Monday, November 18, 2013

Love Without Sex*

By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The world around us is a very sexual place. We are sold all sorts of consumer products based on sex, we choose our partners, make conscious choices, and even choices we’re not aware of, on the basis of it. That’s why it is probably hard to imagine a life with little or no sex. Or, to put it another way, to imagine not finding another person sexually attractive.
Yet that is the experience that asexuals have. They are not sexually attracted to other people. Asexuality is a small but growing part of the population and it now has its own online communities. You could say that asexuality, like homosexuality before it, is coming out of the closet.
According to one US online community, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who the person is. “Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently,” according to its website.
It also states that asexual people have the same emotional needs as anyone else and, like in the sexual community, vary widely in how they fulfil those needs. Some asexual people are happier on their own, some are happiest with a group of close friends, while others have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships, and will date and seek long-term partnerships. Asexual people are just as likely to date sexual people as they are to date each other.

For those who believe the world is a sexual place and that all human consensual relationships are based on something sexual, this might sound startling and new. The asexual viewpoint is that, sexual or nonsexual, all relationships are made up of the same basic stuff. ‘Communication, closeness, fun, humour, excitement and trust all happen just as much in sexual relationships as in nonsexual ones,’ AVEN says.
And that is true. For the asexual there is no difference between their emotional needs and anybody else’s. But because the sexual attraction is missing from any relationship they might have, there is a difference no matter what way you look at it. And it is that difference that needs to be understood.
The asexual position – one you will find very well understood by such groups as London organisation Pink Therapy which promotes a healthy attitude to gender and sexual diversity – is that the asexual person is better positioned than anyone to understand how natural it feels to them to have no sexual attraction to another person. In fact, for Pink Therapy, asexuality is itself a branch of human sexuality and if we accept the principle of sexual diversity then that is an argument we would have to go along with. However, the asexual position, equally, is one that is often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by a cultural context in which sexual engagement is arguably the dominant discourse, to the point of saturation. For that reason, the asexual experience more often than not is one of alienation, rejection and discrimination. It is not far removed from the gay or lesbian experience of ten or maybe twenty years ago in this country. And some would argue that the legacy of those prejudices still hang over certain attitudes today.
Be that as it may, the main area of conflict in which asexuality finds itself is in relationships with non-asexuals. A great deal of the asexuals in this country have, for one reason or another, not realised their asexuality and have entered into long term relationships – having children, having sex, doing all the usual things - in which they have had to hide this truth about themselves. But one’s true nature can’t stay hidden forever and so the asexual element has gradually made itself known and this has led to the non-asexual partner feeling confused, hurt and rejected. Admitting to oneself that you don’t experience sexual attraction to others is not an easy thing to do. Nor, once that has happened, is asking one’s partner to accept your asexuality as a part of what they understood to be a physical relationship. Not every relationship survives that experience. Equally, pretending that one’s asexuality is actually a lack of interest in sex, or a lack of attraction for one’s partner, or a result of a too busy schedule, or a headache, or some other diversion tactic, is a recipe for long term deception and conflict.
There are no easy answers for these issues, partly because this is new territory for most people. Academic researchers have only just begun to look at asexuality and among the many questions being asked is why at this point in western culture’s development have we seen a more vocal community of asexuals emerging. It is also asking how we can better understand the position in order to ensure asexuals can live as they wish to live.

• Based on an academic paper entitled ‘The Imaginary and Asexuality – A Consideration of Absence’ presented at the 11th annual conference of Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workgroups, October 11 – 13, 2013, Boston, USA.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' *

By Kevin Murphy, Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

“If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along the lines of cleavage into fragments whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystal’s structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures of the same kind.”
This was written in 1932 by Sigmund Freud and in terms of forensic psychotherapy is still valid today. Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's classic movie, certainly cracks up but not in a haphazard way, he breaks along discernible lines of cleavage.
All the trappings that he evidently values - family, ambition, self-regard, identity, even narcissistic aggression – combine to disguise treacherous fault lines lying just below the surface of his personality. These fault lines pose a threat because no authentic sense of personhood acts as the glue to keep the structure together. Instead there is anxiety, paranoia and aggression, elements that are present from our earliest infant stages and which most of us manage to positively reconfigure. But not Jack...
The moment Wendy discovers he is not a writer is the moment the subterfuge, the pretending, is no longer possible. His core delusion, the flimsy idea that was holding him together, has been shattered and someone will be made to pay. But he’s not a serial killer, carefully selecting his victims and enjoying the suffering he imposes. Nor is he a calculated wife killer, who might have locked her out in the snow and let nature do his dirty work. No, he’s a deranged layer-down of the law, the father’s law, the corrector of wayward family members, who will project his narcissistic fury into chopping them up into little pieces, teaching them a final lesson, as if he was the warped embodiment of an exaggerated righteousness.
Unlike most offenders, the thought of covering his tracks never enters his head. He is too intent on obeying a delusional command, handed down by the authoritative, fatherly figure of the hallucinated waiter, who corrected his family in the same way.
Even Jack’s caretaker job is a legal obligation, handed down by a higher authority who must also be obeyed at all cost. Yet the owner of the hotel, the other male authority figure, is kindly, understanding, patient, and is still fully in control. His name is Ullman (can we hear 'all man’ in this?), an ideal that Jack could have possibly identified with but chose to overlook, in the Overlook Hotel. Even chef Hallorann takes up a kindly father-figure position with Danny and is able to see in the boy something his own father has again overlooked.
Jack’s ideal man comes with frightful power over those below, fearful obligation to those above, and has so little mercy or forgiveness or patience it is almost cartoon-like in its simplicity.
The lines of fracture for him run fairly and squarely through his place in the world as a man and as a father, provider, protector.
From the start his paranoid psychosis has been emerging. We see it in resentment to his son and disinterest in his wife, his moments with both characterised by coldness and an unnerving sense of distance.
In terms of the wider metaphor, characteristic of psychosis, Jack is withdrawing from external reality to an inner world and not just in his dealings with his family. His weak foothold in the social order, in his questionable ability to support his family, is already evident when he withdraws to the solitude of the hotel. He then withdraws further to the stifling embrace of hallucination and delusion. The final withdrawal comes when his psychotic rage, directed at his all-knowing son, drives him into the metaphoric maze of his own mind where a frozen, catatonic state awaits.
Jack’s inability to position himself as father would have us question his experiences of being fathered. Equally, his ambition to be a writer when he patently can’t write – and language disruption is a key indicator of psychosis - would have us ask why this and not some other money making scheme? The choice has a grandiosity about it, much like his skewed view of fatherhood. Even the setting he writes in is like a throne room and yet how incongruous he looks in it. Being a writer promises prestige, an elevated place from which he might overlook a great swathe of humanity, as author, authority figure, as an all-man to be looked up to. Unfortunately for Jack, that coveted place is only available through the malevolent sycophancy of his hallucinated barman and waiter. When he comes apart, it is along lines of pre-existing fracture and what we see in the gaps that emerge is a lack of any authentic sense of being, which could very well be the thing that has always haunted him.

* A presentation based on this article was made at the UCD Science + Film Festival screening of The Shining (, which took place at The Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin, October 31, 2013.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fifty Shades of Being One Step Down

By Kevin Murphy,Reg.Pract. APPI.
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

For those who have read Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, the foundational feminist text of the 20th century, the success of a recent light porn trilogy must have them scratching their heads in wonder. What happened to the women’s movement? Where is the indignation at being portrayed as inferior to men? What has become of the feminist ideal that women do not need men to define who they are?
All, it would seem, is so much history. The modern equivalent is that a woman finds happiness in bending over backwards, no pun intended, to become the thing the man wants her to be. Such is the storyline of the above mentioned trilogy which has found favour with some 65 million buyers, most of whom are reported to be women.
In the story, the good looking rich young man – damaged by a childhood of abuse and deprivation – has a liking for kinky sexual practices. The beautiful woman – younger, impressionable and not rich – arrives awestruck into his gravitational pull and so an affair ensues, coloured by her amazement that one-so-great-as-he could find her attractive. Gradually she comes to be introduced to his practices and, after a very brief spell of being against them, starts to enjoy it. As tales of sadism go, it is about as user-friendly as you can get. Readers of this will not be searching out ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ by Frenchman Donatien Alphonse Francois, otherwise known as the Marquis de Sade.* The modern version is politically correct down to the ingratiating habit the hero has of apologising for being the way he is, even for hurting her which in terms of sadism has got to be a first.
There is always a need for good entertainment in life. The danger with this type of narrative, however, is that it reinforces a message already out in the public discourse that a woman only has value in a relationship if she can figure out what the man wants her to be and can transform herself into that. Maybe that’s the inevitable direction that things go when so much time, money and energy is invested on appearance and playing to sexual stereotyping.
Unfortunately if you criticise this kind of commercial success you are accused of spoiling the party. The possibility that this kind of product offers complicit support for the exploitation of women is completely missed. And yet it is complicit in a most cynical way. Re-arrange the configuration of the hero of the three ‘novels’ and you get an entirely different picture. Keep him rich, but now make him a bit older, with a pot belly and a comb-over, and suddenly a rather different impression is created. Now it begins to have the creepy overtones that bring it closer to reality.
Perverse sadists come in all shapes and sizes but the odds are that if our heroine in the novel came upon one with less money, less status and fewer scolded-puppy apologies, the love story wouldn’t have gone far beyond chapter one. In reality, our heroine would have had a deeply unpleasant experience. It quite possibly could have scarred her for life. It could also have made it incredibly difficult for her to ever trust another person in relationship again, which is often what actually happens.
Not so in fiction-land where she saves the hero from himself while at the same time developing a taste for kinky sex, much as she might a new dish created by his personal chef. That wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the implicit message that the man – in this case rich, famous and slightly inarticulate – is always to be pleased. Decades of feminist outpourings to the contrary would appear to have missed their mark. There is instead the aforementioned trend in various contemporary versions of femininity that sees the role of woman to be whatever it is that pleases. For some, both men and women, it is apparently the perfect solution to the tensions already inherent in adapting the role of woman to the demands of the modern world. Perfect, that is, until the ability to please fades or becomes less impactful over time. Then the woman is left to her own inner resources to support a sense of identity and prestige in a world that tends to judge, harshly at times, on the basis of surfaces and appearances.
de Beauvoir’s partner, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in his weighty tome ‘Being and Nothingness’, makes an interesting point in this regard. I referred to this in a slightly different way in an earlier blog but it is worth mentioning again. Sartre says the man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He does not want to possess an automaton. The total enslavement of the beloved, as he calls it, kills the love of the lover. If the woman does become an automaton then the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing: he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess her freedom as a freedom. In love, therefore, what the man desires is that he be the unique and privileged occasion of this freedom.
Of course, that’s assuming we are dealing with a man, or indeed a woman, who is able to love. Not everybody is able to love in the way they want. Love after all involves giving of oneself to another at many levels (as distinct from making oneself submissive to the other) and that can often be too big an ask for some people. Be that as it may, Sartre’s point is well made. Love, if we are to look at it in all its complexity, does not include ownership of the other as an object (our hero’s obsessively protective urges throughout the novels are regularly passed off as love), nor does it include control of the other as an automaton. But maybe that idea has had its time and maybe that time is gone. If it is, then we need to accommodate a new way of thinking about love and the nature of the relationship that emotionally binds (as opposed to physically binds) human beings together.

• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade was written in 1785. Four wealthy men resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. They seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle with 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers. Not for the faint-hearted.