Gender Freedom and Sexual Liberation: The St. Paul’s School Case

Gender freedom is a special case of human rights, long overdue, finally recognized; sexual liberation may sound the same, but is very different. It has no standing (as I see it) in human-rights doctrine. This article may well affront CP contributors and readers, for it challenges what over the last half-century and more has been identified with radicalism—and to me suggests a Pop Marxism which diverts attention from and falsifies a democratic social order and the democratization of power. There have been many who have mounted the sexual barricades to (naturally) wide acclaim, such as Wilhelm Reich, but I am familiar with only one deserving my respect, Herbert Marcuse, who attempted the reconciliation of Freud and Marx in Eros and Civilization (and an embarrassing follow-up, in Essay on Liberation).

I briefly knew and always respected Marcuse, chiefly for his Reason and Revolution, which, along with Leonard Kreiger’s The German Idea of Freedom, made a serious contribution to the understanding of Marx’s concept of alienation (the bee in my bonnet for over a decade, reinforced by my friendship with Fritz Pappenheim, whose less well-known classic, The Alienation of Modern Man, deserves a wider hearing). This for starters, because right off the bat one sees since the 1950s, dissatisfaction registered yet not quite actualized as social protest against the stultification and hypocrisy of Western civilization. McCarthyism, the Cold War, these were symptomatic of underlying pressures forcing, or attempting to, a rigid conformity in America, opponents of which gravitating toward the sexualization of Marx as a somewhat easy way of striking back.

Marcuse was more serious than that, but failed to transcend the social context of incipient radicalism, the libido becoming for him the energy field indicating nonalienated self-expression. Psychoanalytic insights (and accompanying jargon) notwithstanding, this I suggest—but not at the time—is a betrayal not only of Marx but also the reality if democratic socialism, working-class emancipation, and a reconstruction of social values were ever to be achieved. Why? In large part because sexuality is not an autonomous life force impervious to social system. It is shaped, i.e., the particular form it takes, by the societal/historical context in which it is found. In America, and the St. Paul’s School is a perfect example, in this case reaching down into the person’s teens, sexual liberation is one-sided gratification, or to be blunt, simply a mode of domination, integral to the hierarchical structuring of advanced capitalism.

Where Marcuse goes wrong is in failing to recognize that sexual liberation in a setting which, like America, promotes inequality as its systemic purpose and primary engine of growth, can only result in the distortion of human relations, mutuality of any sort denied legitimacy as a step to socialism. Marx had better things to be concerned with, raising living standards via an equitable system of production, the mobilization of a society’s resources to meet its people’s needs, the peeling away of false consciousness, as in commodity fetishism, so that the individual could discover her/his true self—all of which, until civilization learns to treat every human being with dignity, makes of sexual liberation self-indulgence pure and simple, and reproduces and/or recapitulates in microcosm the very traits of structure and personality which have supported domination and alienation.

Sexuality is not an escape from, but the very mirror of, society. Before one speaks of its liberation, recognize first the degree of its politicization, and under the societal regimen of advanced capitalism what comes to the fore is a command mentality, the equation of virility and machismo, masculine pride, masculinity, and power, an ethos of war and dominance from which condition personhood is meaningless and cruelty, in various degrees of disguise, is present. How therefore does this differ from gender freedom, a cause which on the whole, I will argue, is the progressive embodiment of personhood, although, in ways not entirely anticipated, also furthering sexual liberation as an invidious tool of male dominance.

One’s sexual orientation is a personal matter and, provided it does not harm, through taking advantage of, another, whether a minor, one non compos mentis, or in a dependent state on the other, it should not be subject to social, economic, or legal discrimination, and instead it should enjoy the full protection of the law as part of the constellation of human rights with which each person is endowed. This has been long in coming, and, understandably, both the definition of sexual orientation has widened and agitation on its behalf has at times been off-the-wall. (I am not a fan of exhibitionism and prefer an ascetic cast, which I think conveys greater endurance and determination: Dignity scares hell out of the oppressor because it works to upset expectations of humiliation. But that is only a personal aside, just as I urge football players I’ve known not to showboat after scoring a touchdown.)

Gay pride is an intermediate step which hopefully a second generation, amicably settled into the social fabric, will not have to demonstrate, acceptance having already followed. The same for permutations on the theme of gender freedom, in all, a status of legitimation testifying to the human dimensions of the social order. But before we turn to the St. Paul’s School, I must enter certain reservations about gender freedom and its overlap with sexual liberation in which neither movement or social development is conducive to the democratization of society. First, gender freedom alone: It is not necessarily a progressive social force. Personhood by definition is not one size fits all, but can be infinitely varied. To be gay, for example, is not necessarily a sign that one has a radical position on political economy, foreign policy, or civil rights. Quite the contrary gays often tend to concentrate on the single issue, solipsistic fashion, while going about their business in the mundane workaday world. Interest politics rather than class politics appears the salient element in gay protest. (I say this not in blame, but merely, one must avoid simplistic heroics in order to suit, or wish into existence, a desired profile.) Gays like others are people demographically spread all over the place. Yet they also contribute to a false vision of radicalism and radical possibilities.

Sexual orientation becomes the key marker in the evaluation of social systems—not, specifically as in capitalism and central to its fundamental critique, imperialism, war/intervention, the class system and the rights and conditions of working people (in contradistinction to a concentration of wealth and power), and myriad other interrelated elements from alienation to the reification of ideological themes and material objects. From that perspective, one—i.e., I—would hold back recognition of cultural and legal status, however warranted, until gays themselves joined the comprehensive struggle for human-economic-racial equality and entertained the belief in a socialist commonwealth of law and social justice. That, from my albeit limited observation, is not happening, nor given the trajectory of protest is likely to happen.

Rather, a me too-ism seems to be prevailing, with sexual liberation the antecedent social force (if we can speak of it thusly) breaking ground for gender freedom in its own right. The two have much in common, not the obvious sexual factor, but the apolitical dimension of self-indulgent purpose. Sexual liberation, like gender freedom, is hardly subversive in or to the structure and paradigm of advanced capitalism. Earlier would have been a far different story, for each would be feared as an intractable element undermining work discipline and discipline in general. That does not mean, however, that either at the present stage of capitalist development constitutes a systemic, class, or even cultural threat. Capitalism easily absorbs both, adding insult to injury by commercializing them and using them as evidence of capitalism’s spirit of toleration and humaneness. Sexual liberation, in particular, is an ideal diversion, an amusing narcotic which distracts attention and analysis from a sordid national record of high unemployment, intensive capital accumulation, and xenophobic attitudes (complementing exceptionalism) of immigrants and the outside world (except for purposes of investment).

While gender freedom does not rule out a thoroughgoing radicalism, sexual liberation, paying lip service to that goal, leads to the objectification of the human personality, for all concerned, as outlets for gratification and, in masturbation (part of the syndrome), the individual. Is this a plea for abstinence, or some blue-stocking retrograde schema? Hardly, I am merely seeking to disentangle sexuality per se from capitalism, which cheapens and impersonalizes it as it does practically everything else. Sexuality = domination, liberation only meaningful when society rids itself of hierarchy. Otherwise, the system reproduces its internalities, large and small, in every way, most especially its social relationships. Likewise, gender freedom loses its aura within capitalism because it cannot divest itself of capitalistic contamination in other areas of life not directly related to the love-relationship, as in a callousness toward the problems of humanity as a whole.

‘Nuff said. I am sketching the context for the social travesty that has occurred and is occurring at the St. Paul’s School. I say is, because even from this one case study, we still have “senior salute,” which according to the New York Times (Aug. 18) is “a school ritual in which older students proposition younger ones for as much intimacy as they can get away with: a kiss, touching, or more.” In the case before the New Hampshire court, apparently considerably more, the senior, 18 at the time, on his way to Harvard, to study theology, the girl a freshman, 15, flattered to be included in the senior-salute ritual. I do not prejudge the facts in the case, whether there was penetration, consent, fear, humiliation, feelings of degradation on her part (thus far, despite loaded questioning from defense counsel—answer yes or no! planting in the jurors’ minds all manner of lascivious hypotheticals, her testimony appears brave and credible). Instead, I don’t want to lose sight of St. Paul’s institutionalized elitism and arrogance, wherein the charge of rape is swallowed up in the framework of privilege. And beyond St. Paul’s there is the selfsame upper-class swagger of entitlement to power over others, the remainder of society. This does not have to eventuate in individual cases of rape; perhaps worse is the collective appropriation, often secured through military means, of the world’s wealth produced by its working people, a more figurative instance of rape, ongoing and systematic.

St. Paul’s issued this statement (Aug. 17) on its website: “Allegations about our culture are not emblematic of our school or our values, our rules, or the people that represent our student body, alumni, faculty and staff.” No further comment. Still, we have senior salute, we have the key passed on from senior class to senior class of a darkened machinery room gained from a rooftop where the trysts take place, we have the culture of submission, young girls fearful of ruining their reputations, including that of making no waves which might upset classmates or the School.

I am in no position to indict St. Paul’s nor is that my wish, but I can’t help recording that matters were not always thus, the cocksureness of the American elite, the moral opaqueness of those in authority charged with training this elite in their youth—an attitude passed on to them as they take their places in the financial-industrial-political ranks of leadership and the foreign policy establishment. If St. Paul’s was like Groton in the latter years of the 19th century, as I suspect it was, none of this culture of privileged promiscuity would be happening today. When FDR was a Groton student, under the headmaster, Rev. Endicott Peabody, the boys led an ascetic life, slept on hard beds, and each night, I believe in the school library, lined up to shake hands individually with Rev. Peabody before retiring. Privilege? Wealth? When Franklin became President and was asked by a reporter to the effect, aren’t you alarmed at all the socialistic legislation you are creating, his reply (again in paraphrase), “Oh, no, for those were Groton ideals.” Could anyone say that today, drawn from an upper class of tawdry attainment, unmindful of social responsibility, as Rev. Peabody would have it, vacuous as well as vicious, as “senior salute” at St. Paul’s indicates so well? When the School has no further comment about the current trial, we know what to expect from America’s elite.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at