Freud & Sexual Harassment

Sigmund Freud was a major intellectual force from the Thirties through the Seventies, so much so that humanistic intellectuals during the time when I became exposed to cultural developments, the Fifties and Sixties, were deeply into the question of how to reconcile Freud and Marx, those two great explorers into the science of society, those humanistic intellectuals blissfully unaware that there were other savants, like Weber and Parsons, who also had to be reckoned with. Freud went into decline after it became clear that his method of cure, talking to people at great length, was not reliable and also very expensive, and that, as Grunwald showed, rigorous scientific experimentation did not justify Freud’s theories. Moreover, cheaper and more effective cures and mitigations of mental troubles could be accomplished through drugs. Better living through chemistry. Nowadays, Freud seems additionally discredited by the claims of people like Frederick Crews that his case studies were fraudulent reports and that Freud was himself not a very nice man, the latter charge obvious to anyone who defended the great man’s theories, whatever his shortcomings as a person, given that he two timed his wife, dismissed as worthless most of those who broke with him (though not Jung, whom he thought went on to do good work) or how cruel he was to his daughter, subjecting her to psychoanalysis with her own father. But put that all aside. There is still something to be said for his insights, which do capture the feel of the underground life we all lead with regard to our sexuality and these insights even illuminate the present public controversy concerning sexual harassment.

First, the matter of dreams. Contemporary psychologists say that dreams last just seconds, however long they may seem to last when they are recalled, and so hardly have time to have meanings. But that is not the evidence provided by dreams themselves, which are nothing like what Joseph interprets them to be, which are omens that can be read like a foreign language if you know the code. Rather, dreams, as everyone knows, are the imagination of what was and what might be, the dreamwork not always successful at painting in the scenery or the connecting narrative, but true in their insights to what people are like, as when one dreams when old about how people looked when they were young and dreams when young about how people would look when they became old, or provide dialogue which is incisive about the character of oneself or the people who appear in your dreams, the emotions of other times vividly recalled as one experiences thwarted hopes or old and what were to be expected achievements. I dream of being an awesomely articulate litigator and feel the anxiety that would accompany that role. Do I really want that? My unconscious knows what I really want because I will find that dream pleasant or not so pleasant, and the dream is a way that wish or the dread accompanying that wish becomes visible to me. So the unconscious is real and has intermittent communications with the conscious mind in a way that we all appreciate just as we also appreciate that thoughts long on the back burner sometimes just pop up as thoughts that have to be polished yet again before they are exposed to others. It must be granted that dreams are not only about sexual wishes but even Freud had to work at it to find a sexual etiology for every dream he encountered.

Freud is also criticized these days for having falsified his case studies of his patients. But what comes through in his case studies is that he values these women’s stories in that he tries to make sense of their bizarre symptoms without judging the morals of his patients. He sees these women as victims rather than as witches. Women should not be condemned for saying their fathers abused them and, moreover, these stories should themselves be understood as projections spurred on by desire rather than by facts and that unpalatable desires should not be dismissed as unnatural but recognized as part of the human condition. Hysteria is a disease created by repression and one that is not going away anytime soon because repression is deeply set in the culture. Freud and his followers later came to think that the personality of people, their egos, developed autonomously and so were not only the result of the warfare between desire and morality, but he may have been most clearly correct about the fact that social custom rules the day and requires people to suppress or repress what they feel.

That is still the case in our increasingly prudish post-Freudian age when we find it difficult to talk about the difference between and the nature of male and female sexual desire, networks and newspapers not reporting the more lurid charges made by accusers of figures in the public except to say that there is enough there to have someone fired, the presumption being that the victim should not be forced to relive the vile experience by having to face her accuser, something that would have to happen with someone accused of attempted murder or some other serious crime. And a conversation about gender of the sort that used to be suggested we have about race leads to the same result. Just as conversations about race descend into dumping on white people, conversations about sex descend into dumping on men because it is considered rude to suggest that maybe women should not dress provocatively or act in a flirtatious manner unless they are making themselves available for sexual overtures. There is today much looking for occasions on which to take offense. One of Matt Lauer’s accusers says that when she had an affair with him twenty years ago, she thought it was a consensual matter, but has changed her mind and now regards it to have been the result of his occupying a more powerful position than she had, which is to suppress the fact that, as Henry Kissinger put it, power is a great aphrodisiac. Women are crying out to be liberated from the acknowledgement of their desires, which is just what Freudian analysis would suggest. Why so much now? Perhaps for the sociological reason that women are now so close to or within the doors of power that they want the entire nature of the workplace changed, not at all to be thought of as sexual objects rather than have to coordinate how they are both women and employees. It is reminiscent of that hysterical epidemic of the Eighties when the foundations of the McMartin Day Care Center were literally dug up so as to expose the underground chambers in which pre-school children were supposed to have been subjected to all sorts of sexual abuse. Nothing was found, the hysteria passing, perhaps, because working class people became used to sending their young children into the care of professionals.

The rage of women concerning something about their sex lives being basically exploitive is very old, perhaps as old, as Jean Auel imagines it, as the time when cavemen held women in collective concubinage, selecting one or another out of the pool to meet their sexual need of the moment. This rage is certainly as old as the story in Genesis  which is understood, perhaps to make it more palatable, as a story about property rights. Tamar was a widow who appealed to her dead husband’s father to supply her with his eldest son to impregnate her so that, presumably, she would have a child who would support her in her old age. The eldest son refused to do so and so spilled his seed upon the rock, commiting what was named after him as the sin of Onan. Why did he deny her in this peculiarly intimate way? It was an insult as well as a refusal. Tamar goes to complain to her father-in-law and he says that she will have to wait until his next son is of age, which is not a very nice way to deal with a woman’s needs. Tamar takes her revenge by dressing up as a prostitute and going to a place where dalliances are arranged and servicing her father-in-law. She then extorts a pension for herself by threatening to reveal his shame at having patronized her. Why has she humiliated herself in order to get a kind of justice when there is no appeal to law? Because that is the only way she can get what she wants and it is worth it to her. Moreover, there is also a kind of wish fulfillment here. Tamar has a sense of injustice serve her as the basis for doing something that is transgressive and that was appealing in itself without her having to admit that. Tamar displaces onto her father-in-law what are her real yearnings, which is to have sex. Sounds familiar in that women Senators can drop their usual concerns about due process and proportionality when they are appeasing their outrage against a male fellow Senator who is tainted by, even if not the most pernicious practitioner, of sexual harassment.