May 5th, 2011

Then As Now: Sexual Repression and Civilization

This post originally appeared at Good Vibrations Magazine.

“But paradise, we found, is always frail; against man’s fear will always fail…”
-From the narrated poem in the opening of Dangerous Beauty

Several months ago I watched my favorite movie for the first time. While I would love to post all manner of clips here and expound on what I find to be the film’s myriad virtues, that would encompass spoilers—and since I would rather anyone reading this watch the movie, I will resist the temptation and talk instead about a few universal themes I observed in watching it.

The movie is Dangerous Beauty. The screenplay is adapted from the book The Honest Courtesan, a biography by Margaret Rosenthal of Veronica Franco, sixteenth-century Venetian writer/poet and courtesan. Ms. Franco lived, and thus the events in the movie and the time period in which they are contextualized occurred, 450 years ago—a time so far in the distant past it may seem archaic or hard to conceptualize in light of how different human society is now.

Except it’s not. Different, that is. As I finished watching Dangerous Beauty for the first time that day last year, I was struck by how much, on some level, we have not changed.

Now indeed, I will say first that there are things that have on some level shifted or rearranged such that our gender roles, for example, seem less strict, and of course I appreciate that. At this point and in this location on the earth, I as a woman have options beyond marrying, becoming a nun, or working as a courtesan or prostitute to survive financially. There are practical ways in which women in many parts of the world have far more opportunities for financial independence now than they did in sixteenth-century Venice. This of course calls for acknowledgement, and I duly extend it. My personal appreciation for such is profound, and to not recognize that would be disingenuous and inappropriate.

That withstanding, however, I argue that throughout our collective civilization, deep-seated and unconscious perceptions and distortions still relegate us in fundamental ways to the same as we were then. We’re dressed up a bit differently—but we’re the same. So much so that it’s staggering.

Marriage is still a contract (if in doubt, observe phenomena such as alimony and the state’s having anything to do with who is “allowed” to marry), and though what we tend to associate with romantic love seems more of a reason to marry now than then, people still marry for political, financial, or other reasons. Marriage itself is still expected—monogamy is still the default, the standard for people’s lives in romantic relationship. Affairs still exist, and we still pretend not to acknowledge their prevalence or potential complexity as any invitation to examine the possibility that monogamy and marriage are perhaps not the ideal configurations for all individuals.

“The Church” still inserts itself into public affairs—sometimes via official governments—claiming an esoteric authority and the position to judge the general populace according to the standards it chooses to set. We are still compelled by war. Poverty, disease, populist unrest remain. There is still rampant evidence of nationalism, classism, sexism, and political manipulation. We are still encouraged to follow the rules, whatever they may be, and not question or flout them lest we interrupt the fragile illusion of whatever arbitrary perspective of “reality” our ego-based selves have created and think they feel comfortable with.

In Dangerous Beauty, when the plague begins to run rampant through Venice, the townspeople/collective society turn on what is considered the decadence and indulgence of the city, of which courtesans are perceived to be squarely in the middle. A following of religiously-oriented purveyors develops and overtly blames “those who tempt us” with “fornication and carnal practices” for the “God”-inflicted downfall of the republic.

In response to a protest that the Inquisition has appeared in Venice, the doge (presiding figure of the republic at the time) responds, “Fifty-six thousand people are dead. The living want answers. They may be the wrong answers, but they want them just the same.”

To me these lines epitomize that which has not changed in four and a half centuries. Throughout society there are examples of selective intervention in human rights abuses, astounding hypocrisy in application of laws, and scapegoating of cultures, people, entities in order to get “answers” that a part of us finds tolerable internally and/or in response to the cognitive dissonance in us.

What seems most concerning to me about this uncanny similarity to a time centuries ago is not just its obviousness but that we do not seem to see it. We truly think we are different. That things were so primitive then, that they were so inhibited, their roles so strictly defined. We think we are so advanced because we have skyscrapers and spaceships and smartphones. But we still use that technological capacity to create ways to destroy each other and ourselves—which tells me we are not.

It seems clear to me that despite our apparent advances and some level of progress in social redresses, under the surface the same prejudices, constraints, ignorance, and fear that formed what was seen in sixteenth-century Venice is with us now and still forming the same things. The seemingly obvious things like racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism are outcrops, manifestations, of what has remained the same—which is our ignorance of ourselves. We have not awakened enough to be consistently aware of our true nature. We are not conscious of the unconditional love that is the deepest level of ourselves and the innate oneness of the universe.

Underlying this lack of awareness is the resistance and refusal to examine ourselves, to see that it is what is inside ourselves that may be tormenting us rather than projecting it onto a perceived external. Repression is one of the key ingredients in this phenomenon, and repression of a fundamental instinct—such as, say, the sexual one—is one of this phenomenon’s very bedrocks.

As in the movie, many of the above-described circumstances and the societal responses decrying and attacking them have to do with sex. All over the world, a conservative populace still behaves as though perceived “immorality” around sexuality is or will be the downfall of civilization. “The Church” (represented by fundamentalist perspectives of virtually all major religions) still bewails “fornication and carnal practices” and proclaims our collective suffering “punishment” for a culture steeped in “sin.” These perspectives seem to see open sexuality rather than denouncement, vilification, and repression as dangerous, sinful, and undesirable.

Why would this be? As depicted so beautifully in Dangerous Beauty, sexuality is one of the preeminent paths to love (not just romantic, but love in the universal sense), self-awareness, divinity, connection, gratitude, openness, and beauty. Then as now, this aspect is so fundamental to us that it instills the kind of fear that has through the ages attracted measures of denouncement, repression, fear, violence, and desperation in the face of truly experiencing and interacting with it because it is so impossibly close to us, so unavoidably reflective of ourselves—we cannot not see ourselves if we are truly and openly acknowledging and examining the sexual impulse within us. It forces us to face ourselves, and to truly do that is something we have found, probably throughout our human existence, excruciatingly difficult to do. Sexuality, our instinctive drive for what it represents, for pleasure and beauty and openness and love, is so close that we must either surrender to it or do everything in our power to control it. Yes, there are measures in between, but the sexual impulse does not give up—it doesn’t have that capacity. No matter how we try to control it, sexuality just is. It’s how we be with it that is the opportunity.

Sexual repression appeared rampant at the time of Dangerous Beauty‘s depiction (and highly encouraged by social structures at that time). It appears rampant to me now (and highly encouraged, perhaps in superficially different ways, by social structures currently). Am I suggesting that a large part of the fear, hatred, and relentless harm we do each other around the world at this time is based, at least in part, on sexual repression?

I am.

At a key point in the film, Veronica Franco’s character states,

“I confess I find more ecstasy in passion than in prayer. Such passion is prayer. […] I confess I hunger still to be filled and enflamed, to melt into the dream of us, beyond this troubled place—to where we are not even ourselves.”

Those lines gave me chills the first time I watched the movie, and they did again yesterday when I watched it most recently. I would certainly not say that everyone should agree with them and feel the same way—we are all unique and experience things as such. I do wish, though, truly and deeply, that we would see the offering in them and open to discover whatever truth resonates uniquely and authentically within each of us around this area so intrinsic to life.

It is in that, it seems to me, that true progress lies.


“It’s not too late, think of what could be if you rewrite the role you play…”
-Adam Lambert “Aftermath”

4 Responses “Then As Now: Sexual Repression and Civilization”

  1. Jacque says:

    Great article, Emerald. I’ve been wanting to see this movie for a while now (I think I first read about it in one of your older posts), and I definitely have to rent it now. You’re so right about the fact that society’s views really haven’t changed any between then and now. They use a lot of coded language in today’s laws to try to achieve the same antiquated results. Sounds like this film deals with a lot of issues that are so relevant today…

  2. An excellent, considered essay, Em.

    You are so right. I still marvel at how seemingly intelligent, considered people, when faced with a crisis, will turn to superstition. True thousands of years ago, true hundreds of years ago, and still true now.

    Some people, when faced with what they cannot easily explain, will accept almost any answer if it means an “easy fix.” This is the fundamental weakness that religions pray upon.

    Given how many times these “quick fix solutions” have been disproved over history, you’d think we’d get wise.

  3. Emerald says:

    Thank you both so much. I really appreciate your reading and commenting!

    Indeed, to reiterate what I already said, I felt really struck by the similarity—it was like watching a mirror reflection of society now in different clothing.

    Thanks again to both of you. Hugs and Namaste.


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