Simmel, G. (1890/1892), Zur Psychologie der Frauen / Einiges über die Prostitution in Gegenwart und Zukunft, in: Dahme, H.J., Köhnke, K.C. (1985), Schriften zur Philosophie und Soziologie der Geschlechter, Frankfrut am Main: Suhrkamp.
A fascinating look into 19th century thinking about gender is provided by Georg Simmel’s essays about gender, starting with his essay about the psychology of women. Contrary to public opinion at the time, Simmel wrote it is impossible to find a uniform set of psychological traits that are specific to women as a group. He however did see a stronger sense of solidarity towards each other among women, e.g. in defense of one another against attacks or suspicion. Simmel writes that the equality of women's interests is a cause and consequence of their solidarity. Though women's lack of differentiation in the external world might suggest an inherent psychological difference between men and women, Simmel concludes that an individual's unique experiences play a greater role in shaping one's psychology than one's gender.
A common idea about women was that they lack the ability for logical thinking and are prone to making errors that stem from their emotional nature, i.e. by tending to letting their emotions cloud their judgment, and through this, distorting their perception of facts. Simmel suggests that though women can have different “material premises” that can cause them to think differently and be deceived by typical illusions. But he stresses that all sciences, including mathematics, have had logical errors at some point in their history, but these errors do not imply that they lack logic as a discipline. So, logical thinking is not all-important in speaking the truth. Simmel stresses that women's ability to think logically is often influenced by their psychological and social circumstances, e.g. especially in higher social classes, women’s education in the 19th century aimed to prepare them to interact with men, often forcing them to hide their true selves and pretend to be someone else.
The then commonly held belief that women's livelier emotions lead to their tendency to exaggerate is wrong, Simmel states. Instead, it is the lack of differentiation in their minds that makes them prone to exaggeration. This caused their relatively effortless surrender to ideas and emotions. Women's ability to understand opposing views, to take in different occasions for feeling, and to bring them into equilibrium prevents overemphasis in thinking and emotional life, according to Simmel. He thought that women's impulses are quicker and more direct, leading to faster decisions in practical matters, whereas men's judgments are the result of a slower, more reflective mental process. Simmel suggests that if the current state of women's work and competition were to change, it would have unpredictable consequences for women's emotional life.
Simmel writes that the lack of differentiation in the female psyche is the cause of the unjust stereotypes and prejudices about women. They emphasize that any attributes ascribed to women or denied of them should be seen as merely a small deviation from the average of male characteristics. The lack of interest among women in political life and their tendency towards a more concrete understanding of social relations is also attributed to the same lack of differentiation in the female psyche. Women were then less able to think and feel in higher abstractions, which hindered their integration into complex concepts. Women were also more inclined towards personal, concrete, and religious ideals like acts of kindness and individual charity than towards abstract, impersonal, and secular ones; i.e. broader social causes.
Simmel argues that customs, or social norms and conventions, provide a way for weaker individuals to seek support and protection from the stronger individuals in society. Customs create a certain level of equality between strong and weak individuals, which can even favor the weak; e.g. the chivalry of knights towards women. Women are driven to seek the support of customs because they are naturally weaker and require protection, Simmel writes.
Customs have both indirect and direct effects on individuals: they indirectly provide a safeguard against the natural inequalities that exist between individuals, protecting weaker individuals from being completely overwhelmed by the strong; they directly promote a certain level of equality between individuals. Customs can also have an effect on the psychological development of women, by providing a sense of security and support, which can contribute to their sense of identity and personal development. Simmel describes how customs can lead to a kind of instinctual behavior in individuals, where they are drawn to certain individuals or behaviors due to cultural conditioning.
Women were often unable to gain an understanding and interest in ideals that require higher levels of abstraction, such as science, higher political ideals, and a particular kind of morality that serves the larger society. Simmel suggests that this is because women are excluded from the direct pursuit of material gain and thus may seem more idealistic in comparison to men. Women may also appear to possess a sense of unity and innocence due to the greater similarity of their interests and their relative exclusion from the more specialized and differentiated domains of life. Simmel warns against mistaking the unity that appears to exist among women for a higher level of spirituality or morality, as true unity and spirituality come from the process of complete specialization and differentiation of one's abilities, which can then be recombined into a higher unity. Simmel notes that prolonged practice in conscious thinking and research can result in a certain unconsciousness in arriving at conclusions, which is valuable, but its worth depends on the psychological events that precede it.
The psychology of women is characterized by an undifferentiated and half-hidden quality that allows for idealization and optimism to flourish. This lack of differentiation between elements of the psyche can lead to the perception that women have unrealized potential, which may not be entirely accurate, as this state is part of the evolutionary process of the species. Women's undifferentiated state is often associated with potentiality rather than actuality, leading to the idea that women could have been more than they are, given the right circumstances. This undifferentiated state is also tied to women's physical constitution, which makes certain functions, such as childbirth and child-rearing, necessary and potentially limits their ability to take on physically demanding jobs, Simmel writes. An increase in differentiation among women may lead to greater opportunities for some but also means that others may be relegated to more specialized, traditional roles. Simmel argues that the push for women's emancipation needs to take into account the realities of women's physical and social constraints.
Simmel writes that the relative uniformity of women justifies the general assumption that a woman's sexual surrender is not partial but total in terms of mind, body, and will, indicating personal honor. However, the fact that the seducer is usually far from reciprocating such a total surrender undermines her personal honor since giving one's all while receiving only a part diminishes one's value as a person. Therefore, ethics generally uphold sexual submission only in marriage with genuine reciprocity, which maintains personal honor. Simmel contemplates the possibility of mutuality in extramarital sex, but the diversity of male behavior undermines this ideal of mutuality, and the “abject submission” that many women show in love should lower the judgment on female honor.
Women possess the quality of being able to win the enthusiasm of men for abstract and objective ideals, and they inspire men to pursue ideals that are dear to them. The development of female nature through the emotion of love leads to seemingly opposing phenomena. He quotes Stepnjak, a Russian nihilist, who argues that the subjugation of women can only occur through love and that, wherever women rise to assert their rights, they will demand free love, which is the first step to freedom from love.
Simmel discusses the importance of differentiation in relationships between genders. People are becoming increasingly individualistic, and the more differentiated individuals are, the more important it becomes to choose a partner who will produce the best possible offspring. There are no clear criteria for making this choice other than mutual attraction. Simmel argues that the decreasing frequency of marriage in modern times is not just due to economic factors and the availability of extramarital satisfaction, but also due to the increasing individualization of personality, which makes it more difficult to find a partner who complements one's differentiated qualities. The difficulty of finding a suitable partner is compounded by the fact that people are waiting longer to marry for economic reasons.
The more delicate a woman's sensitivity is, the more frequently she experiences the deferral of sexual pleasure to earlier stages of arousal, where the actual achievement of pleasure is no longer required for a sense of enjoyment. This helps explain the appeal of coquetry, as the mild stimulus and distant alluring gestures can already be pleasurable, leading to a psychological independence from the sexual purpose that originally inspired it. This shift can happen unnoticed, even by the woman herself, leading to the sense of a middle state between having and not having, which can add to the allure of coquetry. The anticipation of fulfillment and the excitement of potential refusal also contribute to the appeal of coquetry, especially for those with an egotistic nature, while the pleasure of oscillation between these two states contributes to the psychological allure of the game.
Coquetry in men is based on the belief in their own irresistibility or the interest of women in them. Therefore, a man who is coquettish is often arrogant and conceited, which is not necessarily true for coquettish women. Coquetry should be distinguished from the desire to please and captivate others, which is only one of the means of coquetry. The common translation of coquetry as "vanity" is incorrect and confused with the means and the end. The reversal of the usual relationship between genders makes a coquettish man particularly repulsive. It is psychologically interesting to observe that the abnormal often provokes the feeling of disgust, even if it is not disgusting in reality. Simmel suggests that this is why people have a repugnance towards prostitution. Coquetry is a method that women use to attract attention, and it is related to the gender roles and the social norms of the time. Simmel argues that a woman who is entirely without coquetry can seem unattractive and lacking in charm.
Simmel concludes by stating that to maintain a woman's attractiveness, there must be a certain reserve and reticence in her behavior. Women who give themselves up completely can become uninteresting, and their attraction may be lost once they give the impression that they have nothing left to give. Therefore, a woman should only give herself entirely or not at all, which is in line with the notion of the unity and wholeness of the female character.
Simmel’s thoughts on prostitution
Simmel discusses prostitution in the late 19th century. He criticizes the "good society" for condemning prostitution without acknowledging that it is often the result of societal conditions, such as poverty or lack of moral education. He argues that prostitutes do not willingly choose their profession but rather are often coerced into it by circumstance. Simmel dismisses the idea that prostitutes lead joyful lives, and instead characterizes their existence as one of extreme hardship and suffering. The then common term "pleasure girls" is misleading because these women do not derive pleasure from their work. The higher-end prostitution of the time, which catered to the wealthy and well-connected, was somewhat less brutal than street or brothel prostitution, but it still involved a great deal of coercion and exploitation.
Simmel asserted that society is too harsh on prostitutes and too lenient on other immoral activities such as theft. He suggests that this discrepancy is due to the fact that prostitutes are visible and stigmatized while other offenders are not. Simmel believes that society should be more understanding of prostitutes and should work to alleviate the conditions that drive women into this line of work.
In developed societies, where people become increasingly individualistic and money becomes more impersonal, the practice of buying the most personal and intimate experience - sex - with money is not only undignified, but also contributes to the arrogance of the wealthy and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The act of purchasing sex degrades both the buyer and the seller, and the disproportionate relationship between the value of the service and the price paid for it is a form of moral corruption that infects the society as a whole. The need for prostitution in developed societies is, according to Simmel, a result of the time gap between a man's sexual maturity and his intellectual, economic, and character development. The issue of prostitution cannot be properly understood or judged in isolation and should thus be viewed in the context of broader social and cultural factors.
As long as marriage exists, prostitution will also exist: Simmel suggests that only with the complete elimination of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy will there be no need for individuals dedicated to the sexual gratification of men. The monogamous marriage, with its obligation of fidelity, should only be entered into at an age where sexual drive has already been present for many years to avoid entering into frivolous or detrimental alliances. Men have a natural impulse for polygamy, and therefore, even with the elimination of economic difficulties, the monogamous marriage will still require a man who has had an opportunity for self-examination, not a budding youth. The expression of these natural impulses cannot be denied, leading to two possible outcomes: a pre-marriage free choice of partners or prostitution. The former is less likely as people become more developed and refined. Therefore, there will always be some women fulfilling the role of prostitutes. However, Simmel believes that as marriage becomes more intimate and personal, the need for a woman to involve sexually with other men.
The value of certain states of being, such as pleasure and suffering, is determined by our subjective interpretation of them, which is influenced by our past experiences and social conditions. Simmel argues that the social stigma attached to prostitution is a product of social norms and values, which may change in the future with e.g. the elimination of capitalism and its effects. Simmel suggests that the tragedy of prostitution can only be mitigated by seeing its victims as objects of social blame, rather than individual guilt. Simmel ends his discussion by exploring the possibility of a future in which women reach maturity at the same age as men, resulting in a society with fewer gender-based differences and unknown consequences.