Sex On The Couch: What Freud Has to Teach Us About Sex and Gender (Book Review)

Author:  Boothby, Richard
Publisher: Routledge
Reviewed By: Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith, Vol. 26 (3), pp. 68-70

Writing about Freud and what it means to still be a Freudian in the twenty-first century requires on the part of the philosopher a specific knowledge, not only of Freud’s ideas and how they have been assimilated and interpreted by numerous scholars and practitioners, but requires also the ability to place Freud’s ideas in a historical, cultural context that takes into consideration why and how societal mores have changed in the course of one century. These themes, all so diverse, are developed in Boothby’s book, leaving the impression that one is dealing with more than one work, so much so that one finds in these pages a defense of Freud’s theories and at the same time more contemporary ideas that criticize psychoanalysis for being too conservative, if not altogether reactionary. Granted that there is a lot in Freud that is worth reading and pondering even now, the fact remains that many of his ideas have been and are still now challenged on many fronts.

In Boothby’s book there is no discussion of the scientific status of psychoanalysis, or of psychoanalysis as a practice; this per se is not a defect, since these themes have been discussed in many other works. What the reader finds in this book, as the title indicates, is an extensive discussion of sexuality in its different forms, both real and imaginary. These two Lacanian categories have the merit of having enriched psychoanalytic studies and are rightly included, albeit intermittently, in the text. There are, then, both real and the imaginary forms of sexual differentiation, and the distinction is not always easy to make; but what strikes the reader in Boothby’s book is the description of certain characterizations of how the two sexes differ in their behaviors; sometimes these two aspects of reality look like sketches or even caricatures of what it means to be male or female.

It is not surprising, then, to find out, in the many pages devoted to phallic symbolism, that they do not always make clear whether the symbolic, imaginary, or real dimension of sexual differences is being discussed. Nobody, of course, denies that there are sexual differences, but to make them absolute categories (and this is a tendency found in several parts of the book) is a mistake that should be corrected by a somewhat different approach, the one that is also found in Freud, namely, the approach that recognizes that gender does not perfectly coincide with masculinity or femininity, with being a man or a woman. Yet, Freud, who was not free from ambivalence on this issue, did not address the notion of gender, which is a later addition to the philosophical and psychological vocabulary.

To find Freud’s ideas still useful is one thing; to find them true is another. In the first case, the ideas can be utilized for ideological purposes and be disregarded for their truth; in the second case, Freud’s ideas must be submitted to critical appraisal. Boothby does that also by introducing in the text an imaginary critic who has the function of reminding the reader that not everything about a given topic has been said or argued thoroughly. These critical objections are usually met with attention, but most of the time they reaffirm the author’s point of view. Rhetorically speaking, this is an ingenious gambit, but more often than not, given the way in which these imaginary controversies are developed, it leaves the impression that the truth has not been established and that more than one version of a given theory is plausible.

If Freud’s theories have been misunderstood, it is helpful that Boothby is prepared to clarify Freud’s concepts. Yet, many of the author’s points sound familiar. Sexuality, the distinction between the phallus and the penis, and the notion of gender, are all interpreted in such a way that the Lacanian category of the imaginary dominates the book, considering that the idea of the phallus itself, seen at the center of Freud’s thoughts, is imaginary and must not be confused with the male organ.

In Freud, there was the scientist and the ideologue; and to disentangle one from the other is certainly an arduous task. Boothby tackles this matter philosophically by appealing to the distinction between appearance, which can be deceiving, and reality. He confirms this philosophical point by reinterpreting Freud as the thinker who did not stop at the absolute distinction of the feminine and the masculine, but looked farther and discovered that sometimes the two sexes are not that sharply demarcated and that in some, perhaps many, instances, the characteristics deemed typical of one sex are also encountered in the other. This is Freud’s view. However, that does not mean that Freud or his followers in their practice did not try to align the biological sex, let us say, as an example, the female sex, with those attitudes and behaviors that are considered, at a given time, feminine. It is sufficient to look at Freud’s case histories to realize this point.

Boothby’s book does not discuss the practical and therapeutic aspects of psychoanalysis. Rather, its merit is to recognize Freud’s sharp distinction between biology and psychology, between the brain and the mind, which gives credit to his arguments about gender differences that do not coincide necessarily with biological differences. This is certainly true, since Freud was looking for a comprehensive theory that would include the whole individual, although he did not elaborate on the concept of person, which would have given a greater relevance to his distinction between biology and psychology.

Of remarkable interest are those parts of Boothby’s book that deal with cultural themes, which describe and narrate how modern society, at least in the West, has ceased to be monolithic. This is a good method of analysis because Freud’s theories should be approached historically, so that the question has become whether his theories about sexuality can still be considered valid after having been thoroughly criticized by not only feminists but also by scientists. As the title of Boothby’s book itself indicates, the approach adopted by the author is not without ambivalence, and in my view he concedes too much to the sexism that is still current in our society. Freud’s myopic view of women (let us not forget that if Freud had had his way, women would still not be allowed to vote!) could have been more emphasized and the role of symbolism, such as that of the phallus (this imaginary object), could have been more circumscribed. Perhaps the best approach, if one’s intention is to rescue Freud from the accusation of sexism, is to distinguish Freud’s method from his system, but that would require a separate study and it would be unjust to criticize Boothby for not having taken that tack. One finds here, instead, two main protagonists: the phallus and the Oedipus complex, which make parts of this book somewhat schematic, with the addition of an often casual language, undoubtedly the mark of a postmodern style.

As mentioned, the author is at his best when he discusses cultural and social issues like the discovery and the impact of the intimate in our lives. Being a social category derived from Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the private and the public life, the intimate is one of the salient characteristics of modernity, unthinkable in ancient Greece. There has been a true reversal whereby, instead of what was considered the realm of freedom in Greece, that is, the public life, the private sphere of individuals is now considered the place where people can enjoy their freedom, being free from work. Boothby justly calls this reversal an “epochal transformation” (p. 160) with repercussions in the arts, politics, economy, and daily life, and on this point in particular he speaks of “Freud’s Science of Intimacy” (that is the title of one of the subdivisions of this book), whose emergence made possible the spreading of psychoanalysis.
Freud’s ideas, therefore, did not spring out of nothing. They were the result of, and the response to, a new type of subjectivity that was emerging during his time. Boothby’s thesis is well summarized in these words: “Freud was less a creator of his times than he was a product of them” (p. 171). And indeed this is the case, and it is important to point that out, because this probably explains Freud’s uneasiness about some of his own theories, partially critical of modernity.

It follows that several social issues raised by Freud are still unresolved and demand interpretation. These topics are developed in the third part of the book entitled “Histories,” which discusses the emerging of new, different, social interactions. This is an interesting topic and sociological fact that is contemporaneous with the crisis of paternal authority; the pater familias role is no longer what it was in the past, since civilization, with its demands on work and productivity, has diminished the importance of sexuality, and has led as a response to an emphasis on personal and domestic happiness. At the same time, sexuality has been, and still is, the object of repression precisely because society rests on the much-needed control of drives and instincts required for working and economic purposes.

According to Boothby, the epochal crisis that has brought about, if not the end, at least the diminishing of male authority, is the result of four factors: Protestantism, the Enlightenment, Capitalism, and the advances of Science. These four historical and cultural events eroded authority in general and consequently the patriarchal supremacy, since they challenged the truths taught by traditional religions. Unfortunately, the author tells us, after these attempts at dismantling the old, we are witnessing now a revival of religions, a true reaction that aims at the return to the past’s more predictable human behaviors.

Still, at the center of Freud’s preoccupations was sexuality, and consequently Booth’s book concentrates on that aspect of Freud’s thought, including the notions of the drives, the unconscious, the rediscovery of Eros, and the Oedipus complex—all concepts of great importance in considering psychoanalysis’s contribution to twentieth century culture. These concepts cannot be ignored if a thorough view of Freud’s ideas is to be presented. Boothby is, then, on the right track when in his book he emphasizes the centrality of sexuality. And one of its conclusions can well be summarized in this way: Freud was progressive despite himself, since he did not confuse nor try to make biology and psychology coincide; this leaves ample margin to discuss, as Boothby does, the plasticity of the drives that has become an almost endless source of ambiguity—witness the controversies that surround Freud’s doctrines even today.

The ego and its developments also have their relevance on the road to gender identity, and, with it, repression that is nicely defined by Boothby as “that form of alienation from ourselves that is required to be a self” (p. 91). This emphasis on the ego, although much criticized by Jacques Lacan, is nevertheless important to define gender identity. On this point, Boothby admits with great reluctance that Freud had a negative view of women, and here one would desire a more consistent evaluation of Freud’s views on this matter; however, Boothby tells us also that the fate of men is not that flattering either: men are dependent on their mothers and look constantly for their affection with the result that they risk remaining somewhat childish, although, paradoxically, they are less dependent on other people for what concerns the affects. Because of this, many conflicts arise that can be resolved only with great effort, so we see that masculine men develop defensive attitudes, because they are fearful of losing their precarious autonomy. Still, pornography attracts mainly men because it allows them to have a mirror of themselves, and also “to avoid the Other” (pp. 226-229), that is, any involvement with another person. The fetishist, instead, is someone who tries to master or control his desire, but both pornography and fetishism are old phenomena that now have become symptomatic, since they are “at once liberating and repressing” (p. 219).

As to feminine women, they will be more passive and more caring than men in that they are more attentive to the desire of the other, and will give more importance to beauty. I am not sure how many women of today will recognize themselves in this description, but there is also another consideration to make, namely, that there are many types of femininity, some of which do not include passivity as a trait and are, quite the opposite, energetic and active. Whether these women are “truly feminine” according to the canon remains perhaps an open question; the fact remains that Freud’s ideas on these issues leave no doubt as to his penchant for masculinity. Since Freud did not develop the concept of person, his theories about sexual differences manifest a dualism that is difficult to reconcile with progressive intentions. But at least an absolute determinism is avoided by Freud since so much depends on one’s individual body image, about which Boothby’s rightly writes: “The influence of body image can always be overridden by other factors arising in the course of psychological development” (p. 147).

One of Boothby’s major theses is to classify sexuality as the symptom of our epoch. Here, without hesitation and with many accurate observations, he connects modern sexuality with the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex. However, some other observations are debatable, like the statement that the Enlightenment was an Oedipal struggle because it was a struggle against authority. It is a reductive view, but fortunately Boothby completes his research by putting Freud in the historical context in which we live now, not only in the historical context in which he lived; yet, the overall scenario leads one to think that there is really no substantial difference between the beginning of the twentieth century and our present century, notwithstanding the fact that mores and customs have changed. However, it is also true, as Boothby argues, that this may be the result of the current reaction to the progress of the past fifty years.

By connecting the present sexual revolution to the media culture, the author speaks of modern sexuality as being caught in “its own intrinsic indeterminacy,” which leaves us in a true crisis, a schizoid situation; since “there is not ‘true’ sexuality” that one can speak of (p. 245 and p. 244). This was Freud’s theoretical lesson, full of ambiguities that are still unresolved; and this is Boothby’s honest conclusion, on the part of a defender of Freud. All considered, this book is indeed a defense of Freud with minor additional touches: Freud is acquitted of many criticisms and rescued from the worst accusations of sexism, but to complete this task one would need a less ambiguous conclusion, one that goes beyond the present crisis and is not timid about a future subjectivity.

Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith

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