The psychiatric profession observed the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s birth on May 6. My modest proposal for the event is to exhume his body and put a stake through his heart. Freud’s Viennese contemporary Karl Kraus quipped that psychoanalysis was “a disease posing as a cure.” Kraus was closer to the truth than he could have imagined.

No one did more than Freud to reduce women to sexual objects, a condition against which women rebel by seeking to destroy the objectified body. Epidemic self-destructiveness has reached proportions that are difficult to grasp. Eating disorders reportedly threaten the lives of 10 million American women. [1] “Anorexia or bulimia in florid or sub-clinical form now afflicts 40% of women at some time in their college career,” wrote the journal Psychology Today. [2]

Self-harm often accompanies self-starvation, and millions of these women also mutilate themselves. One study claims that up to one in seven British adolescents self-harms, but up to half of those enmeshed in the “Goth” subculture do so. In the US, a recent survey of 1,000 pupils at one secondary school found that one-quarter had deliberately harmed themselves. [3] Some British hospitals dispense “self-harm kits,” including razors and antiseptics.

What impels so many young people in Anglo-Saxon countries toward slow-motion suicide? It is easy to blame the undernourished wraiths who haunt the runways of the fashion industry for disseminating a twisted ideal of beauty that lures young women into anorexia. But that cannot be a complete explanation, because anorexics starve themselves into extreme ugliness, and in many cases mutilate themselves as well. These women are not enhancing their bodies, but rejecting them altogether.

Freud claimed to have discovered the source of all neurosis in the repression of the sexual impulse, or libido. In fairness, Freud did not think repression was a bad thing, for without it society would disintegrate. The object of psychoanalysis was not to spread universal joy, but to proceed “from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness.” He did not count on the adolescent narcissism of the 1960s, when the complacent and affluent youth of the industrial world demanded something better than ordinary unhappiness. Freud provided the ideological foundation for the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, and popularized versions of his theory dominated popular culture.

All the major religions of the world attempt to sanctify the family; Freud sought to expose it as a hypocritical viper’s nest of neurosis. Religion, he taught, totemized power relations; God was the projected form of the castrating father. The mother provides sexual pleasure to the infant she nurses, whose initial polymorphous perverse sexuality focuses upon the mother; the authority of the father then represses the son’s sexual fixation on the mother through the threat of castration, while little sister laments the lack of a penis. Such a chamber of horrors cannot be entrusted with the upbringing of children, the left interpreted Freud. Sexuality must be severed from reproduction, through abortion, equal status for homosexuality, and so forth.

Few psychiatrists today defend Freud’s sexual derivation of neurosis, but the damage was done. Sexual liberation remains the core of the social agenda of the left. In US politics, the most embittered battles are fought over gay marriage and abortion, not war and taxes. For adolescents in the industrial world, however, the battle was lost a generation ago. Seeking a sexual outlet in the companionship of one’s peers now is more common than the search for romantic attachments among American adolescents. New York Times journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis reported in a 2004 feature:

Over the course of several months spent hanging out and communicating online with nearly 100 high-school students (mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class suburban and exurban teenagers from the northeast and Midwest), I heard the same thing: hooking up is more common than dating …

A 2001 survey conducted by Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that of the 55% of local 11th-graders who engaged in intercourse, 60% said they’d had sex with a partner who was no more than a friend. That number would perhaps be higher if the study asked about oral sex. While the teen intercourse rate has declined – from 54% in 1991 to 47% in 2003 – this may be partly because teenagers have simply replaced intercourse with oral sex. To a generation raised on MTV, AIDS, Britney Spears, Internet porn, Monica Lewinsky and Sex and the City, oral sex is definitely not sex (it’s just ”oral”), and hooking up is definitely not a big deal. [4]

Women enter adolescence with the expectation that they will be used but not loved. Men no longer need to feign affection to receive sexual favors; they merely need ask. It is no surprise that young women have come to despise their bodies, some to the point of destroying them. Women can expect only a brief flowering of beauty before age and child-bearing attenuate their sexual attraction. The love of a life partner, the shared love of their children, the honor of the community and the knowledge that the human life cycle is linked to something eternal are the consolations to women for the loss of their beauty.

Sexual objectification, I wrote elsewhere (Women as priests? Women never forgive anything!, April 27, 2005), makes women paranoid:

Whether this is a cultural quirk subject to eventual remedy or a characteristic of humankind since the Fall is a different matter. Adolescent girls suffer the most. The therapists talk of “low self-esteem,” but this amounts to uncertainty as to what features of a developing form will attract the opposite sex. If a woman succeeds in manipulating a man on the strength of her value as a sexual object, she never can be sure that another woman will not (or has not already done) the same thing with greater success. The most attractive woman in the world is a miserable creature, as Giuseppe Verdi’s Princess Eboli lamented, because her physical presence will overwhelm any other perception of her in the eyes of men. When age eventually destroys her beauty, she will be left with nothing at all.

Having cured society of repression by making sexual pleasure a commodity, enlightened opinion is shocked, shocked to discover an epidemic of depression. In consequence some 70 million Americans have taken anti-depressants. Psychotropic drugs, I hasten to add, work miracles for many who suffer from imbalances of brain chemistry, and I mean no criticism of psychopharmacology in general. But the vast numbers involved suggest that a spiritual ailment is epidemic for which anti-depressants cannot be the solution.

To whom do families turn when a child starves or mutilates herself? There is nowhere to turn but to the psychiatric profession, the “disease posing as a cure.” That is not only an exaggeration, but thoroughly unfair: thousands of well-meaning therapists, including many with strong religious convictions, seek daily to keep children from destroying themselves, and I do not mean to diminish their contributions. But the prevalent notion that self-destructive behavior stems from a malfunction in adolescent brain chemistry, or an idiosyncratic neurotic disorder, does not square with the epidemic manifestation of symptoms.

The therapeutic community has perfectly valid explanations for anorexia and self-harm at the individual level. But it reminds me of a doctor who explains with great precision how a metal object has passed through your body wreaking damage on various organs without also mentioning that the city in which you live is subject to aerial bombardment. Without addressing the cultural catastrophe, the therapeutic profession will be hard put to save many of the individuals.

If Freud were allowed a rejoinder, doubtless he would remind us of the “death drive” that he purported to discover in the human psyche in the aftermath of World War I. Perhaps he would blame the “death drive” for the morbid refusal to reproduce that condemns most of the industrial world to depopulation and eventual extinction, not to mention the epidemic of suicide attacks in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The trouble with the “death drive” is that some people seem to have one and others don’t. With a sexual “life force” and a “death drive” (which Freud attributed to a desire to return to mother’s womb), you can explain everything and nothing.

Human beings are not beasts content with daily fodder and rutting in season. To be sentient is to be sentient of one’s mortality. The status of wife and mother in a family within a community offers women an honored position and a link to the eternal. Sexual objectification leaves women with a foretaste of death, and it should be no surprise that Freud’s program drives women into deadly behavior.

It will take long and painful efforts to repair the damage, but putting a stake through the old reprobate’s heart is not a bad way to begin.

1. Statistics: Eating Disorders and their Precursors, National Eating Disorders Association.
2. Psychology Today, November/December 2004, p 62.
3. Self-harm study takes top prize, Knoxville News Sentinel, April 26.
4. Friends, friends with benefits and the benefits of the local mall, New York Times Magazine, May 30, 2004.

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