Monday, July 04, 2016

The power of sexual surrender 2

This is the second part of my review of Marie Robinson's The Power of Sexual Surrender (part 1 here).

Chapter 4 begins with the observation that sexual frigidity in women is often connected to what Marie Robinson calls "personality distortions" in which there is a misunderstanding of reality and in which blame for one's own failures is externalised.

Robinson then goes on to explain different types of frigidity. She includes women who are able to orgasm normally, but who are psychologically unable to build relationships with men and who therefore usually live promiscuously.

Chapter 5 is an attempt to explain why frigidity should have become such an issue. Part of Marie Robinson's argument is an historical one. She argues that prior to industrialisation most men and women worked together as part of a cooperative effort based in the family home. Industrialisation sent the men off to work elsewhere, the children off to school; and outsourced much of the productive work traditionally undertaken by women, meaning that the family home was no longer the centre of all life as it had once been, meaning that a wife was no longer at the centre of all life as she had once been, no longer as profoundly needed in her social role:
As a woman she was profoundly needed, and as a woman reared to respond to this need she had no single occasion to question her worth or her abilities. And then one by one, slowly but surely, her responsibilities and her duties were removed from her; her close and equal working relationship with her husband was destroyed; her importance to her children was diminished sadly.

It's a reasonable argument. It is certainly true that feminism took off as a mass movement after the Industrial Revolution, though it seems to have been accepted most quickly in frontier/homestead states in Australia and the U.S. where women's work at home was still crucially important. An alternative argument is that it was only when the Industrial Revolution had created a significant economic surplus that some women turned more confidently against men, who formerly played a more critical and necessary role as their providers.

How did women react to their new situation? Not well, according to Marie Robinson:
Very slowly, too, but everywhere, women woke as if from a centuries-old dream of peace and happiness to find themselves dispossessed. Gone was their central place in the family home, gone their economic importance, gone their close working partnership with their mate, their functions of teacher and moral guide to the children. The child himself was gone, to school, as the husband had gone to the mill or factory.

Yes, she was dispossessed, dispossessed of all those things that for centuries had defined her womanhood for her, that had supported her ego, given her the certain knowledge that being a woman, however hard, was a wonderous and most desirable thing. She felt her womanhood itself devalued, the things it represented unwanted.

And then she reacted. She reacted violently and with rage at this depreciation of her feminine attributes, of her skills, of her functions. Unhappily this reaction was precisely the wrong one, the one from which no solution of a happy kind for her could be attained.

Here’s what she did. Looking about, she thought she spied a villain in the piece. Who was it? None other than her partner through the centuries, man. It was he who had deserted her, who was responsible for her loss of self-respect as a woman, a mother, an equal socially and mentally and morally. He despised women. Very well, she would show him. She would simply stop being a woman. She would enter the lists and compete with him on his own level. To hell with being a women. She would be a man.

In response Marie Robinson writes: so far as the feminist movement pitted itself against the male, and at the same time advised woman to masculinize herself or divest herself of her feminine nature, it was dreadfully neurotic, and we have been reaping the whirlwind this movement started ever since.

Marie Robinson next argues that one reaction of Victorian era women to their loss of traditional role was, in a kind of revenge move, to deny their sexuality. This then meant that twentieth century women inherited a toxic culture from their nineteenth century foremothers:
This, then, is the heritage of woman today: On the one hand, from Victorian woman, a profound belief that she is and should be non-sexual, frigid, by natural law. On the other hand, from the feminists, that man is Woman’s natural enemy, that she should drop her femininity altogether, oppose man, supersede him, become him.

The feminist view became the dominant one after WWI:
The flapper of the 1920’s represented the unintended flower of the feminist philosophy of life, its definition of what constituted womanhood. As we know, the flapper was a caricature of woman, a cheap and shoddy imitation of the opposite sex, a second-class man. Happily, she did not survive as a conscious national ideal, but the philosophy that created her did survive. The depreciation of the goals of femininity, biological and psychological, became part and parcel of the education of millions of American girls. Homemaking, childbearing and rearing, cooking, the virtues of patience, lovingness, givingness in marriage have been systematically devalued. The life of male achievement has been substituted for the life of female achievement. The feminist-Victorian antagonism toward men has survived too. It has been handed down from mother to daughter in an unbroken line for so many years now that, to millions of women, hostility toward the opposite sex seems almost a natural law. Though many a modern woman may pay lip service to the ideal of a passionate and productive marriage to a man, underneath she deeply resents her role, conceives of the male as fundamentally hostile to her, as an exploiter of her. She wishes in her deepest heart, and often without the slightest awareness of the fact, to supplant him, to exchange roles with him. She learned this attitude at her mother’s knee or imbibed it with her formula. Little that she learns elsewhere counteracts it with any great effectiveness.

Clearly, then, if this is the historical direction women have taken, the individual woman who wishes to become a real woman must change this direction. This she can do only by taking thought, long thought. For among the women around her she will not necessarily find too much support for her wish to be entirely feminine.

For one hundred and fifty years now women have blamed their problems on the outside world. They have used the very real difliculties created by revolutionary social changes to avoid the task of looking within for the real problem and the real solution. They have indulged in an orgy of finger-pointing and self-pity. If the results had been different, if this attitude had brought them happiness and fulfillment, if feminism and Victorianism had made them good mothers and joyful wives, or even pleased them with their new place in industry, the game might have been worth the candle. But it hasn't been. The game has brought frigidity and restlessness and a soaring divorce rate, neurosis, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency—-all that results when the woman in any society deserts her true function.

Would you have expected this to have been written in 1958? It is a reminder of the influence of the long first-wave of feminism in the West. Even in 1958, Marie Robinson believed that many women had been brought up to see men as a hostile enemy and to resent a feminine role in society. Little wonder that second-wave feminism loomed on the horizon.


  1. I don't believe that Victorian sexual repression in women was caused by a desire for revenge. I believe it was caused by the French revolution.

    The French revolution had turned the world upside down by declaring man to be God. As such, everything man wanted was justifiable. The Victorians reacted violently to this, and said that only a repressed life, one guided by rules and authorities outside our own will was acceptable. The goal was to get man out of the pilot's seat so he wouldn't crash the human plane. The passions fell under the same category as "those things which carry man away with himself" and as such were attacked as dangerous. I believe this is the real reason for the sexual puritanism of the Victorians.


    This woman has a lot of interesting things to say, but I recommend a pinch of salt. Like you said in your first post, the book isn't perfect.

    An example of this is when she said:

    "For one hundred and fifty years now women have blamed their problems on the outside world. [...] They have indulged in an orgy of finger-pointing and self-pity. If the results had been different, if this attitude had brought them happiness and fulfillment, if feminism and Victorianism had made them good mothers and joyful wives, or even pleased them with their new place in industry, the game might have been worth the candle."

    This implies that her cast of mind is more towards what makes women happy, as opposed to what is good for society. I've noticed this in many anti-feminism books that women have written. Even the ones that say very bold things against feminism always come back to the ultimate goal of "what makes women happy." In this way, they haven't actually moved beyond feminism and the supremacy of the individual. They are still arguing from the liberal premise that personal happiness is the goal. Until they focus on _good_ over _happiness_, they aren't going to make progress against feminism. This is because feminism already has a monopoly on the road to happiness. Not long-term happiness of course. But when people seek happiness, they are seeking it in the short-term, not the long-term. As such, when the goal is happiness, and a woman has the choice between womanhood and feminism, she has this choice: feminism, which promises immediate gratification of desires; or womanhood, which promises a fulfilling life of carrying out womanly duty; a sort of warm glow of happiness with streaks of joy in it.

    Obviously feminism will wreck the woman who chooses it. But for those seeking _happiness_, they will choose the short-term path pretty much every time. I think the pervasiveness of feminism proves this.

    The answer is not to try to get women to accept the slow, thoroughgoing, warm-glow happiness of womanhood as a way to get happiness. Instead, the answer is to teach them to value _good_ over _happiness_. When they seek good instead, and live healthy and productive lives _as women_, they will have happiness too.

    1. That's very well put, thank you. Regarding your first argument, I don't feel qualified to give a confident reply. However, English thought even prior to the French Revolution, tended toward a classical view which pitted reason against the passions. Reason was higher than the passions and men were thought to embody reason more than women. So early feminists like Wollstonecraft went to great lengths to argue that female irrationality/emotionalism was a product of upbringing and not her nature and that women could and should imitate men. The classical view is correct, I think, at one level, namely that the passions have to be subject to reason/guided by reason, but at the same time a dry rationalism isn't right either, as it is the higher intuitive sense of man that helps to create a fully natured person - hence the backlash against the classical view during the Romantic era of the later 1700s and early 1800s. You might be right that in England a backlash against the French Revolution led to an emphasis on the individual subjecting her/himself to authority external to individual will (I just don't know), but by the later Victorian period this isn't true, as John Stuart Mill became the leading intellectual figure and his view was most certainly a liberal one that what mattered was the primacy of individual will/autonomy (though he thought that with sufficient education people would choose to be honourable Victorian gentlemen - history has proven him very wrong).

      As for your second argument, you are mostly correct that Marie Robinson emphasises the positive effect of rejecting feminism on the life of the individual, though to be fair (and I haven't quoted her on this yet), she does also mention the positive role of what she suggests on the family and also on "the race" - by which she seems to mean the Western peoples.

      Nonetheless, your final point stands, I think. It is definitely a more radical break with feminism (modernity really) to argue for the good of society (or, for that matter, for objective moral goods/virtues).

  2. Many people have remarked that the problem with the Victorian era was that it wasn't based on anything. That is, that it's conclusions weren't drawn from principles, but were just held in the air instead. This is because it was a violent throwing on of the breaks against the French revolution. England, as you said, was always more classical. When the bloodshed of the French revolution become fully known; when its philosophical implications become clearer, there was a strong backlash against it.

    In the case of the later Victorian era, the effect of the French revolution began to wear off. Generation succeeded generation and people forgot it over time. And that's also why the Victorian era ended so abruptly: when academics and the like began pulling on its philosophical underpinnings, they found nothing because there was nothing. Victorianism was a throwback - an assumption of ancient habits without the ancient _reasons_ for those habits. Many things the Victorians did were correct. But that didn't change the fact that their era was a throwback era. Many of their _conclusions_ were correct. But they had little philosophic backing and could not defend their conclusions.

    It's similar to the brief post-World War II throwback in America. The late 40s through the early 60s were a pretty nice time. But like the Victorians there was no philosophic backing. Many of their _conclusions_ were correct. But they couldn't defend them. Thus in the 50s and early 60s authority was universally respected. But when the student rioters questioned authority and demanded its justification, the authorities had no reply. The authorities were correct: but they had no philosophic underpinnings. As such they couldn't defend themselves. This is why the post-World War II era ended so abruptly.

    I didn't mean to make this an essay on Victorianism. But I hope this helps to spell out my thinking a bit more.


    I'd like to say that I've enjoyed many of the quotes you've posted so far. I'm not criticizing her book wholesale. But I wanted to bring up these points.

    1. This is precisely correct: The collapse of authority leaves us all -- women, men, parents, children, shepherds, sheep -- in total chaos. "Question Authority" was the thought-stopping mantra, and the Greatest Generation had no answer. God had already been declared irrelevant by those who were certain they were on the Right Side of History. They were under the impression that they had defeated Evil and were in the process of mastering nature.

  3. Just finished reading Robinson's book from the link you gave - thank you for sharing this as well as your thoughts on the book.

    I am certain the phenomenon was not present at the time Robinson wrote the book, at least not nearly to the extent that it is today, but her description of the neurosis that frigid women experience in their relationships with men was eye-opening. In our present day this neurosis has become accepted as normal course, with the result being that women think it a first principle that they must have a distrust for men as a sex. Men by and large coddle the neurosis themselves, and, so I suspect, partake in it.

    It's true that such a malformed view of the sexes is widespread, but I also suspect that it is deep-seeded in very few women*. With a little light shed on the neurotic nature of such a view of men many women would do away with these views. How this light is to be shed in such a society as ours, which has invested itself deeply in the perpetuation of the neurosis as something healthy (i.e., feminism), I have no good answers.

    *I am no expert on such things, but Robinson's dependence upon early childhood development as an explanation for a later malformed psyche rings true in the case of the chronically frigid woman. While all women (and men) have less than ideal childhoods, I suspect it is very few who have childhood experiences so traumatic that they find it difficult to escape neuroses they have conditioned themselves to foster in an attempt to understand the world. It seems that with feminism, the deeply neurotic have by-and-large been given exclusive access to the microphone, giving the impression that the neurosis that afflicts them is the normal way to view the world.

  4. Second attempt, 're right wing fighter: can you or the blog author expand on this idea that the 50's and the Victorian era were merely reactions? When was the last traditional period that was grounded in defensible values? Do you mean Christianity, or has traditionalism always been 'unprincipled'? I'm which case what sets apart the 50's/Victorians?

    1. Unknown, good question. I think right wing fighters point is very much plausible, but I would have to consider it a bit before committing to it. As for periods of history, I think Professor John Carroll's account is a good one. He sees the underlying principle of modernity as having been around for a long time (since the Renaissance/Reformation) but as having been held together with pre-modern values, e.g. Christian and aristocratic. Therefore, when you look back in history you see differing, unstable fusions between the modern and traditionalist outlook, with the modern generally extending its sphere of influence over time. So it's not easy, at least since the early modern period, to say that a society was grounded in defensible values, as the best you can say is that traditionalist values still had some influence, alongside the modernist ones (e.g. aristocratic codes of honour). Here's another point: there were once influential classes of people who defended the more traditional values (e.g. gentry, clergy), but the last great resistance seems to have ended with the death of Queen Anne and the ascension of the Hannoverians in the early 1700s.

      For some time, liberal modernity has gone it alone, without seeking to fuse with any other source of value, hence its radical nature. I would say that high culture has been almost entirely liberal in nature since the interwar years.