A discontinuous discourse on a discontinuous subject


To attempt to present the following ideas in some logical and, consequently, linear way would amount to a deception. To offer a coherent and explanatory logic, as is perhaps too common to contemporary social science, is to fashion a rhetoric that sustains the illusion of a corresponding logic inherent in actual practice that is rarely to be found in actual practice. This tendency is reinforced by the ability of labels, such as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, to homogenize what are significantly pluralized phenomena.

How then can one write in a postmodern style? A partial answer is that there will be no one postmodern style. Different adaptations will obviously depend upon such diverse factors as the qualities of specific subject matters and the constraints of representation, responses to the strains existing between what we know and what must be lost and added in communication, and, always, the conflict between what we know and what we believe. The problem is one of finding a space for the articulation of what I believe, without the distortions that inevitably follow the conventional ways of making the believable believable.

What I have done in the present instance is merely to have started thinking about the meanings of sexuality as I tried to understand it; they tended to derive as “side-baf’ elaborations that occurred while what has gone before was initially being composed. Lines of thought were allowed to develop without a self­conscious awareness of what would be included, excluded, or what it would look like when finished. I started writing, allowing what had come before to move me forward in a journey combining discovery with invention. If by the end of this journey I have not fully contradicted myself more than once, I shall have failed.

Lastly, I have entered brief quotations from works that prompted some line of thinking or that were called to mind by some line of thinking. Often they were prompts that followed one of those “of course" responses that denote an addition to perception; often it was the occasion for a dialectical response. Not all those who have shaped my thinking are represented, and even these are rarely acknowledged to the full extent of my reliance on them or the full extent of my appropriations of their thoughts.

The sexual appears rooted in our very nature, as an ultimate, if obscure truth of the human being, and we continue to believe this bedrock conception of the sexual even though we rarely expect to find it in its quintessential form. Though we expect it to appear variously costumed and occasioned, we do not doubt that, at its origins, the sexual is an unchanging creature of nature, a touch of the original, a universal starting point, the illusion of the starting point of a desire that is what it is and not the creation of some historically burdened negotiation.

This belief is necessary if sexuality is to serve as an ultimate anchor for a multiplicity of semiotic chains. However, like Barthes’s view of the photographic image, the appearance of the sexual is most typically a moment of deception: sex is rarely what it appears to be and it is never more deceptive than when it appears to be what it is.

* * *

It is in sexual encounters that solitude is sharpest, that the imagined wealth of remembered, alternative, or illusory possibilities devastates the pretended truth of the moment. Men and women sleep not with each other but with the regrets, the hopes of unions yet to come. Our adulteries are internal; they deepen our aloneness.

(George Steiner, 1995)

* * *

Among the most significant contributions of Freud is the insight that not all of sexuality (desire, physical excitement, and heightened emotional productivity/ sensitivity) is experienced within the context of recognizable sexual acts. And, by the same token, not all recognizable sexual acts are ever totally in the control of sexuality.

* * *

Even when many of us dream the same dream, such similarities are not as important as the sense of their being our possession, our very own secret.

* * *

Even at moments of purest composition, when it is least burdened by service for other ends, sexuality remains a (com)promise. And moments that occasion a sense of completion may satisfy only through complicated psychological book­keeping.

* * *

We often experience our sexual selves as coming from within largely because the moment is illuminated with a sense of knowing yourself as you have always been f or the first time, knowing yourself in an especially confirming way. The feeling is something like being well fitted for a pair of fine shoes. However, you have just become the kind of person capable of that experience and that capacity is the property of that moment and not that person.

How rare are the instances where this coalescence of past and present occurs without strain, inconsistency, fracturing, and reckless misrepresentation?

* * *

The fabric often tears along ragged, often hastily sutured seams.

* * *

Sexuality, under certain conditions, is transformed into eroticism. Eroticism can be defined as the images of desire that, independent of their immediate possibility of realization (enactment), are capable of initiating and sustaining sexual arousal. These “certain conditions”, despite many very general aspects, find the appearance of the erotic following discouragingly unpredictable paths. But once constituted as eroticism or as an aspect of a subjective erotic culture, such images of desire approach hyperreality, resembling Lacan’s notion of the recycling of desire. The erotic comes to function like the mock rabbit at dog – racetracks: while tempting with the scent of flesh, it is constituted never to be consumed.

* * *

The salience of the sexual circles from an absolute refusal to be sexual (possibly the most erotic response of all) back upon itself, where almost all experience is colored with sexual possibility or where that which is not colored with the sexual is lost to an under-attended backdrop.

* * *

Satisfaction can be defined as the “experience of judgment”, something close to Kohut’s concept of “ego-autonomy”, or the self observing the self, and often the self observing the self observed or observable. Pleasure reverses this, it occurs as the “judgment of experience”, close to Kohut’s concept of “ego – dominance”, the self thoroughly into its experience. The difference between these two—satisfaction and pleasure—is like the difference between doing something that you know to be fun and having fun.

* * *

All sex is a form of longing, even as it happens.

(DeLillo 1991:90)

* * *

Desire, as experienced by the self, is not merely the experiencing of a lack or absence. It is the labeling of a lack that is the initiation of desire, the initiation of a process of layered interrogations hidden in the deceptively singular question: What is it I desire? Individual biography is the layered history of such interrogations, and personal character (as against “social character”) may be little more than the practices by which the interrogations are most typically carried out.

* * *

Desire is the scripting of potential futures (“when I act”), drawing upon the scripting of the past of desire as experienced in the contingent present. Desire, in

the fullness of its implicit ambiguity, can be described as the continuing production of the self.

* * *

I am as you desire me. This is what sounds the differentiating human experience: other animals may hunger; only the human experiences and is shaped by an awareness of what others desire of us. We are rarely only what others desire of us, but we never fully escape the fact of their desiring.

* * *

The functions of the orgasm: at times it appears as an exclamation at the end of a sentence. A link between pleasure and satisfaction? A way of avoiding the panic of pleasure or a way of returning from the pleasure of panic? The homage or ransom that “ego-autonomy” offers “ego-dominance”?

* * *

The dream of desire produces pleasure; the desire of the dream produces satisfaction. What makes satisfaction possible is not always an enhancement of pleasure (though it can be), just as what makes pleasure possible is not always an enhancement of satisfaction. There is an overlap of the two that permits one to speak of the pleasures of satisfaction and the satisfactions of pleasure; however, each of these represents a muddied, derivative or echoed character.

* * *

PLEASURE— (1) DESIRE, INCLINATION; (2) a state of gratification;

(3 a) sensual gratification; (3b) frivolous amusement; (4) a source of delight or joy.

SATISFACTION—(1a) the payment through penance of the temporal punishment incurred by a sin; (1b) reparation for sin that meets the demands of divine justice; (2a) the fulfillment of a need or want; (2b) the quality or state of being satisfied: CONTENTMENT; (2c) a source or means of enjoyment: GRATIFICATION; (3a) compensation for a loss or injury: ATONEMENT, RESTITUTION; (3b) the discharge of a legal obligation or claim; (3 c) VINDICATION; (4) convinced assurance or certainty.

(Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 1975)

* * *

The desire of the dream and the dream of desire are both constructions. The former is the product of interpersonal scripting, the latter the product of intrapsychic scripting.

* * *

The essence of the nature of the desire is not merely the experiencing of a lack or absence. It is the labeling of a lack that is the initiation of desire. One of the distinctive features of the modern experience was the tendency either to leave ambiguous or to pluralize potential labels for specific desires. This was accomplished by creating private spaces, both within and without, that sheltered the quest for desire that preceded desire’s quest. Postmodernity extends ambiguity, pluralization, and sheltering to the point where the coercive legacies of surviving tradition become uncertain of themselves.

* * *

Recognition of the fundamental and extensive difference between behavior directed towards these two ends [“satisfaction” and “pleasure”], and hence the fact that individuals living above the level of subsistence are likely to be faced with a choice between them, made it possible to distinguish traditional from modern hedonism. The former was identified as a preoccupation with sensory experience, with “pleasure” regarded as discrete and standardized events, and in the pursuit of which there is a tendency for the hedonist to seek despotic powers. Modern hedonism is marked, in contrast, by a preoccupation with “pleasure”, envisaged as a potential quality of all experience. In order to extract this from life, however, the individual has to substitute illusory for real stimuli, and by creating and manipulating illusions and hence the emotive dimension of consciousness, construct his own pleasurable environment. This modern, autonomous, and illusory form of hedonism commonly manifests itself as daydreaming and fantasizing.

(Campell 1989:202-3)

* * *

The erotic, that which endows something—a person, feature, posture, object, shape, texture, odor—with the capacity to elicit sexual excitement, can claim very little as its own. The construction of an erotic preference, aside from its coincidental biological inputs, can draw from many, often conflicting desires. For the moment, what is important is that we understand that these same desires can invariably be attached to many behaviors.

* * *

The experience of sexual desire might be described as a handful of M&M candies; a handful that for some persons is dominated by a few colors and for others is expressed as mosaics of conflicting tints, complementary tints, and— more than we realize—changing configurations of desire. Each M&M candy, in cross-section, can be seen as an oval of chocolate covered by a thin layer of candy, which is itself followed by a third, still thinner layer of dye. The chocolate oval at the center may represent the most primitive and inarticulate responses of the human: a very basic, undifferentiated core of longing that subsequently can be attached to a plurality of qualities of experience (the candy coating) that are associated with some specific gestural tone (the specific color).

* * *

Sexual behavior in its direct reproductive f orms is not discovered; it is there all the time. Motivation (eroticism) may have never rested in biological uses, but in socially reinforced, expressive statements. For example, Freud’s notion of the primal horde, where presumably a dominant male controlled all or most of the females to the exclusion of other males, suggests this relationship. The behavior makes more sense as an expression of a desire for power or social recognition than as the expression of a sex drive. The sexual becomes the vivid signifier and empowers the signified. Being the dominant male could be described and experienced as one of the more oppressive burdens of power. Having sex or, somewhat more dramatically, denying sex to others became a display, if you will, a confirmation and respectful acknowledgment of hierarchic position. This, or something like it, is necessary, given the absence of periodicity in women and similarly programmed responses by men: sex must be given a value.

* * *

Sexual deviants, like other marginalized categories of individuals and groups who resist the conventional or normal, become the occasion for the diffusion of disobedient desires as they become the uninvited presence at almost all demonstrations of conformity.

* * *

The “solution” of the pervert is unique to her or him, but the “problem” whose solution is being attempted is anything but unique. The pervert is frequently “solving” a problem that others are solving in different ways, ways that at times serve the conventional and at other times occasion change in the construction of the conventional.

* * *

Gender is an erotic signifier whose most common attributes are power and power relations. It is the difference between what I want to do and what I must be in order to do it well or merely to be allowed (to allow myself) to do it. As gender issues diminish dramatically, does sadomasochism replace them as the eroticizing of power after gender has been too compromised to serve?

* * *

We must consider the role of masturbation in training people to the illusion of empathy. Empathy must both follow and lead “the desire to be both sexes”, the desire that, like many desires, is burdened with gender codes and prohibitions.

* * *

A poorly kept yet under-advertised secret: our sublimations are often richer in their capacity to sustain cycles of emotional production than the ghostly forbidden desires that may have infused them with significance in the first place. The sexual, both the object and subject of sublimation, often must be refurbished and elevated to approximate the qualities of expression found through other well – founded sublimations. At the core of our lusts is a falsified history of prosaic successes and failures.

* * *

It is the lust for orgasm and not orgasm itself that is the sexual in its purest form, lust that is nurtured in the continuing commerce of the self.

* * *

The most important permanent truth about sexuality is that there may be no important truths about sexuality that are permanent. Those of its aspects that appear to be permanent are rarely important and those that appear important may rarely be permanent. This is especially relevant to the seeming permanence of the link between the sexual and reproduction. This is another way of saying that there is little truth to be found in the body as such, and even less truth to be found in the body abstracted from life. Anatomy or body chemistry, as such, is rarely, if ever, the unmediated source of our destinies.

* * *

What we try to possess, then, is not just a body, but a body brought to life by consciousness…. The importance we attach to the body and the contradictions of love are, therefore, related to a more general drama which arises from the metaphysical structure of my body, which is both an object for others and a subject for myself. The intensity of sexual pleasure would not be sufficient to explain the place occupied by sexuality in human life or, for example, the phenomenon of eroticism, if sexual experience were not, as it were, an opportunity, vouchsafed to all and always available, of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence.

(Merleau-Ponty 1962:166-7)

* * *

The deception that we have practiced—often too knowingly—was that when we talked about the sexual, whether across spans of time, cultural boundaries, or what others “down the block” were doing, it was as if we were always talking about the same thing.

* * *

Sexual psychopaths, like almost all psychopaths, differ from many apparently non-pathological persons in only a few, often relatively unimportant ways. The ability to act upon some fantasy, some congealed desires, generally has little to do with the capacity to have the fantasy.

* * *

“Cultural skin” describes the occasions where cultural scenarios evoked by the contingent moment are comfortably appropriate for the scripting of both interpersonal and intrapsychic responses: the moments when I am what (I sometimes pretend) you desire me to be and when you are what (I sometimes pretend) I desire you to be. This might be described as a situation where identity controls desire by containing desire within the prison of the dream.

* * *


* * *

The desire of the dream is not the same as the dream of desire. The pleasures of the dream are the satisfactions of narration; the satisfactions of desire are the pleasures of metaphor.

* * *

The sexual act as performed in anticipations, in enactments, or as part of the changing narration of the self, while giving the impression of constituting a unitary act (an impression heightened by the singular focus often given by the experience of or aspiration for orgasm), might better be described as an ecology of desires, one that generates and sustains a highly variable economy of pleasures. The relationship between the intensity of desire and the intensity of pleasure is not necessarily very direct. Not everything that is strongly desired in the sense of being associated with heightened levels of sexual excitement is equally pleasuring.

* * *

Sexual intercourse is often more poetry than prose as it represents a sequence of metaphoric gestures whose interdependencies or claims for coherence are rarely articulated. And when they are articulated it is invariably through the arts of fictionalizing the truth to protect the innocence of the guilty.

* * *

The deconstruction of the desire of the dream, if possible, would reveal the desires hidden behind, or more accurately within, the dream. This is another way of saying that the dream, i. e. what the actor wants, wishes or desires to happen (which, even or especially in the dream, is most often quite different from what actually happens) is itself not the direct expression of her or his sexual desires, but a transformation of them into a narrative, i. e. a script for a sexual drama, a sexual drama with its own claims for plausibility, for—in most instances—a minimal assumption of mutual recognition, and appropriateness.

The desire of the dream, then, occasions the consideration of a wide range of sexual desires, i. e. those associated with an increase in sexual excitement, as it references a still larger universe of desires, many of which come tainted by other past and present uses. And with the invoking of any specific sexual desire there is an invoking of strings of associated desires, sexual and nonsexual, that have both negative and positive consequences for sexual excitement. The desire of the dream is a negotiated product that both produces sexual excitement for the actor and is offered, under varying terms and conditions, for negotiation with the other.

* * *

To consider a desire is to begin the experiencing of that desire. Many sexual desires have the capacity to generate excitement merely by being invoked, though the negativity of the response to its being invoked rarely permits its explicit inclusion or enactment. To understand that X or Y is not acceptable is

different than X or Y being unthinkable. The negotiated dream of desire is often

what makes the unacceptable at least thinkable.

* * *

I felt obliged to study the games of truth in the relationship of the self with self and the forming of oneself as a subject, taking as my domain of reference and field of investigation what might be called “the history of desiring man”…. Not a history that would be concerned with what might be true in the fields of learning, but an analysis of the “games of truth”, the games of truth and error through which being is historically constituted as experience; that is, as something that can and must be thought.. What were the games of truth by which human beings came to see themselves as desiring individuals?

(Foucault 1985:6-7)

What Foucault is raising as an essential issue is central to the sociology of emotions as it directly addresses the fundamental question of the evolving nature of the self that “experiences” such emotions. To ignore this connection, proceeding with a directory of emotions as a given, i. e. fixed starting points like something akin to a concept of primary colors, is to miss the point, like seeing all sexuality as if it rested upon some unchanging truth.

* * *

Human sexuality is really nothing, at least nothing specific. It is nothing specific in an almost infinite number of ways. It is almost never the same even when it looks the same. At the same time, it often finds compelling kinships of motive or feeling among even the most bizarre comparisons. By the latter I mean that people doing strikingly different things may be experiencing very similar feelings, very similar experiences of the self. And of course the reverse: people engaging in what look like identical activities may have very little in common with regard to what they are feeling or how they are experiencing themselves. Sexuality is really nothing that is constant. At least it is not a constant if you want to think about sex as referring to something more than gender. Of course, it is difficult for us, living late twentieth-century Western lives, to think about sex independent of concerns for gender or recognition of its implication for species reproduction. However, it is equally difficult for us to think about human sexuality as if it were only an issue of gender or reproduction. That might constitute a sexuality, but surely not a human sexuality.

Even where aspects of gender and species reproduction seem to provide some near universal commonalities, such commonalities are rarely very inf orming. While all but the most ephemeral of groups facilitate some kind of heterosexual genital intercourse, not all individual members of the group necessarily engage or are allowed to engage in heterosexual genital intercourse and, among those who do, not all will engage in it in the same way or for the same reasons.

* * *

Hate between men comes from our cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

* * *

The picture does not create desire, desire creates the picture. The picture evokes desire, but only the desire that was lying in wait.

* * *

Self-cohesion might better be described as the degree of self-solidarity characterizing the subject. The use of “solidarity” should be explicitly linked to its Durkheimian richness: the ways in which the various aspects of self establish continuity-enhancing reciprocities. Indeed, Durkheimian imagery is very appropriate, particularly if a slight spin might be put on his terms. Mechanical self-solidarity is the degree to which the subject has achieved, experienced, or blundered into an integration of roles in ways that make them mutually reinforcing, creating a seamless identity, one whose comfort with self is accompanied by great interpersonal and intrapsychic silences. A realm where almost all language is public language and almost all utterances are in the service of social solidarities.

As the achievement or experience of self-solidarity becomes more problematic, those aspects of the self that are most directly implicated in the management of self-solidarity become more significant and so the human is transformed. The problematics of self-solidarity become greatest when the specif ic roles the individual plays increase in number, in fluidity (changing rapidly in the number of alternatives and significances), and in commanding respect (the degree of influence in the negotiation of behavior) both internally and externally. Which, in turn, suggests the fullest implications of the term “organic solidarity”, the solidarity that derives from the potential reciprocities and pluralizing complexities that inevitably accompany increasing depths of differentiation and specialization. As the division of labor increases, all politics, including the politics of the self, become the politics of coalitions.

* * *

Disorders of mechanical self-solidarity produce rage and apathy; disorders of organic self-solidarity produce anger and anxiety. The former tends to freeze perceived options prematurely, while the latter inspires an exhausting constancy of scanning.

* * *

The feminine, it has been argued, is the accepting of the responsibility of being other, of willingly becoming the desire of the subject of the gaze, of being receptive in accepting the identity components desired by the subject’s gaze. Allowing the subject to be what the object mirrors, implies, or mandates, completes one—and only one—of the circles of power surrounding the sexual.

* * *

Do pleasure and satisfaction necessarily war with each other? Is satisfaction the imposition of the past upon the present? Is pleasure a constant threat to the present moment? Martin Jay’s characterization of the millennial postmodernist as wanting to stand forever at the very edge of an end that never comes is something the contemporary sexual experience increasingly prepares us for.

* * *

To say that all sexuality is a deception is not to affirm some special or unique character of the sexuality; rather, it is to recognize that sexuality, a kind of desire, shares this with human desire at the most general level. Sexual behavior is more often the representation of desire than its direct expression. And this too is a reflection of a more general attribute of the human. If deception, or the complexities of representation, describes all sexualities, the conventional or perverse appearance of desire does little to certify the conventional or perverse meanings intended. Nearly identical desires (Are there any identical desires?) may derive from different experiences. Identical archaeologies (sources of the desire of the dream) may find varied expression depending upon the contingencies that make available representations (the dreams of desire).

* * *

Unlike Magritte, I cannot inscribe under the preceding words these additional words: “This is not sex.” Both public and private talk about sex constitute a form of sexual activity, a form of sexual behavior. Sexuality, more than any other aspect of behavior, first and foremost, is talk; it is rooted in discursive formations; it cannot speak until it is spoken. Its most clever disguises are ways not of hiding itself but of finding itself.

For many, if not most, readers trained in the Western tradition, these words have sexual meaning. A range of associations with meanings is immediately established; collaged images of experience are evoked; a history and possibility of fantasy is reconnected; in some cases, even the very preliminary biophysical manifestations of arousal commence. Similarly, in what follows, different degrees of sexual provocation will be experienced; some thoughts and images pull us away from the text, others return us to the text somehow made different by the digression. Much that is sexual, much that is intensely sexual, can be experienced without what is commonly regarded as sexual behavior occurring.

With increasing recognition of this, we learn to ask, “How is the sexual represented?” Often the answer is that it can be found in appearances seemingly remote from an explicit sexual act or gesture. What is more rarely asked is the still more important question, “What does the sexual represent?” In other words, the sexual may be far less the origin of our desires than a way station, a marketplace at the intersections of the trade routes of desire.

* * *

But what is eroticism? It is never more than a word, since practices cannot

be so coded unless they are known, i. e., spoken; now, our society never

utters any erotic practice, only desires, preliminaries, contexts,

suggestions, ambiguous sublimations, so that, for us, eroticism cannot be defined save by a perpetually elusive word.

(Barthes 1976:26)

* * *

Sexuality involves deception. This includes not only the deceptions we commit and those committed by others, but also the self-deception involved in not perceiving certain deceptions of certain others. Deception is not the sole property of sexuality. Rather, it is the signature of social life; it is what, to varying degrees, sexuality shares with most of social life. Among its singular attributes is its ability to convince us of the very possibility of truth regarding human behavior.

* * *

Sexuality is far more rooted in the poetic than the physical or biological. Sexual behavior, like many other forms of human behavior, is dependent upon myth (“a story that is not history”—where the truth of telling is more important than the telling of truth) and metaphor (“a relationship between symbols [representations] that is not logical”). (Definitions of myth and metaphor are those of Northrop Frye.) And it is this poetic aspect that explains why we tend to act out our sexuality less often than we can and more often than we need to.

* * *

To understand my sexuality, you must understand my life. However, it may be possible to understand a great deal about my life without understanding much about my sexuality. Does it involve osmosis between sexuality and existence, as Merleau-Ponty suggests? It seems so. But what is hiding behind those two words? Sexuality as both outside and inside meeting (trying to meet or colliding) in experience.

* * *

Sexual excitement, Stoller suggests, inevitably involves the objectification of the other because she or he is the carrier and bearer of what elicits sexual response. This attribution to the other has the capacity to be associated with sexual response prior to having met the particular other who occasions the response. This inevitable fetishizing is a way of making the other both more and less than she or he is. That may be one of the inevitabilities of social life. However, this seeming objectification of the other is a way of accomplishing the experiencing of a version of the other as a subject Objectification of the self by the self, which may also be occurring as the necessary accompaniment to sexual excitement, is also a way of accomplishing the experiencing of a version of the self as a subject.

* * *

The urgencies and improbabilities, if not the absurdities, of our sources of sexual excitement often conflict with the idealizations that socially costume most of our sexual performances. Our desires for sexual activity, as a result, are not always synonymous with our sexual desires. It is in this sense that we might say that the scripting of sexual performances (the desire of the dream) is not necessarily the same as that which may have inspired the desire for the performance in the first place (the dream of desire). The tyrannies of sexuality are multiple; its threats of pleasure and promises of danger are many and only rarely, if ever, can they be separated.

* * *

The erotic, that which is associated with sexual excitement, does not adhere to behavior as such, but is only found in conduct (or the idea of behavior) after it is costumed with meaning. “Raw sex” can only be found as a sequel, as a last sentence.

* * *

Central to the transpiration of sexual practice into erotic feelings is its potential for combining an intensity of feeling with some complex idealization. Eros—“love directed towards self-realization”. (One must ask, which version of the self?) Where the sexual, like other aspects of life, is eroticized there we will also find, virtually by definition, an instance of the “precession of the simulacra”: the empowering and, in some instances, the “libidinizing” of an ideal that will henceforth lead our desire, becoming the judgment of behavior awaiting the coming of the real.

* * *

Hyperreality is the natural character of eroticized desire in the sense that it always points to what is sought, never to the merely discovered. Nothing may be so rare as truly “unexpected” sexual pleasure.

* * *

Erotic cultures, like certain kinds of religious cultures, specialize in transforming the real or nearly real into the possibility of the hyperreal. Where the object (or occasion) of desire for sex is found, it is entirely consumed in the finding, allowing us to find more in less and, sometimes, less in more. Like religious cultures, erotic cultures struggle to routinize the exceptional and, like religious cultures, they succeed more often than we realize. (Which is possibly why they war with each other so often?)

* * *

Desire is not a thing but a variable presence in the production of behavior. Even as a sexual event occurs, levels and uses of desire may fluctuate. At its best, sexual activity is the coordination of fragments of narrative within the confines of an episode.

* * *

To embrace desire fully is to run grave risks, not least of which is the risk of disappointment. For most of us, most of the time, merely to invoke its presence is sufficient.

* * *

Kundera observes that eroticism tends to feed upon ambiguity—the greater the ambiguity, the greater the excitement that is generated. This requires a suggestive, and always incomplete, typology of ambiguities. And ambiguity, of

course, is a relatively gentle expression for the increasingly common pluralized (heteroglossic/polyvocal) psychic life of the individual in late modern or postmodern social contexts. It is possibly for this reason that the democratization of preoccupation with the sexual, the transformation of the sexual into the erotic, occurred.

* * *

Well-integrated individuals, whether this integration is achieved through the coercion of external expectations or the happy, if rare, confluence of roles and role commitments, tend to have relatively uninteresting sex lives. The sexual flourishes at the margins, as well as in dark corners that generate a sense of risk at the approach of consuming warmth.

* * *

An additional dimension is sensuality—at last we get to acknowledge the body —the pleasures of bodily sensations that are scripted to generate pleasure. Not all touching or being touched feeds on or is fed by erotic possibility, by sexual excitement. The pleasures of these do not always feed on pleasure, but on the pleasures of feeding and, at times, of being fed.

* * *

The deceits and impersonations of the erotic vampire, who produces pleasure or the appearance of pleasure in the other only to appropriate it for her or his own nourishment, speak to the merger of ambiguity and sensuality. The erotic vampire must generate the simulation of her or his own pleasure in order to encourage the production of the pleasuring pleasure in the other. The erotic vampire may be among our most successful erotic possibilities.

* * *

A man can bare himself before others only out of a kind of love. A love

which acknowledges, as it were, that we are all wicked children.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

* * *

My premise is that recognition of the other is the decisive aspect of differentiation. In recognition, someone who is different and outside shares a similar feeling; different minds and bodies attune. In erotic union this attunement can be so intense that self and other feel as if momentarily “inside” each other, as part of a whole. Receptivity and self-expression, the sense of losing the self in the other and the sense of being truly known for oneself all coalesce. In my view, the simultaneous desire for loss of self and for wholeness (or oneness) with the other, often described as the ultimate point of erotic union, is really a form of desire for recognition. In getting pleasure with the other and taking pleasure in the other, we engage in mutual recognition.

Understanding desire as the desire for recognition changes our view of erotic experience. It enables us to describe a mode of representing desire unique to intersubjectivity which, in turn, offers a new perspective on women’s desire.

(Benjamin 1972:126)

An alternative view:

The love between women is a refuge and an escape into harmony. In the love between a man and woman there is resistance and conflict. Two women do not judge each other, brutalize each other, or find anything to ridicule. They surrender to sentimentality, mutual understanding, romanticism: Such love is death, I’ll admit.

(Anai’s Nin)

* [1] *

What is particularly striking is that Benjamin who, like most who operate from an object relations perspective, credits the pre-oedipal stage with being the context for the most critical aspects of character formation and the initial structuring of the agenda of desire. What is for her one of the most essential desires of this the earliest of periods of existence, “the desire for recognition” by another, constitutes the essence of the erotic experience. But recognition is not a form, it is a content. What is one recognized for being, and by what authorization is the other as a mirror privileged to judge? Benjamin’s erotic act is pure form, which is what makes it both utopian and anything but erotic.

* * *

The very idea of “healthy” sex rests on the assumption of the possibility of a quality of relationship, a quality of experience that is inherently pathogenic in its utopianism.

* * *

The questions that must be asked are these:

In “erotic union” the experience of inter-subjectivity is the exclusive province of the intrapsychic. Togetherness is an individual experience that, at best, two individuals might have at the same time without ever knowing whether they were having it or having it in the same way.

* * *

In a social context seemingly with more signs than signifieds, there f ollows an understandable anxiety about the effectiveness of efforts at communication. Does the other receive what I am sending in ways that I anticipated or desired? Questions whose very plausibility reminds us of the capacity of pleasure to hinge on our ability to perceive others as perceiving us as we desired them to perceive us and responding appropriately. At a minimum, two sets of emotions must be scripted. Which of the two is the most significant contributor to pleasure cannot be determined. However, we can know who is scripting the emotions. At the same time, the potential confusion makes communication more self-conscious, heightening reflexivity (What shall I un-wear today?). To varying degrees, this has the potential for shifting the locus of pleasures, as sending messages (anticipation/assembly/creation) becomes a locus of pleasure that becomes independent of how such messages are received. This, in turn, heightens the importance of “undercoding”, the increasing eroticization of underwear which

slowly begins to work its way to the surface (Davis 1992).

* * *

Sometimes one experiences oneness and the other does not. We only experience oneness one at a time.

* * *

There are times when the only way the subject can rest fully confident of the authentic presence of the other is to play the role of the other. This should be particularly relevant when the burdens (complexity) of the performance fall to the other. This should occur most often when the initial commitment to the perf ormance (script) is experienced by the self as the object’s object or what happens when the object of desire must provide not pleasure but the responses that engender pleasure.

* * *

Intensity of feeling derives not from revealing ourselves to the other, but in revealing ourselves to ourselves. The other is often merely the occasion.

* * *

But in losing the intersubjective space and turning to conquest of the external object, the boy will pay a price in his sense of sexual subjectivity. His adult encounter with woman as an acutely desirable object may rob him of his own desire—he is thrown back into feeling that desire is the property of the object. A common convention in comedy is the man helpless before the power of the desirable object (The Blue Angel); he is overpowered by her attractiveness, knocked off his feet. In this constellation, the male’s sexual subjectivity becomes a defensive strategy, an attempt to counter the acute attractive power radiating from the object. His experience parallels woman’s loss of sexual agency. The intense stimulation from outside robs him of the inner space to feel desire emerging from within—a kind of reverse violation. In this sense, intersubjective space and the sense of an inside is no less important for men’s sexual subjectivity than for women’s.

(Benjamin 1988:164)

* * *

Masturbation as a way of holding onto, developing, extending, and becoming fixated within the inner space.

* * *

Psychoanalytic discourse continues to predicate an emotionally dense infancy and childhood and, more than dense, an emotionally consequential infancy and childhood. The discussion—particularly Benjamin’s— contains too much by way of borrowed meanings: meanings and intensities derived from later experience represented by metaphors of earlier experience. “Castration anxiety” has the ring of plausibility to the postpubertal man because it so neatly sums up, for all but the insensitive and unconflicted, his continuing fear of failing as a man.

* * *

Two defects in the psychoanalytic approach to sexuality:

1 Desire in earliest childhood is inherently sexual. (Sexual desire is always inherently something else.)

2 That sexuality is the expression of the permanent conflict between the individual and the collective. (It is humanity at its most social.)

* * *

Freud’s “where id is, ego will be” makes sense only in terms of drive theory. Without drive theory we might have to rewrite this as “where ego was, id will be”. Ego—the organism trying to avoid discomfort and panic—gives rise to a developing self system, with those fragments, self objects and versions of self objects that cannot be incorporated within the self system constituting the id-like intrapsychic functions. Some were excluded when they were inconsistent with the emerging self, others are abandoned because they are outgrown. Others just abandoned and forgotten—it does happen. Some are “repressed” because they engender conflict, others because they cause depression.

* * *

Fundamentally, the agent is not he who has power or pleasure, but he who

controls the direction of the scene and the sentence (as we know that every

Sadean scene is the sentence of another language) or: the direction of


(Barthes 1976:31)

* * *

The basic dialectic of modernism: the constancy of change is contained within the normalizing of the very nature of change which anchored the stability of the human or the normalizing of its evolution. My attempt to make sense of the sexual required calling into question not the biological substrate but its explanatory powers.

* * *

The pleasures or rewards of interpersonal scripting are something analogous to ego libido, the motivational source that encourages the individual to engage in self­enhancing behaviors, a center of motivation that often conflicts with desires to engage in psychic pleasures less rooted in immediate social interaction (intrapsychic scripting). An emphasis on the urgency of “a sex drive” obscures just how rich the pleasures of eliciting confirmations from others can be.

* * *

Behavior that is not particularly pleasuring or persistently mysterious often enhances the pleasures at the interpersonal level. This occurs when we fail to experience existentially the pleasures that prevailing cultural scenarios promise are associated with the behavior. At any rate, we may have excessively focused upon the desires of the intrapsychic.

* * *

Love, which minimizes the difference, which would abolish the difference, also permits the revelation and revelry of the difference. Romantic love retreats to the middle ground of merger, to the celebration of a loss of identity such that neither lover is experienced as complete without immediate reference to the other. Romantic love is risk aversive, the dancing on the edge of mutual permission is fatal; transgression becomes a terminal crisis. For those who celebrate the difference risk is vital, transgression the occasion for its inevitable confirmation: a sharing of wickednesses that cannot be experienced alone.

* * *

Myth is totally dependent upon the powers and mysteries of the other; to know her and be known by her in a costumed nakedness that confesses more than there is to confess and that forgives only enough to preserve the difference.

* * *

How terrified we are of not being anchored by the brutal reality of economic interest; we are required to adore its implacable objectivity, its capacity for ruthless logic.

* * *

How poorly sex serves sexuality.

[1] Who (what) is the identity of both participants?

• How do they make their presence known?

• Which of the alternative identities must be transformed?

• What history of negotiation brings them to this moment?

In other words:

• Who are they?

• What have they come to do?

• What provides permission for them to do it?


Sadomasochism directly touches and sometimes embarrassingly illuminates the degree to which hierarchy, with the immediate implication of power and control, permeates virtually all aspects of social life (Burke 1966; Foucault 1978; Chancer 1992). Aspects of social life that claim for themselves an egalitarian character tend to do so with a self-consciousness that announces its intention to avoid hierarchy It is love, for example, that is supposed to have the power to level all, though the same folk psychology just as easily admits to an inevitable appearance of the dominant and dominated, even when gender does not predict all outcomes.

It should not be surprising, then, that past and current experiences with hierarchy should provide both motives and metaphors critical to the self­recognitions of the individual. The permeation of the sexual by such motives and metaphors should not be surprising. To the degree to which gender costumes power, the manifest significance of gender signs in the construction of sexual scripts speaks to the most general capacity of themes of hierarchy to elicit or give permission for sexual excitement as a general phenomenon (MacKinnon 1987).

The term “sadomasochism”, as discussed below, does not refer to specific individuals, such as sadists and masochists, but to those who participate in the enactment of consensual “sadomasochistic” episodes in which at least one participant explicitly experiences sexual excitement as a result of overt sadomasochistic gestures. Great emphasis must be placed upon “explicit” because suggestions of the sadomasochistic, if only in obscure nuances, may play a role in sexual experiences for many, just as the comedic often disguises the very hostility upon which it depends. Because of the exclusion of hierarchy from most current cultural scenarios legitimating the erotic, themes of hierarchy are often hidden from the other, as well as from the self. Perhaps for that very reason, hierarchical themes tend to play a pivotal role in the processing of those gestures that inspire and reinforce sexual excitement (Stoller 1979, 1985a).

Among the most compelling and earliest of the experiences of hierarchy are those that involve critical dependencies of infancy and childhood. Emotionally infused issues of hierarchy also re-emerge with the ambiguities of adolescence, ambiguities that tend to be accompanied by an enlarged attention to the sexual. These ambiguous themes of hierarchy and power figure pre-eminently, but by no means exclusively, among the experiences that provide both an imagery of occasions and the raw materials of feeling-states from which sadomasochism in both its sexual and nonsexual guises subsequently arises.

There are very few forms of behavior more commonly dialogical than the modem experience of the sexual. It is dialogical in the sense that participation often requires an attribution, accurate or inaccurate, of the emotional responses of sexual partners, as well as a chorus of others who are not present but whose sense of judgment is invoked (Simon and Gagnon 1987; Bakhtin 1981). When uncertainty and dialogical requirements meet, actors are situated as an audience to the unfolding interaction; and, as such, they are split not only between activity and reflexivity but between identification with self and other as well. It may be that the lighting within the sexual chamber is dimmed, as often occurs, not to obscure what can be seen, but to see what is not present but must be seen.

As we read ourselves to meet our own socio-emotional requirements, so do we of necessity read the other. This is a problem that becomes more common with a decline in culturally prescribed specifics of sexual interaction, a situation where each participant has the capacity to betray or embarrass the performance of the other.

The sadomasochistic script plays upon the potential absolutism of hierarchy not merely to experience hierarchy with the relief accompanying the elimination of its attending ambiguities, but to experience the emotions that invariably accompany its exercise: the rage and fear of rage in both the other and ourselves; rage that follows from our inability to be a perfect (guiltless) god or a perfect (will-less) servant of god; rage that follows from bondage to mutual dependencies where we endure an exercise of hierarchic power that occasions an intoxicating legitimacy precisely because of the illegitimacy of the behavior to which it is applied.

Sadomasochism strives to avoid the dialectics of master and slave— Hegel’s con game—which in the “real world” perverts all the energies in dubious confrontations. The purpose of the sadomasochistic contract is to make sure that power is never at stake. The bottom doesn’t compete with his master; he manages with his help to challenge his own limits. The two configurations overlap, both struggle to achieve separately their own singularity.

(Lotringer 1988:22)

Such a “singularity”, however, is fully infused with the dialogical, the social requirements that give permission to experience the desire, as well as the interplay of signifying gestures, without which the activities of each participant lose legibility. In a sense, then, sadomasochism represents an escape from both the practice and legacies of hierarchy by playing past its realistic imperatives, and it does so by creating an objectified locale within which the rules of the intrapsychic dominate, unimpeded by the considerations that tend to turn most acts into the product of both intrapsychic and interpersonal considerations.

The most general approaches to the appearance of sadomasochism have identified three elements: a strategy for managing guilt, continuing repairing of narcissistic wounds, and seeking relief from continuing threats of fragmentation. The latter is seen as increasing as a reflection of the increasing fragmentation and instability of social life (Socarides 1991). These three elements are far from being independent of each other. Each undoubtedly plays some role in the creation of the very possibility of sadomasochism. However, this kind of formulation, conceiving of the sexual as “serving” guilt, the temporary repairing of wounds, fails to see the possibility of the ways in which the guilt and a possible history of narcissistic wounds come to serve a version of the sexual that may arrive permeated and enlarged by our more general history from infancy onwards with the intoxicating experiences of interpersonal power. Guilt may be more important as the metaphoric coinage of sadomasochism than it is as its inspiration.

The social segregation of the sexual ensures its limited claims upon larger, more visible identities; for example, it allows those who are professional aggressors in public contexts to become submissive children within the sexual script as it allows what in public are timid subordinates to become the most demanding despots. In a sense, then, sadomasochism can represent an escape from both the practice and legacies of hierarchy by playing past its realistic imperatives. Consensual sexual sadomasochism emerges as an exercise of hierarchy that occasions authenticity precisely because of the illegitimacy of the behavior to which it is applied; its eroticism and attending sexual excitement create a comforting sense of reality to what otherwise often appears as a childishly theatrical performance. The sexual, often too real to be taken too seriously, can become an occasion f or a visceral conf irmation of a version of self that is not obtainable in other configurations of the self (Lichtenstein 1977).

Though much of the sexual, and sadomasochism in particular, has been viewed as a desire to dissolve interpersonal boundaries, sadomasochism can actually serve to orchestrate a heightened sense of difference between self and other by affirming a felt absolute symbiosis of self and other in a parable of social order. It does so by playing upon divisions within the self, creating an objectified space within which the rules of the intrapsychic dominate, where authority uncovers all secrets, allowing truth, justice, and desire to coincide— albeit momentarily. Sadomasochistic sexual desires, as discussed here, can only be conceived of by segments of humanity capable of contemplating a fragmentation of self as well as a loss of social order.

To the degree that sadomasochism can be seen as “tainting” the sexual practices of many individuals, it may not qualify as an issue of perversion as we have used the word thus far. That is, the degree to which images, gestures or, to employ Stoller’s (1979) useful descriptive term, “microdots” implicating sadomasochistic themes are generally prevalent in both the intrapsychic and interpersonal scripts of individuals should narrow the space between the thinkable and the unthinkable. For some time, film and art critics have instructed us in just how much the erotic is a game of power played within (or at) the rules of power. This is typified in discussion of the predominant representation of women as passive recipients of the male gaze, as the object of desire and only rarely the subject of desire (Berger 1972; Mulvey 1975). An enlarged capacity to empathically comprehend sadomasochistic attractions may account for the nervousness with which the popularization of its clearly related symbols (leather, chains, studs) has been greeted.

It is also important to understand that, as with most forms of sexual behavior, the attributes that appear to encourage a commitment to the specific enactment of erotic desires may be distinct from, rather than essential to, those attributes that give rise to the desire in the first place. While there are critical differences between those who only fantasize and those who risk perf orming a version of the fantasy, such differences may be independent of the shared capacity to dream in certain similar modes.

Sadomasochism looms large on the horizons of the current sexual landscape in ways that require that it be approached as a “disease of desire”. One source of this marginalization is the dominant cultural scenarios that insist upon nonhierarchic motives, scenarios that are allowed to serve lust only in the guise of love, that place all emphasis upon the relationship to the object and very little, if any, upon other motives that might occasion sexual excitement (Benjamin 1972; Simon 1973; Stoller 1979, 1985a). It is possible that the experiences of recent years have created new pressures to modify this position. This has been particularly true for many among recent cohorts who experience the decline of Eros’ imperatives as a crisis of identity, as a crisis of viability. Typical of this shift is the current abandonment of Freud’s idea of genital maturity as occasioning an easy and gentle confluence of the sentimental and the erotic.

There is a growing awareness of the importance of these polymorphous perverse tendencies [e. g. exhibitionistic, voyeuristic, sadistic, and masochistic sexual games] as part of normal love relations, in contrast to their subordination to genital intercourse. I have proposed that normal polymorphous perverse sexuality is an essential component that maintains the intensity of a passionate love relation, and recruits—in its function as the receptacle of unconscious fantasy—the conflictual relations and meanings that evolve in a couple’s relationship throughout time.

(Kernberg 1988:65)2

Kernberg’s observation points us to an important potential bias characteristic of almost all scientific discourse on sex, including the present effort. Established as a central focus, sexuality is too easily seen as possessing a quality of importance that may not be descriptive of many individuals or most individuals most of the time. Related to this bias, perhaps reflecting also the degree to which Freud has influenced the thinking of all of us, there is a tendency to seek the deep sources of sexual desire within the history of the individual. Another biasing aspect is the continuing nervousness about sexual behaviors beyond the most conventional. Oral sex, for example, has only in recent times begun to shed the aura of being inherently deviant. Similarly, same gender sexual interactions seemingly continue to require some basic developmental, characterological or genetic explanation. As a culture we take sex seriously, perhaps too seriously; in its appearance, something emblematic of “true” character is assumed to be revealed.

While inevitably drawing upon the resources of the intrapsychic, at specific times and possibly for growing numbers of persons, specific sexual acts may be engaged in for superficial or contextual reasons. Examples that come to mind are such phenomena as “political lesbianism”, sexual engagements as an act of gender politics, or the use of articles and costumes associated with sadomasochism, including tattooing and piercing, as acts of identification with specific youth subcultures. Similarly, behaviors indicative of the sadomasochistic scripting of sexual interactions may be occurring more frequently not as the unleashing of previously repressed sadomasochistic desires but as a tactic for enhancing and elaborating sexual performances.

Periods of heightened sexual permissiveness frequently bring problems of their own, a kind of sexual anomie of affluence. The sexual, now less a scarce experience in its own right, one less shrouded in silence and less masked by the protections of pluralistic ignorance, faces an implicit challenge to live up to the promises made on its behalf. This challenge has been heightened by an increase in recent decades in the belief that sexual desire is a direct expression of the viability of a relationship. Moreover, this burden of demonstration is possibly being extended over a longer time span than ever before. This is particularly pressing in regard to long-term relationships where marked declines in the frequency of sexual interaction are commonly associated with the length of the relationship (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Long-term relations, as Stoller (1985a) noted, provide the comforts of familiarity and predictability (the orgasm of reassurance), but often at the expense of excitement (the orgasm of bliss). The elaboration of sexual play involving elements of the sadomasochistic is one of the few scripting materials available to heighten the production values of interpersonal sex-play, in a context where the orgasm of reassurance, in order to reassure, must be garbed as the orgasm of bliss—or its simulation.

The sadomasochistic charade, particularly for those adapted to the shifting of temporary roles, can sustain a sense of pressing an edge that eroticizes the extended performance beyond the immediately genital. This can be increasingly attractive in a context of communication systems where virtually all are given immediate access to intimacies of social power, but access projected through cool media and where bureaucratic rationalization depersonalizes the causes of frustration and outrage.


The legacies of the moral, social, and psychological significance previously assigned to the sexual continue to color our actual experience of the sexual. Few reared in the Western tradition can be indifferent to the sexual or be unaware of the ambivalences it generates, though the degree to which individuals are affected may differ widely within and between cohorts. The great significance accorded the sexual has tended to privilege it in the sense that its mere presence has often either created a near blinding glare or provoked such nervousness that a detailed examination of what in fact was occurring was nearly impossible.

The growth of an erotic consciousness in the modern West was occasioned, as Foucault (1976) argued, by the oppressive presence of efforts to banish it from visibility. This situation, in recent years, has changed profoundly. Erotic images, direct and indirect, conventional and unconventional, are abundantly visible. Patterns of behavior have changed in numerous ways, and the erotic status of individuals has become a more overt aspect of the reciprocal surveillance that accompanies many aspects of social life. At the risk of dissolving parts of what little we think we may know about sexual behavior, we must begin to address the questions of the changing nature of sexual desires, the changing nature of their uses. Very much in the spirit of Foucault, we must begin to see sexual behaviour as an evolving phenomenon whose meanings and truths are part of the continuing production of social reality, of the continuing production of our current versions of the human.


Pedophilia is generally defined as sexual desire for the prepubescent, a sexual desire for those who, aside from being seen as unable to give meaningful consent or to be fully sexually responsive, are seen as objects who lack many of the qualities of the semiotic of the body that suggest erotic significance. This lack, or deficiency, appears to challenge our capacity to comprehend this desire empathically. However, the idea of children as sexual objects is not so remote that it cannot be viewed as potentially attracting a growing number of devotees. While the incidence of this kind of behavior is almost impossible to establish with any accuracy, it is becoming a more visible part of current social discourse than in any other period in history. Pedophiles are no longer exclusively an obscure type emerging out of unusual circumstances, known only in terms of their hypersexuality; in many instances they are our parents. The belated recall of histories of victimization, which now frequently occurs and with a widespread endorsement by parts of the psychotherapeutic community, gives substance to the image of the dysfunctional family as highly prevalent, if not nearly normal. Concerns for potential “victims” and commitments to various forms of prevention, such as legislation against child pornography and its stringent enforcement, suggest a widespread and growing anxiety approaching a moral panic.

The issue of child sexual abuse, both within and outside the family setting, has become one of the dominant themes in current public sexual talk. Independent of the actual frequency of such events, the sheer amount of such talk brings the behavior closer to the horizon of plausibility. Even those accepting the view that the sexual is a powerful, innate drive tainted with dangerous appetites and propensities to aggression must address the question of how and for whom is the body of the child or pre-adolescent eroticized.

The capacity for sexual interest in the very young is not unknown across either the cross-cultural or historical literatures (DeMause 1974, 1991). What is relatively unique to the current situation is the combined effect of the intensity of moral disapproval attached to the behavior and the implausibility of the desire. It is this that raises the question of motivation. Here the clinical literature, which typically seeks out the conspicuous dif ferences between pedophiles and non­pedophiles, tends to point in two directions, only one of which speaks directly to a specifically sexual outcome. The first addresses the character “disorders” that distinguish the pedophile, such as ego defects or separation trauma. The second “explains” pedophilic behavior as the product of having been the object of sexual uses by others during childhood (Finkelhor 1984). This latter “explanation” tends, of course, to reinforce the image of a potentially sexual responsive child or one whose childhood experiences may have direct sexual consequences (DeMause 1991). The critical question is: what establishes this potentiating capacity? And the answer, at least in part, must be that it depends not upon the nature of the event itself but upon the kinds of desire that become prevalent, the representations of desire to which we are trained, and the kinds of individuals who must manage them.

The plausibility of pedophilic behavior has markedly increased in recent years. Increased plausibility, by itself, need not imply an increasing incidence of pedophilic behavior or that such behavior would be increasingly seen as being acceptable. As with all forms of behavior whose very implausibility becomes suddenly more plausible, it is necessary to scrutinize those behaviors, not only for changes in the characteristics and motives of its participants but for insights into the practices, sexual and nonsexual, such behavior appears to ignore, if not violate.

Norbert Elias (1978) provided a potent insight when commenting on the relatively recent emergence of a protected status for children, when it became important that children be sheltered from exposure to the appearances of adult sexual activity. He noted that previously there was little concern for what children were present to observe because the adults did not have to worry about maintaining psychological distance from their children as there was a sufficiency of social distance already in place. The civilizing (modernizing) process, which

required that we learn to see the adult in the child as well as the legacies of childhood in the adult, has significantly eroded that social distance.

Much of the indignant astonishment that accompanied the introduction of Freud’s image of the psychosexual life of the inf fant and child was clearly defensive. Yet, more surprising than the initial hostility was how quickly much of it evaporated. All things considered, how quickly the Western mind accepted the idea that the child could be both the object and subject of love and perhaps of lust as well. In the increasingly psychologically dense environment of the modern Western family, children were treated with an almost constant, but rarely fully conscious, anticipation of the adult person they were expected to be. The child could be seen in both experience and memory as accessing almost the entire range of human emotions. Erotic interest by the child, as well as the projection of erotic interest from the child, could be as ordinary as fear, anger, resentment, or envy, as well as loyalty, dedication, or love of the purest kind. The potential for pedophilic incest within familial settings that viewed children as property may have been far less than in those settings where the bonds of the family rest upon emotional attachment.

It is likely that pedophilia will remain a significant aspect of sexual deviance, maintaining its character as a major form of perversion for the immediate future. However, its plausibility is strengthened by the plausibility of other evolving practices. Just as the seeming universalism of gender, with its ability to naturalize a wide range of social practices and yet encompass and bracket great social differences, has been subjected to radical deconstructions, aspects of age appear vulnerable to similar deconstructive criticisms. The resulting uncertainty is reflected in the increasing ambiguity surrounding what is considered age – appropriate sexual costuming, postures, and behaviors.

As age loses a substantial portion of its seeming objectivity, its ability to organize independently the narrative of the self is correspondingly diminished. The uses of childhood in the narration of the self are exemplified in the ability of the psychoanalytic tradition to conceptualize most human experience as being framed by the repetitions of the experiences and meanings of childhood. As the traditional “family romance” turns into the horror story of the dysfunctional family, the sexual potential of childhood present and childhood past becomes something of an atmospheric presence: Saturn pursues Oedipus.

Of great general significance, the enlarged and empowered domain of psychic reality makes behavior the servant of sexuality, as it makes sexuality the servant of the narrative of the self. The narration of the self becomes less a continuous chronicle than a series of vivid episodes, episodes that often occur within settings that were rarely predicted. Moreover, the experience of sexuality in service to self-solidarity increasingly rivals the experience of sexuality in the service of social solidarity. Thus, the acting subject can become the object of its own desires by appropriating the experience of the other. For some, being in a quasiparental role is the only acceptable route to the reconstruction of the fantasied desires of the child, an imagery we have been trained to enrich with meanings that derive from different ages beyond childhood. The degree to which pedophilic imageries begin to describe the construction of the sexual for significant numbers of persons suggests why the current intensity of responses to the issue of pedophilia is required as much as an act of self-protection as by a desire to protect the child.


Masturbation and homosexuality over the past century have been repositioned with specific images that range from “normality” to tolerable or normal deviance. The continued oppressions associated with masturbation are largely confined to those that individuals are encouraged to impose upon themselves. Currently, masturbation is accepted in current schemata of individual development. Even for psychoanalysts, masturbation becomes a stage-appropriate behavior, though one not without its inherent dangers (Kaplan 1988; Laufer and Laufer 1989). Some consideration of the positive and enabling role it plays in psychosexual development has appeared (Freud 1914; Hillman 1975; Gagnon and Simon 1972). Outside of a concern for adolescence, however, it remains largely unexamined despite the research of Kinsey et al. (1948, 1953) and more recently the findings reported by Lauman and his associates (1994), which pointed to its persistent appearance in the lives of significant numbers over the longer span of the life cycle and as part of the sexual repertoire of many who are sexually active in other ways as well.

Most of the dominant institutions of society continue to define homosexuality as undesirable, but they do so with a dramatic erosion of credibility and confidence. For many at all levels of social life, lesbians and gay men no longer appear mysteriously hypersexual, but instead as disenchantingly pedestrian figures of everyday reality. Except for the most homophobic, the fear of homosexuality rests not upon its own claims, but upon what else must be reconsidered when homosexuality is reconsidered, not least of which is the already embattled privileging of marital sex. This is not to say that homophobia and its attendant irrationalities will not continue to occasion cruelties and pain, but that manifestations of homophobia must increasingly be seen as being irrational. The widened perception of homophobic practices as cruel, unjust, and irrational occurs because those practices must increasingly contradict and, at times, disrupt current conventional practices in areas of social life both immediately and remotely connected to the sexual.

The dominant claimants to the center stage of current perversions are pedophilia (the violation of norms of age) and sadomasochism (the extreme elaboration of the often hidden or denied norms of hierarchy, the language of power). These seem to provoke the qualities of widely publicized indignation that indicates that their presence may be known in the sexual imageries of a large number of persons.


It is possible that at any one moment a society may contain a wide variety of forms of sexual perversion as I’ve defined it. Many such perversions are so obscure that they remain unknown and unknowable, if only because of the innocuousness of their practices. Still others occur with sufficient regularity that they become part of a society’s canon of perversions. Of these, a small number become a special focus of attention and these frequently provoke an intense response; their appearances are not merely sanctioned severely, but their dangers advertised and their potential suspected, and actual practitioners are aggressively pursued.

The perversions that generally command the greatest attention are those whose incomprehensibility is being lessened by a diminishing of the differences that certify their very status as perversion. In other words, attention is paid to those “perversions” that begin to appear on the shadowy borders of plausibility and, as a result, where the increased scrutiny for signs of such taint in others occasions a similar scrutiny of the self. Such scrutiny is associated with a sense of impending epidemic as it brings to perception an enlarged number of decipherable signifiers. Collective and individual expressions of hostility to one or another form of perversion are obviously fed by the utility of such expressions. They offer demonstration of the remoteness of the individual from the taint of such perversions. They also become moments for unambiguous and increasingly rare opportunities for heightening a sense of social integration. Much of the expression of homophobia that commonly permeates our culture, and in particular what might be termed the cultures of masculinity, tends to reflect these kinds of usage: a way of unambiguously affirming that the individual is not one of them and wholly a member of the group.


Sex is dirty to the extent that erotic reality threatens to undermine the cosmic categories that organize the rest of social life. This is the source of the fears that surround sex, but also the source of its fascination. If sex did not disintegrate the cosmos to some extent, human beings would want to copulate only so much as animals, which are less preoccupied with sex. Those who desire to wash the dirt from sex…are polishing away the very impurities that make it worth doing, that allow sex to rise above mere biological process into an existential act.

(Davis 1983:245-6)

The confusions and uncertainties that attend massive social change, particularly those that are massive without being immediately catastrophic, change that almost imperceptibly invades and alters our social worlds, are reflected in concerns focusing upon the sexually deviant and the sexually conforming. Not only do the changes manifested in the social responses to conformity and deviances contextualize each other, but both must bear the effects of changes in related, broader social practices in the domains of work, family life, and community.

Much of what has shaped current sexual patterns is still very much in place, even if undergoing continuing revision. These forces involve virtually every aspect of social life, from the technologies influencing the worlds of work to those that have transformed our most intimate living spaces. What only a few decades ago represented hard-won understandings of the intermeshing of biological time and social time in comprehensive models of the life cycle (Erikson 1950) appear to be less universal in their application and less usable as a basis for creating guides to personal and social wellbeing.

The relationship between behavior and desire has been dominated by the need to establish firm limits on the expression or confession of desires. Much of current commentary on contemporary sexual patterns speaks of excessive change (the sexual revolution) and of returns to normality or, at the very least, of a backing of from current patterns with a renewal of older standards and constraints (the sexual counter-revolution). Even many secular observers viewed the appearance of sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS or genital herpes, as manifestations of some natural sanction against “excessive” or “unnatural” sexual behavior. Similarly, the swiftness of the construction of a new psychiatric disorder, “sexual addiction”, gives further evidence of what is commonly described as “a retreat from permissiveness” (Levine and Troiden 1988).

The postmodern experience may begin to reverse this as the claims of many desires are heard more emphatically. The hyperreality, the attempt to re-create in social life what was never there, that Baudrillard (1983) finds intrinsic to postmodern culture may find its analog in the hyperreality already to be found in modern versions of sexual desire. In this case, hyperreality represents the ascendancy of the “simulacra” or “dream of desire” over the enactment of desire, which sustains the repetitions that are fueled by the quest for what does not, and by its very nature cannot, exist. This would be consistent with the Lacanian (1977) notion of a circularity of desire, where desire presses upon behavior, not seeking satisfaction alone but also seeking confirmation of itself. Sexual hyperrealities press even more strongly upon the conventional, allowing the narrating self to reach, if only briefly, toward an experience of the self that compensates for an accumulating legacy of compromise of sexual pleasure with the requirements of other, more consistently public aspects of social life (Lichtenstein 1977).

We might also speak of the decentering of the sexual in recent years in recognition of its increasing detachment from the family as an institution, which was once its nearly exclusive legitimate social address. This partial abandonment of the familial near monopoly on legitimate sexual expression involved not only changes in sexual practices but also the changing practices describing other aspects of the family. The implications of this sociocultural shiftt for the immediate present and future of the sexual in our lives are numerous.1

Given the ability of the sexual to represent a layered history of desires and associations, different dimensions of sexual desire can be evoked on the level of the intrapsychic than are being performed, often simultaneously, at the level of the interpersonal. The sexual has the capacity to be productive of the confusions associated with “semiotic excess”, to become the bearer of multiple meanings and associations (Barthes 1968). Thus, the sexual scripting of tenderness can accompany feelings of disdain and a retelling of a myth of love can be accompanied by displays of aggression. The distinction between the intrapsychic dimensions and the interpersonal dimensions of the sexual becomes critical: the logic of the intrapsychic script is organized to make desire possible, whereas the logic of the interpersonal script is organized to make behavior acceptable (Simon and Gagnon 1987). This difference requires a charting of the ways in which an enhanced marketplace for sexual desire encourages shopping among the emotional products of current experience for their direct links to sexual excitement, as well as their indirect links to still older sources of sexual excitement (Stoller 1979). Such developments encourage a self more mutable in the scripting of its social commitments and one for whom the satisfactions derived from the inevitable insincerities of our own performance encourage the appropriation of the questionable sincerity of our sexual partners.

For a mutable self may be subjected to “identity exchange”, the reciprocal cognitive transfer of some of each partner’s defining characteristics to the other during sexual intercourse. Identity exchange is central to both erotic experience and smut structure, providing the link between the sexy and the dirty. It is the “double helix” of sexuality, involved in both sexual attraction and repulsion. Sex partners are attracted to each other because

identity exchange allows for each to reproduce himself in the other and the other in himself.

(Davis 1983:239, italics added)


The invention of the concept of the homosexual, the major focus of concerns for perversion in the late nineteenth century, made the sexual significant by making it a powerfully signifying aspect of character. While homosexuality took center stage in a heightened scrutiny of the sexual as emblematic of basic character types, it was also an admission of the problematic nature of sexuality in all guises. As a result of this enhanced role of sexuality, modern homosexuals may be as different from previous generations engaging in same-gender sexual behavior as contemporary heterosexuals are different from previous generations of individuals engaging in heterosexual acts (Halperin 1990; Katz 1990).

Underlying the reconceptualization of the sexual during the nineteenth century was the fact that sexuality had become, in many ways, more a problem of desire than a problem of behavior. Not all who desire behave congruently with that desire, just as behavior is not necessarily immediately congruent with desire. Social requirements, by themselves, cannot create desire; still less can social requirements, by themselves, create the capacity to experience any desire as an endogenous force. Social repression, to be sure, is the attempt to regulate behavior socially, to regulate it not merely by discouraging “deviant” expressions of sexual desire but by channeling as many as possible of the inevitable deviant expressions into forms that conformed to, and thereby validated, still more important discursive practices surrounding the sexual.

Sexual behavior comes to be viewed as an ultimate signified at the end of a signifying chain; desire would be seen as a desire for a kind of sex (homosexual or heterosexual) and there need be no, or very little, concern for what these kinds of sex might additionally represent. Sexual desire is never merely a desire for a specific gender. Similarly, sexual desire is rarely, if ever, just for sex.

Homosexuality and heterosexuality necessarily share an ability to allow the issue of gender to dominate all competing explanations of sexual desire. This, in turn, gives rise to two powerfully signifying, if deceptive, homogeneities. Specific desires attached to the sexual compromise, often happily, with the desire to be part of a larger normality. The pleasures experienced by the validation of gender competence that accompanies evidence of heterosexual competence provided “obligatory” heterosexuality with its encouragements, while institutionalized homophobia provided restraints. The shared plausibility of homosexuality and heterosexuality was their ability to allow a major social significance of the object of desire, i. e. gender, to obscure and dominate other more intrapsychically dependent aims of desire. This is what Freud almost understood when he observed with reference to dreams:

Symbolism does not attach great importance to the sexual difference. If the male or female principle is represented by a symbol of the opposite sex, there is no proof whatsoever of the utilization of the symbol in a specific sexual sense. It is dream representation—that is, the dream wants to express something quite specific.

(Nunberg and Federn 1965-72:157)

And it is Freud, perhaps more than anyone else, who taught us how much of the reality of desire is expressed in dreams and, of equal importance, just how much of reality is lived as if in a dream. To which one might add, the social meanings of desire, as we learn them, are already products of gender coding. Beyond childhood, it is therefore hard to experience a desire without acknowledging its conventional gender coding and significance. As a result, both homosexuality and heterosexuality serve to enhance the primacy of concepts of gender and the patchwork quilt of discursive practices that, in part, rests upon them.

Freud appeared to have understood this far more clearly than many who followed.

[P]erhaps the sexual instinct itself may be no simple thing, but put together from components which have come apart again in the perversions. If this is so, the clinical observation of these abnormalities will have drawn our attention to amalgamations which have been lost to view in the uniform behavior of normal people.

(Freud 1905:162)

If the “fact” of homosexuality created the preconditions for recognition of heterosexuality, the ideologizing of homosexuality also ideologized heterosexuality, but more importantly it reflected a transformation of the role of the sexual in the lives of many, something that, in turn, reflected a transformation in the very nature of those living those lives. The creation of a sovereign individual within the West, while transforming political, religious, and familial behavior, was also impacting upon the sexual on the level of both discourse and experience. Modern homosexuals were different from previous generations of “sodomites” to the same degree that many practicing heterosexuals were dif ferent from previous generations of individuals engaging in heterosexual acts.

By the middle of the present century, homosexuality had effectively lost its status as a perversion, especially in the sense we have used it. In recent years, ironically encouraged by the information and imagery attending the current HIV epidemic, it can be said to have lost its status as a significant deviance (Simon 1994). And there is little reason to anticipate a change in the direction of this trend. Beyond the gender of the desired partner, the specific behaviors associated with homosexuals, oral and anal contact, have become the common practice of large numbers of heterosexuals. Still more importantly, with heightened expectations of reciprocity in sexual exchanges, it has become more difficult to assign specific gender significance to modes of participation in sexual acts. (Being “active” and “passive” widely become alternative and reciprocal modalities rather than consistent postures (Bell and Weinberg 1978; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983).

The diminishing of the perceived deviance of homosexuality does not necessarily imply a corresponding erosion of the viability of homosexual identities. It should be understood that the explosive emergence of gay liberation, mostly contained within the last twenty-five years, rested upon a number of contributing factors, not least of which was the changed role of the sexual in integrating the narrative of the self that occurs precisely when the individual is burdened with greater responsibility for sustaining this integration than was previously the case.

The emergence of the homosexual as a type from homosexual behavior places many engaged in such behavior still more completely in the control of social life. It is a process that creates the “good homosexual”, the “responsible homosexual”, the “community-oriented homosexual”, and so on. From some perspectives, gay liberation resembles nothing so much as an escape from the isolation wing of a prison into the larger prison. Though the achievements of the goals of homosexual liberation need not culminate in the disappearance of the homosexual identity, it would be more than naive to assume that it will remain unaffected (Browning 1994).


Sexual “deviates” are.. .an enigma, and it is the future of culture that they are challenging us to decipher through their obsessions.

(Sylvere Lotringer 1988)


Within the Western tradition, masturbation was the first “disease” of sexual desire to become a matter of continuing public preoccupation. From the eighteenth century forward, though known to be a common temptation, masturbation was conceived as a major source of sexual perversions. The speed and intensity with which the masturbatory prohibition was adopted, its capacity to endure for almost two centuries, as well as its continuing capacity to generate powerful feelings of guilt and anxiety, cannot be explained simply by the ideological functions the prohibition might have initially served. The Foucaultian hypothesis (1978) that the widely broadcast masturbatory prohibitions introduced in the mid-eighteenth century actually served to advertise and dramatically valorize the significance of the sexual and make the body itself give testimony to the deployment of power may be only partially valid. It is possible that in the changing patterns of individual development from the mid-seventeenth century on, there were conditions that were already in the process of increasing the actual number of individuals engaged in masturbation and, at the same time, altering the psychic content of the masturbatory experience. What remain unclear are the experiences that might have lent credibility to such horrific conceptions.

Involved in the elevation of the significance of masturbation may have been simultaneous experience of conflicting desires within the self, an experience that may have terrified individuals as often as they enchanted them. In other words, the plausibility of the fear of masturbation did not necessarily rest exclusively upon its “visible” consequences for others, but in the fear of what initially were invisible possibilities within the experiences of the very architects and theoreticians of the masturbatory prohibition, such as Kant and Freud themselves. Masturbation was in all likelihood not an experience that was totally alien to them, which requires that we ask, however rhetorically, what was it about their experience that confirmed their fears regarding the experience? And the answer can only be anxieties generated by the imagery of desires enacted or merely suggested within the reality of the imagination. Neither the capacity for nor the content of fantasy is a constant; they both necessarily vary between cultural settings and individual histories. As a result, it would be a mistake to chart the history of sexual behavior without a corresponding history of the self.

The experience of internally generated desires that reference the external world without being subject to the immediate surveillance of the external world understandably generates collective anxieties. As dramatization of the fullest experience of desire, masturbation might well have been a critical, enhancing developmental experience that is most essential to many post-Freudian models of the human: the divided self, the primacy of the wish, and the centrality of symbolic processes (Weeks 1985; Gagnon and Simon 1973; Hillman 1975, 1979). It must be understood that masturbation could have such character – altering consequences only because of the kind of personalities that were evolving in the changing circumstances of emerging modern Western social life. Unfortunately, the evolution of attitudes towards masturbation to its present status as a danger-laden but normal, age-specific development has largely occurred without examining the kinds of sexual actors and actions that were being evoked or with any substantial attention to its uses beyond adolescence.

There is no reason to believe that the sexual is universally a major part of the narrative of the self. For many it may achieve this status at only certain limited moments in their lives and, though such moments may have significant consequences for individuals, the occasioning element need not be immediately sexual. This occurs mostly in individuating social contexts, where the future of the self is recognized and experienced as uncertain. Sexuality is most likely to become a significant problematic in social contexts where individuals need not always be what they are, which is also one in which individuals need not always be what they appear to be. Fantasy, sexual and nonsexual, becomes significant only in circumstances where individuals can fantasize being something other than the statuses into which they were born. In such contexts, individuals must not only bargain with the world for what they desire to be, but must also bargain with themselves for who they are. Such a world encourages a shift in the narrative of the self for many from self-stability to self-similarity, much as a changing social order learns to exchange similarity for stability.


By definition, what constitutes sexual deviance and what constitutes sexual perversion relate to larger categories of social practice than those that are specifically sexual. This leads us to a useful distinction between sexual deviance and sexual perversion. Sexual deviance might be defined as the inappropriate or flawed performance of conventionally understood sexual practices. Rape, for example, is an act of sexual deviance that is rarely defined as an act of perversion. Rape becomes perverse only when performed on an individual whose inclusion in a sexual act goes beyond the limits of generally conceivable sexual practice or is performed in ways that go beyond the limits of generally conceivable sexual practice. Though we may deplore the behavior, it is possible to comprehend, and even empathically reconstruct, the experience of the rapist or his victim. In the language of the pathologists, such behaviors can be termed a disease of control.

As the character of sexual practice changes over time, so do the boundaries of the definitions of deviance. An excellent case in point is the increasing incorporation of oral sex in the scripting of conventional sexual scenarios. Although the behavior as a matter of organs and orifices remains unaltered, its collective meanings and uses for specific individuals demonstrably have been undergoing profound change (Gagnon and Simon 1987; Simon et al. 1990; Lauman et al. 1994).

Perversions, in contrast, tend to be forms of desire too mysterious and sometimes too threatening to the most elementary def initions of desire and satisfaction to be tolerated. Perversion can be thought of as a disease of desire, not only in the sense that it appears to violate the sexual practices of a time and place, but also because it constitutes a violation of common understandings that render current sexual practice plausible. The behavior of the “pervert” is disturbing because, at the level of folk psychology, we have difficulty understanding why someone “might want to do something like that”. Consistent with this approach was Krafft-Ebing’s use of the term perversion as cited by Davidson (1987). In Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1876) there is a discussion of anomalies of appetite such as hyperorexia (increases), anorexia (lessening) and of perversions such as “a true impulse to eat spiders, toads, worms, human blood, etc.” Perversions of appetite thus involve not only the desire to eat the unthinkable, but also the desire to eat for unthinkable reasons. The same might be said of “perversions” of the sexual.

As in the case of deviance, what is considered a perversion is also subject to revision as what constitutes the thinkable changes. Many forms of what for the contemporary world constitute acts of sexual deviance tend not to occur in other social settings not because they are repressed, but merely because they are literally unthinkable. Moreover, the processes through which behavior becomes “thinkable” for a collectivity are not identical to the processes through which behavior becomes “thinkable” to the individual.

The logic that links motive and behavior is the complex, almost magical logic of representation, a logic of metaphor and metonymy that meshes personal history with social history. Concerns for the role of the symbolic in the interaction of individuals often obscure the importance of the interaction between, and even within, symbols. A homogeneity of sexual preferences inevitably masks a heterogeneity of desired emotional productions, and this perhaps is the level at which, to some extent, we may all be perverts, as even the most conventional may find their sources of sexual excitement fueled by the slightest “whiff’ of the unthinkable (Stoller 1979, 1985a).

Theories that describe the causes of behavior already presuppose the problematizing of that behavior. It is not theory that renders social practice problematic, but the emergence of the problematic in experience that gives rise to the requirement for theory, as well as the potential for its ability to find a responsive audience. In other words, theories of behavior are themselves behavior and, as such, have essentially the same basic requirements: first, they must be thinkable; second they must be plausible, that is, made either legitimate or explainable in terms of what is held to be legitimizing. In this sense I agree with Canguilhem (1989) when he notes: “[I]t is not paradoxical to say that the abnormal, while logically second, is existentially first.”