The Sexual Counter-Revolution: Shulamith Firestone on neo-Freudianism and women's oppression


"In short, Freudian theory, regroomed for its new function of ‘social adjustment’, was used to wipe up the feminist revolt. Patching up with band-aids the casualties of the aborted feminist revolution, it succeeded in quieting the immense social unrest and role confusion that followed in the wake of the first attack on the rigid patriarchal family. 

"Freudianism gained the ground that feminism lost: it flourished at the expense of feminism, to the extent that it acted as a container of its shattering force."

This edited extract from Shulamith Firestone's classic The Dialectic of Sex explores how approaches to mental health are always structured by relations of power. Firestone argues that feminism's absorption into institutionalised neo-Freudian cod-psychology deflected its initial assault on patriarchy—and that only political organization and struggle is capable of breaking through women's oppression. 

This article is part of a series for World Mental Health Day 2015. 

Freudianism hit the same nerve that feminism did: both at once were responses to centuries of increasing privatization of family life, its extreme subjugation of women, and the sex repressions and subsequent neuroses this caused. Freud too was once considered a sex maniac, destructive to society – he was ridiculed and despised as much as were the militant feminists. It was only much later that Freudianism became as sacred as an established religion. How did this reversal come about?

Let us first consider the social context of the development of both feminism and Freudianism. We have seen that the ideas of the early radical feminists contained the seeds of the coming sexual revolution. We have not seen that though in many cases the feminists themselves did not clearly grasp the importance of what they had stumbled into, though often they did not have down a thorough and consistent radical feminist critique of society – and given the political climate at that time, it is no wonder – the reaction of society to them indicates that their enemies knew what they were about, if they themselves weren’t sure: the virulent antifeminist literature of the time, often written by men well respected and honest in their own fields of endeavour, illustrates the threat the feminists presented to the establishment. I have also shown how the movement was redirected into an all-consuming effort to obtain the vote, and how in the way it was sidetracked and destroyed. Following the end of the feminist movement, with the granting of the vote, came the era of the flappers, an era that in its pseudo-liberated sexuality much resembles our own. The widespread female rebellion stirred up by the feminist movement now had nowhere to go. Girls who had cut there hair, shortened their skirts and gone off to college no longer had a political direction for their frustration; instead they danced it away in marathons, or expended themselves swimming the Channel and flying aeroplanes in the Atlantic. They were a roused class who did not know what to do with their consciousness. They were told then as we still are now, ‘You’ve got civil rights, short skirts and sexual liberty. You’ve won your revolution. What more do you want? ‘ But the ‘revolution’ had been won within a system organized around the patriarchal nuclear family. And as Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilisation shows, within such a repressive structure only a more sophisticated repression can result (‘repressive de-sublimation’):

In a repressive society, individual happiness and productive development are in contradiction to society; if they are defined as values to be realized within society, they become themselves repressive…{the concept of repressive de-sublimation is} the release of sexuality in modes and forms which reduce and weaken erotic energy. In this process sexuality spreads into formerly tabooed dimension and relations. However, instead of recreating these dimensions and relations in the images of the Pleasure Principle, the opposite tendency asserts itself: The Reality Principle extends its hold over Eros. The most telling illustration is provided by the methodical introduction of sexiness into business, politics, propaganda, etc.

Here in the twenties began the stereotypes of the American ‘career girl’, the ‘coed’ and the ‘butchy’ businesswoman. This image od the supposedly ‘liberated’ woman went around the world via Hollywood, the unbalancing effects on women and pseudo-liberation giving anti-feminists new ammunition, and further bolstering the resistance of the still openly male supremacist societies to setting ‘their’ women free. ()’We like our women they way they are – womanly’)

American servicemen came back from the Second World War with stories of those great continental women who still knew how to make a man feel good. The word castration began to circulate. And finally in America, in the forties, Freudianism came in big.

Meanwhile, Freudianism itself had undergone deep internal changes. Emphasis had shifted from the original psychoanalytic theory to clinical practice. In the final chapter of Eros and Civilisation, Marcuse discusses the reactionary implications of this shift, showing how the contradiction between Freud’s ideas and the possibility of any effective ‘therapy’ based on them – psychoanalysis cannot effect individual happiness – finally caused the assimilation of the theory to suit the practice:

The most speculative and ‘metaphysical’ concepts not subject to clinical verification…were minimized and discarded altogether. Moreover, in the process, some of Freud’s most decisive concepts (such as the relation between the id and the ego, the function of the unconscious, and the scope and significance of sexuality) were redefined in a such a way that their explosive content was all but eliminated…The revisionists have converted the weakening of Freud’s theory into a new theory.

The term that perhaps best characterizes this Neo-Freudian revisionism is ‘adjustment’. But adjustment to what? The underlying assumption is that one must accept the reality in which one finds oneself. But what happens if one is a woman, a black, or a member of any other especially unfortunate class of society? Then one is double unlucky. Then one not only has to achieve a normalcy that even for the privileged is, as we have shown, difficult and precarious at best, but one might also ‘adjust’ to the specific racism or sexism that limits one’s potential from the very beginning. One must abandon all attempts at self-definition or determination. Thus, in Marcuse’s view, the process of therapy becomes merely ‘a course in resignation’, the difference between health and neurosis only the ‘degree and effectiveness of the resignation’ For, as in the often-quoted statement of Freud to his patient (Studies in Hysteria 1895), {A great deal will be gained if we succeed through therapy in} transforming your hysterical misery into everyday happiness.

We have arrived at our final point: the importation of clinical Freudianism to stem the flow of feminism. Girls in their twenties and thirties found themselves half-way in and half-way out of the traditional roles. Thus they were neither insulated and protected from the larger work as before, nor were they equipped to deal with it. Both their personal and work lives suffered. Their frustration often took hysterical forms, complicated by the fact that they were despised the world over for even the false little liberation they had achieved. Mass confusion sent them in droves to psychoanalysts. And where had all the psychoanalysts come from? By this time a war was going on in Europe, and much of the German and Austrian intelligentsia had settled here in search of practice. It was ideal: a whole class of suffering people awaited them. And it was not just a few bored, rich women who were sucked into the new religion. For America was undergoing serious cramps from withholding a sexual revolution already well beyond the beginning stages. Everyone suffered, men as well as women. Books came out with such titles as How to Live with a Neurotic (because that oppressed class is right there in your kitchen, whining and complaining and nagging.) Soon men, too, were turning up at the psychoanalysts. Well-educated, responsible citizens, not just psychos. And children. Whole new fields were opened to deal with the influx: child psychology, clinical psychology, group therapy, marriage counselling services, any variation you can think of, name it and there it was. And none of it was enough. The demand multiplied faster than new departments could be opened up in college.

That these new departments were soon filled up with women is no wonder. Masses of searching women studied psychology with a passion in the hope of finding a solution to their ‘hang-ups’. But women who had grown interested in psychology because its raw material touched them where the lived soon were spouting jargon about martial adjustment and sex-role responsibility. Psychology departments became half-way houses to send women scurrying back 'adjusted’ to their traditional role as wives and mothers. Those women who persisted in demanding careers became in their turn instruments of the repressive educational system, their new-found psychological ‘insight’ – that babble of Child Psych., Social Work 301 and E. Ed. – serving to keep a fresh generation of women and children down. Psychology became reactionary to its core, its potential as a serious discipline undermines by its usefulness to those in power.

And psychology was not the only new discipline to be corrupted. Education, social work, sociology, anthropology, all the related behavioural sciences, remained for years pseudo-sciences, overburdened with a double-function: the indoctrination of women, as well as the study of ‘human behaviour’. Reactionary schools of thought developed: social sciences became ‘functional’, studying the operation of institutions only within the given value system, thus promoting acceptance of the status quo.

It is not surprising that these remained ‘women’s fields’. Men soon fled to (exclusively male) ‘pure’ science; women, still only semi-educated, awed with their new entrance into academia, were left to be snowed with the pseudo-scientific bullshit. For, in addition to role indoctrination, the behavioural sciences served as a dyke to keep the hordes of questing nouveaux intellectualles from entering he ‘real’ sciences – physics, engineering, biochemistry, etc., sciences that in a technological society bore an increasingly direct relation to control of that society.

As a result, even access to higher education, one of the few victories of the early WRM, was subverted. More average women went to college than ever before, with less effect. Often the only difference between the modern college-educated house-wife and her traditional prototype was the jargon she used in describing her marital hell.

In short, Freudian theory, regroomed for its new function of ‘social adjustment’, was used to wipe up the feminist revolt. Patching up with band-aids the casualties of the aborted feminist revolution, it succeeded in quieting the immense social unrest and role confusion that followed in the wake of the first attack on the rigid patriarchal family. It is doubtful that the sexual revolution could have remained paralysed at half-way point for half a century without its help; for the problems stirred up by the first wave of feminism are still not resolved today. D.H. Lawrence and Bernard Shaw are no less relevant than they were in their own time; Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution could have been written yesterday.

Freudianism was the perfect foil for feminism, because, though it struck the same nerve, it had a safety catch that feminism didn’t – it never questioned the given reality. While both at their cores are explosive, Freudianism was gradually revised to suit the pragmatic needs of clinical therapy: it became an applied science complete with white-coat technicians, its contents subverted for a reactionary end – the socialization of men and women to an artificial sex-role system. But there was just enough left of its original force to serve as a lure for those seeking their way out of oppression – causing Freudianism to go in the public mind from extreme suspicion and dislike to its current status: psychoanalytic expertise is the final say in everything form marital breakups to criminal court judgements. Thus Freudianism gained the ground that feminism lost: it flourished at the expense of feminism, to the extent that it acted as a container of its shattering force.

Only recently have we begun to feel the generations of drugging; half a century later women are waking up. There is a new emphasis on objective social conditions in psychology as well as in the behavioural sciences; these disciplines, only now, decades after the damage has been done, are reacting to their long prostitution with demands for scientific verification – but an end to ‘objectivity’ and a reintroduction of ‘value’ judgements. The large numbers of women in these fields may soon start using this fact to their advantage. And a therapy that has proven worse than useless may eventually be replaced with the only thing that can do any good: political organization.