'Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness' by Sigmund Freud (1908)

A selection from Die Kulturelle Sexualmoral und Die Moderne Nervositat ('Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness) by Sigmund Freud, 1908.

Note: many of the themes which appear here are taken up again by Freud in his Civilization and its Discontents [see here for a selection].

In his recently published book, Sexual Ethics, Von Ehrenfels (1907) dwells on the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘civilized’ sexual morality. By natural sexual morality we are to understand, according to him, a sexual morality under whose dominance a human stock is able to remain in lasting possession of health and efficiency, while civilized sexual morality is a sexual morality obedience to which, on the other hand, spurs men on to intense and productive cultural activity.

It is not difficult to suppose that under the domination of a civilized sexual morality the health and efficiency of single individuals may be liable to impairment and that ultimately this injury to them, caused by the sacrifices imposed on them, may reach such a pitch that, by this indirect path, the cultural aim in view will be endangered as well. And Von Ehrenfels does in fact attribute a number of ill-effects to the sexual morality which dominates our Western society to-day, ill-effects for which he is obliged to make that morality responsible; and, although he fully acknowledges its high aptitude for the furtherance of civilization, he is led to convict it of standing in need of reform. In his view, what is characteristic of the civilized sexual morality that dominates us is that the demands made on women are carried over to the sexual life of men and that all sexual intercourse is prohibited except in monogamous marriage. Nevertheless, consideration of the natural difference between the sexes makes it necessary to visit men’s lapses with less severity and thus in fact to admit a double morality for them. But a society which accepts this double morality cannot carry ‘the love of truth, honesty and humanity’ (Von Ehrenfels, ibid. 32 ff.) beyond a definite and narrow limit, and is bound to induce in its members concealment of the truth, false optimism, self-deception and deception of others.

Among the damaging effects which are here laid at the door of civilized sexual morality,...[is] the increase traceable to it of modern nervous illness - of the nervous illness, that is, which is rapidly spreading in our present-day society. [...] ...above all, nerve specialists themselves have loudly proclaimed the connection between ‘increasing nervous illness’ and modern civilized life. The grounds to which they attribute this connection will be shown by a few extracts from statements that have been made by some eminent observers.

W. Erb (1893):

‘The original question, then, is whether the causes of nervous illness that have been put before you are present in modern life to such a heightened degree as to account for a marked increase in that form of illness...
‘This is already clearly demonstrated by a number of general facts. The extraordinary achievements of modern times, the discoveries and inventions in every sphere, the maintenance of progress in the face of increasing competition - these things have only been gained, and can only be held, by great mental effort. The demands made on the efficiency of the individual in the struggle for existence have greatly increased and it is only by putting out all his mental powers that he can meet them. [...] The immense extension of communications which has been brought about by the network of telegraphs and telephones that encircle the world has completely altered the conditions of trade and commerce. All is hurry and agitation... . [...] City life is constantly becoming more sophisticated and more restless. The exhausted nerves seek recuperation in increased stimulation and in highly-spiced pleasures, only to become more exhausted than before.

‘This general description is already enough to indicate a number of dangers presented by the evolution of our modern civilization. Let me now fill in the picture with a few details.’

Binswanger (1896):

‘Neurasthenia in particular has been described as an essentially modern disorder, and Beard, to whom we are indebted for a first comprehensive account of it believed that he had discovered a new nervous disease which had developed specifically on American soil. This supposition was of course a mistaken one; nevertheless, the fact that it was an American physician who was first able to grasp and describe the peculiar features of this illness, as the fruit of a wide experience, indicates, no doubt, the close connections which exist between it and modern life, with its unbridled pursuit of money and possessions, and its immense advances in the field of technology which have rendered illusory every obstacle, whether temporal or spatial, to our means of intercommunication.’

Von Krafft-Ebing (1895):

‘The mode of life of countless civilized people exhibits nowadays an abundance of anti-hygienic factors which make it easy to understand the fateful increase of nervous illness; for those injurious factors take effect first and foremost on the brain. In the course of the last decades changes have taken place in the political and social - and especially in the mercantile, industrial and agricultural - conditions of civilized nations which have brought about great changes in people’s occupations, social position and property, and this at the cost of the nervous system, which is called upon to meet the increased social and economic demands by a greater expenditure of energy, often with quite inadequate opportunity for recuperation.’

The fault I have to find with these and many other similarly-worded opinions is not that they are mistaken but that they prove insufficient to explain the details in the picture of nervous disturbances and that they leave out of account precisely the most important of the aetiological factors involved. If we disregard the vaguer ways of being ‘nervous’ and consider the specific forms of nervous illness, we shall find that the injurious influence of civilization reduces itself in the main to the harmful suppression of the sexual life of civilized peoples (or classes) through the ‘civilized’ sexual morality prevalent in them.

Generally speaking, our civilization is built up on the suppression of instincts. Each individual has surrendered some part of his possessions - some part of the sense of omnipotence or of the aggressive or vindictive inclinations in his personality. From these contributions has grown civilization’s common possession of material and ideal property. [...] The renunciation has been a progressive one in the course of the evolution of civilization. The single steps in it were sanctioned by religion; the piece of instinctual satisfaction which each person had renounced was offered to the Deity as a sacrifice, and the communal property thus acquired was declared ‘sacred’. The man who, in consequence of his unyielding constitution, cannot fall in with this suppression of instinct, becomes a ‘criminal’, an ‘outlaw’,¹ in the face of society - unless his social position or his exceptional capacities enable him to impose himself upon it as a great man, a ‘hero’.

The sexual instinct... places extraordinarily large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity, and it does this in virtue of its especially marked characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing in intensity. This capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual..., is called the capacity for sublimation. [...] To extend this process of displacement indefinitely is, however, certainly not possible, any more than is the case with the transformation of heat into mechanical energy in our machines.

in man the sexual instinct does not originally serve the purposes of reproduction at all, but has as its aim the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure. It manifests itself in this way in human infancy... . ...the child’s upbringing has, in our view, the task of restricting it, because to linger in it would make the sexual instinct uncontrollable and unserviceable later on. [...] The forces that can be employed for cultural activities are thus to a great extent obtained through the suppression of what are known as the perverse elements of sexual excitation.

...where the sexual instinct is in general weak-- perverts succeed in totally suppressing the inclinations which bring them into conflict with the moral demands of... civilization.

Where the sexual instinct is fairly intense, but perverse, there are two possible outcomes. The first... is that the person affected remains a pervert and has to put up with the consequences of his deviation from the standard of civilization. The second is... that, under the influence of education and social demands, a suppression of the perverse instincts is indeed achieved, but it... can... be described as a suppression that has failed. The inhibited sexual instincts are, it is true, no longer expressed as such-- and this constitutes the success of the process-- but they find expression in other ways. [...] This constitutes the failure of the process... . [...] Neurotics are the class of people who, since they possess a recalcitrant organization, only succeed, under the influence of cultural requirements, in achieving a suppression of their instincts which is apparent and which becomes increasingly unsuccessful.

Experience teaches us that for most people there is a limit beyond which their constitution cannot comply with the demands of civilization. All who wish to be more noble-minded than their constitution allows fall victims of neurosis; they would have been more healthy if it could have been possible for them to be less good. [...] ...in many families the men are healthy, but from a social point of view immoral to an undesirable degree, while the women are high-minded and over-refined, but severly neurotic.

...a number of individuals are ruled out as perverts, and a number of others, who make efforts not to be perverts whilst constitutionally they should be so, are forced into nervous illness. It is easy to predict the result that will follow if sexual freedom is still further circumscribed and the requirements of civilization are raised to... ban all sexual activity outside legal marriage. The number of strong natures who openly oppose the demands of civilization will increase enormously, and so will the number of weaker ones who, faced with the conflict between the pressure of cultural influences and the resistance of their constitution, take flight into neurotic illness.

It may be asserted... that the task of mastering such a powerful impulse as that of the sexual instinct by any other means than satisfying it is one which can call for the whole of a man’s forces. Mastering it by sublimation, by deflecting the sexual instinctual forces away from their sexual aim to higher cultural aims, can be achieved by a minority and then only intermittently, and least easily during the period of ardent and vigorous youth. Most of the rest become neurotic or are harmed in one way or another. Experience shows that the majority of the people who make up our society are constitutionally unfit to face the task of abstinence. Those who would have fallen ill under milder sexual restrictions fall ill all the more readily and more severely before the demands of our cultural sexual morality of to-day... . The more a person is disposed to neurosis, the less can he tolerate abstinence; instincts which have been withdrawn from normal development... become at the same time all the more uninhibitable. But even those people who would have retained their health under the requirements of [an earlier] stage of civilization will now succumb to neurosis in great numbers. For the psychical value of sexual satisfaction increases with its frustration. The dammed-up libido is now put in a position to detect one or other of the weaker spots which are seldom absent in the structure of sexual life, and there to break through and obtain substitutive satisfaction of a neurotic kind in the form of pathological symptoms. Anyone who is able to penetrate the determinants of nervous illness will soon become convinced that its increase in our society arises from the intensification of sexual restrictions.

People say, to be sure, that the struggle against such a powerful instinct, and the strengthening of all the ethical and aesthetic forces which are necessary for this struggle, 'steel' the character; and this is true for a few specially favourably organized natures. [...] But in the vast majority of cases the struggle against sexuality eats up the energy available in a character... . [...] An abstinent artist is hardly conceivable; but an abstinent young savant is certainly no rarity. The latter can, by his self-restraint, liberate forces for his studies; while the former probably finds his artistic achievements powerfully stimulated by his sexual experience. In general I have not gained the impression that sexual abstinence helps to bring about energetic and self-reliant men of action or original thinkers or bold emancipators and reformers. Far more often it goes to produce well-behaved weaklings who later become lost in the great mass of people that tends to follow, unwillingly, the leads given by strong individuals.


Let us add that a restriction of sexual activity in a community is quite generally accompanied by an increase of anxiety about life and of fear of death which interferes with the individual’s capacity for enjoyment and does away with his readiness to face death for any purpose. A diminished inclination to beget children is the result, and the community or group of people in question is thus excluded from any share in the future. In view of this, we may well raise the question whether our ‘civilized’ sexual morality is worth the sacrifice which it imposes on us, especially if we are still so much enslaved to hedonism as to include among the aims of our cultural development a certain amount of satisfaction of individual happiness. It is certainly not a physician’s business to come forward with proposals for reform; but it seemed to me that I might support the urgency of such proposals if I were to amplify Von Ehrenfels’s description of the injurious effects of our ‘civilized’ sexual morality by pointing to the important bearing of that morality upon the spread of modern nervous illness.