Sexual Excitement: Dynamics of Erotic Life

Here are some highlights from this 1986 book:

* My theory makes sexual excitement just one more example of what others have said for millennia: that humans are not a very loving species –especially when they make love. Too bad.

* people in general have a paradigmatic erotic scenario-played in a daydream, or in choice of pornography, or in object choice, or simply in actions (such as styles of intercourse tthe understanding of which will enable us to understand the person.

* Most of us, most of the time, feel of one piece. We do not notice the seams, though artists and analysts-by nature and profession-are more alert than many others… to the fact that the whole cloth is nonetheless made up of well-joined parts.

* our mental life is experienced in the form of fantasies. These fantasies are present as scripts -stories-whose content and function can be determined. And I want to emphasize that what we call thinking or experiencing or knowing, whether it be conscious, preconscious, or unconscious, is a tightly compacted but nonetheless separable-analyzable-weave of fantasies. What we consciously think or feel is actually the algebraic summing of many simultaneous fantasies.

* IT HAS SURPRISED ME recently to find almost no professional literature discussing why a person becomes sexually excited.

* The following, then, are the mental factors present in perversions that I believe contribute to sexual excitement in general: hostility, mystery, risk, illusion, revenge, reversal of trauma or frustration to triumph, safety factors, and dehumanization (fetishization). And all of these are stitched together into a whole-the surge of sexual excitement -by secrets. (Two unpleasant thoughts: First, when one tabulates the factors that produce sexual excitement, exuberance-pure joyous pleasure-is for most people at the bottom of the list, rarely found outside fiction. Second, I would guess that only in the rare people who can indefinitely contain sexual excitement and love within the same relationship do hostility and secrecy play insignificant parts in producing excitement.)

* The pervert himself cannot surrender to the experience and retains a split-off, dissociated manipulative ego-control of the situation. This is both his achievement and failure in the intimate situation. It is this failure that supplies the compulsion to repeat the process again and again. The nearest that the pervert can come to experiencing surrender is through visual, tactile and sensory identifications with the other object in the intimate situation in a state of surrender. Hence, though the pervert arranges and motivates the idealization of instinct which the technique of intimacy aims to fulfill, he himself remains outside the experiential climax. Hence, instead of instinctual gratification or object- cathexis, the pervert remains a deprived person whose only satisfaction has been of pleasurable discharge and intensified ego-interest.

* To the extent that, in its earliest relation- ships to its parents, a child feels it is debased, it will, in creating its sexual excitement throughout life, reverse this process of debasement in fantasy so that the sexual objects are now-in disguised or open form -its victims. One of my theses, for which this book is an illustration, is that the exact details of the script underlying the excitement are meant to reproduce and repair the precise traumas and frustrations- debasements-of childhood; and so we can expect to find hidden in the script the history of a person’s psychic life.13

* I have just noted two kinds of secrets related to erotic behavior. The first, the less important for our present purpose, is the need to keep secrets from others. When this is the case, the secret is usually used less to enhance sexual excitement than to keep it safe. The second, close to the heart of excitement, is the game in which we pretend to keep secrets from ourselves.

* Men’s fear of femininity-defensive masculinity-is kept a secret but is not wholly unconscious. The tough young man who beats up a homosexual is not without conscious knowledge of his fear that he is not masculine enough. The man who drinks for courage is aware that he feels himself to be weak; the idea is not unconscious. People who need pornography know they are perverse; they are quite conscious of their specific needs when they choose the pornography that excites them and disregard the rest. The process is secretive, not unconscious, though the roots of the excitement are unconscious.

* Excitement, then, is a defense against anxiety, a transformation of anxiety into something more bearable, a melodrama. The ultimate danger that I believe lies at the heart of sexual excitement is that one’s sense of existence, especially in the form of one’s sense of maleness or femaleness, can be threatened (what Freud called “castration anxiety”). To dissolve that threat, I suggest, one calls forth the mechanisms of hostility being described, such as dehumanizing others, and then decks the scripts out with mystery, illusion, and safety factors. When mystery and its inherent risk diminish, boredom or indifference intervenes. Normative examples: the capacity of a particular piece of pornography to hold an audience’s attention drops off precipitously with a second exposure; Peeping Toms do not stare at their wives; a square inch of thigh in a drawing room is vaster than an acre on the beach; stage managers at strip joints read the sports page while the show unfolds; most couples-heterosexual, homosexual, a fetishist and his latest panty hose-get bored.

* To repeat, sexual excitement depends on a scenario. The person to be aroused is the “writer,” who has been at work on the story line since childhood. The story is an adventure in which the hero/heroine runs risks that must be escaped. Disguised as fiction, it is autobiography in which are hidden crucial intrapsychic conflicts, screen memories of actual events, and the resolution of all these elements into a happy ending, best celebrated by orgasm. The characters are chosen because they resemble (though are usually not identical in appearance with) important people of childhood such as oneself, one’s parents, and one’s siblings. Most often, the writer becomes director, moving the action out into the world of real people or other objects. These are chosen because they are perceived by the writer-director as filling the criteria already written into the role. (Prostitutes, for instance, are available to those without better resources for casting.) If the chosen characters pretty much fit the part, they work. They should, however, have just a touch of unpredictability in their behavior; that introduces the illusion of risk. If unvaryingly predictable, they are boring. On the other hand, if they do not stick close enough to their assigned role, too much anxiety results and they are traded in. Every detail counts for increasing excitement and avoiding true danger or boredom. For many people, sexual excitement is like threading a minefield.

* The idea that hostility can be a central feature in a benign, inevitable part of human experience is illustrated also in humor and its physical gratification, laughter. As Freud long ago observed, humor and hostility are closely linked.” Take, for instance, slapstick, at which we all can laugh; transform the same amusing act into a real event in the street and one sees the hostility that must be there to generate humor.

* SADOMASOCHISM IS, I think, a central feature of most sexual excitement. My hunch is that the desire to hurt others in retaliation for having been hurt is essential for most people’s sexual excitement all the time but not for all people’s excitement all the time.

* During World War 11, the Nazis devised a system for hiding messages: the microdot, “a photograph the size of a printed period that reproduced with perfect clarity a standard-sized typewritten letter.”* Most human behavior-the functioning of the mind-works the same way… In a process comparable to the miniaturization that allows stupendous amounts of information to be stored, arranged, rearranged, and transmitted within so small an apparatus as the brain, we–our minds-use psychic mechanisms that work at high speed to compress great masses of data into amazingly small “space” in a purposeful, organized way.

* Microdotting is great. Why, then, have the slower, lumbering, conscious, problem-solving thinking? Probably because we need both for survival, though too much reliance on either may be dangerous.

* The more meanings crammed into a small space (such as a word), the more impact-acute tension followed by acute release-on the recipient (such as a reader), so long as his “apparatus” picks up, as instantaneously and subliminally as the sender created the microdot, awareness of its thickly packed meanings. That impact is not com- municated if the message (density of meanings) is beyond the capacity of the receiver to comprehend (as when he is from a different culture, or does not have artistic training or sensibility, or is too young or otherwise inexperienced). Sometimes-always in a creative act-the sender and the receiver are inside the same person, as in the “eureka” experience of discovery or instantaneous dislike for another person. Every word in a sentence is a microdot; the excess meanings slop over so much it is a miracle we even begin to understand each other. How differently you will understand the writing in this book from what I think I am saying. The problem is how to make my script, each word and sentence, overlap yours with enough shared that the communica- ting is worth the effort. What is the right word to be chosen at this very point, so that, if used just here and in just this context, you will under- stand me?

* One can describe moods in terms of objects. They can be personified. The patient described above, for example, would not become angry, but would become his angry father. It seems to me that with moods, this is usually the case. Patients do not just become de- pressed, but they become the rejected little boy they once were in childhood. The anxious patient is not just a frightened adult but the scared little child of the past. Moods are not only derived from the internal representatives of external objects, but are often the representatives of one’s own past state of mind; one’s conception of oneself in the past. All of these considerations lead me to conclude that there is a very close connection between alternations in the cathexis of internal objects and moods. One’s outlook on the world and one’s conception of oneself are determined by the status of the various internalized objects.

* Microdotting-the metaphor for the process of creating the present instant by sorting many memories of real events, past fantasies, and affects, putting these all together so rapidly, and making them fit so exactly-is a way of naming the process that constructs a dream: that instant just before the manifest dream is dreamed.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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