Radical Education And The Sublimation Of The Erotic Imagination

by Eric J. Weiner

Photograph by Ren Hang

Through the academic grapevine, it came; a story of an eminent sociologist who argued that he wouldn’t want to work with graduate students who he couldn’t fuck. The infamous statement was allegedly said in a faculty meeting in the 1990s at a progressive urban university where they were considering an official ban on faculty-graduate student sexual relationships. Most, if not all, of the female faculty at the meeting were appalled and offended. They accused the professor, to varying degrees, of being misogynistic, prurient, boorish, patriarchal, naïve, profane, immature, and, most stinging of all, willfully blind to inequities of power and the abuses that surely follow. He laughed good-naturedly, as was his wont in the face of intellectual disagreement, and tried to explain the reasoning behind his admittedly provocative statement.

He believed that adult women (and men) have sexual agency and should be free to pursue whatever consensual sexual relationships they desire; to argue for its regulation in the service of comfort and/or protection is to infantilize both women and men and repress, from a Reichian perspective, the “unified erotic impulse” of sexual desire, tenderness, and empathy.[1] Specific to women, he argued that feminist-driven policies that inadvertently deny, diminish, and/or discipline women’s sexual agency and freedom do not serve women’s liberation from male supremacist ideology, but provides the “self-perpetuating basis of a sadomasochistic psychology that is in turn crucial to the maintenance of an authoritarian, hierarchical social order.”[2] Policies that discipline the unified erotic impulse would impose a form of repressive libidinal desublimation in the name of liberation.[3] Regulating and disciplining sexual desire denies a women’s right to choose who, where, and when to fuck; furthermore, if equality is a precondition of sexual agency, then any erotic attention is “always already” problematic. Power between two (or more) intimates is never equal. He emphasized that he was not reasserting a notion of sexual freedom that ignores or denies the structural reality of male supremacy and the unfair burden it places on women who demand and deserve sexual freedom without apology. His argument, in other words, was not driven by self-interest, i.e., he didn’t actually want to have sex with any of his graduate students. He was fully aware of how “sexual morality, [even when it arises from the left] in a patriarchal culture becomes a primary instrument of social control.”[4] Nevertheless, he believed that policies that ban sexual relationships between graduate students and professors, in the final analysis, place too much emphasis on preventing sexual coercion and “undercut feminist opposition to the right.”[5] Equally concerned about the pedagogical implications of the proposed ban, the professor agued that it contradicted the progressive and critical modalities of education that they all supported and practiced. I am told the professor went on to link the imperative of sexual freedom to the praxis of radical social change. I do not know how the meeting ended, but I never forgot the story.

With the rise of #MeToo informing past and current experiences of unwanted male sexual attention, predation/harassment, and sexual violence, and because of the recent events surrounding both a governor and a stinky weasel of a certain age, I’ve been thinking a lot about that faculty meeting. I admit from the outset that my thoughts about sexual freedom, masculine supremacy, and the repression of the unified erotic impulse are far from fully realized. Unsurprisingly, the public pedagogy around these issues provides little clarity, although I do believe that the crisis in sexual/erotic consciousness signals a more general crisis in sexual education. From Pepé Le Pew and Potato Head (formerly known as Mr. Potato Head) to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the public pedagogy of conservative media is to cancel “cancel culture,” while also expressing moral outrage at Cuomo’s alleged prurience and sexual harassing behavior. Their moral outrage in the verifiable wake of “Grab ’em by the Pussy” Trump is, of course, laughable, although you have to admire their audacity and limitless capacity for hypocrisy, incoherence, and bullshit.

On the progressive side, Cuomo and Pepé Le Pew were tried in the media and found guilty of sexual harassment, groping, predation, creepiness, bullying, abuses of power, gross indecency, and supporting a culture of misogyny generally, and in the case of Monsieur Le Pew, rape culture specifically. Although they bristle at the right’s accusation of creating a culture of cancellation, there is little distinction in the liberal discourse between taking down statues, banning books, censoring language, boycotting artists/authors/directors or removing artwork from the walls of museums. Their razed earth approach to “offensive” material and/or people is its own kind of hypocrisy and philosophical incoherence. In relation to Cuomo’s situation, the reality is that even though there is a growing chorus of liberals and conservatives demanding his resignation, neither side really wants to “cancel” him as much as they want to hang him naked from the gallows in Times Square so people can take turns throwing excrement and rotten fruit at his sagging genitals.

In the context of these introductory thoughts, and beyond Human Resource’s official memo that demarcates and defines what is permissible in the workplace, I have some questions:

  1. If power is unequal between two people in the workspace, does this turn sexual intimations between those two people (flirtations, innuendo, propositions, etc.) into a form of harassment or an abuse of power?
  2. Should questions of equity always preclude questions of sexual agency?
  3. When power is unequal between two people in the workspace, if the person with less power initiates sexual attention (flirting, subtle innuendo, the gaze held for a beat too long, a slight graze of the hand, a note expressing interest, an invitation for coffee/drinks), then is it acceptable for the person with more power to reciprocate without it being categorized as an abuse of his/her power?
  4. If power is unequal between two people in the workspace and the person in power flirts or says sexually suggestive things to a person with less power because he/she is attracted to that person and those gestures are welcomed and then become something more, does it turn what might have been labeled harassment or an abuse of power (do intentions have anything to do with this?) into something else?

Confused and looking for answers, I emailed these questions to approximately twenty-five female and male friends and colleagues who range in age from 35 to 71. I only heard back from four women and three men. Methodologically speaking, it’s not a “real” study—quantitatively or qualitatively—nor does it claim to be. But that doesn’t mean their responses don’t have value in wrestling with the issues at hand. Two of the men wanted to discuss the questions, but wouldn’t provide their ideas in writing. From the third man’s perspective, these were important and complex questions, but, in the end, they boiled down to a lesson he was taught from an early age: “Donde comes, no se caga!” From that he learned that sex and work don’t mix and can only lead to problems. He wanted to elaborate but thought it better we talk about it in person. He was concerned that some of his ideas might run counter to “conventional feminist thinking” and he would rather avoid the backlash if his thoughts were to be made public. I have yet to talk with any of these men about these issues in person. But it is, I think, significant that they felt hesitant to write their responses in an email.

Does self-censorship—essentially a repressed fear of the unified erotic impulse—help create sexual pathologies that then require repression through various forms and techniques of discipline and punishment? In this context, as Ellen Willis writes, “Repression creates the destructiveness that is then cited as proof of the eternal need for repression.”[6] It is a rationalizing circuit in which both men and women needlessly suffer the puritanical indecency of denying themselves one of the essential things that (maybe) distinguishes humans from other animals. Outside of the most extreme and obvious forms of male sexual violence against women that should be universally disavowed and criminalized, we seem unable and/or unwilling to speak about how the human erotic impulse might find a voice—a set of acceptable and situated erotic cultural practices—at a time when seemingly all expressions of the libidinal drive can potentially lead to accusations and experiences (real, imagined and perceived) of abuse.

From the women who got back to me, their responses were varied and provocative (I’ve included their responses but changed their names to protect their privacy). These women (and one man) make several important points that I think speak to a more general crisis of sexual consciousness education in the United States. But before I turn to develop a concept of education that makes room for the erotic impulse, decentering (although not erasing) traditional questions of abstinence, “safe-sex,” HIV/STI, and LGBTQ issues; one that critically accounts for the ethos and experiences of sexual predation that continue to define relational models of sexuality particularly (although not exclusively) in heterosexual contexts, I will spend a few minutes responding to my friends and colleagues.

Jocelyn writes, Where are people supposed to find partners if not the workplace? I don’t see flirting as harassment, unless one person is clear that they don’t want to flirt…Of course if someone clearly doesn’t want it, and it continues, then it is harassment. Basically, I think it is fine and natural for all kinds of that stuff to exist between people of different power levels, as long as both are free to express a desire that it stop, if that is what they feel, without any negative consequences to their work situation. Which is of course easier said than done. Unfortunately, I think men have mostly brought this form of puritanism on themselves by penalizing women who aren’t interested, or by ignoring signals and continuing to harass” (my emphasis).

Jocelyn’s realistic assessment of the workspace as a place in which people experience erotic impulses and make sexual connections is undoubtedly true. In spite of the common sense aphorism, “Donde comes, no se caga,” when people spend hours every day together there is bound to be sexual energy, attraction, and tension. Inequitable power is both inevitable and, potentially, a turn-on for some people. Power inequity, for Jocelyn, in and of itself, is not a problem. The problem is when one of the people in the scenario wants whatever is going on to stop and it doesn’t. It is this refusal to listen and stop that has created the need for a “form of puritanism.” From this vantage point, power inequities are not the problem; rather, there is a crisis in education, consciousness, and ethics. Her comments reminded me of the way the BDSM community works through the problematic of power; submissives are not subordinate. They always have the power to say no or stop. Always. The representation of power belies its structure. I think we have a lot to learn from how the BDSM community manages power and imagines alternative relational models that sublimate the erotic impulse from reductive theories of sexual power.

Cheyenne writes, “Oy! Very vexing…I think intentions and consequences (for both ppl) count for much more in every instance of power inequity than the weight they are typically given (my emphasis).

Like Jocelyn, Cheyenne also gives less attention to inequities of power than she does to intentions and implications of the actions of both parties. Her thoughts suggest the need for both people to have a way to think critically about the intentions and implications of acting on the erotic impulse beyond their immediate pleasure. This would require both people to have the theoretical tools to think through institutional and ideological systems of thought as well as “structures of feelings.” Both people in this scenario have agency, but how that agency plays out in the space of sexual intimacy might have something to do with how constructions of gender are informing the habits and behaviors of both people. Mutuality seems to be an important piece to the puzzle of ethical sexual relations between people with different positions of power; they must acknowledge the mutual need for respecting when one person says no, or enough. Whether that person is in a dominant or submissive position in terms of capital (cultural, gender, race, etc.), the call to stop whatever it is that is going on (flirting to fucking) must be respected out of a mutual understanding of what is erotic and what is wrong.

Cheyenne’s comments remind me of the first time I received unwanted sexual attention in the workplace from a superior. After a few brief subtle-flirty chats, which for me was not unusual and just part of how hetero-discourse typically evolved and informed workspace relationships, this person shared with me her erotic desire for me. I was flattered but not interested in her in the same way. I told her how I felt and she accepted it without incident. Nothing changed between us at work. After a few slightly awkward days, we went back to being allies, confidants, and friends. I am glad she felt liberated to share her feelings with me, I was confident enough to say no, and she was respectful of that response. No harm, no foul, although if the gender tables were reversed and this occurred now, I am not so sure the outcome would have been the same. Some of what I hear Cuomo, for example, is accused of saying to younger women makes me question where the bar is on harassment. Wherever it is, it seems conservatives and liberals are increasingly aligned around the need to advance a “pro-family” agenda of sexual repression that creates a “general chilling of the sexual atmosphere.”[7]

Maria says, “These are really tough questions. I think that if one of the women were attracted to the man in power, said yes to his advances, and became a couple that it is not an abuse of his power. These are adult women who are making informed choices. On the flip side (sorry, these are not easy questions), what if the subordinate felt like this was her way to continue to be in her professional role (even if she were attracted to him)? The imbalance of power definitely plays into this thought, i.e., pressure to maintain her career trajectory while thinking this is the (only) avenue to do so (my emphasis).

Maria recognizes that adults should be left to pursue who they want, but acknowledges that we are not always conscious of the way power shapes our decisions. For her, inequities of power do play a significant role in shaping the sexual relationship even when there is mutuality. Again, I think I hear the need to manage implications of one’s actions beyond calling out an abuse of power. In this context, the woman or person with less power may experience negative consequences to her/his choices, but should not automatically be seen as simply a victim of inequitable relations of power. We make choices and should be held accountable to the choices we make. To assume that women (or men) in subordinate positions of power are not conscious of the implications of the choices they make simply because they are in a subordinate role is to further infantilize those people. But because power mediates and conditions our actions and thoughts beyond our consciousness, we cannot always trust in our ability to know why we are choosing to do what we are choosing to do.

And lastly, Mia spoke with her partner Christoph about my questions and replied with this:

We both agreed that society as a whole needs to step up and invest in “no” meaning “no” and for the response to be respectful and to take the “no” seriously, regardless of the degree of flirting etc. that’s gone before. The more we talked about specific cases we know of, the more apparent it became, too, that in terms of “harassment” each case is so deeply contextualized and situated that coming up with a bunch of one-size-fits-all social rules should never be attempted. And that the context and situation has to be taken into account when evaluating the extent to which something constitutes harassment. It’s such a tricky thing–especially in terms of who initiates what, regardless of their power position. And then how things are remembered by one person and the other. I also am still struck by just how little healthy friendships between men and women are portrayed on American television and in Hollywood movies–so many relationships are overtly sexualized so that the relational models available to people are completely screwed up by their narrowness…I think a lot about that woman who accused the actor, Aziz Ansari, of sexual harassment, but when I read her written account of it, I just couldn’t see where the harassment happened, and yet for her it was harassment (without agency to act on feeling uncomfortable). So complicated. And then there’s “agency” itself. The older I get and the more I study things like memes, the less and less agency I actually think people have. So much of what passes for agency is really very, very discursive and historically layered. Then there’s the layering of aggrievement responses that I am seeing more and more online. Many people seem to revel in taking offence at some action or word uses–in many cases warranted–in others, quite overblown and hyper-judgy (cf. the rabid right wing factions and the recent Mr. Potato Head controversy)…And when this is coupled with revisionist memory then things get super complicated. So, for me, it’s all incredibly complicated and situated and requires all of society to pull together to educate each other on how “no” means “no” and how to say it without repercussion and how to respond to “no” with respect and care (my emphasis).

Mia and Christoph’s response adds complexity to Jocelyn’s common sense appeal for mutual respect and Cheyenne’s appeal to mutuality in relation to implications and consequences of actions. They reassert the need for a level of emotional maturity in the face of rejection and problematize a central concept in disciplinary approaches to models of sexual relations: Harassment. Their thoughts about harassment suggest it is a set of cultural practices and as such must be situated and “deeply contextualized.” I imagine everyone reading this essay can remember at least one workplace situation that could have been interpreted as inappropriate if situated in a different context. Whether it was something that was said or done, the context in which it was done and spoken makes generalized definitions of harassment, beyond the most extreme examples of sexualized predation and violence, difficult to nail down and implement.

Mia and Christoph’s reference to popular culture, memes, and the public pedagogy that constructs reductive relational models is also a significant contribution to conceptualizing an alternative model of erotic education, one that opens up possibilities for relations as opposed to simply managing and/or working within what is available. Althusser might see what they are referring to as the result of cultural/ideological apparatuses constructing a limited and limiting number of subject positions for people to occupy in relation to sexual relational identities. Hyper-sexualized on one hand and hyper-sensitive on the other, these models provide a narrowness to the sexual imagination in which degrees and shades of intimacy disappear almost entirely from the discourse of sexual freedom. Focused on the coital alone, all other expressions of sexual intimacy become trapped in romantic clichés, commodified gestures of love, and the repressed imagination of the patriarchy. Trapped in a circuit of predation/victimization, sexual agency, as Mia and Christoph suggest, becomes suspect. Female and male heterosexual relationships in particular are troubled by the moralism of monogamy while titillated by the temptation of infidelity and other taboo experiences.

Within this narrow landscape of sexual relations, repressing libidinal drives becomes something that both the left and right can support. From the right, appeals to family values reduces sex to reproduction and only when married whereas the (feminist) left’s focus on protecting women from an imminent threat of male sexual predation and violence negates their own sexual freedom. Developing a concept of education that supports sexual freedom as opposed to regulating it in the name of morality, “family values,” reproductive rights, and sexual health, is necessary if we hope to release ourselves from the repressive sexual models of human relationships that are currently available. Building on Willis’ Reichian interpretation of ideas about the unified erotic impulse and sexual freedom, a concept of erotic education that works against the grain of dominant models of sex education, might consider the following issues.

First, patriarchy and the misogynistic rituals that necessarily follow are not essential to male sexuality and identity, nor do they, more obviously, serve the unified erotic impulse of women. There is no evidence that men “find predatory, solipsistic sexual relations satisfying and inherently preferable to sex with affection and mutuality.”[8] The ubiquity of pornography and the general sexualization of everyday life “attests not to our sexual freedom but to our continuing frustration. People who are not hungry are not obsessed with food.”[9] Young people’s understanding of heterosexual sexual relations are developed within this repressed, hyper-sexualized environment. Men, in particular, are suffering the double-bind of being sexually repressed on one hand while being in positions of power on the other. Popular representations of male sexuality only add to the confusion. For their clarity, nuance and complexity, Willis’ thoughts on this aspect of repressive male sexuality are worth quoting at length:

Most men, in fact, profess to want and need mutual sexual love, and often behave accordingly, though they have plenty of opportunity to do otherwise. Many men experience both tender and predatory sexual feelings, toward the same or different women, and find the contradiction bewildering and disturbing; others express enormous pain over their inability to combine sex with love. Often men’s impulses to coerce and degrade women seem to express not a confident assumption of dominance but a desire to retaliate for feelings of rejection, humiliation, and impotence: as many men see it, they need women sexually more than women need them, an intolerable imbalance of power. Furthermore, much male sexual behavior clearly reflects men’s irrational fears that loss of dominance means loss of maleness itself, that their choice is to “act like a man” or be castrated, embrace the role of oppressor or be degraded to the status of victim…The behavior that causes women so much grief evidently brings men very little joy; on the contrary, men appear to be consumed with sexual frustration, rage and anxiety. With their compulsive assertions of power, they continually sabotage their efforts to love and be loved. Such self-defeating behavior cannot, in any meaningful sense, be described as free. Rather it suggests that for all the unquestionable advantages men derive from “acting like a man” in a male-supremacist society, the price is repression and deformation of spontaneous sexual feeling.[10]

The pedagogical challenge here, like the problem itself, must operate within and across intersecting spheres of culture, education, schools, and family. There must be a concerted effort to help boys/men to unlearn and reimagine, at its core, what it means to be a sensual/erotic man; what sexual freedom means outside of the hegemony of repressive sexual/gendered identities; and to unlearn and reject the false equivalence of dominance to maleness. From here, boys/men (and girls/women) can begin to learn a more universal language of the unified erotic impulse, one that sees sexual freedom not in masculinist terms, but as a human need and, importantly, a human right.

Second, considering that historically “feminists are ambivalent, confused and divided in their views of sexual freedom [and, for the most part,] women’s liberation and sexual liberation have developed as separate, often antagonistic causes,” a critical pedagogy of the unified erotic impulse would need to be framed by a political theory of sexuality that places questions of mutual tenderness, empathy, and erotic desire at the center of relational models of sexual intimacy.[11] Weaved together, these relational modalities become a precondition of sexual freedom, not its outcome. This opens up the possibility of rethinking the question of equality within the erotic context. As such, submission doesn’t reflexively mean subordination nor does domination automatically equate to abuse. Consent is at the center of these ideas but in and of itself does not signal a deep psychological understanding of the fractured libidinal impulse toward rage, shame, and disunity that occurs in the earliest stages of childhood sexual development. This might be one explanation for why some sexual predators claim that their sexual coercion was not rape or harassment. It might also shed light on the immature prurience of adult men. Stupid comments about the body, ogling body parts, and endless inane sexualized innuendo arise from the fractured and repressed libidinal psychology of “adult-children” who don’t know any better. This suggests the need to engage young people in a pedagogy that sensitizes them to the importance of sexual/emotional empathy, the beauty of shared erotic desires, and the power of human tenderness.

Lastly, against the prevailing progressive constructivist orientation to sexuality—one Willis argues arose in reaction (with good reason) to radical Freudianism’s history of sexism and homophobia and biologically based theories that pathologize female libidinal drives and desires—she nevertheless believes that “we can’t understand sex as an emotional, moral, or social issue, let alone formulate a politics of sexual liberation, without some recourse to the idea of sexual satisfaction as a biological need.” Working within the assumptions of a Reichian paradigm of the unified erotic impulse leads Willis to ask, “If libidinal gratification is not a need, on the same bedrock level as the need for self-preservation, why is a sexually free society necessarily preferable to a sexually restrictive one, particularly if sexual freedom appears to conflict with other social goods?”[12] However important the social constructionist argument is to our understanding of power, language, and identity formation, Willis rejects its explanatory power when speaking about the libidinal drive because it inevitably falls victim to its own relativistic routes; sexual choices are reduced to “a matter of ethics and taste.” From the perspective of critical pedagogy, this means rejecting any type of sex education that imposes a repressive sexual morality, with the understanding that “repression fosters, rather than curbs, sexual and social irresponsibility and violence.”[13]

Although I am still in the process of working out my thoughts about these issues, what has become glaringly apparent to me is the pressing educational need to replace the male supremacist, hyper-sexualized discourse of heteronormative relations with a critical discourse that speaks to our shared interest in developing empathetic, lovingly erotic, and mutually desiring relations. Maleness and femaleness must be reimagined outside of traditional (i.e., masculinist) formulations of power. We must learn to be respectful of each other’s boundaries, while still being permitted to show our erotic desire for another person. Repressing the libidinal drive is essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We should begin with the central thesis that females and males have been historically miseducated about sexuality, intimacy, erotic impulses, sex, and gender. From the pragmatic to the utopian, the implications of this sexual miseducation continues to have dire consequences for everyone. People need to unlearn the lessons of sexuality that diminish and devalue our human capacity for empathy, tenderness, and erotic desire. At the pragmatic level, if the focus of our desire says she/he does not share similar feelings, then so be it. Move on or maybe develop another model of intimacy with that person, one that is not sexually physical, but tender and empathetic. Women (and men) must be allowed not only to say no without apology but to pursue their erotic needs without stigma, embarrassment, or shame. Men might find the women they desire more interested in their attention if they didn’t act like such puerile idiots. The women might be less offended and threatened if they weren’t shamed for their sexual desire and/or disciplined for their lack of interest. One of Cuomo’s accusers describes one of his comments as something a third grader might say. What is remarkable, as Cuomo himself said (although he meant it differently), is how unremarkable this type of behavior is within historical and current constructions of male sexual identity. Men need to learn how to exchange prurient attitudes and behavior for a type of eroticism that arises from a healthy understanding of sexual pleasure, particularly as it is experienced from within the sphere of the sensual. They need to learn how to be sexually/emotionally vulnerable and share power without it destroying their sense of what it means to be a man. By contrast, heterosexual women need to stop embracing and enabling male supremacist models of human sexuality while also rejecting sexual repression as a way to protect themselves from unwanted male attention. Domination and violence, particularly in the sphere of human sexual relations, are the practices of the weak, diminished, and repressed. If we are to move beyond the current trends in policing desire and sexuality, if we hope to be able to reclaim a sense of spontaneity in our erotic relations, we must escape the repressive desublimation of our libidinal drive.[14] Through the sublimation of the unified erotic impulse, women and men can discover the sexual freedom that they deserve and desire.

[1] Willis, E. (2014). “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution.” N. W. Aronowitz (Ed). The Essential Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press, p. 186.

[2] Ibid., 187

[3] Marcuse, H. (1964). One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press.

[4] Willis, 185

[5] Ibid., 182

[6] Ibid., 187

[7] Ibid., 178

[8] Ibid., 185

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 185-186

[11] Ibid., 179

[12] Ibid., 177

[13] Ibid.

[14] Marcuse, H.