Commentary and Critique of Mann, D. "The Psychotherapist's Erotic Subjectivity".
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Paul Renn
28th November, 2009
Commentary and Critique of Mann, D. (1997). “The Psychotherapist’s Erotic Subjectivity”. In Psychotherapy: An Erotic Relationship. Transference and countertransference passions, chapter 3. London: Routledge.
In this paper, Mann focuses on the sexual relationship of the analytic dyad, arguing that, in common with any other encounter between two people, the analytic encounter has an inherent erotic component to it.
Mann points out that, whereas the erotic transference of patient to therapist is well documented, in terms of the patient falling in love with, and having erotic fantasies about, the therapist, the erotic countertransference is still something of a taboo subject. He draws a comparison between the reticence of therapists to discuss their erotic feelings for their patients and the reluctance and guilt experienced by parents in admitting erotic feelings for their children.
Mann argues that, given the ubiquity and fundamental nature of erotic desires and fantasies, and the fact that some therapists do have sexual intercourse with their patients, there is a clear need to elaborate and clarify the therapist’s erotic subjectivity in the analytic situation. He suggests that the erotic countertranference is not necessarily pathological, arguing, instead, that the therapist’s erotic feelings may be used to help deal with his or her desire appropriately. Indeed, Mann asserts that erotic feelings are more likely to distort the work of therapy if they remain unconscious. This being so, he argues for an open recognition of the therapist’s erotic subjectivity. Anything less, he suggests, leads to the untenable position whereby sexual fantasies are perceived as residing in everybody else except the therapist.
In questioning why there is such a reluctance to use the therapist’s erotic feelings as a therapeutic tool, Mann suggests that, in a way similar to the operation of the incest taboo, this very prohibition reflects the intensity and pervasiveness of the therapist’s erotic desires. He also sees this taboo as accounting for the prohibition against physical contact between therapist and patient. Mann argues that it is precisely because both participants experience the analytic setting as a cauldron of intense primitive emotions, phantasies, and desires that analytic boundaries need to be maintained. His central point is that such boundaries are far less likely to be inappropriately breached if the therapist is open to recognizing his or her erotic feelings and desires, since he or she will then be in a better position to analyze and use them in the patient’s best interest. In relating the incest taboo to the analytic situation, Mann suggests that the therapist, no less than the parent, needs to experience and contain, but not deny, erotic and aggressive desires. While Mann concurs with Kumin’s assertion that erotic desires may emerge at any point in the therapy, he is sceptical about the merits of the therapist revealing his or her erotic desires to the patient.
Following Natterson, Mann proceeds to argue that the term countertransference is inadequate to describe the therapist’s feelings. This is so because it implies that what the therapist is experiencing is merely a reaction to the patient’s material. This theoretical position negates or detracts from the therapist’s own emotional and fantasy life. From this perspective, therefore, it is all too easy for therapists to view their erotic desires as something that their patients have made them feel.
In an attempt to overcome this problem, Natterson proposes that the analytic encounter be viewed as an intersubjective process – as an interaction between the therapist’s and the patient’s internal worlds. In line with this view, and in recognition that the therapist’s own sexuality and erotic desires will be brought into the analytic setting, Mann argues that the most productive and healthy approach would be for the therapist to scrutinize, not repress, his or her erotic feelings and fantasies. Using analytic methods, the therapist may better be able to manage his or her erotic subjectivity. To this end, Mann emphasises that such a process of containment requires that feelings and desires are first experienced and then subjected to thought, rather than being acted upon or repressed.
Mann elaborates on his argument, viewing the sexual abuse of the patient as a direct consequence of the therapist’s unanalyzed desires. He perceives this situation as having a paradoxical effect in which fear of the abusing therapist stifles discussion about erotic subjectivity. Citing Samuels, Mann points out that the incest impulse and the incest taboo complement each other. Samuels suggests that the absence of the erotic may mean that transformation from impulse to taboo cannot take place; that if the therapist is cut off from his or her unconscious he or she will not be able to use the countertransference to effect such a transformation.
Mann views this situation as having obtained in Freud’s analysis of “Dora”, suggesting that had Freud been able to recognize his own erotic desire and identification with Herr K, this might have led to greater insights. Specifically, Dora, by means of this process, might have perceived Freud less as an embodied repetition of Herr K, and thus might not have terminated her analysis prematurely.
Mann goes on to assert that, regardless of the therapist’s clinical experience, the area of erotic subjectivity is the most difficult one that he or she is likely to face. On the one hand there is the danger of repressing, denying, and splitting off feelings, leading to displacement or projection on to the patient; on the other, lies the danger of being overwhelmed by the erotic feelings and, therefore, of acting out with the patient.
Mann argues that erotic fantasies, in themselves, are neither benign nor malignant but, rather, form a natural part of the therapist’s “ordinary” feelings towards the patient. He again emphasises that erotic desires that are suppressed or ignored are more likely to lead the therapist into a countertransference that disturbs and hinders the patient’s development. He asserts that the intensity with which erotic desires impress themselves on the therapist is the most useful indication of their relative importance at any given time in the analytic situation.
In Mann’s considered opinion, the therapist’s fantasies should not be revealed to the patient. He argues that expecting the patient to deal with the therapist’s erotic subjectivity is analogous to expecting the child to deal with the parent’s incestuous feelings. Elaborating on this comparison, Mann asserts that the parent’s ability to contain incestuous desires is what helps the child introject and identify with the successful experience of dealing with the forbidden, without it being acted on, repudiated, or repressed.
Mann concludes by proposing that the therapist’s ability to recognize and experience erotic desires is an indication of healthy psychic functioning and development, and of a mature awareness of differentiation between the self and other.
While agreeing with the central tenets of Mann’s argument, I am not sure he succeeds in demonstrating that he practices what he preaches. For instance, in the clinical example of D, Mann expresses surprise that it was some months before he felt any sexual attraction for his patient. Was this, as he maintains, because D was censoring her eroticism and sexual desire in the early part of the work? Or did the “erotic bond” emerge out of Mann’s real, non-transference, interpersonal relationship with D? Although Mann speaks of becoming gradually aware of D as a “sexually viable person”, he goes on to describe the analytic relationship largely in terms of her transference. It may be argued, therefore, that, essentially, Mann is viewing the erotic component of the relationship as residing in D. Indeed, although Mann acknowledges his erotic desires, he appears to understand them in passive and reactive terms, perceiving them as being merely “receptive” to D’s wishes to invite him into an exciting and elicit relationship. Indeed, Mann’s description of this process left me with the distinct impression that he was not fully owning his erotic feelings, but distancing himself from them in a subtle way.
Although the fear of transgressing boundaries was openly discussed between Mann and D, Mann does not seem to have considered the influence he was having on the development of the erotized relationship. To this extent, I felt that a subtle one-person psychology was in operation, rather than a process of intersubjectivity that Mann claims to espouse. The latter perspective assumes that mutual influence is happening at all times between the patient and the therapist. A major goal of therapy is the mutual recognition of the participants’ separate subjective states which, by a process of reciprocal influence, can be brought into alignment and shared. In line with Benjamin, I view this interactive process as operating both within the intrapsychic and the interpersonal realms of relating - as consisting of an interplay between the intrasubjective and the intersubjective. Mann, by contrast, adopts Natterson’s somewhat narrower conceptualization which, as we have seen, views intersubjectivity solely as the interaction between the therapist’s and the patient’s internal worlds.
Similarly, I found it paradoxical that, while Mann is quick to draw analogies between the parent/child and therapist/patient relationships, he seems unaware of the way in which recent infancy research is informing work with adults. Thus there is no mention in this paper of the model of transference informed by a dyadic systems view of communication in which mutual or bi-directional influence is seen as playing an important part in organizing individual behaviour. Following this line of thought, I would suggest that the therapist’s recognition of his or her erotic subjectivity is only half the story, and that recognition of the process of reciprocal influence is required to complete the narrative.
In the case of E, it is not at all clear from Mann’s account to what extent he was sharing his erotic thoughts, feelings, and fantasies with his patient. Given his strictures against self-disclosure, I am assuming that such feelings were not shared, as Mann would deem this as burdening E inappropriately. Despite the fact that Mann successfully self-regulates his erotic subjectivity, and thus contains his desires, this clinical vignette would appear to raise the following question: To what degree was the analysis going on inside Mann’s head, rather than in the analytic relationship?
In relation to the case of E, Mann argues that establishing clear analytic boundaries begins by knowing what belongs to the therapist and what to the patient. However, if it is accepted that erotic feelings and desires are properties both of the emergent dyadic relationship and of the stable individual characteristics of the patient and the therapist, how is it possible to know with any degree of certitude what belongs to whom? The adoption of a theoretical position which holds that such knowledge is possible would, again, seem to reflect a predominantly one-person psychology, rather than an intersubjective perspective wherein knowledge, in the form of individual meaning, is negotiated and co-created as part of a collaborative process of mutual influence.
Related articles from our experts
Graeme Armstrong MBACPAugust 4th, 2017
Fe Robinson UKCP, MBACPAugust 14th, 2017
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)August 2nd, 2017
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.