Puritanism, Sexuality, and the Work Ethic

There is a connection between sexual repression and the work ethic in America. Both stem from American Puritanism. The psychologist and author, Rollo May, writes the following in his 1969 book “Love and Will,” p. 47:

“The old Puritans repressed sex and were passionate; our new puritan represses passion and is sexual. . . The new sophisticate’s rigid principle of full freedom is not freedom but a new straitjacket. He does all this because he is afraid of his body and his compassionate roots in nature. . . He is our latter-day Baconian devoted to gaining power over nature, gaining knowledge in order to get more power. And  you gain power over sexuality (like working the slave until all zest for revolt is squeezed out of him) precisely by the role of full expression. Sex becomes our tool like the caveman’s bow and arrows, crowbar, or adz. Sex, the new machine, the Machina Ultima.”

I recently saw the romantic comedy, “Friends, with Benefits,” and I was actually bored with the long sexual encounter between the young man and woman. They had agreed to remain friends and only to have sex together as a physical release for both. Their encounter contained more  gymnastics than eroticism. And, there was an element of “work” about their union, with just the right moves described until orgasm was achieved. It was essentially an act any human could have experienced, with no shades of passion or of individual expression, of any depth. The encounter seemed true to Dr. May’s description, above, of today’s easily expressed sexuality, but repression of Eros and passion.

Dr. May makes sex, in the modern world, almost seem like “hard work,” similar to the work ethic, itself. Max Weber in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, contends that the Calvinist ethic influenced the development of Capitalism. One sad outcome of the combining of fundamentalist Christianity with Capitalism has been the value placed on the accruing of wealth within church membership, not only by parishioners, but by the ministers, themselves, i.e. Prosperity Christianity. (Christ, of course, taught against value being placed on worldly possessions.) Both Capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity have stereotypical images of human beings, i.e. winners and losers, sinners and saved, as well as rigid ideologies that do not allow for variation, or depth, of thought. Both emphasize work at the expense of pleasure. Guilt of pleasure, as well as judgment of others, are perpetuated. These strict ways of thinking create divisions among people, rather than the unity that tolerance and love inspire. It is understandable, in light of these similarities, why many of the Christian Right strongly support Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Sexuality is an expression of who we are. If we have become shallow in perception that will be reflected in our sexual encounters.  We know that Capitalism is an economic system of winners and losers; however, when people are viewed only in those two stark dimensions, they are seen as stereotypes only, and not with individual, multilayered depth. Today’s young man who is looking for easy sexual conquests thinks in terms of winning and losing. In the movie,”Friends, With Benefits,” the same young woman who had made her friend her lover, also had a sexual encounter with another man, a young oncologist, who after their sexual encounter immediately dropped her. The young oncologist’s conquest had been secured. He had “won,” without getting to know who she was, or who he was, for that matter, in any depth.

As a result of today’s unconscious Puritanism, people are often expected to agree upon accepted sexual mores, even when those mores are grossly stereotypical in nature. If one presents opposition in thought, or action, to given sexual norms, that person can be as rigidly rejected by others as was Hester for her adultery in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” even though Hester loved her lover Dimmesdale, and her husband, Chillingsworth, was an older, emotionally cold man. For example, one dare not express the thought that something might have been seriously wrong within the John and Elizabeth Edwards’ marriage for years before John Edwards had the affair with his mistress because to voice that unorthodox consideration would make one’s own beliefs suspect. John Edwards must be viewed as the villain and Elizabeth must be seen as the martyr in that union, even though the truth might have been more complex than that. As a result of this type of generalized and programmed thinking, most people will not explore sexual matters with any depth of understanding. These societal expectations can sometimes cause one to become very unhappy because they create an environment in which one must exist, within his or her intimate life, only on the surface of who one is. The deeper (and even darker) needs of one’s being, and one’s sexuality, are frequently repressed in this  heavy-handed social environment of rigid expectations for all, regardless of how varied individual needs or circumstances may be. As a result of this schism of need versus appearance, the psyche often becomes broken or sick. Sickness in the psyche manifests as sickness in sexuality – a symptom of illness of the mind, more than a sickness of the body.

When the darker forces in one’s own nature are not recognized, and are even denied, those darker forces are frequently projected onto another, according to the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, because one cannot accept the fullness of who one is, with both the light and the darkness exposed in consciousness. In recognizing that everyone has both forces within his or her nature, and not being afraid to acknowledge that fact, one is better able to be in control of one’s darker forces, rather than being reactionary to it in ways that may harm oneself or others.

In my December 9, 2010 post entitled, “A Conversation With Isabella Rossellini,” I had given an example of how unacknowledged darker sexual urges had been projected to others, with a destructive end, as the result. Part of that post follows:

“I had previously shared with her (Ms. Rossellini) the example of my life’s experience, while I was growing up in South Georgia, during the days of Jim Crow. I told her that – like the young, innocent characters in “Blue Velvet” – the 1950s South had a sweet innocence on the surface, but underneath was the ugliness of the violence toward African-Americans, if not always to their bodies then, certainly, to their spirits. I said that I thought that much of the white Southerners’ violence and anger, especially toward the African-American male, during that era of Southern history, stemmed from the white Southerners’ own unacknowledged darker sexuality which was projected onto the Black male.”

I thanked Ms. Rossellini for helping to “free human beings, throughout the world, in awareness of their sexuality” through her recent short humorous videos entitled “Seduce Me.” I expressed that I thought she had also “helped to free their spirits – because the spirit is made more whole when sexuality is not repressed.”

Ms. Rossellini is European. My husband’s family was European. I believe that Europeans have a healthier attitude both toward sexuality and the work ethic than do most Americans. Sexuality is seen as a natural part of life to be enjoyed, just as a glass of wine is enjoyed. Topless beaches are not shocking to observe in parts of France. Work is valued in Europe, but it is lived in balance with all other parts of one’s life. Many places in Europe close their businesses, during a midday break of several hours, spent with friends and family enjoying a large meal together. After that, the businesses open again and are kept open until later in the evening. The evening meal is very light. Many Europeans, also, take a month’s “holiday,” or vacation, at least once a year. I sometimes think,  if my husband’s family had not emigrated to America when he was nine years old, that he would not have died prematurely. He had worked continuously for 42 years in America and he was exhausted mentally and physically when he died of a major stroke at age 60. He might have been able to have enjoyed life more – which he so loved to do – within the French culture, which values taking the time to savor life’s pleasures.

Because of the lasting influence of Puritanism, women have traditionally been assigned one of two roles: that of Madonna or Whore. She must be either a “good” girl or a “bad” girl, and not a mature, integrated woman who has acknowledged elements of both characteristics within her nature. The same parallel – of not being able to integrate the “good” and “bad” sexual characteristics within his total nature – would also be true for a man who has not reached sexual maturity.  In addition, there has long been a double standard regarding sexual activity for men and for women. Both are examples of stereotypical sexual perceptions which limit individuals from reaching sexual maturity with a partner who has also reached sexual maturity. These types of stereotypical thought have probably hurt many marriages. I suspect that sexual frustration is one of the main reasons that many Americans express exaggerated anger, rudeness, and aggression toward others.

I am not an advocate of adultery. Seeking a sexual partner other than one’s mate often creates more problems than it solves. I have frequently written of the value of reaching for higher spiritual consciousness on this blog. In today’s post, I am writing of the value of reaching for greater sexual consciousness in order to become more sexually, and emotionally, fulfilled. One’s sexuality is an expression of who one is, uniquely. To be able to open one’s self fully to another, with all aspects of one’s nature exposed, including one’s sexuality, creates deep intimacy and trust between lovers. That type of shared eroticism instills yearning for the other in ways that only one’s lover can fulfill. It contains depth of passion for the beloved that is so much richer in sensuality than simply achieving physical release through intercourse with a person who fits a stereotypical sexual image or some generalized idea of what is sexual. Sexual passion that contains depth is not contingent upon youth, or beauty, or the victory of “winning” another, but upon desiring one’s partner as a unique and cherished lover. That type of sexual passion is a celebration of the joy experienced when one is so fully connected with the beloved that his or her mere presence makes one feel totally alive.

This entry was posted in Puritanism and Work Ethic, sexual repression, Sexuality, The Scarlet Letter. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Puritanism, Sexuality, and the Work Ethic

  1. Pingback: The Homosexual Marriage Question | maryelizabethsings

  2. Pingback: Misogyny is a brutal sensibility and it creates a brutal society | maryelizabethsings

  3. dbm1fromjaybookmansblog says:

    There is much of value in this article, but there is one point that must be corrected. Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and capitalism at its best, are not about winning and losing, nor about accumulating wealth, nor about suppressing pleasure. They are about the spirit of the trader whose approach to others is to exchange value for value, neither seeking nor giving sacrifices. (This applies to both personal and economic relationships, but in different ways.) They are about economic productiveness. They recognize the value and importance of pleasure.

    (This does not describe the full scope of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which is fundamentally about reason.)

  4. dbm1fromjaybookmansblog says:

    Most people still do not understand what capitalism is and what it requires. This makes it easy for capitalism to be contaminated and distorted in various ways. Mary Elizabeth has identified one of these ways. Mixed-economy statism and the resulting pressure-group warfare is another important way. Under true capitalism, those who wish to succeed must do so by being economically productive and exchanging value for value. Under mixed-economy statism and the resulting pressure-group warfare, people can acquire wealth by the direct or indirect use of government force, and there is “winning” and losing.

    Seeking power over nature is all right as long as one fully understands how “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”. Seeking power over fellow humans is very wrong and very destructive.

  5. Pingback: Misogyny is a brutal sensibility and it creates a brutal society | RoOz

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