Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Intimacy, Sex, and Art
That what we are and can be as persons is bound up completely with the quality of our most important personal relationships should be so obvious as to need no proof. (Guntrip, p. 194)
This is an article I wrote for young people who are starting to grapple with the issues of human relatedness. It was published by Kendall Hunt in a textbook that is used in college level human sexuality courses. Having been dissatisfied with the presentation of the article in that venue, I decided to repost it here, with some revisions.
The three topics: intimacy, sex, and art, are closely related. In fact, I see them as variants on a long spectrum of modes of communication of the inward heart. Because intimacy is the most profound form of human relating and basic to the other two types, it will serve as the starting point for this discussion. Keep in mind that intimacy is essentially communication, and it is communication of the inward heart. By this I mean the sharing of our private inner world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, intentions, dreams, fantasies, or ideas that are in most circumstances experienced and held private within ourselves. We all have an inner life. We all experience the world and each other subjectively. That is, we not only have sensations and gather information by means of our senses, but we react to those experiences, we interpret them and respond to them, in light of our previous experiences and conditioning events. These reactions and understandings and judgments we make about our experience is not readily evident to others, although those that are closely attuned to us may have a sense of our inner states. But this is acquired through repeated experience and careful attention. Our bodies and our demeanor may yield some clues to some of our inner states, but most of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, and imaginings are experienced privately within ourselves. The sharing of that private world with another person or persons is intimacy.
We live in a culture that does not value the inner life of individuals and is uneasy with the exploration and sharing of that inner life. Americans are very outward looking and outward directed. We like action rather than reflection. But intimate communication and the quality of that communication is the foundation of our personal lives and our closest relationships. It affects the social and intellectual development of children, and is a powerful motivator in all aspects of human activity. Intimate communication reveals the structure and style of one’s personality. It requires at least two people to be intimate, but intimacy can include more than two. There are many ways to share our inner experience: speech, touching, movements, gestures, actions, artworks, and sex are all modes of intimate communication. One can think of intimacy as emotional and psychological disrobing.
A persona is a mode of presenting oneself publicly in order to promote smooth functioning in society. It is not necessarily false, although personas can often be very misleading. At best, it is only a very partial revelation of who we are. A persona is like a suit of clothes that we wear to meet expectations others have of us. It is only the top layer, which allows us to carry out daily activities without causing disturbance. There is much that goes on within us that is not revealed in how we present ourselves publicly even to close friends and family members. Intimacy is the process of revealing those deeper layers of our inner life. The audience for such revelations is typically small, although art is an intimate revelation that aims for a wide audience, or an undefined audience. We will discuss the peculiar qualities of artistic communication a little further on. But for now we will think of intimacy as communication of the inner self occurring within an interpersonal context.
Intimacy has degrees. In an interpersonal relationship intimacy is usually reciprocal to some extent, although that reciprocity will vary. Intimacy is rarely balanced and it is never perfect and it is never complete. A mother’s intimacy with her infant or young child is weighted toward the child. The mother has greater awareness of the child’s needs than the child has of the mother’s. The intimacy of a doctor or a psychiatrist with a patient is weighted toward the patient. In every personal relationship the degree of transparency and opacity will vary considerably from one area to another. I like to think of relationships as having doors and windows that open and close. Some doors open and some remain closed. Some are closed after they have once been open. Some windows you can see through and some you can’t. This is intimacy. It is highly variable depending on the person and on the relationship.
We should avoid formulating an ideal of what intimacy should be like. Such ideals and expectations tend to be used to criticize and evaluate, and this tends to undermine intimacy. Intimacy depends on acceptance, which is a relaxation of our defenses, expectations, and preconceptions. Openness and receptivity are prerequisites to intimacy. One must suspend one’s assumptions and expectations of another person in order to be intimate. Intimacy is always full of surprises, because you really know very little of what is inside another person, and a person’s inner landscape is always in flux. To maintain an intimate connection with another person you have to pay attention. Rather than being something one strives for, intimacy depends on relaxation and allowing what is normally kept inward to emerge and flow freely into the mutual awareness between oneself and another. This can be very risky. There are good reasons why we keep many things private to ourselves. An outlook on life and on human beings heavily committed to moral strictures and/ or to an ideal of personal behavior is an impediment to intimacy. When a person fears judgment and censure, it is hard to be revealing. Creating an atmosphere where a person can feel comfortable sharing what is habitually kept inside and not outwardly expressed can take considerable time and skill. In some situations with a new person intimacy seems to appear suddenly and spontaneously. It may yield a feeling of elation or exhilaration. But such intimacy is only partial and often turns out to be temporary. Intimacy has a developmental line. It can broaden and deepen over time creating ever greater mutual awareness and interdependence, or it can shrink. It can ebb and flow like a tide that rises and falls. Relationships that have become dull or boring, that seem have lost their vitality, have probably lost their intimate connection. Small rejections and disappointments cause the doors and windows of intimacy to close. These small alterations in the avenues of inward communication accumulate over time. They are quite often so small and subtle that they often go unnoticed. But their cumulative effect is that the couple begins to lose interest in one another. One or the other might start to look elsewhere for the kind of connection they need.
Intimacy in an interpersonal context is habitual communication which creates a bond of the emotions and one’s inner personhood. Repeated contact maintains and enhances this bond. Intimacy tends to establish patterns of relating, small unspoken understandings and agreements. An intimate connection that has fallen into neglect can be revived, but disuse can allow alterations in ones internal configuration to establish themselves that may make a revival of a previous intimacy difficult.
Intimacy should probably be distinguished from dependence, which is very common. Emotional dependence, the need for the reassuring presence of another, the need for constant attention, the desperate clinging to the attention and presence of another in response to a largely unconscious premonition of abandonment or loss, is a form of one-sided intimacy akin to that of a mother with her children. Communication and understanding flow mostly in one direction. This kind of connection is narcissistic in the negative sense, which I will explain a little further on. It is an unbalanced form of intimacy.
Despite the many obstacles to intimacy, it is something that occurs spontaneously and naturally among people. People want to be closely and emotionally connected to one another. Even the most paranoid or schizoid person wants to be understood and accepted on his or her own terms. These great public conflagrations of rage and despair such as Adam Lanza’s, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s, Seung-Hui Cho’s, are meant to communicate with the entire society. The perpetrators of these spectacles don’t want to just die, they want to be noticed. I doubt if there is any hope or expectation of understanding left in such people. Understanding is something they have had very little of in their lives and have long given up on. These actions are spectacular exhibitions of destruction and despair. Mass murder is intimate because it communicates and reveals the inward heart. The bond it creates with its victims and society is its continuing legacy of destruction.
Intimacy in its most mature form is related to empathy. Empathy is the ability to accurately grasp the inner life of another person, to understand how another person feels in a particular situation, to grasp the logic of their motives, to be able to anticipate their reactions or behavior. Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy, which is an attitude of benevolence or compassion toward another person. Empathy is strictly informative. It says nothing about how this accurate understanding another person’s inner life will be applied. Salesmen need empathy, politicians need empathy, con men need empathy, torturers need empathy. And so do doctors, mothers, artists, and lovers. Empathy is only a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used to build a house, or to kill somebody.
Because empathy informs one of strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities in another, intimacy informed by empathy carries considerable risk. One becomes vulnerable in an intimate relationship. A person who knows you well can hurt you, and they know best how to do it. Exposure of one’s inner self carries with it natural vulnerability. It takes courage and self-confidence to be intimate. Many people who lack such inner strength and confidence have difficulty becoming intimate with another person. Some people reach a certain level of intimacy and then panic at the realization of their own vulnerability. They may inexplicably withdraw at the very moment when the relationship seems to be close and deepening. Because of the high level of vulnerability entailed by intimacy, trust is an important ingredient in any intimate relationship. It is almost a prerequisite. People who are unable to trust others due to past injuries or painful relationships have difficulty forming intimate connections to others.
Paranoid and Schizoid Defenses
Paranoia is an abiding condition of fear coupled with mobilization for defense that has been established through repeated attacks. It is the great enemy of intimacy. Paranoia is a defensive system that operates on the assumption that all human relations are essentially antagonistic and exploitative. What it is defending against is an extreme sense of vulnerability, and rage against its many persecutors. Paranoid people simply don’t believe in constructive, nurturing, benevolent relationships. Every good and positive outreach toward them is converted into something hostile or manipulative. If you succeed in penetrating the formidable defenses of a severely paranoid person, what you will find is a wounded, enraged person who sees himself as the victim of attacks from all directions. You may find yourself playing a starring role in his persecutory delusions — not a position you want to be in.
Another common defensive system that seems to be increasingly popular in America is the schizoid. The schizoid person withdraws from human contact. They attempt to shrink the emotional life across the board keeping human interactions and emotional expression to an absolute minimum. Intimacy tends to be avoided at all costs, and when ventured into is an area of great difficulty. The schizoid challenge is disengagement. You can’t reach the person on an intimate level. The paranoid is engaged, but it is a hostile, destructive engagement.
They [the schizoids] are the people who have deep-seated doubts about the reality and viability of their very “self,” who are ultimately found to be suffering from varying degrees of depersonalization, unreality, the dread feeling of “not belonging,” of being fundamentally isolated and out of touch with their world.
The schizoid problem is the problem of those “who feel cut off, apart, different, unable to become involved in any real relationships. (Guntrip, p. 148)
These two defensive styles in a range of degrees and combinations are very widespread in American society and have influenced our laws and our culture to the extent that intimate relationships are difficult to achieve and maintain in contemporary America. Intimate relations are seen as hazardous — which they are — and this feeds the paranoid’s need for defense and the schizoid’s need to withdraw into isolation. Intimate relationships are therefore not encouraged, or even actively discouraged, and sometimes persecuted — which tends to intensify the trend toward isolation.
The reasons for this increasing cultural trend are deep and complex and would make a good book, if someone out there wants to write it. But one important piece of evidence, I think, is the growth and success of science and technology, especially over the last couple of centuries. Science looks at the world in a totally impersonal way. Explanations of natural phenomena are sought in terms of mechanical causes and effects, not for personal reasons having to do with the human world. The success of this style of perceiving and relating to the natural world has enormously extended the human capacity to exploit, subdue, and control Nature to a degree unimaginable only a few centuries ago. This success has encouraged its application to all areas of life. Schizoid personalities are very common among scientists and mathematicians. “Objectivity” means removing oneself from the matter at hand, perceiving and understanding a matter apart from one’s personal interest in it. People are increasingly looking at one another in this depersonalized, utilitarian fashion.
This is consistent and very congenial to the values of corporate capitalism which are focused entirely on externals like production, exchange, transportation, organization, and profit. The growth of corporations over the last century and a half, whose sole rationale and purpose for existence is to maximize profit, with all other values being subordinated to that overbearing imperative, have devalued the personal life of everyone in that economic system. Personal happiness, interpersonal satisfaction, and sexual fulfillment, have no exchange value and therefore play no role in the economy. Increasingly one’s personal life is forced to the sidelines as earning a living takes an ever greater proportion of time, energy, and attention. Modern life creates numerous obstacles to forming intimate relationships and places great challenges upon them, and this has created a society full of lonely, disconnected people hungry for connection yet finding it increasingly difficult to make the kind of fulfilling connections they seek.
What is the value of intimacy? Why strive for intimacy in our relations with others? Intimacy is the antidote to loneliness. Humans are by nature social. We are a species that has always survived in groups rather than as isolated individuals, like, say, orangutans. Humans need connection to others and that need is established in the earliest interactions between an infant and its mother. The lack of such a connection is experienced as painful distress. An abandoned infant will cry until it is exhausted. The need for reassuring connection to other human beings is deep in our nature and intimacy fulfills that need for connection. Our experience of ourselves is from the outset defined and established in relation to others, first and foremost, to our mothers. This earliest intimacy with our mothers establishes the development of our sense of self, the narcissistic structure of our personalities. This defines our need for intimacy and how that need is expressed and sought.
Narcissism in the broadest sense refers to how one experiences oneself as a human being. It refers to one’s feelings about oneself and one’s abilities, one’s personal appearance, one’s physical capabilities and bodily integrity, and how one sees oneself in relation to others. It has to do with how one feels about life in general. Is it good? Is it bad? It is worthwhile, or not? Should I continue living or not? These are narcissistic issues because they refer back to the self and the engagement of the self in life.
There are positive and negative aspects to narcissism. Narcissism in the positive sense is the regard one feels for oneself and one’s own well being. The care one takes of one’s own body, one’s attention to grooming and appearance, the sensitivity one has to the impression one makes on others, the care and attention one gives to one’s own health and well being, the satisfaction one feels in accomplishment or the realization of ambition, the sense of satisfaction one feels in helping others, teaching others, giving to others, one’s sense of participating and belonging to a larger group. Good parenting is narcissism in the positive sense, the satisfaction one takes in seeing one’s children grow up healthy and constructively. Narcissism in the positive sense is feeling a sense of abundance in oneself, having the ability and the resources to share with others and enhance the lives of others. In a word, self-esteem. The satisfaction one takes in giving an appropriate gift is a narcissistic satisfaction. On the other hand, an inappropriate gift, a gift that is overly extravagant, or is otherwise not suited to the recipient shows a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding of the other person, a gift given to enhance the giver in his own eyes rather than from an appropriate understanding of the needs of the receiver is an example of narcissism in the negative sense, of deficient empathy and using others to enhance one’s own self-esteem or sense of grandiosity. Pathological narcissism is obliviousness to the needs and feelings of others. It is not necessarily malicious, although it often comes off that way. It is actually a deficit in emotional perception. Pathological narcissism cannot see beyond its own needs and interests because of a great underlying sense of vulnerability. Pathological narcissism limits one’s capacity for intimacy because one’s need to enhance one’s own self image is so great it overwhelms and excludes the ability to be receptive and open to the needs and feelings of another. Narcissism in the negative sense tends to exclude empathy or uses empathy selfishly and unsympathetically without consideration of the needs or feelings of others. The narcissistic structure of one’s personality determines the degree of intimacy of which one is capable and the character of the intimate relations one is able to establish, whether constructive and enhancing, or destructive.
Art is also communication of the inward heart. An artist realizes his own inner self, or, let’s say, an aspect of it, in a work or performance that can be viewed or shared by a public audience. This impulse to create and share one’s internal self is a narcissistic need. Not everyone has this drive to create and share one’s inner heart through external symbolic representations. It is a peculiarity of artists, the origins of which we will not explore here. Art is a form of intimacy in the sense that the artist shares his or her inward self and exposes it to an external audience. The size of the audience does not matter. What is important is that art reaches out for connection. Art is not masturbation. It is not something you do for your own private comfort or amusement. Art connects you to other people. There is a narcissistic satisfaction in creating something with great technical skill that others can recognize and admire. But what is essential to art is not this narcissistic satisfaction that the artist feels in his creative accomplishment, but rather the outreach to others from the core of the artist’s inner self that a work of art represents. By creating something external to oneself, as opposed to simply daydreaming or fantasizing, one creates the possibility of a connection to others through their perception of one’s artwork. When a person comes into contact with a work of art, they are coming into contact with a representation of the inner self of the artist who created it. One does not create randomly. This does not mean that a viewer can readily grasp the emotional and psychological meaning of a work of art upon encountering it. It takes considerable time and experience to understand an artistic language, and artists are often deliberately obscure and idiosyncratic in how they present themselves in their work. However, it is my view that artistic effectiveness is related to communicative effectiveness rather than to obscurity.
Architectural blueprints, anatomical diagrams, maps, graphs, are depictions of external reality. They are meticulous assemblages of facts, measurements, and objective characteristics that can be seen and verified by anyone. They are not usually thought of as art, because they do not reflect the inner self, the maker’s subjective reaction or perspective on the subject presented. When Picasso did his painting of the Weeping Woman (1937) he was not trying to recreate this woman in a true to life rendering. Rather, this image reflects how Picasso saw this woman and how he chose to depict her out of all the many ways he could have chosen to do this painting. This painting is a subjective view of the woman, not an attempt to describe her body or her character with objective validity. Art is about illusions. It is about how the artist needs to see the world, not necessarily how the world is. And that is entirely based on his personal psychology. Even the Dutch masters who drew and painted meticulously accurate portraits of faces and people still had a personal style of their own. They had to choose how to portray their subjects, what manner of dress they should wear, how they should be posed, the circumstances in which they are set, the intensity and direction of the light, the mood or facial expression to be portrayed. These are all personal choices of the artist that go into the creation of a “realistic” portrait. So in this sense art is always a reflection of the subjectivity of the artist. Art is a partial intimacy because what the artist chooses to present of himself is carefully selected and meticulously prepared for public presentation to obtain a calculated effect. The intimacy of art tends to flow in one direction, from the artist to the viewer.
Reciprocity, that is, the viewer’s experience or reaction to the artwork is not usually experienced directly by the artist, except for admiring applause or negative reviews. But that is not the most important impact of art upon its audience. The important and lasting impact of art is usually not expressed directly, and that is the expansion of the inner awareness of the viewer of an artwork, or an alteration in his or her perception and understanding of the external world, or of himself or herself.
I disagree with John Cage that art is non-intentional, that its purpose is to ” sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” (John Cage, johncage.org/autobiographical statement ) This conception of artistic purpose rejects the communicative function of art and is the polar opposite from my own view. My understanding of art is narcissistic in the sense that it starts from the self of the artist and connects the artist to other selves through the communicative means of the artwork. Cage’s conception of art stems from Zen Buddhist ideas that seek the annihilation of the self. Art becomes a means of “emptying” the self, reducing the self towards the ideal of nothingness. Nothing could be further from or more opposed to the point of view I am advancing here. My view is that life is a process of the growth of the self and the enhancement of the self through fulfilling connections to others, as stated in the epigraph at the outset. Art is a means toward that enhancement and fulfillment as is intimacy in personal relationships. Zen Buddhism essentially elevates the schizoid position of detachment and isolation to an ideal of human development, a view I am totally out of sympathy with.
What is the value of art? Art expands one’s awareness of the internal life and enables one to perceive people, the external world, the social environment, and one’s inner life in new ways. Art alters our way of looking at things and experiencing ourselves. In that sense art can be educational in that it offers modes of experiencing ourselves and the external world that might not be available through other channels. Art can change people in that it alters their perceptions and awakens them to aspects of inner and outer reality of which they may not be aware. In that sense art is volatile and can be subversive if it seeks to illuminate that which is officially suppressed. Art fosters intimacy by expanding awareness of the inner self and directing attention toward reflection on the inner life. Failure to educate in the arts, minimizing attention to the arts, devaluing the arts, indicate a lack of value placed on the development of the inner self.
What does all of this have to do with sex? Sex is also communication of the inward heart and an expression of the narcissistic structure of the personality. It falls within the broader concept of intimacy, but it has peculiarities that set it apart from other forms of intimate communication. Sex is communication through the body that seeks the satisfaction of lust. Lust is a powerful connecting emotion. Lust impels one to seek contact with another person, and it is contact of a particular kind, namely contact leading to sexual arousal and genital contact. However, many other kinds of touch and many other aspects of intimacy occur within the context of sexual activity. Touch, physical affection, and bodily closeness are enormously reassuring and comforting. These needs for comfort, reassurance, and affection that occur alongside the satisfaction of lust are highly intimate and satisfy a deep longing for connection and bonding between people. This is perhaps the deepest form of intimacy because it is a sharing of the most intensely felt bodily and psychological longings. How one expresses and seeks to satisfy lust and the need for bodily closeness reflects the narcissistic structure of one’s personality. Sex has a lot in common with art in that the mode in which one seeks to satisfy lust reflects one’s narcissistic needs just as the art that one produces reflects the narcissistic structure of the artist’s inner self. Sex says a lot about who you are. Sex is not only about the satisfaction of lust. Sex is a paradigmatic expression of narcissism. Because sex is communication, sex tells you where you are in a relationship with another person. When sex is going well and people find satisfaction and mutual pleasure in one another, it signifies a strong bond and a positive avenue of communication and understanding. Of course this is not the only aspect of a relationship that is important and it is not all there is to intimate communication. Some people use sex to cover up or avoid other issues that may be a source of discomfort. Sex can also be used to conceal and mislead. A dishonest heart can use sex to manipulate and destroy. The intimacy of sex is only partial. Sex is one aspect of intimacy, but a very important one because it embodies the energetic connection of lust and sexual arousal. But do not think that because you have sex with a person you know everything important about them.
There are numerous theories on the origin of kissing, and kissing can, of course, have many different meanings. Some cultures do not kiss at all, or very little. References to kissing in Western culture go back to ancient times, and the era of exploration and colonialism, as well as modern media have spread the practice of kissing around the world. Psychoanalytic theory sees the propensity to kiss stemming from the feelings of warmth, safety, nurturing, and well being in the infant’s nursing at the mother’s breast. Clamping the mouth on the nipple is a means of incorporation, of sustenance, dependence and survival. In adults the meanings and style of kissing can be many, but kissing always carries a message related to nurturing or incorporation. Gentle kisses of affection, pecks on the cheek and so forth, impart a message of affection, good feeling, warmth, reassurance, and nurturing. Kisses of passion and desire communicate a will to incorporate, to possess, consume, an emotional neediness, an inner longing and loneliness for which one is seeking solace in the other. Kissing — or not kissing — reveals how attracted a person is to your body, how much they need you, how much they like you, their willingness to depend on you, and the degree to which they can reciprocate your feelings and empathize with your needs. All of this can be communicated through kissing. Oral sex is a further extension of these feelings and needs of both giving and incorporating through the mouth, but applied to the genitals and the emotions of sexual arousal. The use of the mouth as a body connector is a very powerful and effective means of intimate communication.
Orgasm is understudied and not well understood. Most of what is known about orgasm has issued from studies of epilepsy and people who have had nerve damage, spinal and/or brain injuries. Physiologically, orgasm shares a lot of characteristics with epileptic seizures. There is no scientific consensus on the definition of orgasm or how it should be conceptualized. For this reason I am putting forward my own conceptualization of it here.
Sexual desire, lust, sexual arousal, and orgasm are hypnotic processes. They shift our awareness to special subjective states that mobilize emotional and physical response systems that are normally dormant during everyday experience. Sexual desire, or lust, is the perception of the sexuality of another person. It is looking at another person and feeling the possibility of sexual activity, creating a visualization of the other in a sexual context. It is a conscious awareness of desirable sexual interaction, which is a continuing state. It is different, from simply perceiving a person’s existence, or the clothes they are wearing, or their ability to perform some task, or their physical characteristics. What makes it different is that it mobilizes our personal emotional response system and prepares us for sexual arousal in a way that other kinds of perception do not, and therefore it is an altered mode of awareness. Sexual arousal is the next level of intensification. The body becomes mobilized in anticipation of sexual activity. Internal physical sensations become more prominent in our awareness and other considerations that might inhibit sexual arousal tend to be excluded from consciousness. Arousal is intensified through physical stimulation of the genitals and other regions of the body as well as psychic stimuli such as sound, scenario, internal visualization (fantasy), and perhaps smell. At a certain threshold orgasm is triggered. Involuntary physical processes are set in motion accompanied by intense awareness of pleasurable sensation that excludes nearly everything else. Orgasm is a state where physical pleasure overwhelms consciousness and obliterates the ability to attend to other inputs to consciousness. Some people see a relationship between orgasm and the “loss of self” reported in some mystical experiences. My feeling is that orgasm differs from these mystical experiences in that in orgasm the self does not disintegrate. The self remains intact. But normal consciousness, which ordinarily processes input from numerous internal and external sources simultaneously, becomes overwhelmed during orgasm by internal physical sensations which become extraordinarily dominant. Other modes of perception and awareness are not extinguished. One can still see and hear during orgasm, but, orgasm is a state where interoception (awareness of the internal state of one’s body) is magnified to a unique predominance. This makes it special. One must be able to relax one’s external and internal perceptual apparatus in order to orgasm. Ordinarily we are bombarded by sensate experience from the external world as well as from our own internal thought processes. In order to orgasm one must be able to allow those perceptions to recede from consciousness so that the physical pleasure of the orgasm occupies one’s awareness to the near exclusion of everything else. This is a hypnotic process. It is not entirely voluntary, but it is conditioned by experience. It is the capability of awareness to shift in a specific way under the conditions of intense sexual stimulation. One does not orgasm from driving a car or vacuuming the carpet. Orgasm is a special type of conscious experience that can only occur under very specialized conditions. In my view, this is the way orgasm should be understood.
Komisaruk, et al. (2006) argue that orgasm is not a reflex, but rather a perception, (p. 237f.) and I concur with this valuable insight. That is, orgasm is not generated by muscular contractions caused by genital stimulation, which, in turn, lead to a reflexive action in the spinal column. Genital stimulation mobilizes neurons throughout the body sending greater and greater levels of excitation to the brain. The muscular contractions are indeed reflexive and can be elicited in the spinal column even when the spinal cord is severed. But orgasm is not produced unless those muscular contractions are perceived by the brain as sensations. This supports my view that orgasm should be understood as essentially a psychological phenomenon, not simply as a physical process. The physical concomitants of orgasm are, of course, noteworthy and important, but Komisaruk and his collaborators have shown that the physical processes themselves do not constitute orgasm. They can occur without the experience of orgasm, and orgasm can occur independently of physical arousal. Therefore orgasm must be understood as essentially a subjective experience, a particular state of altered awareness, that is usually (although not necessarily) accompanied by specific physiological processes under the conditions of intense sexual arousal. Orgasm is therefore primarily a narcissistic experience rather than a communicative one, although sharing orgasms is a powerful bonding experience, because sharing the special ecstatic state of orgasm is highly intimate.
Sadism and Masochism
Sadism is the pleasure we take in the suffering of another. It is a spectrum that extends from gentle teasing to torturing someone to death. Sadism reflects ambivalence. It is essentially a hostile, destructive impulse that is mitigated by feelings of good will, love, guilt, and perhaps fear. We need the person toward whom we feel hostility, so we don’t want to destroy them. But it feels good to see them suffer. It is the expression of the suppressed hostile impulse that is pleasurable. The spectrum is defined by the mix of hostile and positive feelings toward the victim. The greater the hostility, the greater the cruelty and the darker the expression. As the mitigating feelings tend toward zero, it becomes simply cruelty. Mild sadism is ordinary and commonplace. Jokes are often mildly sadistic and jokes that are overly hostile can lose their humor. Sadism is intimate because it expresses our conflicted feelings toward another person, and the pleasure we feel in the pain or discomfort of another is something usually kept private. Sadism is common in sexual activity to a greater or lesser degree, because sexual relationships are conflicted and often mixed with hostile aspects.
Masochism is using adversity to one’s advantage and seeking it out for that purpose. I see it as a broader concept than sadism and it is related to depression and despair. Masochism is an adaptation of people who are habituated to suffering and adversity. The erotic aspect of it, feeling sexual arousal in response to pain, or pain as an intensifier of erotic feeling, comes from associating sexual arousal or love with painful experiences, neglect, disappointment, and abuse. One learns that to love, or to be aroused, hurts, and one comes to expect, or even to need, that conjunction of feelings. In my eyes, masochism is harder to understand than sadism because in order to understand it one must grasp a lifetime of painful experiences that may not be easily accessible. In an erotic context it is not a neat complement to sadism, in general. It is much more complicated, whereas sadism, although conflicted, is relatively straightforward. For that reason I don’t like the term ‘sadomasochism’. It squashes together two things that I think are very different and don’t necessarily complement one another.
Love is a word that is used in many different ways to mean many different things. I tend to avoid it because I always fear that I am giving the wrong impression. People attach very different meanings to ‘love’ and it raises all sorts of expectations that may not be realistic. However, it is enormously reassuring and people love to hear it, so we must deal with it.
I will start with my definition of love in the best sense. Mature love is good will guided by empathy and tempered with a respect for the separateness and individuality of the other person. Empathy is very important. Empathy means you understand how the other person feels and what his or her real needs are. Most of what is called ‘love’ is not empathic and this leads to all sorts of turmoil. I disagree with defining love in terms of a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the beloved. This is masochistic. It implies that you are giving up something you would rather not in order to benefit the beloved. You are inflicting some suffering upon yourself in order that your loved one may enjoy some benefit. Love is certainly characterized by a giving spirit and a desire to enhance and bestow advantage upon one’s beloved. But rather than self denial, love represents a sharing of the abundance of one’s physical and emotional resources. It does not necessarily expect anything in return, but it embodies a hope for attachment and good will and an intertwining with the life of the beloved. Love is an expansion of the self, an attempt to complete the self through emotional resonances and attachment to what is valued and idealized in the other. Whatever is done out of love does not occur beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche once suggested (Beyond Good and Evil, 153). Love can never be an excuse for reckless or destructive actions. Love lies squarely within the framework of our values and constructive human relationships. Mature love is closely related to respect for others and responsibility for oneself.
Our common notion of “romantic” love is characterized by strong emotion, passion, elation, anticipation, despair, jealousy, possessiveness, dependence and obsessive preoccupation with the beloved. This is what people usually mean by being “in love.” This kind of love tends to be self-centered and unempathic, often lacking a realistic perception of the beloved as a complete person, sometimes ignoring serious character flaws in the other, and often a maintaining distorted understanding of the relationship itself. It is sometimes manifest as a furious, psychological dependence that devours and emotionally destroys the other through insatiable demands for attention and control. This is not mature love, in any way, shape, or form. However, these experiences can have great emotional and psychological significance. Relationships that start out this way can sometimes evolve into more mature forms of love without losing the passion and zest with which they began. This romantic kind of love brings people together, but it is not what keeps them together in a satisfying relationship over a long period of time. Empathy, good will, and respect are much more important for healthy, durable loving relationships than “love.” Intimacy is an important element in a healthy loving relationship because intimacy informs and bonds. Intimacy enables one to be close to another person, to know the other person in depth, to be in touch with the other person’s feelings, concerns, and needs. Intimacy gives a sense of connection, mutual dependence, and support. We do not face the world alone, we face it together as a couple giving strength and support to one another, informed by our intimate knowledge of one another and energized by lust and sexual pleasure. It’s a good way to live, if you can achieve it.
Cage, John (1990) johncage.org/autobiographical statement.
Guntrip, Harry (1973) Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy, and the Self. New York: Basic Books.
Kirshenbaum, Sheril (2011) The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips are Telling Us. New York: Hachette Book Group.
Komisaruk, Barry. R.; Beyer-Flores, Carlos; & Whipple, Beverly. (2006) The Science of Orgasm. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Nietzsche, Freidrich (1989 ) Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vinage/Random House.