Perversion (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
To posit a "perverse" sexuality is to imply the existence of a "normal" variety with reference to which certain acts and object-choices are deemed deviant. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Sigmund Freud stated that the aim of adult sexuality was to reach orgasm by means of genital penetration, but he tempered this rather normative statement by observing that "the disposition to perversions is itself of no great rarity but must form a part of what passes as the normal constitution" (p. 171).
This was the basis of Freud's celebrated formula according to which "neurosis is the negative of perversion" (pp. 165, 231). In his turnr perhaps rather his returno Freud, Jacques Lacan followed up by underlining the importance of the absence of the father in cases of perversion, and at the same time claimed that perversion was above all attributable to the mother's putting her child in the place of the phallus (2002 [1955-56], p. 188). The pervert-to-be was thus chained to the desire/demand of the mother. It should be borne in mind, however, that Lacan was chiefly interested in the form of a "third structure" between the psychotic structure and the neurotic, so that for him perversion was a specific structural category rather than a class of sexual behavior to be set against an established norm.
It is difficult, from the psychoanalytical perspective, to frame a satisfactory definition of what, among adult sexual activities and object-choices, might constitute a symptom. Should homosexuality, for example, always be looked upon as a symptom? Or should it be viewed simply as a variation of male or female sexuality? Psychoanalysts are sharply divided on this clinical question.
First of all, the polymorphous features of adult sexuality hardly need underlining. Countless patients, whether heterosexual or homosexual, describe an infinite variety of erotic scenarios, fetish objects, masquerades, sadomasochistic games, and so on, which constitute private areas in their love lives, and which they experience neither as compulsive nor as indispensable to their sexual gratification.
Since every psychological symptom constitutes an attempt at self-cure intended to spare the sufferer painful mental conflict, this may be said equally of symptomatic sexuality (inasmuch as we are able to define it). Such a constructive approach to the meaning and aim of sexual symptoms, and of the reason for their formation, invariably leads to the conclusion that they embody infantile solutions to the confusions and anxieties attending sexual difference and sexual identity. The need to reinvent the sexual act often turns out to be closely tied to the parents' unconscious, or to silent messages or deceptive communications from the parents concerning sexual identity, adult sexuality, and notions of "feminine" and "masculine."
If some patients can achieve sexual satisfaction only by recourse to fetishistic, sadomasochistic, or other scenarios, the analyst might well wish that their sex life were less constrained, less subject to rigid conditions; yet if such erotic rituals are indeed for them the sine qua non of sexual relations, there is no justification for wanting these patients to abandon their erotic practices, whether or not other people consider them perverse.
As for the primal scene and the troubling fantasies to which it is apt to give rise, these tendpart from their genital aspects and the phallic-oedipal conflicts they arouse well before the oedipal crisis propero bear the stamp of the pregenital: the fantasies in question feature devoration, or erotic and sadistic exchanges of an anal or fecal kind. When such fantasies predominate, they often fail to be integrated into genital eroticism and thus lead to so-called perverse sexual solutions.
Even more inhibiting than fantasies originating in the pregenital psychosexual stage are archaic fantasies involving vampirism, implosion, and fears of the loss of identity or of the sense of the boundaries of the body. When such fantasies, characteristic of early infancy, play a predominant part in the mental reality of adult individuals, sexual and love relationships are liable to be experienced as a threat of castration, annihilation, or death.
In order to achieve a gratifying sexual or love life, individuals inhabited by such terrifying fantasies find themselves obliged by the force of their unconscious to invent means whereby their castration anxiety and fear of annihilationo which may be added feelings of confusion as to sexual identity, of emptiness, and of inner deathan be transformed into eroticized games. As an absolute prerequisite to sexual relations, adults in this situation commonly require complex theatrics: constraining conditions, disguises of all sorts, pregenital sexual behavior including the exchange of excrement, and so onll meticulously stage-managed.
Most patients who re-enact the primal scene in this way feel that their erotic acts and object-choices are conflict-free and consonant with their desires, even if other people adjudge them perverse. The specific form assumed by a person's sexual predilections becomes a clinical problem in need of solution only if it causes that person to suffer. The real question is not whether particular acts or preferences should be judged deviant, but when a given deviation should be considered a variation from adult sexuality within the context of a significant object-relationship and therefore be treated as symptomatic.
A good many authors continue to us the term "perversion" in a pejorative way, but only inasmuch as it connotes a proclivity towards evil. Thus Robert Stoller (1975) confines the use of the word, which he defines as "the erotic form of hatred," to any sexual act whereby a person seeks deliberately to hurt someone else. Joyce McDougall (1995) uses the term "neosexual" to qualify the kind of scenarios described above and suggests that "perverse" be applied exclusively to specific relations, notably sexual relations, imposed by one individual on another who does not consent thereto (as for instance a child or a mentally disturbed person): in other words, sexual relationships in which one of the partners is utterly indifferent to the vulnerability or the desire of the other. It is worth noting that these same acts belong more often than not to the class of behavior that is condemned by the law: sexual abuse of minors, rape, exhibitionism, and so forth. The sexual activity of consenting adults, whether or not it is considered deviant with respect to supposed norms, tends not to be treated as illegal.
In short, where neosexual practices do no harm to either partner, nor seem to display a relentless compulsiveness of which the subject him or herself complains, the analyst has no cause to wish another erotic perspective upon the patient. It should be remembered that neosexualities serve not only to repair breaches in the sense of sexual and subjective identity but also, unconsciously, to protect their internal objects from the subject's hate and destructiveness, which derive in part from the unworked-out oral and anal impulses characteristic of incorporative infantile love. In the course of an analysis, the meaning of the love relationships of sexual innovators is revealed. It transpires in fact that their "choices" represent the best solution that the sometime child was able to find in response to messages from the parents. The feeling of choice is nonexistent, whether the individual is heterosexual, homosexual, autosexual, and/or neosexual.
Thanks to the uncovering of neosexual scenarios, what had been nonsensical becomes significant and meaningful, and a feeling of vitality prevails, at least momentarily, over inner death. These same problems might otherwise have produced graver outcomes of a psychotic or psychopathological order. Despite the often constraining conditions imposed by patients' compulsions and anxiety, which so often define the repertoire of sexual deviations, the underlying self-curative intent in face of conflicts of a neurotic or psychotic kind means that Thanatos is bound and that Eros triumphs over death.
See also: Bisexuality; Borderline conditions; "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; Exhibitionism; Fetishism; Idealization; Imposter; Repetition; Sadomasochism; Signifier; Splitting; Splitting of the ego; Transgression; Voyeurism.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-234.
Lacan, Jacques. (2002 [1955-56]). On a question prior to any possible treatment of psychosis. Inrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton.
McDougall, Joyce. (1995). The many faces of Eros: A psychoanalytic exploration of human sexuality. New York: W.W. Norton.
Stoller, Robert. (1975). Perversion: The erotic form of hatred. New York: Pantheon.
Bach, Sheldon. (1994). The language of perversion and the language of love. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Goldberg, Arnold. (1995). The problem of perversion. The view from self psychology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Kernberg, Otto F. (1991). Sadomasochism, sexual excitement, and perversion. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 333-362.