Sexual Pleasure - A Retrospective


“There are things enclosed within the walls that, if they suddenly got out onto the street, would fill up the world”

- Federico Garcia Lorca


Plato, who was not strange to the linguistic resources used by poets, put, in the Symposium, the following statement in Aristophanes’ mouth: “The original human nature was not like the current one, but different. Firstly, the sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two [...]”[i].

This mythical explanation for sexual attraction is entirely articulated with the literal metaphor.

In Greek Mythology everything about the primitive man was double: two faces, four hands, four feet, two pudendal parts, and so on. Being very strong and fast, the humans tried to climb to the sky in an assault against the gods. Zeus prevented mankind’s plan against the divinity and cut them in two, thus making them weaker.

After this division "the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together and threw their arms around one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one"[ii].

The desire between lovers is due to the cut we have suffered because of Zeus. In Aristophanes’ speech, the end of the meeting between the halves is nothing else but the erotic connection. We are looking for our half and Eros (sexual passion) is the restorer of our ancient nature.

For the Hellenic, aphrodisia rule the acts and the pleasures, configuring a field of moral care in the practice of sexuality that is considered natural and indispensable. Hence the ethical reflection in which what is important is to determine the force with which one is carried by pleasures and desires, and not which acts are permitted or prohibited. No system of interdictions is proposed, but rather a delimitation to secure the use of pleasures in accordance with different strategies that allow one to obtain it as it befits them – enKrateia.

In ancient Rome, the erotic experience was supported and regulated by religious traditions, and was considered an aspect of general prosperity and of State’s welfare (the Lupercalia included a fertility rite). The erotic experience was not restricted to the private/individual life sphere but was also part of politics, the economy and even war. Despite the individual freedom to improve their erotic life through religious or “magical” practices, there were elements of regulation of that behavior.

Michel Foucault considered sex in the Greco-Roman world to be governed by restraint, and the art of administering sexual pleasure as a work in and of itself to obtain freedom: “being free in regards to pleasure is not being at its service, it is not being its slave”.

The moral of pleasures as an art of living with the ethical and aesthetical criteria defined by the Classics will distance itself from the experience of pleasures throughout the Middle Ages. Flesh/body becomes the origin of all “sins” and desire an “evil” that strikes every men.

The expansion of Christianity and the consolidation of the Church as State power during the medieval period solidified the base “of the morals” in Western Europe and, a posteriori, in the colonized continents of the New World.

The interrelation of religious, social and cultural practices determined the rules of conduct in the Western world. Anything related to sex was a sin in a universe in which any type of pleasure was forbidden. As highlighted in Saint Augustine’s thinking, “continence of the body to keep the purity of the soul”.

In the Iberian Councils of the 5th and 6th centuries, rules for the daily life of clergymen and laymen were established. The discourse on sex was encouraged by stimulating confessions in which the insinuations and the thoughts about flesh should be exposed in detail. It was required of the good Christian that all his desires were rendered into discourse. Through confessions the body was repressed from the pleasures of the flesh and the thought was controlled, as some type of police of the tongue. As Karras states, the identity of medieval men was fundamentally molded by their sexual “status” – whether they were chaste or sexually active.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563), or “Council of the Counter-Reformation” (due to the time in which it took place and for the importance of the social, political, industrial and cultural transformation that motivated it) promoted a pivotal position with great significance in the turn from the medieval to the modern world.

In spite of the fact that in the discourse plane pleasure should not continue to be pursued, on pain of eternal damnation, it did not cease to be cultivated as a way to finding new ways of expression.

Some authors claim that from the 16th to the 20th centuries, Church and State combined efforts in order to control bodies and discipline consciences. A paradoxical moment was witnessed: intense repression (especially of the bourgeois sexuality) and at the same time a great determination to make sex talk.

According to Foucault, what occurred in the Western society was the multiplication of discourses about sex that, while trying to define it, ended up obfuscating it. On La Volonté de Savoir the Author opposes the repressive hypothesis as a historical certainty and researches the way sex kept being stimulated and echoed by the discourses produced about it by institutions such as the family, school, the medical office, and by sciences like medicine, pedagogy and psychiatry.

It also shows that since the 16th century, and more vigorously from the 19th century onwards, the inclusion of sex on the discourse’s order was the privileged way for modern societies to produce “sexuality”. The will to know about sex was an essential part of a control strategy of the individual and the populations.

According to the same Author, there clearly was a project of illumination of all aspects of sex, creating an apparatus that, by multiplying the discourses, intended to create truths about it.

Foucault contrasts two concepts:

- the first is ars erotica, typical of civilizations such as Rome, China, Japan, India, etc., that searched for knowledge about ways to amplify pleasure. It is in the secret and in the experience of the intensity of that pleasure and of the body vibrations that learning from experience is made;

- the second, in the West, is the scientia sexualis, in which confession connected truth and sex, that is to say, the revelation of everything, the exposition of pleasures are crucial in the production of knowledge about sex.

The ”Western man has become a confessing animal,”[iii] Foucault says. With the advent of modernity and the birth of modern sciences the scientific discourse combines knowledge and power.

The history of the sexuality device from modernity onwards is relevant as archeology of the Psychoanalysis that, at the end of the 19th century, emerges as medical knowledge, constitutes itself as therapy, and strips sexuality bare, which, until then, had been covered by the neurological model.

Freud, in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur analyzes how the Human species sacrificed the instinctive life and repressed spontaneity in order to allow for social and cultural progress. Civilization arose based on the repression of sexuality and on channeling the libidinal energy towards artistic and cultural activities, through a process of sublimation: "Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychological, scientific, artistic and ideological activities [...]"[iv]Still according to Freud, civilization and sexuality always coexist in a conflicting manner.

However, by analyzing the implementation and massive investment in the body and in the sexuality, Psychoalysis begins to be seen as one more device and strategy of power and control inherent to the bourgeoisie, according to Foucault.

On Éros et Civilization, Marcuse performs a critical reading of the psychoanalytical theory.

For this Author, there would theoretically be the possibility of overcoming this malaise, that was generated by the repression of the drives, through the ascendancy of Eros over Thanatos (the death drive) that could appease the destructive forces put into action.

For Reich, love can be an “effective and affective instrument in the search for the internal/external, self/other integration”[v].

The so-called “sexual revolution” and the several counter-cultural movements that developed in the Western world from the second half of the 20th century rebelled against capitalism and the consumerist society, claiming rights such as the freedom to orgasm, as well as the implicit feminine emancipation. They introduced the gender issue by contesting the tendency to consider natural just what is feminine or masculine, and by noting that the “man/woman” and male/female relationship exceeds the limits of that binary relationship.

They spoke about the right to utopia, demanded a free and egalitarian society. It was the beginning of pleasure for all. They painted on the walls: “It is forbidden to forbid”. The orgasm is the symbol of what is forbidden.

Reich’s ideas were disseminated (and often misinterpreted) and his books Die Entdeckung des Orgons Erster Teil: Die Funktion des Orgasmus and Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf entered the public domain, becoming an important contribution to the knowledge of sexuality. Vastly translated, these books fascinated the public. Reich always understood the reality of the individual within the social context. He interconnected biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology and physics.

Reich describes the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy and from this to the authoritarian society, thus demonstrating that sexual taboos are economically determined and lead to submission and to the authoritarian State.

In the words of the poet Natália Correia, “matriarchy represents the religion of the mother (Earth), freedom on sexual matters, democracy, the privileged position of the woman who enjoys liberty, progressivism; patriarchy is marked by sexual intolerance, by political authoritarianism, by conservatism. These are the two systems that manifest themselves in conflict in a society where the influx of the thanatological tradition confronts the reaction of Eros where love nobly prevails in alliance with the carnal desire”[vi].

The imaginary society of equality and happiness – utopia – is the state closest to orgasm and, in a simple definition, means an integration of the mind, soul and body between two people who feed each other in a climate of consumption and production of pleasure. That special pleasure, with many symbolic derivations, is known in the body by the action of an instantaneous moment, as a lightning bolt in which each element of the body is autonomous in its reaction to pleasure.

In "The Wall of Pleasure" Tiago Estrada tries to do a deeper reflection on one's true freedom and expression.

Estrada now tries to find a truly apprehensible universal language, not guided by any set of grammatical rules or even mental inhibitions. At first it is only a whisper that acquires a life of its own, growing out of control in an eternal comeback.

The use of repetitive onomatopoeia written on the walls isolates the notion of scream, particularly the one associated with sexual intercourse in Western culture.

A way of shaping the self “in the experience of flesh”[vii].

From the impossibility of orgasmic utopia, as modus vivendi, the human being lives a secret will to get it and when unable to, that empty place is penetrated by the consumerist ideology as a substitutive compensation.

Cecília Escarameia

March, 2013



 [i] Plato, Symposium, trans. by Benjamin Jowett from Collected Works of Plato, in Symposium 4th Edition, Oxford U. Press, 1953 (189c-189d) p. 520 to (193d-193e) p. 525.

[ii] Plato, Symposium, trans. by Benjamin Jowett from Collected Works of Plato, in Symposium 4th Edition, Oxford U. Press, 1953 (189c-189d) p. 520 to (193d-193e) p. 525.

[iii] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. by Robert Hurley (Vintage Press, 1990) p. 59.

[iv] Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930) in The Standard Edition Of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, trans. by James Strachey (Hogarth Press; London, 1961), vol. XXI, p. 79-80.

[v] Wilhelm Reich, The Function of the Orgasm – Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy, trans. by Vincent R. Carfagno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973), p.

[vi] Natália Correia, Bissexualidade e Ruptura Romântica na Poesia Portuguesa, Sexualidade em Portugal, vol.II, (Texto Editora, Lisboa, 1987) p. 41-42.

[vii] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1992) p. 13.