On Repression and Oppression Terminology

Three points, two of which I expect most of y’all to be familiar with already:

1) Prejudices that target gay, bi, ace, or aro people specifically (in ways that are ostensibly mutually exclusive) are all different forms of heterosexism and heteronormativity, each based on whichever group the bigot at hand believes to be “closest” to straightness at the given moment.  The only group that really has what I’d call “privilege” in this realm is straight people and them alone.  There is anti-bi heterosexism that casts bi people as “indecisive”, anti-ace heterosexism that casts aces as “sexually dormant”, etc., but all of it is essentially heterosexism because at its root, it measures us on proximity to straightness — either by presence of different-gender attraction, presence of romantic or sexual attraction, or absence of same-gender attraction.  It’s important to examine the distinct and conflicting ways that heterosexism manifests, and I want to do that without losing sight of what it all adds up to.

2) I purposefully avoid using the “phobia” suffix to refer to acts of bigotry and oppressive ideologies, and I advocate for others to do the same as well.  I want to preserve the meaning of “phobia” as referring to a psychological disorder that is not the person’s own fault and which they cannot fix by simply changing their mind.  Analogizing a flawed and violent ideological position to a psychological disorder only serves to demonize mental illness and/or treats the matter as if a bigot simply cannot help what they do because they have an illness.  Oppressive ideas are a failure of morality, not a psychological disorder.  People with phobias don’t deserve their involuntary conditions being likened to oppressing peopleHealth is not morality.

3) The way that words like “liberated” and “repressed” are usually thrown around in the context of sexuality, people tend to imply (or other times outright declare) that being sexually active/having frequent sex is necessarily synonymous with being healthy and free.  To some extent, the asexual community has borrowed and concocted its own rhetoric for discussing and deconstructing this mess, but I still see us as having insufficient means to talk about the inverse of “liberated/repressed” rhetoric’s conventional meanings — to talk about the allosexual norm as repressive and nonsexual relationships and celibate lifestyles as liberating.

The idea of “sexual repression”, as used to invalidate asexuality, is often bound up in a presumption of “religion” as the perpetrator, which is an idea I’ve come to associate with people who don’t know what they’re talking about (see my Religion & Asexuality Overview if you can’t guess why), but with that being said, as I proceed on this topic, I do want to acknowledge that, for various reasons, there are people who have been made to repress their true patterns of attraction.

Problem is, that characterization leaves out half the picture.

Heteronormativity doesn’t just tell people to suppress, ignore, deny, and feel ashamed of same-gender romantic and sexual attractions.  It also demands that people express, uplift, proclaim, and perform cross-gender romantic and sexual attractions.

This is why I find “repression”, as a model, to be insufficient for articulating the experience of internalized, oppressive norms.  It’s only one part of what goes on.  And what do we call the rest?

What do we call the inverse of repression, the internalized compulsory sexuality — not just the pressure to perform, but the pressure to believe in the necessity of one’s own allo(hetero)sexuality?  If we have a word for suppressing what exists, for burying and shoving it down, then what word can we use for artificially trying to fill an absence, for projecting a mask and trying to sculpt something out of the void?

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that repression doesn’t exist, but I also don’t think it’s sufficient to legitimize that term without contrasting it with another, as if to imply that internalized heterosexism can only manifest in this one way.  That’s why I want to ask y’all for help in thinking about this, in finding a better way to name an experience that is about an artifice of presence rather than (or in addition to) an artifice of absence.

19 responses to “On Repression and Oppression Terminology

  • maralaurey

    I’ve actually been trying to research the idea of sexual repression to see whether it has any actual scientific/psychological basis (other than in Freudian theory of course), and I can’t find anything. I’m not the best researcher/Google-user, I have to admit, but I still find it odd that there wasn’t even one discussion of what ‘repression’ actually is as a concept (ie whether it is generally seen as an unconscious mechanism that therefore could be used to ‘explain’ asexuality, or whether it’s just a form of denial or consciously deciding not to act on sexuality), let alone any research to see if it’s a thing that people actually do.

    I wonder whether we need to reduce these kind of large ideas of being repressed or forced to project heterosexuality into more component parts as well as finding words for the larger ideas (eg I’d like to be able to talk about my previous assumption that I was sexual with different language than when I talk about how I used ‘straight’ even though I figured I must be sort of bisexual, and what parts of my own brain and societal oppression affected these things, if that makes any sense).

    • Spade

      I’ve seen people talk about their own experiences with repression, so I’m inclined to believe it exists in some capacity, but I agree it’s a concept that could do with more scrutiny.

      And yeah, “internalized heteronormativity” is a good term, but it’s too broad for addressing nuance, unfortunately.

  • rimonim

    Great post. The first term that comes to my mind is compulsory heterosexuality, which I understand to encompass both subtle & overt performances.

    • Spade

      True, that does work to some extent, but as an umbrella term that would cover both repression and its inverse, whereas I’m searching for a word for specifically the inverse phenomenon.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Hmm. I’d say just “sexual pressure” if that weren’t such a broad term with other likely meanings. Sexual compulsion?

  • siphilemon

    What about “social sexuality”? The “social” distinction puts it pretty solidly into the realm of interpersonal interaction and when coupled with the concept you’re trying to express “social” takes on the connotations of ‘mask’ and ‘trying to fit in’ and performing something that doesn’t match your personal or internal sexuality.

      • maralaurey

        Personally I feel like there needs to be another word in there to reiterate that it’s a pressure rather than just a normal way of socialising (I imagine people take queues from their peers about how to talk about sexuality anyway, even within heterosexuality). I want to suggest ‘social sexuality imitation’ but it’s both a mouthful and still doesn’t quite imply the societal pressure.

  • Grey Wanders

    Projection? As in, the hetero-norms are projected onto everyone, and everyone is expected to project a heteronormative image of themselves. There’s a nice symmetry in the two kinds of oppression being repression and projection.

  • Aqua

    Great job showing how gay, bi, ace and aro people are all affected by heterosexism, in different, but related ways, and that repressing any same-gender attractions is just one side of heterosexism.

    As for the inverse to repressing any same-gender attractions, what about “obligatory heterosexuality”? Or “obligatory performance of heterosexuality”? It sounds similar in meaning to compulsory heterosexuality, but using the word “obligatory” shows that there’s a sense of social obligation in performing cross-gender romantic and sexual attractions.

    • siphilemon

      I could be wrong, but I think in Gender and Women’s Studies (one of my academic areas) “obligatory heterosexuality” and “compulsory heterosexuality” are used to mean the same thing.

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