage will never be a simple happily ever after.  In falling in love, we know very little about the beloved and about ourselves.  What we are in the start of the marriage is not what we become as we grow older.  We may be lucky that the changes we undergo are not detrimental to the marriage, may even improve it, but at least one fact is always a threat to a happy marriage: marriage is not a natural institution.  We are not by nature monogamous. If we are faithful in a long marriage, which our vows promise us to be, it is because we have overcome temptation, held in check by fear of being found out or conscience or the strong bonds of companionship, friendship and love in marriage.  All this requires awareness, effort and reason, which are not universal endowments.  It is the model proposed in the novels of Jane Austen, who in imagining it had the advantage of never marrying.  Marriage is a partial fulfillment of the sexual drive.  It is also the unsuccessful taming of the desire.

Glancing at a shelf of books in my home, my eyes fell on a book I remember casually perusing years ago, Denis de Rougemont Love in the Western World (1940, revised 1965).  In reading it now with an attention that I did not give it earlier, I am surprised by its relevance to our contemporary situation.  De Rougemont traces the history of love from what he characterizes as the Tristan myth through the medieval and Renaissance periods to the modern period.  He is at once an historian and a moralist, and his morality is an affirmation of agape, the Christian love of God and in marriage a proponent of love of the other as opposed to carnal love (eros), the egoistic pleasuring of the self.  Like Tolstoy, he is a fierce critic of free floating sexual desire and like Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, he sympathizes with the chaste and the celibate, but his cause is Christian marriage.  For me, the interest of the book is not in its Christian message, but rather in its remarkable passages about characters and themes in the history he relates and the light it casts on the present, for example, the following passage on Don Juan.

“But Don Juan, although incessantly loved, is never able to love in return.  Hence his exaggerated wanderings.  Don Giovanni seeks in the act of love a voluptuous profanation…Don Giovanni’s line is rape, and no sooner has he scored than he surrenders the field and flees.  But the rule of courtly love made of rape the crime of crimes, a felony for which there is no remission…Don Giovanni is the demon of unalloyed immanence, a prisoner of the world of appearances, and the martyr of a more and more deceptive and despicable sensation.”  Unlike Tristan, who has only one beloved, “Don Giovanni is the man of many who is poor.”  De Rougemont’s heightened rhetoric, appropriate to the subject of Don Juan, may seem somewhat excessive in its application to Weinstein and his cohort, who incidentally are not loved by many, but the passage captures the contemptible poverty and perhaps even the suffering of the predator.

The ultimate expression of violent sexual passion is the Marquis de Sade’s rage.  De Rougemont: “Nothing can be more icily rational than the countless ‘voluptuous’ inventions of the Marquis’s rage.  Where pleasure is, there must suffering be; and suffering is the sign of redemption.  We are purified by evil; let us sin to the utmost so as to destroy it by subjecting it to tortures which will nevertheless afford us some pleasure, and this will be part of our askesis!  A dialectical frenzy seized Sade.  Only murder can restore freedom, and it must be murder of the beloved, inasmuch as loving is what fetters us.  Only one’s love can be really killed, for one’s love alone is sovereign.”  Sadism, in De Rougemont’s interpretation, is the freeing oneself from the tyrannical suffering of passionate love.

Don Juan, Sade and their epigones may have as their defense the alibi that they are driven by “irresistible passion.”  De Rougemont dismisses such a defense precisely as an alibi, an attempt to avoid responsibility. He views Don Juan, not as a powerful man of a “very strong sensual nature,” but as sexually weak.  “It is in a state of general weariness, sexually localized, that the body is led to commit these sudden lapses, not unakin to the puns that obsess a weary mind.”  This is the flip side of unmastered sexual passion.  Whether sensuously weak or strong, the predator is not in possession of himself; he is driven to commit his crimes.

What Tolstoy and De Rougemont have in common is a deep aversion to eros and an affirmation of agape.  Where they differ is in the view of marriage.  For Tolstoy, marriage is ineluctably contaminated by sexual desire.  Only the love of God by the chaste and the celibate is a way out from the sufferings of sexual desire.  De Rougement finds fulfillment in Christian marriage, a bond of “mutual love” that “creates the equality of those loving one another.”  The world of agape, unlike the world of eros, is one in which “mutual love exacts and creates the equality of those loving one another.”  (He is careful to distinguish this equality from the contemporary sense of giving rise to rights, whereas Tolstoy in his epilogue to “The Kreutzer” speaks of equal rights as the reward for ceasing to regard women as sexual objects.)

Tolstoy antedates two modern sexual revolutions: the Freudian and the revolution of the sixties and seventies.  Freud raised the sexual drive to modern consciousness with the purpose of both legitimizing and sublimating it.  He understood the repression of the libido was detrimental to mental health and that its unconstrained indulgence detrimental to civilized life.  The sixties revolution, prepared for by the radicalized Freudian theories of Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, liberated sexuality from their Freudian constraints without consideration of what the “liberation” entailed for the relationships between men and women or same sex couples or social well being.  It may be disingenuous as a defense of his behavior, but Harvey Weinstein is on to something when he said: “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.  I have since learned it’s not an excuse—in the office or out of it.”  In a Times article, Wesley Morris brings Hugh Hefner into the picture and speaks of the “myth of the sexual revolution” as a popularization of male sexual entitlement.

What is to be done?  Changing and enforcing rules of behavior are not enough.  Chastity, celibacy and impotence are hardly solutions.  But what of the link between sex and love?  When as a child on the brink of teen age, I asked my mother about sex, she said that it happened when two people love each other.  The necessary link between sex and love has dissolved.  Sex is a bodily function that may need an outlet even when there is no love.  Alive at a time before sexual freedom extended to women, Tolstoy railed against the therapeutic view of sex as a justification for prostitution.  We may have paid a price for the freedom in detaching sexual desire from the affections.  Love may be too demanding a requirement for sexual expression, but without affection sex becomes at best a transaction.  There needs to be in the education of the young, particularly of young males, instruction in the importance of affection in lovemaking and of sensitivity to the desires of the other.  Perhaps the greatest pleasure is in the experience of pleasuring the other, utterly missing from the thought and behavior of the predator.

Caveat: We surely want to end the violence in the battle of the sexes, but not its charms.  Vigilance against sexual assault and harassment should not turn into a puritan monitoring of social behavior between men and women—a censoring of playfulness, witty repartee and jokes.  Think Shakespeare in his romantic comedies—subtracting The Taming of the Shrew.

Postscript:  D. H. Lawrence is associated with the modern sexual revolution, though, as Norman O. Brown rightly remarked, Lawrence was a paradoxically conservative philosopher of sexuality.  He insisted that sex be performed not for procreation or pleasure, but only when the gods were present, a pagan turn on the presence of God in the Christian marriage, and a huge burden for most mortals.  Presumably the gods would have to be simultaneously present to both lovers.  One suspects that Lawrence’s followers, who took him seriously, had rather spare sexual lives.

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