Spotlight on Psychoanalytic Psychology, V. 26 No. 4

By Louis Rothschild, PhD

Welcome to the Spotlight Introduction for Volume 26, Issue Number 4 of Psychoanalytic Psychology. In choosing to Spotlight Ofra Shalev’s and Hanoch Yerushalmi’s paper, "Status of sexuality in contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy as reported by therapists", I am reminded of Harlow’s (1958) work on love. Although Harlow’s monkey’s well known preference of a soft cloth covered mannequin over a bare wire mannequin with a feeding tube should not be conflated with The Beatles’ ( Lennon & McCartney, 1967) refrain that, “Love is all you need,” this associational link between Harlow and The Beatles is perhaps at the heart of Shalev’s and Yerushalmi’s paper.

Are we living in a puritanical age in which love is fragmented as it is for Harlow’s monkey? Shalev and Yerushalmi argue that a narrative of contemporary culture as sexually liberated is something of a wish, and that this denial of conflict has much to do with our conception of just what sort of love it is that we need. The authors draw on Green (2005) and Kernberg (1989) to note that the split between eroticism and tenderness leads to a puritanical demonization of eroticism. They also draw upon Mitchell’s (1988) concern that sexuality has been deemphasized in the relational turn, and attempts to address the co-occurrence of attachment and sexuality with equal emphasis (i.e., Diamond, Blatt, and Lichtenberg, 2007). The central point of this paper then is to assess and question how sexuality or love as it were appears in vivo. This question could be recast as: Does a de-emphasis of sexuality exist in the consulting room, and if so how does it contribute to a loss of even-hovering attention? Shalve and Yerushalmi seek to find out if we are enacting a version of the split found in Harlow’s lab by suggesting that adaptation to such a split is desirable.

Shalve and Yerushalmi utilized a semi-structured interview in order to undertake qualitative research regarding the status of sexuality in the consulting room. Ten clinicians of varied psychoanalytic orientations with an average of twenty-one years of clinical experience were asked to situate sexuality in their work. The definition of sexuality given to these clinicians was one that included encounters, fantasies, wishes, and conflicts. It is striking that among all participants was an attitude that sexuality was not central, and that to focus on it was to be misled as it masks a deeper conflict. Four central themes were found in analysis of the interview data. These were: belief in the centrality of sexuality in human motivation, level of expressiveness of therapy, narrowing of the concept of sexuality and the separation between intimacy and sexuality, and avoiding sexual issues because of the discomfort they cause.

Their findings show a belief that sexuality plays no part in early object relations, and a tendency to equate sexuality with sexual encounters. Also, that dealing with sexuality was something to be relegated to an advanced stage of therapy that is rarely reached. In line with this overall finding of resistance to sexuality, a narrative of counter-transferential discomfort was prominent that privileged avoidance over engagement of such discomfort. In this regard, these clinicians sound strikingly similar to voices found in new fiction. Writing in the New York Times, Katie Roiphe (2009) describes a self-conscious paralysis of self-regarding ambivalence in which cuddling is preferable to sex in contemporary fiction. Rophie continues by adding that Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. It appears that one side of Harlow’s dichotomy has been replaced with another.

Is this data representative of the state of affairs of our consulting rooms? Should it be? To my mind, the paper is a welcome addition and should be taken seriously because these questions are important. In my own response to this data I found myself seeking refuge in Phillips and Eigen. For Adam Phillips (1996) finds asceticism varied, but part of the psyche and notes in that regard that everyone is afraid of suffering from too much pleasure, and Michael Eigen (2006) comments that the popular science fiction image of the rational alien that hardly needs a body is a fantasy of a lust free universe, and that this is not a likely outcome. Sigh, of relief? Eigen and Phillips might be taken to mean that anxiety about pleasure is something that psychoanalysis is meant to engage. The data from the current study suggest that such engagement is fraught with difficulty if it happens at all. As Eigen (2006) writes:

Freud’s genius: it is already there, the way the nipple feels to the mouth, in the mouth, the liquid, the hardening and softening, skin on skin, naked mouth everywhere. (p.102)

Is the loss of such genius an accurate portrayal of the current climate typifying our varied consulting rooms? If so, how do we understand this? Is there some sort of amalgam of the data found here and the work of Eigen and Phillips that characters our clinical zeitgeist? Take some time to read this paper, and ask yourself if an amalgam in which Harlow’s laboratory is confused with a state of nature affording a fragmented sense of love is appropriate, and if so how. The data found here are a provocative challenge to clinical formulation and engagement. In addition to this paper, Phillips, and Eigen; one promising example of speaking of the sexual in contemporary psychoanalysis is the invited panel by the Committee on Sexualities and Gender Identities that will take place on Friday April 23, 2010 during the Division’s Annual Spring Meeting in Chicago. The upcoming panel centers on a paper entitled: A Case of Barebacking by Martin Devine, Psy.D. If the data reported by Shalev and Yerushalmi is to be taken seriously, then it is all the more important that panels such as this take place if we are to tame what is wild.


Devine, M . (2010). A case of barebacking. Paper to be presented at the Spring meeting of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association.

Diamond, D., Blatt, S. J., & Lichtenberg, J.D. (Eds.) (2007). Attachment and sexuality. New York: The Analytic Press.

Eigen, M. (2006). Lust. Middletown CT.: Wesleyan University Press.

Green, A. (2005). To love or not to love: Eros and Eris. In A. Green & G. Kohon, Love and its vicissitudes (pp 1-39). London: Routledge.

Harlow, H. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Kernberg, O.F. (1989). The temptations of conventionality. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 16, 191-204.

Lennon, J. & Mc Cartney, P. (1967). All you need is love. Abbey Road Studios.

Mitchell, S. (1988). Relational concepts in psychoanalysis: An integration. Cambridge, England: Harvard University Press.

Phillips, A. (1996). Monogamy. New York: Pantheon Books.

Roiphe, K. (2009). The Naked and the Conflicted. New York Times. Sunday Book Review. Published: December 31, 2009.