Eating Disorders Information (EDI)

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"Compulsory promiscuousness" and the sexual revolution

Posted by a.marlow on October 14, 2012 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (0)

It is a common train of feminist thought that anorexia and related disorders represent a flight from the sexual objectification of the female body. However, it might be that this analysis misses the wood for the trees and ignores a far wider phenomenon.

That, at least, is the suggestion of Young-Bruehl who, writing in the 1993 edition of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, accuses feminism of being blind to a wider culture of over-sexualisation, where children grow up under the "tyranny of youthful sexual experimentation". The accusation is that, as an ideology that grew up in the heady days of the 1960s sexual revolution, it is loathe to criticise it in its totality, instead taking the specific effects of this revolution on women and ignoring its effects on young people in general.

If feminism identifies a cultural imperative on women and girls to conform to the thinness of the model and the generosity of the mother, then Young-Bruehl suggests we might need to also consider the equally pervasive cultural imperative on young people in general to have sex. It may seem strange to some people that this would be experienced as an imperative- after all, doesn't everyone want sex? How is this an imperative rather than liberation?

Yet such thinking ignores the fact that being sexually active is experienced as something obligatory by many teenagers. The worst thing in the world is to be a virgin. Sex has become a rite of passage, a route into adulthood- and some people just aren't ready for that when they hit puberty. For some people, the idea of sex itself is terrifying, and this might, suggests Young-Bruehl, manifest itself in an eating disorder: for when one is anorexic, one almost becomes desexualised. Below a certain weight, teenage girls stop having periods. Losing weight means a flattening of the chest and, perhaps, a loss of sexual interest from others. In the end, her body might resemble that of a child more than it does that of a woman- and to someone frightened by the very thought of sex, or by growing up in general, that is a comfort.

This kind of idea had already been identified by feminism- in Orbach's book "Fat is a Feminist Issue", she describes becoming obese and becoming anorexic as two different responses to the same fear of becoming sexually objectified. Yet Young-Bruehl's insight is that this kind of fear can come not just through the tyranny of feminism's Female Beauty Ideal, but also through the general experience of being a child in a sexualised world.


Young-Bruehl, E., 1993. "On feminism and psychoanalysis - in the case of anorexia nervosa", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10(3), 317-330