Psychology, Research in the School

Freud and sexuality

In a new article, David Kaposi from the School explores a little known but highly important paper on sexuality by Sigmund Freud.

Shall we talk about sex? I can see you are blushing. I am blushing too. Yes, sex seems to be everywhere these days. We cannot go on with our daily lives for long before we are reminded of it. It intrudes into us, it is mentioned or laughed about. It is hidden in plain sight. It is easily bragged about or shrugged off. But to talk about it, properly and seriously, face to face, to think about what it means and to whom – that’s an entirely different thing. That continues to make us blush.

Why is this so? This article will consider this question by looking at a little known publication by a famous and controversial clinician and thinker.

The story starts around the turn of the twentieth century at the heart of continental Europe: Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (and now Austria). This was a considerably shyer age and place than our own. Even the mentioning of sex in public would be frowned upon. So when a middle aged Jewish doctor, a certain Sigmund Freud started to publish his views that sexual life and more particularly our fantasies about it play an important role in mental health and illness, his views were forcefully rejected and his career jeopardised.

This did not deter Freud, though. In fact, he went on to expound a positively scandalous thesis: he proposed that, ultimately, it is ourinfantile sexual life and the wishes, fears, anxieties built on this that are implicated in our subsequent emotional wellbeing or breakdown. Not, of course, genital sex or sexual intercourse, for these only come later. But the sensual and soothing pleasure of sucking (the breast, the finger), kissing and being kissed, bitten and touched; of stimulating the anus by passing stools; and of touching/grabbing the penis or vagina. ‘The “affection” shown by the child’s parents and those who look after him […] seldom fails to betray its erotic nature (“the child is an erotic plaything”)’, as the Doctor says in the short but powerful paper that is under discussion in this article: The universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love.

Freud’s central observation in this paper is that the sexuality that is around us (and that is not so much hidden as it seems to force itself upon our eyes) is actually a very specific sexuality. It is debased, ordirty. This is why it is difficult to talk about it. Why this has to be so is what Freud is trying in his article to understand.

Intriguingly, his starting point is a man who is psychicallyimpotent (and his counterpart, although Freud doesn’t dwell on her much, the woman who cannot quite enjoy sex). With some partners or in some circumstances, he is able to have sexual intercourse. With others or at other times, though, he experiences ‘a feeling of obstacle, a sensation of counter-will’ (p. 179). Although undoubtedly physically healthy and even sexually vigorous, there is something in the way he experiences sex that makes it difficult to enjoy (or even just “have”). 

‘Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love’ (p. 183), says Freud of these men. He points at what he calls the ‘affectionate’ (i.e., warm and loving emotions) and the ‘sensual’ (i.e., sexual energy) currents. Ideally, these two currents merge in love and the person loved emotionally is also the person with whom sexual pleasure is at a maximum. Yet in forms of psychical impotency these two currents fail to unite. It is as if it was forbidden to have sex with those whom they are affectionate towards and truly love; the person to have sex with (and the sexual act itself) has to be debased – experienced as dirty and of no real value.

Now the uncomfortable thing about encounters with Sigmund Freud is that although he is talking about a special category of people (here: those with ‘psychical impotence’), you start to have the impression that he is actually talking about you. What is worse, he knows this too: ‘I shall put forward the view that psychical impotence is much more widespread than is supposed, and that a certain amount of this behaviour does in fact characterize the love civilized man. […] There are only a few educated  people in whom the two currents of affection and sensuality are properly fused; the man almost always feels respect for the woman acting as a  restriction on his sexual activity, and only develops full potency when he is with a debased sexual object […]’ (pp. 184-185).

So he is not talking about those unfortunate people, but us: all sexes. But why, at by this point you are surely bursting to ask? Why would love and sex be such complicated matters? Why is it so difficult to fuse these ‘affectionate’ and ‘sensual’ currents? Why does sex have to be dirty?…

Freud’s answer starts with noting that the first object of our love is in fact a very early one – our mother or father. Yet, later we learn that we cannot have them; they are forbidden for us. So the more mature search for love, from puberty on, is a rather dangerous affair. On the one hand, a substitute is to be found to replace those early images and fantasies of mother/father. On the other hand, any positive affective resemblance conjures up the unconscious feeling of incest: hence the need for ‘debasement’.

This is an interesting (not to mention provocative) explanation, but if you are not quite satisfied with it, you are in good company. Freud himself doesn’t seem to be so. Even after proposing one, he continues to search for alternative explanations. First he adds the factor of ‘frustration in reality’, or the period in puberty where the body is ready yet the person is not yet allowed full sexual freedom. Then he suddenly drops this idea: ‘if sexual freedom is unrestricted from the outset the result is no better.’ (p. 187) There seems to be no stopping, no relenting of his scrutiny. Freud wants to know more, and more.

Next, he enigmatically posits that ‘however strange it may sound, we must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realization of complete satisfaction.’ (pp. 188-189). This involves, Freud reiterates, that the ‘final object of the sexual instinct is never any longer the original object but only a surrogate for it’ (p. 189). And it also involves that the sexual instinct develops from what are originally a great number of components: manifold ways of obtaining excitement and pleasure through various body parts – on the way to the primacy of the genital, all sorts of strange urges and sources of excitation are repressed. 

But in his final conclusion, inasmuch as there is one, the problem does not simply lie with these sexual-sensual factors in themselves. Rather, the ultimate problem is that ‘it is quite impossible to adjust the claims of the sexual instinct to the demands of civilization’ (p. 190). There is something irreconcilable between the primal, unfettered, erotic-destructive urges in us humans and the whole edifice of humanity. Something has to give – either the (sexual) freedom we crave; or the respectful solidarity between us. 

What started therefore with a simple observation seemingly of medical nature (i.e., men who in certain situation cannot “perform” sexually), reached the deepest of philosophical and moral questions. In psychoanalysis, the discipline Freud created, the clinical, the psychological, the political-moral, and the philosophical are never lost sight of. Some of Freud’s insights disturb us and, for one reason or another, we may feel compelled to find them dated, ridiculous or implausible. Yet, as this article sought to demonstrate, he asked profound and ever-relevant question about us; questions that feel always alive. And he answered them without ever stopping, and with a curiosity which never relented. Coming though from a different place and a different time, he is therefore always a psychologist for us


Read more about David Kaposi’s work here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s