Freud believed that sex and death are the two instincts that drive us. Interpreted widely, sex includes forms of desire and pleasure, eroticism, fantasy, dreams, symbols and more. Death covers war, violence, destruction, abuse, brutality and other dark images and impulses.
Freud believed that repression is what keeps these drives in order. I think that the history of man illustrates another way of subordinating our movements. Nomad hunter-gatherers became farmers who settled down in villages. Villages grew into towns and city-states. Territories had to be defended from tribal rivalries and attacks. This led to wars.
Societies that developed literacy began to keep records and statistics. Rules, regulations and codes of conduct were drawn up to control and protect people. This, in turn, led to rights, laws and a justice system. Arguments were settled, crimes were defined and punished, and moral codes were instigated. This was the beginning of civilisation as we know it.
With the marking of births, puberty, marriage, and death came different rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies, myths and fables, some shared, many particular to each society. This was the expression of culture.
Wall paintings and sculpture, song and dance and story-telling were the beginnings of art. This term covers literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, design, cinema, photography, theatre, ceramics, crafts, fashion, and more.
Religion is another universal element and defence against sex and death. In Freud’s theory of the self, one could say that the super-ego, culture by the ego and art by the id represent civilisation.
I believe that separately and together, one of the functions of civilisation, culture and art is to defend against the power of sex and death unleashed. They offer us controlled and safe ways of expressing the unsayable, mastering our conscious and unconscious drives. Repression becomes an expression; our fantasies, fears and dreams are safely contained.
This brings me to our evolutionary drive and the nature of libido. Our DNA differs from apes by less than 5%, and we are millimetres away from brutally lousy behaviour. Male sexuality unchained can lead to men being rapists, predators, paedophiles and abusers, revealed in the most recent scandals but sadly ever-present. It was always thus and ever will be.
Sex and sexuality, violence and war are also about power, the Darwinian urge to reproduce, and the unconscious Freudian desire to kill your father and sleep with your mother. There will always be war because of men’s tribal and territorial nature and the competitive need to conquer and rule.
More than ever, we need civic laws, our cultural rituals and art in all its forms to keep us in check and to sublimate our violent drives and instincts, which are inherent.
A word about sex education: it doesn’t start early enough or cover enough ground. Men need to learn about respect and consent from the beginning. The current lip service to gender fluidity avoids the fact that most men and women are biologically, psychologically, and emotionally different. I think it is foolish, indeed dangerous, to deny this in the interest of gender equality. Equal but different should be acceptable.
Just a reminder: sexual intercourse is penetrative for men with a thrusting penis and receptive for women with a containing vagina. Different. There you have it.
Carol Martin-Sperry is a sex therapist and the author of three books about couples and sex. Carol is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.