Sensuality and Sexuality Across the Divide of Shame (Book Review)

Author:  Lichtenberg, Joseph D.
Publisher: Taylor and Francis, 2007
Reviewed By: Kenner PhD, Jane, January 2011, pp. 160

Although I intend later in this review to criticize Joseph Lichtenberg's thesis regarding the divide between sensuality and sexuality, I want to begin by praising what he does achieve in this book. His many years of experience as a clinician and writer, his profound knowledge of attachment and developmental theories and research, and his own inherent sensitivity, enable him to craft a remarkably attuned portrait of the multi-layered, nuance-rich experience of the child in relation to self and primary others. Furthermore, the language in which he presents his view of the child's developing relationship to father, mother, and siblings is creative, deeply empathic, and quite accessible. As he says, in the final section of the book,

I try to incorporate the essence of the theories that I want to retain by conveying their meaning in more ordinary language, believing that the richness of understanding human struggles, rather than technical terminology, is what determines whether a proposal is psychoanalytic (p.147).

Lichtenberg clarifies that his book is "designed to present a broad conception of sexuality" (p.147), so that, rather than emphasizing pathology, his purpose "has…been…to stay within the range of sexual and social issues that [typify] a broad middle ground of people and couples who…work out some strategy…for their attachment and lustful love" (p.146).

While defining his territory as "the broad middle ground" (p.146) of sexual experience considered as a motivational system, Lichtenberg additionally sets himself the task of persuading his psychoanalytically oriented readers to expand their notions regarding the origins and development of human sexuality. As he acknowledges in the introduction, the "reformulation" (p.xi) he makes in this book is relatively straightforward: Infants, toddlers, and older children seek "pleasurable body sensations and schemas and fantasies that elaborate hedonic bodily experience" (p.xii), and, while some parents and authority figures respond approvingly to such experience, others prohibit, shame, and disapprove in response. If adults respond to the child's hedonic bodily experience with approval, encouragement, and sharing, then the child's experience is one of sensuality—that is, shame-free bodily pleasure; however, if the adults' response is angry, or punitive, or otherwise disapproving, then the child experiences sexuality rather than sensuality, with sexuality understood to originate out of the shame induced in the child by the adults' response. This book is the third in a series of books by Lichtenberg on motivational systems, but I will focus solely on Lichtenberg's sensual-sexual system as set out in this volume.

Almost immediately, Lichtenberg provides us with the first of many specific illustrations of the distinction he wants to get across in the book. The child Sammy, part of a study, is observed at 3 months comfortably settled in with his mother enjoying a rhythmic, mutually satisfying sensual experience during breast-feeding. But, at 3½ years old, when Sammy reaches out to touch his mother's breast while watching her feed his new sister, he is told "'No, no Sammy, you mustn't.' His interest-excitement inhibited, Sammy looks downcast and crushed." (p.2). This, by and large, is the contemporary developmental and attachment theory-based evidence Lichtenberg draws upon to make his case. Literal childhood experience constitutes the foundation upon which the development of a self is based. In the narrative just described, Sammy, at 3½, has experienced the transformation of what was once sensual into sexuality.

Lichtenberg bases his reformulations of the development of human sexuality on "phenomena such as general observations and clinical vignettes, [even though] the criticism of phenomenology has been that observables do not reveal unconscious processes" (p.xi). Although he agrees with this critique, he states he is not "deterred by it. After half a century as a psychoanalytic clinician, I believe I can combine the two sources." Consequently, throughout the book, there is a mixture of theory and observation. For example, in the chapter, "The Oedipus Complex in the 21st Century," he readily acknowledges the "continuity of triadic relationships" (p.21) throughout life but challenges the view that the oedipal phase, by definition, consists of "repressed universal unconscious fantasies of sexual possession of the parent of the opposite gender, murder of the rival parent, fear of retaliative castration or penis envy" (Ibid.). The 4- to 6-year old child's romantic feelings toward his/her mother or father develop out of the child's "emergent experience of bodily sensations and emotional relational desires" (Ibid.). The way these feelings and sensations manifest themselves in the individual child must be understood in the context of the complex, ongoing interactions in the child's life of parent and child and of parent and parent—that is, of existing and developing patterns of family relationships and "relational knowing" (Ibid.).

In a vignette I particularly enjoyed (pp.22-24), a mother is feeling worn out at the end of the day and initially says she doesn't want to go for an after-dinner walk with her husband, at which point her daughter seizes this opportunity for a special moment with the father she adores and offers to go with him. Here, Lichtenberg stops the narrative to ask a series of questions about how the story might proceed and demonstrates what sorts of consequences these possible scenarios might have. Does the father react to the mother's decision not to go on the walk with anger, disappointment, or perhaps a sense of defeat, or is he accepting of his wife's fatigue and comfortable taking a stroll without her? Will the young daughter feel she is harming the mother in some way if she takes her mother's place as her father's companion, or will this daughter's mother have communicated, with words and/or her tone of voice and facial expression, that she enjoys the idea of her daughter having a special moment with her father? On the other hand, this particular father may feel uncomfortable with his daughter's adoration. What if his laughter when alone with her has a perverse or guilty edge to it? Might he secretly prefer his daughter to his wife and communicate this to her too readily? Might he be preoccupied with his wife's reluctance to come on the walk and therefore be unresponsive to his daughter's pleasure in his company? Or might he delight in her presence and make up a story for her? What if the mother changes her mind and comes along for the walk in a better mood, so that in the end there is room for everyone, and once outside in the fresh air they all enjoy one another's company?

Lichtenberg excels at depicting the complexity inherent in everyday developmental familial experience. In response to his repeated emphasis on the complexity of the triadic experience of father, mother, and child, his readers (including students) would be likely to develop a greater appreciation of just how much is involved in ordinary family life, in such everyday choices as who within a family structure does what, and when, and why and whether these choices are made within a loving or caring context or in the sado-masochistic context that is present when abuse, and the inevitable shame that goes with it, occurs.

This book would be a good choice for teaching current day graduate students in psychology who have very little in their curricula concerning the role of childhood sexual/sensual experience in the development of the psyche. It could also serve as a supplement and even, to some extent, a complement, to Oedipal theory, offering as it does a widening—a "complexifying"—of what is understood to constitute childhood sexual experience, both in observable terms and in terms of the elaboration of this experience into fantasy. Lichtenberg brings to life example after example of how shame can be instilled in children, thereby destroying their normal developmental pleasure in hedonic bodily experience and, to varying extents, resulting in difficulties in the ability of shamed and/or abused individuals to form trusting, mutually respectful relationships with other people, be it in social settings or more intimate ones, or to function independently. In addition, students of any age would benefit from Chapter 5 of the book, in which Lichtenberg, drawing upon "the many advances in analytic understanding of female development" (p.147), devotes himself to exploring the specifically female aspects of the young girl's developing sensual/sexual relationships with her mother and her father. However, there are limitations to his "reformulation" of sexual in contrast to sensual experience according to whether or not the sensual experience of the children has been transformed by a parent or adult into shame.

For example, I would cite Laplanche's (1999) depiction of a mother who cannot escape the dual meanings of her breasts, which function on the one hand as the earliest and the only source of an infant's nourishment and, on the other hand, remain a highly eroticized female body part, for the mother as well as for others. From a Laplanchian perspective, the societal erotization of breasts means that the mother inevitably seduces her child; she cannot escape the erotic connotation of her breasts. In addition to her pleasure in sharing with her baby moments of intimate, mutual sensual enjoyment, she also feels, and unconsciously communicates to her baby, the erotic aspect of what is transpiring between the two of them. She may be unaware of the arousal inherent in having her breasts sucked and fondled by her baby, or she may enjoy the erotic aspect of breastfeeding or, sadly, be unable to enjoy breastfeeding because of a gnawing sense that something about the unbounded experience of breastfeeding is too intimate. But, whatever the scenario, in the Laplanchian world, there is no "divide" between sensuality and sexuality; both are present from the beginning. Laplanche describes the influence of societal factors on the mother and child's experience of one another during breastfeeding or during the mother's other bodily ministrations while taking care of the baby, including in his formulation a more complicated, less either/or depiction of sensual/sexual interactions between parent and child.

Lichtenberg displays sensitivity, and, again, an appreciation for complexity, in his handling of the topic of gender identity, repeatedly expressing his admiration for Harris's (2000) Gender as Soft Assembly, a work that stresses the infinite variations in and relationships between "masculine" and "feminine" traits in any given individual. It therefore appears all the more surprising that Lichtenberg verges on, or perhaps is even guilty of, splitting in his formulation of a divide between sensuality and sexuality. Why does he seemingly equate the mother's and child's (and the father's) healthy experience of sensuality with a "Before the Fall" innocence, a paradise-like freedom from shame?

In formulating his "divide," he might actually be instilling guilt, and even shame, in those whose responses to their child's bodily hedonic experience involve a process of coming to terms with all that is evoked in them by their baby's vulnerable, exposed body parts. Why can't he allow for the normality of both sensual and sexual elements in fathers and mothers responses to the pleasure a child takes in his/her body and in contact with theirs? Perhaps he is exaggerating to make his point, the way Winnicott (1956) did in declaring, "There is no such thing as an infant." If this is what he is doing, perhaps in conceptualizing sensuality and sexuality as distinct from one another, his aim is to foster in his readers a deeper understanding of the difference between bodily experience that is a natural expression of closeness and trust versus that which grows out of the shame and guilt associated with what is forbidden. There are many riches in Sensuality and Sexuality Across the Divide of Shame, but I do believe it would have improved Lichtenberg's book if he had dispensed with the either/or approach he brings to a much-needed exploration of a topic (sexuality) that has been neglected in the psychoanalytic discourse of recent years.


Harris, A. (2000). Gender as a soft assembly: Tomboys' stories. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 1: 223-250.

Laplanche, J. (1999). Essays on Otherness. New York: Routledge. 279 pp.

Winnicott, D. W. (1992). Primary maternal preoccupation. [1956]. In, Through Peadiatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers. Brunner/Mazel. 350 pp.


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