The totalitarian State wants to control all; it wants to own all that is human, and this includes the erotic, the sexual, and the romantic. By suppressing and controlling these elements in men and women, it hopes to obtain complete domination over every aspect of their humanity…
With the publication of Brave New World in 1932, a brave new vision of human sexuality emerged. How prescient author Aldous Huxley’s vision was has been confirmed by the increasing technological interventions in the area of the procreative power of the human species. These movements are well-known: nearly universal use of contraceptives or self-inflicted sterilization; laboratories dedicated to conceiving a child without any sexual act at all; genetic screening and selective abortion; and the list goes on.
These types of technological interventions at the time that Huxley wrote his book were hardly practicable, but were certainly feasible as a theoretical premise. How much Huxley thought his prophetic novel would actually become reality is anyone’s guess, but there is no denying that he saw things clearly even in the early 1930s, primarily that sexuality and procreation would be completely separated from one another. The classes of humans in Brave New World are strictly divided into the sterile (freemartins) and the fertile, and rigid rules regulate the behavior of each. Although sexual acts are strongly encouraged by the Government for all peoples (zealous promiscuity is the ideal), it also holds a monopoly on the procreation “industry.” The fertile segment of the population are expected to take regular doses of contraceptives stored in their Malthusian belts, and eventually their ovaries will be harvested for use in the Hatchery and Conditioning Centers.
This dystopian vision leads to a number of ironies intrinsic to the society that Huxley portrays. For example, on the one hand sexual promiscuity is encouraged at the earliest ages by directing children to engage in “erotic play” with one another. Those who refuse or feel uncomfortable about it are gently but firmly told that this is a normal and necessary part of their education. The purpose of such instruction is to normalize the children to eroticism so that it becomes as mundane as eating, exercising, or sleeping. The goal of the Brave New World is to empty the sexual act of its uniqueness and almost sacred character, and thus its power and dynamism. Why? It seems clear that true sexual attraction, and hence love, especially conjugal love, is an immense barrier to the social order that the Government desires to establish, because it creates exclusive relationships—husband and wife, parents and children—which threaten the stability of the perfectly-planned technological society. Authentic sexual relationships lead to marriage and families, the ultimate bulwarks against all totalitarian regimes.
The insidious attack on family life in Brave New World is further reinforced by certain taboos that have become a part of the children’s education. For example, the words “father” and “mother” are now considered obscene words, not fit to be spoken in polite company. “Everyone belongs to everyone else” is the motto, and any exclusive communities or monogamous sexual relationships pose a direct threat to the prevailing order. Huxley focuses so much on sexual relations in Brave New World because he is aware of the extraordinary power of erotic love; he is aware that any attempt to banalize it is swift and sure way to gain control over the hearts and minds of men and women. Since the State in Brave New World can not eradicate the erotic urge altogether, it decides to do the next best thing—that is, to empty it of its power through nauseating excess.
We will see below, when we turn to George Orwell’s novel 1984, that his State opts for the second solution—that is, to tries to obliterate the erotic urge as much as possible, even within marriage. In the society under Big Brother, sexuality is tolerated only as a means of producing more citizens for the Party. Any enjoyment of the sexual act is suppressed as much as possible, and young people are obliged to join the “Anti-Sex League.” Here we see two extremes that essentially meet at the same point. On the one hand, we have a society in which the erotic is promoted to excess, and therefore loses its meaning as an interpersonal mutual and exclusive bond between man and woman; the other extreme is a culture that attempts to prevent this bond from forming by annihilating as much as possible the erotic relationship between man and woman. The methods are the different, but the results are the same.
I would like to turn for a moment to another work of dystopian literature—one that predates both Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. It is a little known short story written by a Russian author named Nikolai Fyodorov called One Evening in 2217,[i] first published in St. Petersburg in 1906.
The story is a brief tale about a young woman’s life in a remote futuristic metropolis. Aglaya, the main character, is twenty-six years old, and is hounded by friends and her superior to do her duty to society and engage in sexual relations with a man. She is encouraged to attend a group interview, in which a smart, young, eligible bachelor will select ladies for his “harem.” All sexual relationships are causal and non-committal. It is considered a great honor for a woman to be selected by these successful men.
Aglaya, however, is less than enthusiastic about this whole process. In the words of Fyodorov, she:
She wanted a family, an old-fashioned family shut off in its own circle, tightly and indivisibly bound together, the kind of loving family one could only read about in historical novels. She looked at the strong, self-satisfied guys with hard muscles and smiling eyes whom she met at work, on the streets, in the theaters, at meetings and picnics, and she insisted despondently, “No, he’s not right. And he’s not right… him either….” The ease with which these fellows went from woman to woman, changing their affections, was almost an insult to her, it wounded her deeply.[ii]
Family life is a thing of the past. And with it, the monogamous, conjugal, indissoluble sexual relationship. One of the most eligible bachelors, named Karpov, gives a dissertation to an audience of adoring young women, entitled: “The Institution of the Family in Pre-Reform Europe”. It was, Fyodorov writes:
Magnificently written, and along with brilliant scientific erudition, its author also displayed significant talent in his clear, almost tangible descriptions of the family, that ancient closed cell that was the basis of past governments, the way a honeycomb is for a beehive…[iii]
Aglaya, after incessant badgering from others, finally agrees to attend one of Karpov’s group interviews.
More than twenty women and girls were already sitting in his bright, beflowered waiting room when Aglaya arrived, and each minute brought new ones. Some were obviously embarrassed and sat with their eyes down, hands folded. Others chatted in an undertone. The room was so crowded that there did not seem to be enough places for everyone who wanted to register with this striking celebrity, and the elevators kept bringing them up in ones, twos, and threes….
There were over fifty candidates. Karpov went to the middle of the room, offered a general bow to everyone present, and ran his eyes over faces and figures. There were absolutely no ugly ones. Everyone had her work number sewed on her shoulder, as always. Kaprov pulled out a small book with gilt edges and a tiny pencil, noted down several numbers, cast a last gaze over all the candidates, and bowed again, to everyone and no one.[iv]
Aglaya, bowing to the enormous pressure of those around her, finally agrees to go to Karpov’s house and do her “duty”.
Now, remembering that whole evening moment by moment, Aglalya felt like burying her face in her hands and sobbing loudly, shrieking until her whole body shook… It seemed to Aglaya that yesterday she had lost the dearest, the best thing in life, and that it could not be returned.[v]
Some days after her visit to Kaprov, Aglaya is at a friend’s house telling her story and her regrets. While she is there a man named Pavel visits. Pavel expresses himself in terms similar to Aglaya’s initial musings: He desires a wife, a family, love like in the old days. Aglaya and Pavel fall in love. But Aglaya feels herself completely unworthy of Pavel’s love after what she has done. In despair, she commits suicide by throwing herself off a platform.
To refer to sexual relations as a social duty may seem like a preposterous proposition, but a contemporary critic of the #MeToo movement has made a cogent argument that the prevailing sexual mores have more or less already achieved this end. Heather Mac Donald, writing for City Journal in an essay entitled “Policing Sexual Desire,” states:
Sex is the realm of the inarticulate and irrational, inherently fraught with “fear,” “shame,” and “guilt.” Sexual seduction is carried on through ambiguity and indirection; exposing that ambiguity to light, naming what may or may not be going on, is uncomfortable and risks denial and rejection. “Dangerously outdated gender norms” are not what make it difficult to say no to sexual advances; contemporary gender norms have confused these already fraught situations. Traditional mores set the default for premarital sex at “no,” at least for females. This default recognized the different sexual drives of males and females and the difficulties of bargaining with the male libido. The default “no” to premarital sex meant that a female did not have to negotiate the refusal with every opportuning male; it was simply assumed. She could, of course, cast aside the default assumption; that was her power and prerogative. But she did not have to provide reasons for shutting down a sexual advance.
Sexual liberation reversed those default settings. The default is now “yes” to premarital sex; it is a “no” that has to be extricated in media res.[vi]
This reversal of the default to “yes” with regard to premarital sex is not unlike the social duty to engage in premarital affairs in Brave New World and One Evening in 2217. It is expected and encouraged to engage in sex outside of marriage. Those who refuse or are reluctant to engage in such behavior are ostracized and considered abnormal and psychologically unsound.
Chastity, although it is not mentioned by name explicitly in these stories, is a vice and a threat to totalitarian society. This same virtue, which in past ages was considered to be the strongest and surest way to ensure rightly-ordered relationships between men and women and which provided the greatest stability to the family unit and society, is now considered to undermine society. The totalitarian State wants to control all; it wants to own all that is human, and this includes the erotic, the sexual, and the romantic. By suppressing and controlling these elements in men and women, it hopes to obtain complete domination over every aspect of their humanity.
Orwell’s vision of State control over sexuality, although similar in certain respects, also differs from that of Huxley and Fyodorov in important ways. 1984 is a world of hyperbolic puritanism. It is strongly suspicious of erotic love. It sees it as something outside of its sphere of influence, beyond its control. After Winston and Julia’s first tryst, Winston thinks:
In the old days, a man looked at a girl’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
The concept of the freely chosen sexual act—not done out of “duty” to the State or society—but done because the personal force of love, of attraction, is given free rein, is the ultimate rebellion against the Party in Orwell’s dystopian world. In a world in which human relationships are strictly controlled by the State, in which there is no such thing as a “personal” act, the manifestation of eros as a personal choice is considered dissident. It is true, Orwell treats eroticism differently in a number of ways than his predecessors Huxley and Fyordorov. For example, there is little sense of the marital and procreative aspect of sexuality in 1984, aspects that play such an important part in the other two stories. Orwell seems to detach sexuality from its inextricable link with family and children. In his world, erotic pleasure becomes an end in itself. It represents a potent, intense personal force that allows Winston and Julia, living under the repressive regime of Big Brother, to experience real pleasure and joy. But there is little sense that eros transcends its own inner-logic to achieve a higher and more transcendent goal. Eros, left to its own devices, without any moral code to restrain and guide it, is just as destructive to authentic humanism as the repressive regime of Big Brother. Orwell appears to miss this point.
In One Evening in 2217 and Brave New World, authentic sexuality is especially feared because it creates exclusive relationships between one man and one woman, relationships which are, by definition, outside the domination of the state. These exclusive relationships tend towards marriage: an indissoluble bond, instituted by the Creator himself, and unalterable by any human laws. And marriage, which is the proper domain of the sexual act, gives rise to children and family. It is the family that is the common enemy of all dystopian societies. Parents, as the primary educators of their children, raise them, teach them, guide them, love them. The State refers to this as “indoctrination” and realizes that the family is the greatest obstacle to its own ideological agendas. It also realizes that the love that exists in the family creates loyalties that are above those of the State or Party. These types of loyalties simply cannot coexist within the totalitarian society.
Orwell is not completely oblivious to this power of the family as a means of political resistance. In 1984, the family is considered necessary for the upbringing of children, but children are quickly indoctrinated by the Party to turn against their parents.
The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account. They had played a similar trick with the instinct of parenthood. The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.
The fact that Orwell misses the link between the erotic and family life is regrettable. His pièce de résistance would have been more formidable if he had linked the two. It is essentially only in the context of marriage and family that the erotic becomes a “Political Act” of resistance, as he puts it. Perhaps he understood the limits of the merely erotic as a means of rebellion, when, at the end of the novel, Winston ultimately caves into his torturers and betrays Julia.
Erotic love is at the forefront of all three of the stories that I have examined. This is because it is a human reality that no society is able to ignore. Societies and governments are always faced anew with the task of how they are going to address this force. What restrictions, if any, should be placed on it? Should it be promoted, repressed, guided, or given complete free rein? No political or social structure, no matter how primitive or advanced, ignores this question. As the dystopian literature surveyed in this essay makes clear, erotic love can be used as both a means to control the masses, or as a means of revolt against the totalitarian State. It never exists, however, as a merely neutral force. It is too important a part of human nature. Its positive force is revealed especially in that mutual attraction between man and woman that leads to family life. There it establishes the bonds that are unbreakable and that transcend the political order. This self-giving love is indeed the greatest threat to any State or Party that would want to make everything that is truly human in man and woman its own.
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[i] Nikolai Fyodorov (not to be confused with another author of the same name who lived from 1828-1903), has a mostly untraceable biography. In the preface to the volume containing “One Evening in 2217” (St. Petersburgh: Gerold, 1906), the author is described as a Christian anti-socialist. The story appears in English translation in Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction. (Howell, Yvonne (Ed.). Russian Life Books, 2015. Montpelier, VT. Translation into English by James von Geldern and Anne O. Fisher)
[ii] Ibid. 89-90.
[iii] Ibid. 90.
[iv] Ibid. 91.
[v] Ibid. 92.
[vi] Mac Donald, Heather. “Policing Sexual Desire: The #MeToo movement’s impossible premise.” City Journal. January 14, 2018.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Romeo and Juliet” by Ford Madox Brown, and is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.