Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Book Review)

Title:  Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Perspectives
Author:  Harding, Celia (Editor)
Publisher: Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge, 2000
Reviewed By: Nina Williams, Summer 2002, 52-54

One of the recent changes--some say losses--in psychoanalysis is the shift away from sexuality as the deepest natural well from which psychology flows and toward a place as one of many motivators of relationships and organizing principles of self. The recent edited book Sexualities: Psychoanalytic Perspectives, collects British authors arguing against “the view that sexuality is nothing other than historically and culturally determined” (back cover). Given that Aron has written, “no one, not even the most radical of relational theorists, denies that bodily urges matter in human life” (Aron & Anderson, 1998, pp xxii), the critique might be better aimed at academic gender theorists. The book is aimed at clinical questions, however, and references Freud, Klein, and the British School rather than Butler.

It is no secret that authority adds to the narrative force and drama of analytic writing, and that many clinicians appreciate this even as they work from an alternative perspective. The rhetorical certainty fuels a vision of orderly, surgical transformation. Still, psychoanalysis began as a radical vision, and still attracts radical thinkers, who challenge orthodoxy and incite debate. This book contains some writers who preserve their certainty and others who apply contextual thinking within a foursquare framework of the Oedipal complex, biology, the centrality of sex to identity formation, and the inescapable qualities of a drive.

Harding’s book began as a series of lectures in Great Britain for the Foundation for Psychotherapy and Counselling. References to other authors and direct citation are at a minimum, so most of the book presents the general views of a variety of authors, united in their view that recent critique of drive theory ignores the transformations it had undergone long before post-modernism. Given the tendency in a debate to imagine a monolithic, wrong-headed Other, the heterogeneity of views (object relations, Jungian, and Kleinian among them) seems promising.

Each chapter has something to recommend it, although the argument that sexuality is something more than historically and culturally determined is oblique; relational, intersubjective, and interpersonal positions are infrequently described or cited. Surprisingly, given this goal, one of the most interesting chapters argues for the cultural and historical influences behind the Anglo-Saxon preference for object relations over drives.

Budd’s chapter, No Sex Please-We’re British, states that the distinctly different flavor of British (she includes North Americans in this group) and French theory has more to do with the different cultural media in which these ideas have germinated than with their actual superiority: “...we imbibe from our milieu our sense of what makes a particular theory congenial without noticing that we are doing so; fish do not notice the water in which they swim” (p. 53, note). Budd scopes out how these two countries regard sexuality. In England, Freud was initially regarded with alarm “as though, if he hadn’t existed, sexual fantasy would never have been invented” (p. 53). This led to a “domestication” of Freud’s ideas for British and American audiences via object relations and self theories, a PG version of an X-rated story. These ideas better supported “a British attitude to the erotic life which assumes that if we have good object relations our sexual lives will not trouble us” (p 54). Budd notes that the explicit contrast group in Britain is France, and the history of these two nations provides as many fantasized differences as actual ones. After “switching...attention away from adult sexuality” (p.55), the British then projected it onto the French. The French accented “the inherent differences in sexuality between men and women, and something which is forever unrealized, tragic, unreadable” (p. 56). Didier-Weill is quoted, “Americans are more optimistic about love--and sex. They tend to think that with a few minor changes, men and women can move to harmony just around the corner” (p. 56).

Budd thus interprets the shift toward object-relations as an effort to avoid both sex and aggression; a shift that not only denies the force and reality of physical desire but also, “can make [patients] feel both frightened and triumphant if their real adult sexuality is overlooked” (p. 63). Analysts who place all their faith in mother-love are as capable of harming patients--by virtually adopting, rather than treating, them--as are sexually predatory clinicians.

Budd acknowledges other extra-psychic contributions to theory--male reactions to female power, the debate about the proportionality of the body-mind split, even religious differences--when accounting for the emergence of such different traditions as Winnicott and Lacan. She questions the assumptions that interpretations of very early experiences are the most powerful, that our sex lives will be trouble-free if we’ve worked through our pregenital object relations, and that it is possible to contact “the totally different being we were in childhood” (p. 67) through analysis of an adult. She proposes exploring the web of meaning around the reality of the body and the role of the body’s memory expressed through sexual desire and repugnance.

In her chapter on women’s sexuality, Maguire picks up on the theme that “early psychoanalytic interest in the erotic life of women has faded and been replaced by a preoccupation with their maternal function” (p. 107). She acknowledges the subversiveness of Freud’s idea that sexual identity is not only biological but formed through personal history and culture, although she concedes that “my personal view is that...anatomical differences between the sexes do impact upon the psyche, affecting our unconscious fantasies and anxieties” (p. 108). She presents a more subtle interplay than this, however. She does not believe heterosexuality is innate, or that a core “real” identity trumps culture: “I am saying that sexuality is shaped within culture but mediated through the body” (p. 108). She focuses not only on the anti-erotic consequences of maternalizing feminine desire (which she attributes in part to the theorizing of women analysts such as Klein), but also on the overlooked envy that underlies efforts to make female sexuality about nurturance rather than lust. She includes some specific discussion of Benjamin, Irigaray, and Lacan.

Steven Mendoza’s contribution, Genital and Phallic Homosexuality, begins routinely, promising, “to show how psychotherapy or counseling is done with homosexuals as with any other client” (p. 152). But his paper does not recite the familiar rules. Instead, Mendoza argues not only that the judgments still rampant in the field about what gay and lesbian object choice mean are not only homophobic but that the homophobia leads clinicians to miss the analytic point. The goal of mature sexuality is not achieved by choosing a partner of the opposite sex but by relating to a lover from the genital position--that is, as a whole object--rather than from the phallic, where the lover is seen as the means to the end of drive satisfaction. This distinction may seem familiar, and Mendoza draws a matrix of connection between phallic, paranoid-schizoid, and perversion on one hand and genital, depressive, and polymorphy on the other. “It is not what we do in sex which matters, or whom we do it with, but why we do it” (p. 159), he concludes.

Mendoza draws deeply from Meltzer’s 1973 Sexual States of Mind and its question about why we believe that heterosexuality is the only aspect of infantile sexuality fit to live beyond infancy. Not only are some heterosexuals fixated at the phallic stage, but also we rely too superficially on object-choice to diagnose homosexuality. Such a choice in reality does not always match the object’s genitals in fantasy. Mendoza gives examples of how overt behavior and unconscious fantasy may row on different sides to navigate Oedipal waters. As one example, a man having gay sex “is homosexual per se but may be heterosexual [if] the phantasy [is] of a man offering himself to the father as a girl....” (p. 159).

This openness to the meaning of a given person’s homosexual behavior seems more deep and useful than the reflexive assumption that same-sex object choice indicates an inevitable Oedipal impasse. Mendoza argues that an individual’s ability to accept and use his or her bisexuality (referring to the childhood belief one possesses both sexes, not the choice of both male and female partners) is actually a key element in the ability to identity with and thus deeply enjoy the partner’s pleasure. “A man may need to be able and to allow into himself the desire to be penetrated by a penis and a woman may need to be able to allow the equivalent desire of a female body and the drive to penetrate it” (p. 158). Mendoza regards this “essential polymorphy” as an essential step in the child’s ability to cathect the same-sex parent and thus securely negotiate the Oedipal phase. Analysts who have not themselves gained conscious access to this phantasy may be vulnerable to a similar phallic temptation to project what they fear in themselves onto gay and lesbian patients.

Other chapters tread more familiar ground. Young’s chapter, Relocating Psychoanalytic Ideas of Sexuality, agrees to move sexuality to the background of theory and concede both its symbolic value and its historical contributors but insists, “biology is veritably destiny, whether one is observing fighting fish, spiders, greylag geese, peacocks” (p. 21). Young is one of many other authors in this book who refer non-critically to evolutionary psychology to support this stance. Colman’s Celebrating the Phallus also begins with the assumption of biology as the determining force, although he explores deftly how men’s sexual concerns may seem divorced from their emotional ones, but in fact “express a relation to the phallus which is, in itself, a deeply emotional one” (p. 128). This determinism aids Morgan’s categorization of transgendered and transsexed patients as perverse; one interpretation produces the response, “Phew, that’s a bit Freudian” (p. 144), which Morgan confirms is an accurate reading of his arrested-development hypothesis.

Although there are numerous, well-reasoned arguments against evolutionary psychology as any more scientific than Freud, the search for some immutable bedrock continues in spite of concessions to the hermeneutic. Fausto-Sterling (2001), an eminent biologist, has argued that the all-knowing biology is a myth, rare as the all-knowing analyst. Developmental systems theory studies how species biology, individual qualities, and environmental press work as an ensemble to influence natural outcome. Fausto-Sterling illustrates the need for new theory with the case of a goat born without front legs, who spent life hopping around a farm on its hind legs. An autopsy revealed the goat had developed a humanoid S-shaped spine, thickened bones, and altered musculature to provide its mobility. Neither its biology, its environment nor its personality provided its anatomy; all of them did, in a particular way given that particular circumstance.

Some readers may wish for more self-examination of the effects of a biology-based view of psychoanalysis on both theory and clinical process. In the same way Budd asserts the role of culture in theory-building, psychological reasons for valuing Cartesian science may have some defensive or wishful components. For instance, the belief that there are only two sexes with a clear division between them is axiomatic in analytic theory. Although this is true in more than 98% of the population, the remainder are born with genetics, hormones and anatomy that do not match. In contrast to the theoretical outcome of severely compromised ego functioning, the majority of these statistical outliers (once known as hermaphrodites, but now labeled intersexed) live productive and happy lives. Nonetheless this belief there were only two sexes by the scientific community in the twentieth century led to a fantasy that it would be possible to assign sex and alter gender identity by altering genitals in babies. Dreger (1999) and others have argued that this fantasy emerged more from faith in medical technology and sexual politics than from science. Intersexed adults are now describing the outcome of this conviction; their shared experiences of deception by authority figures, medical trauma, and sexual dysfunction demonstrate forcefully that we do not always know what we wish we did and the consequences of that fantasy can be literally disfiguring. Further, as Gray and Mitchell both argue from quite different vantage points, the analyst’s omniscience also infantalizes the patient, recreating a scenario where the patient submits to the analytic-parent’s opinions, rather than forming any of her own.

Since the most revolutionary of Freud’s goals was to liberate us from dependence on traditional opinions to create new ideas, another question emerges from this collection, why the effort to question traditional views in psychoanalysis elicits as much defense as debate. Harding’s collection is at its best when authors place seemingly contradictory ideas in respectful conversation with one another. That essential polymorphy, to borrow Mendoza’s phrase, seems as necessary to the mutual engagement and pleasure in different ideas as it is to the mutual engagement and pleasure of lovers.

References

Aron, L., and Anderson, F., Eds. (1998). Relational perspectives on the body. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Dreger, A.D. (1999). Intersex in the age of ethics. Hagerstown, MD: University Publishing Group.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (1999). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Gray, P. (1995). Ego and the analysis of defense. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
Meltzer, D., (1979). Sexual states of mind. Strath Tay: Clunie Press.
Mitchell, S.A. (1997). Influence and autonomy in psychoanalysis. Hillsdale NJ: Analytic Press.

Reviewer Note

Nina Williams is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Highland Park, NJ. She is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey and an adjunct assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey.

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