A Comment on the Therapeutic Society


The following letter and answer are taken, complete and verbatim, from a column of Ann Landers as printed in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 3, 1996:

Dear Ann Landers: That distressing letter from the 70-year-old widow who found condoms in her husband's wallet and pornographic material in his desk after he died was only part of the story -- and half of the heartbreak.

I am a retired counselor who has worked with many men like that woman's husband. You were right, Ann, when you said some rather elegant men have a hidden, kinky side to their sex lives. What was not mentioned, however, is the fact that their kinkiness becomes addictive. These men lose their sense of self-respect and are tortured by their guilt. Their need for secrecy makes them feel even more guilty.

Please let these men know that there is help if they are willing to face their need for pornography and find a caring therapist, preferably one who works with groups.

--W.J., Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Dear W.J. Thank you for the light you've turned on in those darkened corners. I'm sure your encouragement will make it easier for those tortured men to seek help. The medical center of a university is a good place to start.

An exchange such as the above would not have been printed in a newspaper when I was a child, and I suppose that is already an improvement; but such things were printed in the medical and psychiatric literature, and even in some popular books on sex, in States where there was some freedom, by authors like E. Haldeman Julius and Benarr McFadden. Marie Stopes and Havelock Ellis were also well known sixty years ago, and (more secretly) Kraft-Ebbing and Frank Harris, when I was twelve years old and first reading about sex.

 

What was new and liberating in all this literature was the notion that sex was a good thing, by and large, but what was not so liberating were the reservations, without which one supposes this literature would have been prohibited by law. One of the reservations was that healthy sex had to be heterosexual, and another, by most authors, that moral sex occurred only within marriage. Masturbation was condemned as either immoral -- this from the religious parties or unhealthful, leading to circles under the eyes or madness.

Actually, the circles and madness had been pretty well discredited by 1936 (the year of my 12th birthday), but an avid customer of the Detroit Public Library could still find 19th Century "guides for boys entering manhood" that contained such advice. A new caution, however, was taking its place: that succumbing to masturbation would injure one's ability as an adult to enjoy a healthy sexual union. I was myself interested in this, as I wanted above all other things to enjoy a healthy sexual union, so that while I was relieved about the circles and the madness I did worry about my later manhood.

Homosexuality, of course, was simply beyond the pale, no matter who was writing about it. Frank Harris and Kraft-Ebbing both told me so, and the psychiatric fraternity had identified its cause (something about relationships with one's mother) and its cure ($10,000 worth of psychoanalysis). The dollar then was worth ten of today's dollars. A cure that expensive surely must imply a disease of some sort.

The sexual liberation in the Anglo-American world, that began with the (first) World War, was therefore a great deal short of complete in 1936; but even today, fifty years after the Second World War, while we have sexual liberation such as one living in the time of Oscar Wilde would hardly believe, there remain hidden in dark corners, such as columns by Ann Landers, the evidence that there is yet some way to go.

For there, in all seriousness, writes a "retired counselor who has worked with many men like that." Unless that person is a former call-girl indulging in a bit of wry humor the thought chills the blood. Some "rather elegant men", it seems, "have a hidden, kinky side to their lives." Goodness. What they need is "a caring therapist." Can't argue with that, I suppose, but I fear the writer of that letter is not the therapist the man had in mind.

Ann Landers's answer is no better. She too, is hopeful that "those tortured men [will] seek help." Sad to say, I don't believe Ann Landers is recommending either the help the man with the pornography in his files and condoms in his wallet has already been enjoying, or anything better.

I could lecture here on the place of pornography in the enjoyment of masturbation, especially as one grows older and less responsive to random sexual stimuli, but it should hardly be necessary; for who has not seen, in all free countries, financially successful pornographic magazines crowding the news stands? And if their customers are furtive, which increasingly they are not, by the way, it is only because of the therapeutic ministrations of such as the retired counselor and the ever-understanding Ann Landers, whom they would avoid at all costs. If they "lose their self-respect and are tortured", it is not "by their guilt," as the good therapist said, it is that they fear the offers of help that knowledge of their tastes would elicit from a therapeutic community.

It is mistaken to regard this man's secrecy as regards his condoms and pornography as evidence he was "tortured." Most secretive consumers of pornography, not to mention condoms, are not a bit tortured or remorseful, merely prudent. They know they live in a world of counselors, and counselors' dupes, and that they must protect themselves.

Ralph A. Raimi
March 3, 1996