The Psychology of Sexuality

Sexuality makes us human. Naturally, its fundamental function is to propagate the species. But clearly, sex goes far beyond the powerful evolutionary instinct to procreate. Sex is also about sensual pleasure. Enjoyment. Excitement. Even ecstasy. In addition to the earthly and earthy delights of the flesh–the thrill of physically touching and being touched by another warm body, the mounting excitement toward sexual release, the climactic ecstasy of orgasm, and the pulsating, peaceful afterglow of relaxation following orgasm–human sexuality also serves both a psychological and spiritual purpose.

Sex is a way of lessening our alienation, isolation and aloneness by physically connecting with, penetrating or being penetrated by another person at the most primal level of existence. Sex substantiates, humanizes and incarnates existence. It produces joy, love, comfort, affection, and sometimes, ecstasy.

Ecstasy is not only a physical, but a psychological and sometimes spiritual experience. The etymology of the word ecstasy is ex-stasis: The temporary transcendence of time, ego and our shared human fate of existential separateness. Sex connects us not only with another being, but with our own being and humanity. Sex, like eros, from which it draws its profound psychological and spiritual power, is daimonic: It reminds us of our intrinsic capacity to be involuntarily taken over at the moment of orgasm; to be possessed by passion; to surrender control. Both lust and falling in love are examples of being possessed by sex or eros.

This capacity to experience the daimonic quality of sex or eros is an essential and centering part of being human. It reminds us that we are, first and foremost, as Freud pointed out, passionate creatures, motivated and driven by primitive, irrational forces operating just below the surface of civilization and rationality far more powerful than our puny little egos.

Sex, like romantic love, is a constant reminder of our irrationality, and its sway over our hard-won rationality. It is a reminder of our inescapable physical embodiment. It is humbling to our spiritual hubris. And it is dangerous. The concept of “safe sex” is an oxymoron. Sex, when fully engaged in, is always risky business. Possible pregnancy, disease, injury and even death accompany the sexual act on the physical level. Falling in love, obsession, rejection, abandonment, loss of self, fear of annihilation, psychosis and the manic madness of ecstasy are all potential psychological side-effects of sex. One passionate, spontaneous sexual encounter can change the course of a life, for better or worse.

At some deeper level, sexuality is intimately linked with mortality. With birth and death. This association is depicted in Freud’s poetic notion of Eros and Thanatos, the two fundamental instinctual forces of human existence, in which the positive sexual “life instinct” (Eros) does eternal battle with the negative “death instinct” (Thanatos). Sexuality fights against death, affirming life.

Ultimately, death defeats sex. But instinctual sexual energy or eros, whether expressed in the creation of children, artistic work, caring relationships or heroic accomplishment, trumps death by transcending it in the future. Life goes on, a new generation is born, one is fondly remembered by family, lovers and friends, and what is created and accomplished lives on long beyond death. This close psychological connection between sex and death can also be found reflected in the French reference to sexual orgasm and its immediate aftermath as la petite mort, the little death. In this sense, sex provides a spiritually, psychologically and physically renewing ritual of death and rebirth, and a concrete reminder of the existential inseparability of this cycle.

Of course, sex can be separated from eros, from love and caring, in which case, it becomes banal and mechanical. Or, it can be substituted for eros, as in the case of sexual promiscuity, for example. And, in certain spiritual and religious traditions, sex is seen as sinful, evil or too carnal or animalistic, and rejected in favor of celibacy.

Naturally, taking a vow not to engage in sexual behavior does not cause the sexual instinct to simply disappear, as the apparently perverse sexual proclivities of some celibate priests prove. It finds expression in other ways, some positive and creative, and others negative and destructive. So, this primal sexual energy, what Freud referred to as “libido,” is more or less always with us throughout life, beginning at birth and lingering into old age. It may wax and wane during different developmental stages, but, even into senescence, the flame of sexuality never totally disappears, extinguished only by death.

Sexual energy is a primary part of what motivates us to enter into intimate interpersonal relationships, sometimes despite the fact that, practically speaking, such a relationship may be quite impossible and ultimately frustrating. It is vital to understand that, like any strong emotion, sexual attraction need not always be acted upon. This is something most married people struggle with. But this is also true for singles who are not in a committed relationship. Sexual attraction is a highly complex phenomenon, and can be as much psychological as biological. Some sexual attraction can be neurotic.

But it can also tell us something important about the base, instinctual and primitive part of ourselves. What Freud termed the “id,” Jung called the “shadow,” and Rollo May dubbed the “daimonic.” As well as illuminating what Jung called our anima or animus, which play a major role in sexual attraction. Learning to recognize, listen to and honor this creaturely sexual instinct can lead to discovering who we really are. And who we need to become. Which is why sexuality will always play such a significant part in the psychotherapy process.

Sexuality is inherently different for women and men. Most men tend to see sex as something they can never get enough of, and seek, at some primal level, to disseminate their seed as widely as possible. Most women see sex as secondary in importance to intimacy, physical closeness, and commitment. Men tend to be able to separate sex from love, eros or romance; whereas women tend to equate the two. Men tend generally to be less discriminating or monogamous in pursuing sexual satisfaction; while women tend to be far more selective and focused exclusively on one particular sexual partner at a time. For most females, sex is mainly about relationship and procreation first, and pleasure and sexual satisfaction second. For the majority of men, these priorities are reversed.

Certainly, there are exceptions to these tendencies. And, in some cases, role reversals. But, for the most part, psychologically, the significance of sexuality is different for females and males, which is one fundamental source of friction and misunderstanding between the sexes.

It is equally crucial to recognize that the primal energy comprising the sex drive derives from the more generic life force or elan vital that animates all human beings. Therefore, it is possible to express sexual energy in many ways, including artistic creativity, altruistic social behavior, or spiritual development. But this sort of sublimation, as Freud called it, cannot fully substitute for or eliminate the sexual instinct. If not given adequate expression, it manifests itself in obsessive sexual fantasies or other psychiatric symptoms.

Sex can sometimes substitute for true intimacy, serving as a way of distancing us from others rather than a bonding process which draws people closer together. At the same time, sex can also be used to avoid facing ourselves and the existential facts of life. Like a drug, sexual activity is engaged in by some to escape from feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, loneliness, meaninglessness, sadness, grief, anger or rage. Or to manipulate others and exert power and control over them.

Sex can be wielded like a weapon to hurt people, to cruelly humiliate them, and to sadistically exact retribution and retaliation for real or imagined slights. Such malignant mixtures of sex and rage reach destructive extremes in the deviant evil deeds of rapists and some psychopathic serial killers.

In Western culture, sex may no longer be the biggest taboo for psychotherapy patients. But it remains a profound force to be reckoned with in treatment, especially when it starts to run amuck, as in nymphomania, satyriasis, pedophilia, mania, pornongraphy or sex addiction, and marital infidelity. Or when its absence in someone’s life becomes the source of frustration, depression, anxiety or anger. It is then that we are forced to confront and address the daimonic nature of human sexuality: its capacity to take possession of the personality and drive us into destructive behaviors. Like weeds pushing through the smallest of cracks in a tarmac, libido, eros or sexual energy will leak out in some form when chronically denied some healthy outlet.

In certain individuals, this may manifest in an erotic relationship with inanimate objects, such as cars, for example. In others, for non-human sexual partners, like cows, dogs, goats or horses. In still others, it turns into psychotic symptoms such as erotomania, a delusional disorder in which the patient is convinced that another person, often a high-profile celebrity stranger, is in love with him or her. And, for some, dissociated sexuality takes the form of fundamentalist religious or New Age spiritual beliefs, or attraction and susceptibility to dangerous cults that use sexuality to exert power and control over their members.

Finally, there is the fact that human sexuality is strongly influenced, for better or worse, by both family and culture, as well as by the way in which Freud’s famous psychosexual stages of development are navigated during early childhood and adolescence. To paraphrase Freud, by the time we reach adulthood, there are, psychologically, always at least six people present in the bedroom. Because of all this, sex still plays a significant part in contemporary psychotherapy, albeit not as prominently as in Freud’s day.

In Freud’s Vienna, there was widespread repression and dissociation of sexual feelings and impulses, which, as Freud discovered, resulted in neurotic symptoms. A century later, we now live in a far more sexually liberated society, having been through the “sexual revolution” during the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, nowadays, it is the chronic repression of anger or rage rather than sexuality to which the more mature Freud finally turned his attention that tends to predominate the clinical picture of people suffering from sundry psychiatric symptoms.

Yet, sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, anorgasmia, premature ejaculation, genito-pelvic pain/penetration disorder, inhibited sexual interest, arousal or desire, compulsive promiscuity, sex addiction, sexual avoidance, fear of the opposite sex, shame or sexual inhibition, sexual perversions, sexual sadism or masochism disorders, as well as symptoms secondary to sexual inhibition or repression such as anxiety, insomnia, chronic muscular tension, headaches and many more are quite common.

We humans are, it seems, congenital lovers, natural sensation seekers, limitless sources of eros, essentially sexual beings. Sexuality is part of our fate. What we do with it decides our destiny. The uncanny power of sex to motivate and drive us to seek sexual satisfaction must not be underestimated in our post-Freudian sexual liberation. This sexual power can be both creative (and procreative) or destructive to self and others. It is, by definition, irrational, irrepressible and unrelenting. As a key component of the daimonic, sex and eros demand some expression. What we do (or don’t do) with this sexual energy determines who and what we become, what kind of relationships we create, and how we express ourselves in the world. And, of course, collectively, whether we as a species survive.