Inside the Mind of the Professional-Managerial Class, Part Four: Notes on the Sex Recession

Can one claim to practice analytic therapy when sexuality no longer threatens the smooth functioning of the rational ego?

Inside the Mind of the Professional-Managerial Class, Part Four: Notes on the Sex Recession

In this series (see Parts I, II, and III), our resident Bay-Area psychotherapist takes us to the depths of the professional-managerial class psyche. Consider her the Virgil to your Dante.

The following clinical material is fictional, based on composite experience.

Miranda, a tech executive in her mid-thirties, spent a year in treatment before mentioning sex. She sought therapy for anxiety, low self-esteem, and workaholism. We spent hours discussing her rigorous job and her futile efforts at improving boundaries and time-management. She feels overwhelmed and constantly burned out, inundated with various streams of messages, juggling scores of meetings and tasks. Her husband of two years struggles with similar difficulties and sex seems simply a non-issue—nothing much to remark upon. “We should probably have sex more often,” she sighs, “but it’s also fine. We’re both so tired. We just want to watch Netflix and collapse. It’s not especially satisfying, but it works. I have so little left at the end of the day.”

Adam, a 25-year-old patient seeking help with chronic depression, remarks on the disquieting ease of his life: “I go for a run in this beautiful park, I work from the comfort of my home, I make more money than I know what to do with, I order meals on my phone delivered to my doorstep… nothing is challenging, I feel so bored. Everything is great in theory, and I just want it to stop. I know this is weird, but I feel exhausted all the time.” Adam lives with his boyfriend of several years, but like Miranda, beyond the occasional titillating app, sex is not really on his radar.

When I first started my private practice, I reasoned that lamentations about lack of time and energy for sex signaled some sort of repression; with time and skill, I would learn the relational dynamics, longings, fantasies, and fears underneath. In analytic theory, sexuality exceeds need, pleasure, and most especially reason. Sexuality signals desire: a potent, disruptive force rooted in perpetual lack, at once constitutive and empty, painful and pleasurable, impelling continual defiance of the ego. In Jacqueline Rose’s words, “sexuality, in its capacity to unsettle the subject, is a break against the intolerable limits of common sense.”

But more often than not, I find there is nothing to interpret, no thing beneath the surface. Urgently disruptive sexuality seems to have gone missing.

The much-discussed “sex recession” is a broad social trend that cuts across class lines: the increased use of digital technology and social media, psychopharmacology and substance abuse, and ever dimmer political and economic prospects for anyone under 40 have all contributed to a generalized sexual deflation. But for the PMC, it bears a particular inhumanity—almost a desire to no longer have desire—that is in need of explanation.

The societal repressiveness against which Freud’s bourgeois patients symptomatically rebelled seems no longer necessary to quell the subversive violence of sexuality. PMC culture has moved from prohibition to permission; from a moral economy of should to a moral economy of can, with guilt and shame displaced by anxiety and perfectionism. The self has been refashioned as a commodity to be optimally maintained and incessantly improved upon. Spontaneous, organic bodily aliveness is preemptively displaced by a prescriptive, performative pseudo-vitality of self-surveillance and self-control. What need is there for repression?

In traditional psychoanalytic thinking, sexuality is essential to the conscious and largely unconscious dynamics of lack and loss, longing and fantasy that structure psychic development. Desire forms through early experiences of disappointment; the frustrated child fantasizes and plots. Whatever its faults, repression fuels longing and transgression. The infantilized, perfectionistic, radically permitted PMC subject, manically shielded from lack and loss, flattens. Its tracked and controlled existence leaves no room for surprises. Even sex becomes boring.

Indeed, when my patients are having regular sex, it is often viewed as one more chore on the checklist, one further obligation to be anxiously policed and performed. Couples ask tensely, “What is normal? What’s healthy? Is twice a week alright?” They’ve turned sex into homework. One couple, with a school-aged child and very busy lives, has taken to scheduling sex: Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Sunday involves an extended session, including foreplay and “emotional intimacy.” Wednesday is a quicky: straight to the orgasm, stat. Cathartic release in the service of putative sexual health is a goal I hear discussed commonly.

Alice, for example, a typical twenty-something elite tech worker, feels attracted to John, her boyfriend of several years. She enjoys the release she derives from orgasm, but feels frustrated by his insistence on foreplay. “Why do we have to go through all that kissing and stuff? I’m like, yes, let’s have sex, but can we just have sex and be done with it?! Oral sex? I kinda hate it. I get so bored and impatient. I want to get on with my evening. I have things to do.” Alice understands that sex is something she is supposed to do, but wants to spend as little time on it as possible. It reminds me of many PMC patients’ approach to therapy: they have an idea that it’s good for them, they compliantly attend sessions, but ask me anxiously and often if they’re doing it right, and want it to be maximally efficient.

The two extremes of anxiously performing sex and just not having it align with a broader trend in PMC culture towards hyper- and hypo-arousal, with nothing in between. Individuals endeavor to contend with an existence that feels like altogether too much through grueling self-exploitative labor and/or numbing themselves to the point of annihilation. Human, bodily experience as a source of longing and pleasure feels increasingly foreign. The PMC consciously seek a robotic hyperdrive of maximal experience, and they unconsciously want a cessation of that experience, the sweet relief of “I can’t.”

For its beneficiaries, the ethos of neoliberalism may have finally vanquished the bedroom. My patients are too full for hunger, too awake for dreams, too perfect for sex.

Lizzie Warren, PsyD, meanwhile, remains in SF, locking herself in to lose herself in Facebook.