Book review: Hatred of Sex

Oliver Davis & Tim Dean, Hatred of Sex (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), 206 pp., $25.

Hatred of Sex is an unapologetic polemic against the culture of sexual security in postliberation society. In many ways it resembles the “war on sex” framework put forth by David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe in their eponymous 2017 anthology, though departing from it in significant ways, namely in Davis and Dean’s use of psychoanalysis and democratic theory in their diagnosis of today’s attitude towards sex – which is simultaneously “tolerant” and frantically surveillant for traces of the “inappropriate.”    

Oliver Davis, professor of French studies at the University of Warwick, has written on the politics of psychedelics, gay male sexual culture, and the theories of Jacques Rancière. Tim Dean serves on the faculty of the University of Illinois, with a background in queer theory, psychoanalysis, and literary theory. Hatred of Sex was conceived, the authors say, out of their long-running conversations.

In chapter one, the authors develop their concept of “hatred of sex” via the model of the “hatred of democracy” as described by Jacques Rancière in his 2005 book of that title. According to Davis and Dean, Rancière considers hatred of democracy constitutive of democracy itself, in that democracy is government by all who have no natural right to govern, thus precluding the formation of any stable and identifiable order. Democracy – by extending a sphere of authority to everyone – is swelled with the excesses and contradictions of incompatible wills, competing for ownership of a singular national voice.

The authors argue that the same applies to sex and that the hatred of sex is not reducible to any external political influence, but is foundational to sex itself. This is because sex, with its fusion of pleasure and pain, of attraction and repulsion, is destructive of the ego’s systematizing and meaning-making processes, causing a sense of confusion and loss of identity – what Bersani (1987) called “shattering” and Saketopoulou (2019; 2023) terms “overwhelm.” This means that the feelings of harm that may arise from sex are not explainable through concepts like gender, power, or consent. That’s a problem, the authors claim, because Western societies have come to accept the view that sex, so long as it is done according to some ethical standard, can never produce harm. Then, when it does, it is stipulated that this standard must have somehow been broken. The authors believe that because generic sexual liberalism has no way of responding to these paradoxes, the inevitable result has been (as they discuss in more detail later) the construction of a hypervigilant carceral state.

Davis and Dean mock the image of the “queer activist-scholar in superhero tights” who can find the solution to all the world’s problems with the proper queer theoretical methodology, and who yet has nothing whatsoever to say about sex.

In chapter two, Davis and Dean explore the theory that had the opportunity to address these issues in provocative and productive ways, though unfortunately, they claim, ended up largely retreating from them: queer theory. Like many, they cite Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay “Thinking Sex” as the foundational text of queer theory, which sought to analyze sex as a distinct site of power, irreducible to gender or other identity categories. However, while Rubin began her 1984 salvo by stating, “the time has come to think about sex,” Davis and Dean argue that ironically the field of queer theory, which Rubin helped initiate, has been used as an excuse to think about anything but sex. For instance, they point to a 2005 special issue of Social Text, whose editors ask “What does queer studies have to say about empire, globalization, neoliberalism, sovereignty, and terrorism?” (p. 45) They mock the image of the “queer activist-scholar in superhero tights” who can find the solution to all the world’s problems with the proper queer theoretical methodology, and who yet has nothing whatsoever to say about sex. (ibid.)

This, they argue, may have something to do with the inherent difficulty of advocating for sexual differences, that is, not in terms of gender or sexual orientation, but of the anarchic diversity of desires. Rubin, focusing largely on lesbian BDSM, was attempting to defend the practice from the accusations of the “sex-negative” feminists such as Cathrine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin in what became known as the “feminist sex wars.” Along with numerous issues including porn, sex work, and butch-femme roles, BDSM was denounced by more than a few feminists as an incarnation of men’s sexual domination over women, even between same-sex partners. The authors write, 

Pro-sex politics too often entails sanitizing the vision of sex being promoted. For example, BDSM is typically defended as “safe, sane, and consensual,” without really acknowledging the psychic risks that constitute much of its appeal. Recognizing the paradoxes of pleasure – including that sadomasochism may be at once physically safe and psychically unsafe – complicates political advocacy for sexual pleasure. If you regard yourself as battling the repressive forces of sexual puritanism, then it is always and only the other who hates sex. In this political struggle, pleasure quickly becomes purified of its disordering elements and claimed as an unalloyed good. Thus, whenever conservative feminists denounce BDSM as sexual violence…, the feminist counterargument tends to downplay any capacity for erotic intensity to violate the self-contained subject. The appeal of psychic violation can appear as too politically volatile to publicly acknowledge or own. (p. 51)  

It is now generally recognized that the “pro-sex” feminists like Rubin, as well as (among others) Pat Califa, Carole Vance, and Ellen Willis “won” the sex wars, though it came at a cost. As queer theory gained credibility in the university, it quickly began couching all of its claims in terms of identity, thus avoiding the need to talk about sex, or as Foucault called it “bodies and pleasures.”

By the late 80s, queer theory had split off into two different directions, one of which was led by Leo Bersani in his pivotal 1987 essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Writing at the height of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were being construed as debased death worshipers, Bersani embraced the theoretical potential of the notion of sex (all sex) as masochism. Responding both to the conservative media depictions of gay male sexuality, as well as the radical feminist view of sex, particularly receptive anal sex, as objectifying and disempowering, Bersani refuses to redeem or dignify sex and instead redirects these charges in entirely unexpected ways, namely by suggesting that to be subjugated  may be the desirable, if not the primary, end of sex.

The second split in queer theory, which gained significantly more traction, stemmed from its incorporation of intersectionality. Whereas Bersani dealt with the unfinished business in “Thinking Sex” by affirming the deplorable elements of sex and demonstrating the ability of sex to shatter one’s self-schema in productive ways, intersectionality, developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw started with identity as her vantage point and explored the ways intersecting identities (specifically race and gender) created distinct forms of oppression. 

Davis and Dean argue that intersectionality has become a buzzword in the university to denote the general value of inclusiveness, though as Robyn Wiegman writes, intersectionality has created “an imperative to attend evenly and adequately to identity’s composite whole: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, nation, religion, and increasingly age and ability” (p. 60). Davis and Dean take this even further and write, “Every identity is an imaginary formation, a province of the ego with its territorial borders …. To claim that I have dual identities or intersecting identities … is simply to declare that my ego presides over various territories that it will defend against incursion.” (p. 32) Within this framework there are limited ways to think seriously about sex, for as they write, “identities are misleading because they conceal from me my own incoherence, my constitutive dividedness, and those aspects of me with which I cannot readily identify or sympathize.” (p. 31)

This explains how the United States was able to architect a massive disciplinary bureaucracy for the management of all forms of “sexual inappropriateness” with no more than a word of caution from queer scholarship. However, it does not explain the theoretical underpinning behind this development – why despite all the progress in LGBT rights, reproductive rights, etc., the governmental surveillance of deviance has never been more pronounced. The next two chapters explore this through  an analysis of the field of traumatology – which they trace to John Bowlby’s attachment theory – and its powerful influence in politics and culture under neoliberalism. 

Chapter three is devoted to an examination of attachment theory, founded by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, which linked the variances in adult functioning to a person’s level of attachment to their primary caregiver in early childhood – specifically the mother. Ideally, for Bowlby, this would lead to the feeling of a “secure base” in the mind of the youngster. Using military analogies, he wrote that parents must provide, 

… a secure base from which a child or adolescent can make sorties into the outside world and to which he can return knowing for sure that he will be welcomed when he gets there …. In these respects it is a role similar to that of the officer commanding a military base from which an expeditionary force sets out and to which it can retreat, should it meet with a setback … it is only when the officer commanding the expeditionary force is confident his base is secure that he dare press forward to take risks. (pp. 106-107)

While Bowlby developed his theory as a continuation of psychoanalysis, Davis and Dean note (as have others) that attachment theory is actually a complete departure from Freud. While Freud believed that neurosis was central to human experience via the unresolvable tensions between the ego and the id, Bowlby believed that pathology could generally be attributed to one or another deficiency in the caregiving environment of the child.

Attachment theory gained considerable support in post-war English society, and not because of its explanatory power, but because, as Hatred of Sex argues, Bowlby’s thesis fit well within the framework of bureaucratic rationalism wherein “The psyche was to be intelligible purely as the predictable product of administrable external reality.” (p. 100) For instance, family environments deemed inconducive to attachment was the top reason cited by British social workers in their decision to remove children from their homes. Parents were advised to be attentive to their children (while maintaining a certain degree of distance), and it is said that the nature of this first relationship will affect all of the child’s future relationships. Thus, psychic problems in adulthood represent a malfunction in development, and the family is centrally responsible for avoiding these malfunctions. 

This does not mean that attachment theory did not face challenges. It has been criticized not only on the bases of its one-dimensionality, limited empirical validity, and lack of attention paid to non-western cultures, but also by feminists who argued that its particular focus on mothers caused women considerable guilt and anxiety over whether or not they were raising their children correctly. While the focus on “bad mothers” as the primary source of society’s ills has shifted significantly, many feminists – as well as therapists, social workers, physiatrists, and policymakers – wholeheartedly incorporated the central tenets of attachment theory during their “discovery” of sex abuse in the late 1970s. Attachment theory, now repurposed as what Davis and Dean call “traumatology,” catastrophized all forms of sexual inappropriateness (real or imagined) and paved the way for enormous governmental policing of desire. 

In the final chapter, Davis and Dean explore the influence of Bowlby in the new framework of “sexual trauma” used to convince the public of the absolute heinousness of sexual misbehavior of any degree. Harm has been a central tenet of liberal theory, though scholars working within liberalism and without have recognized that harm is an elusive concept, particularly when it comes to deciding when feelings of being harmed are registrable as a true infringement of one’s ability to live freely. Concepts of trauma are capable of muscling their way past the philosophical need to make these finer distinctions. According to Judith Herman, one of the most widely cited psychiatrists in the field of trauma, “the diagnostic categories of the existing psychiatric canon are simply not designed for survivors of extreme situations and do not fit them well. The persistent anxiety, phobias, and panic of survivors are not the same as ordinary anxiety disorders. Their depression is not the same as ordinary depression.” (p. 130) This means that new types of therapeutic methods are needed for rooting out “repressed” or minimized traumatic events in patients, and new technologies are needed for managing the “predators” who cause them.

Attachment theory, now repurposed as what Davis and Dean call “traumatology,” catastrophized all forms of sexual inappropriateness (real or imagined) and paved the way for enormous governmental policing of desire.

On the patient’s side, therapists are advised to search for any hidden signs of traumatic experiences in the patient, even if they do not mention them or do not consider them traumatic. One of the ways therapists may know that a patient has been traumatized, according to Herman, is if the therapist begins to have strange dreams or experiences “inner confusion” which she suggests may be a “countertransferal reaction” indicative of abuse. (p. 122) It is the duty of the therapist to impose his or hr own understanding of events onto the patient. Alternatively, if a therapist believes that a patient’s recollection of a confusing/ambivalent sexual experience is not cause for much concern, Herman writes that this is an example of the therapist unconsciously identifying with the perpetrator.

Davis and Dean cite historian of science Ruth Leys who argues that trauma has achieved much of its political ascendancy through the efforts of Holocaust survivors (and later U.S. Vietnam War veterans) to claim compensation for their suffering. When the German government refused, doctors had to construct an image of survivors as having a uniquely pervasive form of suffering through their experiences in concentration camps which is central to their lives, even well after the fact. Since then, the concept of trauma has piggybacked across psychiatry and has informed decisions in everything from criminal procedure to insurance reimbursement of therapy.  

Some of the most consequential effects of trauma therapy has been the numerous cases of “recovered” memories of abuse, and the wide-scale belief in organized Satanic cults that routinely abduct children for ritual abuse. While this may represent the lunatic fringe, one conference in 2009 hosted by the UKCP accredited Center for Attachment-Based Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy or Bowlby Centre (with an annual budget of some £250,000) released a document on the significance of dates for children victimized by Satanic abuse, leading to questions over just how “fringe” these ideas are. Apparently, April 19th is “the first day of the thirteen-day Satanic ritual relating to fire, the fire god, Baal, or Molech / Nimrod (the Sun God) …. This day is a major human sacrifice day, demanding fire sacrifice with an emphasis on children. This day is one of the most important sacrifice days in Satanist abuse groups.” (p. 126) As for summer solstice, we learn that it “Can be marked by torture, rape, and sacrifice of traitors, sacrifice and consumption of an infant.” (ibid.) With “researchers” like these, who needs QAnon?

Davis and Dean argue that the sexual victim identity came into prominence as a result of multiple socio-political forces, not least of which as a way to demonstrate deservingness just at a time when, as Roger Lancaster writes, “‘welfare’ was being made a dirty word.” (p. 132) Additionally, the victim identity defined by trauma, as well as the queer identity defined by “benign sexual difference” are both elements of the hatred of sex, as each offers a way out from the need to consider the problem of pleasure, specifically “neurotic unpleasure” or pleasure that offends the ego’s bound notions of the contained and predictable self. (p. 27) Each also relies on Manichean life-worlds that situate the problem of sex elsewhere and themselves on the side of right – as protectors of the innocent or as defenders of sex-positivity. What would occur if victimology (or traumatology) and queer theory engaged in debate, each recognizing their own shared and complicated relationship to pleasure?

One thing that Hatred of Sex could have done better is to have homed in more closely on some of its central theses. For example, they begin by discussing the hatred of sex as an extension of Jacques Rancière’s theory of the hatred of democracy, a point which they refer back to throughout the text only in occasional and seemingly awkward ways. Additionally, between the first two chapters and the last two chapters there appears to be a major thematic 90-degree turn so that each half of the book could almost be read separately. For instance, in chapter two, the authors write a long and compelling history of queer theory and the way it has removed itself from the need to answer the questions it was developed to address. Then in chapter three, which discusses the counteracting of Freudian psychoanalysis with attachment theory, those themes built previously in chapter two fade into the background and do not appear again until the afterword. This is not to say that Davis and Dean should have instead simply written two long essays – though at times it seemed as if that is just what they have done.

Do Davis and Dean hate sex? That is another point of uncertainty one may be left with after finishing this book. At times it seems they are arguing that the hatred of sex is unavoidable, yet they also blame this hatred for its contribution to the stifling and punitive environment in U.S. political culture. They do, in one telling passage, explore this tension,

We suggest that this scrambling messiness of sex can never be entirely covered over by hating it – or for that matter by trying to love it. There will always be something awkward, intractable, gauche, upsetting, and disturbing – what was once called queer – about sex that cannot be entirely sanitized within a regime of safety and appropriateness, however benign or coercive. (p. 88) 

This is a helpful key for understanding the root of their argument. However, it’s a point that is partially underdeveloped, and can easily be missed in-between their arguments of omnipresent sexual neuroticism on the one hand, and their concept of “benign sexual inappropriateness” on the other.

Furthermore, Davis and Dean remain coyly vague about exactly what they mean by “benign sexual inappropriateness.” Arguing that appropriate is the new straight, they write, “it is occasional or infrequent sex in the context of a long-term secure, amative, intimate, emotionally rich, age-appropriate, and marriage-like relationship that is the new standard.” (p. 98; italics added) Yet, anybody paying attention to the landscape of sexual politics since Rubin’s 1984 essay will see that there is only one thing in that list that has acquired definitive evidential power in judging whether or not a sex act has reached the level of an atrocity. Davis and Dean never offer any analysis of age/the age of consent, and the symbolic work it performs in cleansing society of its sexual shame by creating a colonial realm of “savage” predatoriness counterposed against the refined and civilized world of age-equal sexuality. The fact that age has not been significantly addressed in Hated of Sex is surprising given how close to the issue of age its arguments run. 

Perhaps this can be brought up in the debates this book will spark, and hopefully it will spark debate. Hatred of Sex is an excellent jumping-off point for new and much needed directions of inquiry in the study of sexuality. Whether one sees the greater need to be in minimizing sexual harm or in maximizing sexual pleasures, Davis and Dean demonstrate that all are going to need to get their hands dirty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *