Notes on Sexuality, Perversion and Neosexuality
This short paper summarises two books on sexual perversion and neosexuality: Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred by Robert Stoller and Sexualities and Homosexualities by Jaime Stubrin.
I had referred to these texts some years ago on commencing work with a 29-year-old bi-racial man in a forensic setting. My client disclosed to me that he had repeatedly raped and routinely sexually molested and degraded the several women with whom he had had relationships since his adolescence, adding that he masturbated compulsively to accompanying fantasies of rape and molestation of his mother. He also told me of the intense hatred he felt towards women in particular, and of a more general wish to kill people, expressing consternation about his propensity to behave violently. As a child, my client had been systematically physically abused by his Afro-Caribbean father, as well as by an older brother. He had also been seduced into a sexually abusive relationship by his white English mother with whom he shared a bed for several years.
I do not propose to go into details of the case here, but merely to summarise the above mentioned texts which informed aspects of the work that I undertook with my client.
Turning to Stoller first, he views perversion as a masturbatory fantasy - a defensive structure raised to preserve erotic pleasure. The perverse act, and accompanying fantasy, is motivated by extreme pleasure which, by its very nature, demands repetition. The perversion is also motivated by a need to maintain gender identity. For Stoller, perversion is the result of family dynamics that, by inducing fear, have forced the child to avoid full immersion in the oedipal situation.
Stoller argues that the core of the perverse act is a desire to harm others; that perversion is an erotic form of hatred - a fantasy that is acted out. Moreover, Stoller suggests that perversion is a habitual, preferred aberration necessary for the person’s full erotic satisfaction and that it is primarily motivated by hostility. Hostility in perversion takes form in a fantasy of revenge. The hostility is often hidden in the actions that make up the perversion, with the perversion itself serving to convert childhood trauma into adult triumph. In order to create the greatest excitement, the perversion must also portray itself as an act of risk-taking. The therapist therefore needs to learn from the person concerned what motivates him or her and what individualised meaning is encapsulated in the perverse act.
Stoller, then, postulates that actual childhood trauma is memorialized in the details of the perversion - that the perverse act is the reliving of historical trauma that was aimed at the person’s sex or gender identity, and that it has the effect of transforming trauma into pleasure, orgasm and victory. The need to carry out the perverse act again and again, unendingly in the same manner, derives from the person’s inability to rid him or herself completely of the danger or to resolve the trauma. Stoller suggests that precocious excitement in childhood may also contribute to perversion but only in cases where there has been too much stimulation with accompanying severe guilt. Such feelings will come to be sensed as traumatic and need to be transformed via the magic of the perverse ritual.
Perversion, then, is the consequence of threat and actual danger and of the resultant hatred experienced by the subject. Pleasure is only released when fantasy has worked, the acting out of the perverse fantasy having the temporary effect of undoing the trauma. However, Stoller goes on to argue that the perverse act has to thread its way between anxiety and boredom in order to achieve the right sort of risk to create excitement.
As we learn from Freud, intra-psychic conflict results when powerful but forbidden sensual impulses, wishes and desires clash with the child’s internalization of the parents’ value system (the superego). Thus, there will be present within the psyche a set of moral positions received from the parents, plus an inner technique of self-punishment based on persecutory guilt. In this way, the ego is split and part of the self acts in a threatening or punishing way towards the other part, frustrating the latter’s drive towards gratification.
Following Freud, Stoller suggests that perversions emerge as solutions or compromise formations to unconscious conflicts and have at their core a burden of guilt and a sense of risk-taking. Here, desire is seen as an important cause of behaviour, and fantasy as functioning variously as a vehicle of hope, healer of trauma, protector from reality, concealer of truth, fixer of identity, restorer of tranquillity, enemy of fear and sadness and cleanser of the soul. However, from an object-relations perspective, Stoller emphasises that the details of a particular perversion are to be found in the fantasy, for therein is embedded the remnants of the individual’s experiences with other people who, in the real world during childhood, provoked the reaction called perversion.
As already noted, at the centre of the perversion is hostility. Indeed, Stoller argues that the grosser the hostility the less is there a question that one is dealing with a perversion. Sexual excitement stemming from murder and mutilation, rape, sadistic physical punishments such as whipping, cutting, enchaining and binding games, defecating or urinating on one’s object - all these express conscious rage towards one’s sex object. The essential purpose of such acts is for the perpetrator to be superior to, harmful to and triumphant over another person.
Stoller suggests that this dynamic is also at work in non-physical sadisms such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexually abusive phone calls or letters, use of prostitutes and most forms of promiscuity. He argues that it is possible to search out in therapy the nature and origin of the need to harm one’s partner, adding that understanding what the act means to the participant(s) is how the therapist comes to know whether or not it is perverse.
Thus the overt or covert desire to hurt the other is to be found in sadistic and masochistic perversions and fetishisms. Stoller stresses that the source of the anger that is hidden in the perverse act lies in the subject’s victimization in childhood, usually by parents or their surrogates. Through means of the perversion, the subject transforms anger and helplessness into victory over those who made him or her feel wretched, for in perversion trauma becomes triumph.
Stoller goes on to argue that masturbation can be a defence against feelings of anxiety associated with the trauma of abandonment, existential loneliness and homicidal rage, and that the frequency and intensity of the masturbation will be related to the severity of the trauma. He suggests that the fantasies accompanying the masturbation will, with careful analysis, reveal the nature of the original trauma, and the way in which masturbation is designed to overcome it.
Indeed, Stoller argues that masturbatory fantasy determines whether or not any given sexual act is perverse. This being so, he suggests that the therapist needs to look closely at what an individual is thinking and feeling in order to understand his or her perversion. He again stresses his view that at the heart of all perversions is a fantasied act of revenge and that this fantasy condenses within itself the subject’s sexual life history – his or her fantasies, traumas, frustrations and joys. Stoller posits that there is always a victim, no matter how disguised, and that a grain of historical reality is embedded in each of the subject’s fantasies. In short, Stoller postulates that unconscious “memories” of real historical events - the subject’s actual sexual life history - exist in the conscious fantasies expressed in a given perversion.
In elaborating his theory with regard to men, Stoller argues that the failure to achieve a masculine identity is the greatest promoter of perversion - that perversion may be a gender disorder constructed out of a triad of hostility. This hostility takes the form of rage at having to give up one’s earliest bliss and identification with the mother; fear arising out of unsuccessful attempts to escape from the mother’s orbit; and a need for revenge on the mother for having been placed in such a predicament.
Following Mahler (1985), Stoller argues that disturbance in the separation-individuation process can be a matrix that encourages perversion in the child’s later sexual development. Such disturbances generate symbiosis anxiety and a concomitant fear that one will not be able to remain separate from the mother. This anxiety leads to the erection of defences against succumbing to the pull to merge again with the mother, for such merging arouses the fear in the male subject that he will lose his gender identity. Stoller therefore argues that perverse rituals in men serve the function of both undoing separation and, at the same time, of promoting separation. He contends that an essential feature of the perverse act is to preserve masculinity and a sense of maleness. Moreover, in the adult, the perversion, as a compromise formation, achieves a certain psychic equilibrium arising out of the conflicting desire to merge with, and remain separate from, one’s object.
As noted above, Stoller argues that aberrant behaviour may be defined perverse if the act is determined by an unconsciously remembered, ever-active childhood trauma or frustration with a resultant conflict that must continually be resolved, the resolution being the perverse act. Identifications contained in the perversion are clouded in hostility arising out of disturbances in attachment or object-relations, and the subject turns outwards to find a victim to suit his or her need for revenge. Stoller suggests that such motivation is dependent upon the individual’s subjective feeling of having been victimized - a characterological trait commonly found in those presenting with gender identity disorders.
Stoller goes on to suggest that the uneasiness that some men feel about being intimate in emotional and sexual terms reflects the need to raise a barrier against the desire to merge with the mother (symbiosis anxiety) for, as we have seen, such merging arouses fear of loss of masculine identity. Stoller argues that this dynamic could partly account for the many men who cannot live lovingly with a woman except for short periods, and for those men who, after sexual intercourse, must get up and away quickly, or who feel anxious and disturbed by the experience. Conversely, Stoller points out that some men may use a strong feminine identification to defend against being flooded or overwhelmed by either engulfment or separation anxiety.
Turning now to Stubrin’s writing on sexual perversions. Stubrin uses the term “neosexuality” to refer to something the person creates (or has had created in him or her) in order to avoid the disorganization generated by the fact of being outside the “normative frame”. As with Stoller, Stubrin sees the neosexual or perverse activity as also referring to the attempts made by the person to maintain a psychic equilibrium and gender identification. Stubrin emphasises his view that such psychological attempts do not differ from those made by non-neosexuals to achieve the same end. Indeed, he states “I do not believe that a person whose sexuality is not common is necessarily ill . . . Among the so-called sexual deviants, we will, indeed, find persons who are psychologically healthy and others who are not”. Stubrin criticizes a certain tendency in psychoanalytic theory to assign sexual deviations to the field of mental illness or degenerative tendencies. He points out that such an attitude is contrary to the psychoanalytic ideal which aims uniquely at trying to understand, and thereby help, each analysand to find his or her individual truth or subjective reality.
With regard to Freud’s views on homosexuality, Stubrin reproduces a letter written by Freud in 1935 to a mother concerned about her son’s homosexuality (p.90). In this letter, Freud clearly asserts that “homosexuality is not an illness, vice or degradation, but a variation of the sexual function”. Stubrin also quotes from a letter jointly written by Freud and Rank in 1921 in response to a communication from Ernest Jones. The topic of discussion raised by Jones was the “propriety” of accepting for psychoanalytic training a doctor “known to be manifestly homosexual” (p.93). Jones informs Freud that he had “advised” the Dutch “against it”. Freud and Rank replied as follows: “We cannot exclude such persons without other sufficient reason, as we cannot agree with their legal persecution. We feel that a decision in such cases should depend upon a thorough examination of the other qualities of the candidate”, (emphasis in the original).
Stubrin proceeds to argue that the neosexual person suffers from a disturbance in self-organization - in his bodily configuration and its boundaries; in the way he sees himself in the mirror (the forms and deformations); in the way he feels watched by others; and also in the role he believes he is playing in the game of human interaction. Stubrin makes the point that the reason why sexual identity is so important is because it is closely linked to identity itself. The fact is not to be either a man or a woman, but to be or not to be - to exist as a separate human being.
Following McDougall (1989), Stubrin suggests that neosexuality is a manifestation of a complex psychic state in which anxiety has a decisive role along with the depression derived from such a state, the inhibition it produces and the disturbance of self-organization involved. However, in line with Stoller, Stubrin argues that neosexuality also gives the ego cohesion and a feeling of separate identity. He, too, posits that true perversions start with the person’s earliest development, specifically disturbances in the separation-individuation process from the symbiotic mother, as described by Mahler et al (1985). He suggests that in such instances, the father is a largely unavailable figure who does little to dissipate the merged mother-child relationship.
Thus Stubrin argues that serious interference in early object relations will have occurred in those persons who go on to develop a neosexual perversion. In terms of Mahler’s theory, this means that the person has remained psychologically merged with the mother of the initial symbiosis, rather than having attained separation-individuation. To emphasise this point, Stubrin quotes the following passage by Mahler & Furer (1969): “The most extreme separation reactions, as has been seen, seem to occur not in those children who have experienced actual physical separations, but in those in whom the symbiotic relationship was too exclusive and too parasitic, or in whom the mother did not accept the child’s individuation and separation. Their reactions may be somewhat reminiscent, clinically, of the annihilation dread of adult psychotics”, (p.25).
Stubrin goes on to argue that as a consequence of the failure of the separation-individuation process, the subject comes to perceive the mother as generally threatening, terrifying and engulfing and the father as weak and powerless. Moreover, both the mother and the child defend their symbiotic connection because they need each other to maintain stability of self-organization and to counter anxiety. But, as we have seen, both Stoller and Stubrin view the neosexual/perverse relationship as providing a limited possibility for the individual to extricate him or herself from the symbiotic merger with the mother. Further, these authors argue that the primary motivation for the perverse activity is the desire to separate and form a distinct identity.
Freud, S (1977). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In vol. 7 of “The Penguin Freud Library”. London: Penguin.
Mahler, M.S. and Furer, M. (1969). On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation: Infantile Psychosis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association. 15: 740-753.
Mahler, M. S., Pine, F. and Bergman, A. (1985). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. London: Karnac Books.
McDougall, J. (1989). Theatres of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage. London: Free Association Books.
Stoller, R. J. (1986). Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. London: Karnac Books.
Stubrin, J. P. (1994). Sexualities and Homosexualities. Trans. Eduardo Reneboldi. London: Karnac Books.