Sex role evolution, love, and neuroticism — an excerpt from Otto Rank’s “Beyond Psychology”

Today I’ll be transcribing a portion of Otto Rank’s book Beyond Psychology (1941), beginning on page 181:

Herein is anchored the true democratic ideology of Christianity, promising every man equality before God, that is, in his own self, whereas our political democracy, praiseworthy as it may be, always remains an unattainable ideal of the heavenly kingdom on earth. Interestingly enough, early Christianity proves to be more realistic in that respect than later periods of social planning. By proclaiming that man is not fundamentally bad, Christian doctrine simultaneously claimed that things were bad and had to be changed. While the Jew was constantly blaming himself for not meeting the ideal requirements of his God, the early Christians with Paul as their leader were keenly aware of the need for a change of order.

This change of order, which finally precipitated the collapse of the ancient world, was, however, brought about first by the change of the type of man through the new idea of love. This new ideology, purely conceived of as being loved by God with the meaning of accepting one’s own self as fundamentally good, was bound to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused in the course of time until we find it in our day thwarted and twisted in the neurotic type who is either fighting it willfully or giving in to it too “masochistically.” But, in one way or another, this genuine need of the human being to be loved became the strongest motive for the molding and building of personality-types. Yet, while the curse of the evil was overcome by being loved, meaning, being good, the trouble with this humanized love-ideology was that not being loved made the individual bad. In a word, the moral integrity of the personality became so utterly dependent upon the other person’s love that the individual either had to deny it willfully or submit to the insecurity of a personal God.

This humanization of the spiritual love-principle reached its climax in an era known as the Romantic period, which left its imprint on modern relationship in an ideology called Romanticism. This eighteenth century philosophy of love was prepared for in the Renaissance, which, as a cultural movement, evolved a new conception of love entirely original and quite different from that of the Middle Ages. While the ancients considered love a pleasure whereby human beauty was accepted as a mere aspect of nature’s beauty, for the Middle Ages it had been sin, and feminine beauty was looked upon as a temptation by man who no longer saw woman as a means of pleasure but as a cause of perdition. During the Renaissance, however, feminine beauty as its all-powerful stimulus became, together with a new conception of love, the object of philosophic speculation and the admitted source of poetic inspiration. In the synthesis, not entirely heathen and not fully Christian, which Renaissance culture represents, love was considered sensuous as well as spiritual, and woman was looked upon as fully equal to man, that is, endowed with gifts of mind as well as body. Contrary to the thought of the Middle Ages, love was no longer considered subordinate to virtue, or beauty denounced as a source of peril. In a word, the conception of original sin changed to the conception of original love. Love, that is to say, was appreciated not because it was a means of becoming good, but because it was good, which means not only pleasurable but beautiful, that is, part of nature.

In the Romantic period which flourished in Germany, this free philosophy of love could not be accepted. There it was not the beautiful woman who was appreciated and thus loved; it was woman as a group or class who became idealized. The leading intellects of that period, shaken in their fundamental selves by the repercussions of the French Revolution, saw in fully developed womanhood the perfect, that is, emotional expression of the true self. In a period of collectivistic ideologies glorifying folk-traditions, folk-lore and folk-art, woman became, so to speak, collectivized as the carrier of racial continuity. The challenge to love no longer appears epitomized in sheer beauty but in an abstract notion called the “beautiful soul.” Although this idea was taken over from Plato’s “Banquet,” the actual love-life of the poets in the Romantic period was anything but “platonic.” In fact, Wieland, to whom is credited the romantic conception of the “beautiful soul,” indulges in erotic phantasies bordering on the pornographic; whereas his English predecessors, the philosopher Shaftsbury and the novelist Richardson, had given the “beautiful soul” a moral connotation.1

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[Corresponding footnote:] 1Schiller, in his famous poem, “Anmut und Wuerde” (1793), defined the beautiful soul as the perfect balance between moral feeling and physical emotion.

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In his idealization of woman we recognize a reaction against her moralization brought about in the Middle Ages by the Church, which, in the obsession of witchcraft, had identified her with the evil symbol of mortality—sex. Through this about-face of romanticism man suddenly lifted woman into the role of representing the immortal soul-principle hitherto usurped by him. This role of the soul-bearer, in primitive conception, had been ascribed to her religiously in the soul-belief of totemism and socially in the institution of matriarchy. There, the man could still preserve his personal immortality in his belief of self-perpetuation, whereas in the romantic conception of the woman-soul he actually renounced his better self to her. She became the beautiful soul of the man, his eternal, immutable, immortal side as against the mutability and transitoriness of his individual self. This we saw struggling during that same period with the bad, condemned ego epitomized in the persecuting double.

Thus, in romantic love, the Christian love-ideology, as applying alike to both sexes, became divided up between the two sexes and thereby created a confusion under which we still labor in our sexual psychology. While during the Middle Ages man had made woman the symbol of evil, now by virtue of representing the beautiful soul she was supposed to make him good by allowing him to love her. This reversal of the moral evaluation had two far-reaching results. Through the collective ideology of the beautiful soul applied to her, the woman became, so to speak, “collective,” that is, promiscuous, as borne out by the not so “romantic” but highly sensual relationships among the leaders of the romantic movement, who may be said to have introduced the modern divorce vogue into our sex life. Secondly, this promiscuity, together with the freedom of emotional expression permitted her, gave women a decidedly masculine appearance, which basically was determined by her having been made the bearer of man’s soul-ideology.

As the woman was allowed so much freedom and encouraged to play the role of soul-saver for the man, he soon felt too dependent upon her; she threatened to dominate his whole life and even the hereafter. Thus in his eyes she became bad again. This change of attitude found expression in literary fashions and types, such as “The Fatal Woman,” or “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which can be traced right to our own times in the writings of Oscar Wilde, André Gide and Gabriele D’Annunzio. In those man-made literary fashions which were instrumental in creating corresponding types in life, the woman not only appears unwomanly but hard and cruel in a masculine manner. Here we first meet the types of sadistic-masculine woman and masochistic-feminine man, who, although in their time they were accepted, indeed, highly estimated types, in our day have been diagnosed as “neurotic.” Their strange behavior started the first psychological speculations about the basic difference of the two sexes.1 Just as this difference, in view of nature’s bisexuality, does not imply any clear-cut distinction, so is there no sharp line to be drawn between sensual pleasure and pain as we find those sensations coupled in romantic sado-masochism. While this sexual terminology has actually been derived from two outspoken perverts, the psychological relation between pleasure and pain expresses a deep-rooted bond based on the duality of the life-principle itself. As sex naturally implies death in the surrender of the individual to the collective life-principle, we meet in romantic love a moralization of this very life-principle whereby man became submissive and created the picture of the fatal, cruel, in a word, sadistic woman. Side by side with this type, we encounter as a reaction to it, the satanic and diabolical man in the literature of the same period. This type is epitomized in the notorious Marquis de Sade and his “sadistic” writings, which influenced all modern writers up to the rank of such authors as Flaubert, Baudelaire and Swinburne.

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[Corresponding footnote:] 1On this subject, one of the most famous scientists of that period, Wilhelm von Humboldt, wrote an essay, “Ueber den Geschlechtsunterschied,” 1795.

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For the “beyond” of psychology it is particularly important to realize the order in which those types surviving in our sexual psychology appear in romantic literature: first, the masochistic man in bondage to the merciless woman, and only afterwards the sadistic man in an attempt to liberate himself from this self-imposed submission. The sadistic type, the creation of a decadent male, has produced another artifice of our psychological wax-cabinet—the masochistic woman. This invention followed when the man had again to divest the woman of the masculine characteristics he had bestowed on her. By making her “masochistic,” that is, completely submissive to him, he had to picture and thus make her womanly in an extreme fashion. True, this submissiveness is her basic self, but submitting to nature, not to the man. Such natural “sacrifice,” in fully accepting her biological role, is different from the woman’s artificially “sacrificing herself” for the man, which she can do only in true “masochistic” fashion. This sacrificial tendency, which might be conceived of as an exaggerated form of Agape, is deeply rooted in woman’s nature and not just a masochistic perversion in the sense of our psychology. As long as it satisfies the individual’s desire for happiness, we have no right to stigmatize it as “neurotic” or “perverse” just because we are not capable of understanding its vital significance. The Christian martyr can be as little explained by being labeled “masochistic” as, for example, can the Japanese soldier for whom sacrifice and self-sacrifice represents one of the highest virtues. The Freudian concept of “self-punishment,” derived from his masochistic interpretation of sacrificial tendencies, has been erroneously explained as the neurotic’s perversion to gain pleasure from pain. The pleasure derived from suffering has to be ascribed to the triumph of the individual will over pain, which thus ceases to be inflicted and becomes self-willed.

The masochistic submissiveness of modern woman reveals itself in the light of those moralistic ideologies as less neurotic than the narrowing psychoanalytic viewpoint makes it appear. Basically, such submissive attitude is an essential part of woman’s biological nature; its exaggeration and subsequent exploitation, however, is man-made and betrays the influence of man’s ideologies on woman “psychology.” Not a few women act masochistically, i.e. as if they derived pleasure from pain, for two admitted reasons: first, from a desire to give the man they love pleasure, if he is insecure enough to need their masochism to boost his ego; secondly, in order to be changed, that is, to be made submissive to their own nature, which has been distorted by masculine ideologies. Those classical cases of masochism which have been described not only in fiction but even in textbooks, belong to the same kind of romantic literature which produced the original type. In reality, those women were “masochistic” only once in their lives, i.e., in relation to one person; at other times they can be quite will-ful and resistive. Their “masochism” represents a period in their lives when they permit themselves to submit to one particular person so completely that only their volition to do so makes it possible. In this sense, their “masochism” becomes a will-ful, instead of a natural, acceptance of their feminine submissiveness. It is here, in this area of non-acceptance of the self, where the neuroticism of this type lies, and not in masochism, which merely represents an attempt to counteract its original selfish nature. The only justification I can see in labeling the masochistic woman “neurotic,” is in the unreality of the type itself.

All our neurotic terminology and ideology, in fact, originated from the unreality of personality behaviour and patterns, the reality of which has been lost. For example, the outstanding women of the Romantic epoch, which produced this type, were not considered neurotic but just strong personalities, at least, stronger than woman had formerly been allowed to be; sufficiently strong, at any rate, to scare the man into his sadistic psychology. This sado-masochistic ideology of the male, which still confuses psychoanalysts, sprang from an attempt on the part of the romantic type to extricate himself from his own conflict between dominance and surrender. The solution he found by dividing the two kinds of love—represented in Eros and Agape—between the two sexes led to our sexual psychology created from man’s need to justify himself and uphold his age-old prejudices.

The first prejudice, namely, that the sexual act is necessarily pleasurable, is obviously contradicted by nature herself. We have only to look at the animal kingdom to be convinced that as a rule it is a painful struggle, to be avoided, if possible; one which the human being had to idealize in order to accept it at all. Closely related to this widespread illusion is another assumption taken too much for granted, that every human being wants to live as long as possible, or for that matter wants to live at all. To risk death, or even to seek it, is not necessarily an unbiological gesture. There are people who want to die, without justifiably being diagnosed as “suicidal.” Especially when death comes suddenly and painlessly, it need not represent an escape but can be real deliverance, particularly when one’s life has been fulfilled or is to be fulfilled by dying. Last, but not least, is the prejudice which includes all others, namely, that everyone’s happiness is the same. For this assumption causes us to designate as “neurotic” any other whose ideas of happiness do not coincide with ours. Herein lies the greatest sin of psychology: that it sets up absolute standards derived from a rational interpretation of one prevailing type by which to judge not only our fellow men but also to interpret personalities and behaviour of the past.

In the realm of our own discussion we have only to take one of the greatest saints, Catherine of Siena, in order to illustrate the difference between psychological reality and unreality. In spite of her amazing asceticism, we could not call her “masochistic,” nor, despite her single-handed fight against the mighty Pope, could she be classified as a megalomaniac. In his recent study of Catherine, Joh. Jorgensen points out that her vast assumption of authority is the very reverse of egotism, springing as it does from complete self-surrender. The core of Catherine’s teaching is the need for absolute renunciation of self: it is St. Francis’ doctrine of poverty under a transcendental aspect. Here again is shown how man’s and woman’s nature and behaviour differ—even where saintliness is concerned. Being a woman, Catherine was able to completely identify her will with the will of the Church, which, representing the Bride of Christ, made Catherine the same through the mystical marriage. Thus she could become the conscience of Christendom, not because she was so presumptuous as to aspire to it but because she had emptied herself so completely of self-will that she felt the divine conscience working through her.

Experiences like this, and others in the past, could manifest themselves as powerful realities just because they were spiritually real. Not that these personalities were “neurotic,” but that they had, besides their neurosis, something else which enabled them to be creative in spite of it; in truth, they experienced really in themselves what we may only allow to remain a shadow or sham experience, that is, a neurotic one. In other words, it is not what the individual experiences, but how he does it, which makes our true conception of neurosis independent of any content, i.e., a matter of attitude. In this sense, the woman is not neurotic because she is “masochistic,” but is neurotic, one might almost say, because she is not really submissive and wants to make believe that she is.

The same holds good for the masculine counterpart, sadism, which we characterized as a self-assertive reaction against the presumable dominance of the woman. From a human study of the Marquis de Sade, the father of sadism, it clearly follows that it is not an original perversion exaggerated to pathological proportions by a neurotic personality. It is no sexual problem at all, in fact, but a problem of the man’s ego, thwarted by his hatred of women and mankind in general. He was as full of hate for the whole world as Catherine was full of love for God, but with both of them it was a real experience. The “psychology” of de Sade can only be understood from his fundamental hatred, which means it is at bottom a moral problem of good and evil, not merely a sexual aberration. As a matter of fact, the problem of love itself cannot be fully comprehended without the phenomenon of hatred. The simple observation that love so frequently changes into hatred when the individual feels disappointed or hurt indicates a deep-seated relation between the two emotions. Of course, love does not simply “change” into hatred, but both are manifestations of two opposite life-forces: the tendencies toward unification and separation respectively, that is, toward likeness and difference. This explains why hatred appears not infrequently as the result of a heightened love-emotion which carries the individual too far away from his own self to an over-identification with the other.

[All emphasis his. Footnotes omitted except the two cited.]

Stopping on page 190.

This whole book has provided a great deal of food for thought stretching back through human history. I hope to transcribe further portions of it going forward.

Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst who, for a couple decades, had been a close friend of Sigmund Freud before branching off to go his own unique way in trying to make sense out of human life.

How do I, as a former escort, live with myself, he asks?

Thinking about what was written to me yesterday (as was showcased in my last post)…

When someone asks me something like “how did you live with yourself?” for working as an escort in my 20s, it’s a bit perplexing. It causes me to wonder how others can be so blind to human nature (as well as animal nature) that they view our sexuality as some sort of unique sin within human life. It’s really not about money specifically so much as an exchange of resources and companionship, yet others try to make it out to be so ugly and dirty and with their words strip it down into something it needn’t be. That innocence they all claim to care about is tainted by their own imaginations and words oftentimes more so than the reality of the situation itself. It doesn’t help that most people out in the public get their education about sex work from HBO or the bible.

Human sexuality can be very complicated, but it also can be very simple. When someone looks at sex work as the opposite of anything having to do with love, I think it depends entirely on the situation and the persons involved. It’s not automatically the opposite of a labor of love. Work in general can and does itself go either way depending on the situation and the people involved. I happened to like my job and most of the people I chose to spend time with while in it. Many of my clients were very sweet and accommodating, as I tried to be toward them as well. Bonds developed between some of us that lasted years. True friendships even developed in some cases, a couple even that transcended sex work and continue on to this day even when the offer of sex was taken off the table years ago.

Involving money doesn’t automatically preclude genuine care and concern. And money isn’t sufficient all unto itself to make a person debase herself. Just because money is offered didn’t mean I had to take up any and every offer, and it didn’t mean I felt obligated to do anything and everything somebody wanted. No. Nor did I. I was very selective about my clients, and rightfully so.

What people seem to envision is so far from the reality most of the time. We’d typically meet and then go to dinner, sometimes at very fine places I otherwise might never have had access to on my own. And we’d talk and get to know one another, with the emphasis placed on me getting to know them, working toward getting the man to feel comfortable in my presence. We might enjoy a couple glasses of wine, but that’d be it — rarely more than that since it’s important to stay on track and focused. Then we’d go back to the hotel room and lounge and chat until it came time for me to slip into a gown and light the candles and turn on some music. We tended to like to rub and massage one another. We kissed and embraced. And cuddling was a big part of our time together oftentimes. A date lasted several hours, sex being only one aspect of it. I used to say that sex might be 10% of a date overall, albeit a very important 10% of it. But still…just 10%. The rest of the time was spent talking and petting and snuggling. So it’s not uncommon that bonds could arise, even if they didn’t rise to the level of love the way some think sexual encounters properly should. But there was affection and intrigue and compassion…which people out in the public prefer to ignore or dismiss when they discuss sex work.

My goal was to make the experience as mutually enjoyable as possible. Though I was there to tend to their needs primarily, since that was my job — to make these men feel better for a while. To give them someone to talk to who wouldn’t betray their trust, and I’ve kept my end of the bargain ever since.

The money was exchanged not just for sexual access but to establish boundaries. An important boundary was for me to let them go back to their lives without further interruption until we met again. And admittedly, providing for people in such a way can prove a bit draining on one’s soul over time, because life can be lonely and that sort of arrangement can underscore that feeling. It’s not exactly easy pouring your care into someone for a temporary amount of time, only to release them and then to go back to one’s own empty apartment. And it’s not easy when members of the general public deride you as a whore for doing what you do and say god-awful things to try to make you feel cheap and disposable. They know not what they speak. They just stand in judgment, unable to comprehend that there are people out there who appreciate you for taking up time with them in such a way and making them feel special for an evening.

Not everyone can or wishes to go out to bars or to play the dating game or to risk forming major attachments that may interfere with their jobs or lifestyles. Some men are married and are dealing with the passion fading in their marriages after having raised a family. Some men are nearing retirement age and just wanted to enjoy the company of a lady a good bit younger than themselves whom they learned about and interacted with online and found interesting. Some men are disabled and ashamed of their disabilities and have therefore had no success in the dating circuit. Some men are reclusive and going through hard times and just wanted someone to sit with them and hug them and breathe some playfulness back into their lives. Some men work long hours and didn’t have the time or energy to devote to an ongoing love affair with anybody. Some men were depressed after divorces and just wanted a no-hassle encounter where the conditions were understood upfront.

And I enjoyed providing that to them, so long as they were kind to me. Those who weren’t kind I walked away from, because no amount of money is worth scarring one’s psyche. Those wounds linger, so I was very careful to protect my interests as well as theirs. And a lot of us had fun. Enough so that many of the same men came back to see me again and again over the years, sometimes setting up regular arrangements from month to month.

I kept my fees very reasonable (comparably speaking in terms of the length of the date), because I understood the external costs the man bore for the evening, like the hotel room and dinner and perhaps also his travel expenses if he was from out of area. Because I preferred lengthier dates that allowed enough time for us to relax and feel comfortable with one another, I set it up that way and let it be known on my site. Because I wanted to be choosy too, I didn’t vie for top dollar for overnight dates (even when encouraged to do so). I strove to be reasonable and fair there, which allowed for more selection to choose from and made the dates affordable enough to where a man could visit me regularly. But it was enough that I got by just fine and was free to book usually only about 7-8 dates per month (a number of them being repeat clients, as mentioned already). This allowed me to focus the majority of my time on my school studies and reduced the sense of burnout that tends to come with a profession like that.

We had some really nice times. Lots of worthwhile memories. But then the naysayers on the outside looking in, plus my own sense of loneliness, eventually got to me…

What do people really want from you? They want everything. Too much. Sometimes clients get overly attached. Too often supposed friends and members of the public cast harsh judgments. But I learned long before ever becoming an escort that people are fickle and that they judge and condemn without much provocation or warrant. People like to call someone out of their name for anything and everything — for doing what they want or for not doing what they want or for doing with someone else what they themselves wanted. Or simply for entertainment, it seemed in some cases. And by this I’m referring to my teenage years too when it’s all-too-common for others (peers and adults alike) to harshly judge budding female sexuality — just automatically, without even anything to go off of other than perhaps their own sexual interest in you. I’ve listened to being called a “whore” since I was 13 or 14 years old, loooong before anyone could justifiably say such things about me. My initial crime was hitting puberty and attracting male attention.

We like to think that words do no harm, but they can get into a person’s psyche and become embedded. That’s proven true for me — the so-called whore. I’ve tried to embrace the term to lessen its stigma, but it always burns. Because it says to me that no matter what I do I cannot escape this word, this designation. Not unless I lived a life up on a shelf or perhaps if I proved to be tomboyish enough to erase my femininity (in which case they like to denounce you as a lesbian, so you can’t win for losing). But that is not who I am, and I always reveled in the exploration of my sexuality.

Intimacy is a beautiful thing — like a bird that has to remain free to land where it so chooses. You try to cage it, and there will be unforeseen consequences. You cannot trap and contain all of nature, much as people try. You have to let the spirit be free to interact and connect as it needs to. Love is the same way. You cannot force it, cannot coerce it — it is spontaneous in origin. Money cannot buy it, but nor does money automatically eradicate the possibility of it blooming. Humans do not seem to understand this.

I don’t know what my purpose in this life is. But I never regretted my time working as an escort and actually for a while there felt connected to something beyond myself in catering to my people. It felt right and undeserving of the cruel lashings the outside world likes to put upon it. It felt very much more innocent than half of anything that ever arises from the bar-scene, that much is for certain. By and large, it felt like human beings finding one another and taking comfort in each other’s presence. We each were searching for something and took refuge together when our paths crossed.

Not all clients were like that. Some came in with more mechanical interests. Some watched too much porn and thereby hindered their own abilities to experience intimacy in a mutually fulfilling way. Some clients belonged among online “hobbyist” groups where they bonded with other men over the sharing of (typically trumped-up) stories of their sexual exploits. Those clients wore me down and turned me off. I dealt with them as little as possible. Our agendas did not align. I had (and have) no love for so-called “hobbyists.”

And there were risks. It’s a risky profession. You take chances, even when you screen someone properly. I was very fortunate overall though. But there are some men who will hold you down and take what they want without concern for you or your comfort and safety. My experience has shown me you can meet those types of men anywhere, and through screening I rarely dealt with them during my time working as an escort. Much more likely to run across them at a bar or tavern, IME. I found that it was “civie” men (in other words, non-clients) who found out I worked as an escort who’d try to give me the hardest time, because they thought they could get away with it. They tried devaluing me far more than my clients ever did or would have dreamt of. Because in their twisted minds, that’s what I was there for. But no. That’s not what I was put here for, to be treated in an inhumane fashion by some stranger with a chip on his shoulder. No. And I continue to resent those memories. But they were not the fault of the industry and, as stated before, debuted in my life before I ever became an escort. Because that’s how some men are — always seeking a reason to see someone else as a toy they can use and abuse and discard. That points to something contained within human nature that is conveniently blamed off on the so-called whore because such men refuse to stand accountable for their own actions and choices and because they lack any real moral compass and only care about what they might legally get away with.

My disdain for men who act like that is a bottomless pit. They have earned my wrath, not only from what I know of them but also what I hear my loved ones suffered being put through by these types as well. If one wants to talk about evil, look there. They are the possessors and the controllers and the destroyers of innocence, because they care not. And yet they aim to conflate their dehumanizing ambitions with all of sex and all of love and all of intimacy that anyone else might be capable of experiencing. That‘s sick. It really is. But there it is, plain as day for anyone who cares to look at it.

I take issue with what we like to refer to as evil for this reason in particular, especially if the offense is done against a child. And it is this sort of shit that led me into studying the dark side of human nature and social dynamics, which I’ve spent the last decade or more learning about. As recommended before, the books of Erich Fromm help illuminate what I am pointing to here.

Some people are incapable of experiencing love, for whatever reasons, and yet they speak as though they are experts. And they denigrate the experiences of others by trying to make them out to appear pathetic and unworthy, when they themselves wouldn’t know a damned thing about something truly worthy. They live in their egos and are not interested in seeking truth. Reality appears to terrify them, for whatever reasons, so they try to construct their own. And they then preach from their pulpits to others, trying to poison the minds of the young and naive and downtrodden so that they too might turn out as miserable and thereby help validate the sick preacher’s distorted worldview.

I want nothing to do with that other than to study it.  But I am familiar and it’s THAT which ever made me feel dirty and low.

So, how do I live with myself? By walking on, placing one foot in front of the other, like so many out here. I’ve been living and learning. There are moral concerns with attaching “price tags” to sexual encounters, I would not dispute that. And there are moral concerns when it comes to dealing with married men, especially considering how popular it is in society to blame the “other” woman. I carry the weight of those concerns and have for over a decade. They undoubtedly will accompany me to my grave someday. I am not perfect and I never claimed to be a saint. Life is tricky and there is no purity here, not among adults. Everything’s a tradeoff. Pain and pleasure are not wholly separated. Love can be complex, and monogamy is much harder for some to stick with than others. And now we live in the era of full-blown decadence and temptation, which only further compounds these matters. Morality at this stage of the game is an interesting inquiry and one I take up a lot of time pondering in recent years. But I won’t claim to have the answers, especially not some universal answer applicable to all others.

Life tosses opportunities your way and you do with them what you can. All in all, when I look back, I am not ashamed of those life choices. It was a very human and humane occupation. Why must I regret that? Why have so many people pressured me to regret that? I cannot and I will not. It provided me with useful perspective on a lot of things, plenty of which might not even seem directly correlated in any way. We have this one life to live, and to spend it tucked safely away and above all scrutiny from others was never my ambition. I preferred to live my life and to do so on terms I established. If that’s wrong, then I apparently am incapable of being right in accordance with the ideals of others.

Thoughts to be continued another time…

[Updated the next day for greater clarity and to correct typos.]

Becker’s take on Freud’s claims about childhood and sexuality — an excerpt from the book “The Denial of Death”

Picking back up on page 34 in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:

The Oedipal Project

Freud often tended to understand human motives in what can be called a “primitive” way. Sometimes so much so that when disciples like Rank and Ferenzci pulled away from him they accused him of simple-mindedness. The accusation is, of course, ludicrous, but there is something to it—probably what they were driving at: the doggedness with which Freud stuck to his stark sexual formulas. No matter how much he changed later in life, he always kept alive the letter of psychoanalytic dogma and fought against a watering-down of the motives he thought he uncovered. We will understand better why in a later chapter.

Take the Oedipus complex. In his early work Freud had said that this complex was the central dynamic in the psychic life. In his view, the boy child had innate drives of sexuality and he even wanted to possess his mother. At the same time, he knew that his father was his competitor, and he held in check a murderous aggressiveness toward him. The reason he held it in check was that he knew the father was physically stronger than he and that the result of an open fight would be the father’s victory and the castration of the son. Hence the horror of blood, of mutilation, of the female genitals that seemed to have been mutilated; they testified that castration was a fact.

Freud modified his views all through his life, but he never got a full distance away from them. No wonder: they kept being “confirmed” in some intimate way by the people he studied. There was indeed something about the anus and the genitals, the physicalness of the family, and its copulations that weighed on the psyche of neurotics like an age-old stone. Freud thought that such a heavy weight must date from time immemorial, from the first emergence of humans out of primate ancestors. He thought that the guilt we each feel deep down is connected with a primal crime of patricide and incest committed in the dim recesses of prehistory; so deep is guilt ingrained, so much is it confused with the body, with sex and excrement, and with the parents. Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept. The guilt that he feels over bodily processes and urges is “pure” guilt: guilt as inhibition, as determinism, as smallness and boundness. It grows out of the constraint of the basic animal condition, the incomprehensible mystery of the body and the world.

Psychoanalysts have been preoccupied since the turn of the century with the experiences of childhood; but, strangely enough, it is only since “just yesterday” that we are able to put together a fairly complete and plausible commonsensical picture of why childhood is such a crucial period for man. We owe this picture to many people, including especially the neglected Rank, but it is Norman O. Brown who has summed it up more pointedly and definitively than anyone else, I think. As he argued in his own reorientation of Freud, the Oedipus complex is not the narrowly sexual problem of lust and competitiveness that Freud made out in his early work. Rather, the Oedipus complex is the Oedipal project, a project that sums up the basic problem of the child’s life: whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage of others, a plaything of the world or whether he will be an active center within himself—whether he will control his own destiny with his own powers or not. As Brown put it:

The Oedipal project is not, as Freud’s earlier formulations suggest, a natural love of the mother, but as his later writings recognize, a product of the conflict of ambivalence and an attempt to overcome that conflict by narcissistic inflation. The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God—in Spinoza’s formula, causa sui. . . . By the same token, it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death. . . .

If the child’s major task is a flight from helplessness and obliteration, then sexual matters are secondary and derivative, as Brown says:

Thus again it appears that the sexual organizations, pregenital and genital, do not correspond to the natural distribution of Eros in the human body: they represent a hypercathexis, a supercharge, of particular bodily functions and zones, a hypercathexis induced by the fantasies of human narcissism in flight from death.

Let us take these technical gems and spread them out a bit. The Oedipal project is the flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life. We saw in Chapter Two that the child has an idea of death by the age of three, but long before that he is already at work to fortify himself against vulnerability. This process begins naturally in the very earliest stages of the infant’s life—in what is called the “oral” stage. This is the stage before the child is fully differentiated from his mother in his own consciousness, before he is fully cognizant of his own body and its functions—or, as we say technically, before his body has become an object in his phenomenological field. The mother, at this time, represents literally the child’s life-world. During this period her efforts are directed to the gratification of the child’s wishes, to automatic relief of his tensions and pains. The child, then, at this time, is simply “full of himself,” an unflinchable manipulator and champion of his world. He lives suffused in his own omnipotence and magically controls everything he needs to feed that omnipotence. He has only to cry to get food and warmth, to point to demand the moon and get a delightful rattle in its place. No wonder we understand this period as characterized by “primary narcissism”: the child triumphantly controls his world by controlling the mother. His body is his narcissistic project, and he uses it to try to “swallow the world.” The “anal stage” is another way of talking about the period when the child begins to turn his attention to his own body as an object in his phenomenal field. He discovers it and seeks to control it. His narcissistic project then becomes the mastery and the possession of the world through self-control.

At each stage in the unfolding discovery of his world and the problems that it poses, the child is intent on shaping that world to his own aggrandizement. He has to keep the feeling that he has absolute power and control, and in order to do that he has to cultivate independence of some kind, the conviction that he is shaping his own life. That is why Brown, like Rank, could say that the Oedipal project is “inevitably self-generated in the child and is directed against the parents, irrespective of how the parents behave.” To put it paradoxically, “children toilet train themselves.” The profound meaning of this is that there is no “perfect” way to bring up a child, since he “brings himself up” by trying to shape himself into an absolute controller of his own destiny. As this aim is impossible, each character is, deeply and in some way, fantastically unreal, fundamentally imperfect. As Ferenczi so well summed it up: “Character is from the point of view of the psychoanalyst a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom.”

The Castration Complex

In other words, the narcissistic project of self-creation, using the body as the primary base of operations, is doomed to failure. And the child finds it out: this is how we understand the power and meaning of what is called the “castration complex,” as Freud came to develop it in his later writings and as Rank and Brown have detailed it. In the newer understanding of the castration complex it is not the father’s threats that the child reacts to. As Brown so well says, the castration complex comes into being solely in confrontation with the mother. This phenomenon is very crucial, and we must linger a bit on how it happens.

It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world. The child cannot survive without her, yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. The mother thus represents two things to the child, and it helps us understand why the psychoanalysts have said that ambivalence characterizes the whole early growth period. On the one hand the mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on. She must appear as the goddess of beauty and goodness, victory and power; this is her “light” side, we might say, and it is blindly attractive. But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feeling that he has aegis over his own powers.  That is another way of saying that the mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat.

The child comes to perceive her as a threat, which is already the beginning of the castration complex in confrontation with her. The child observes that the mother’s body is different from the male’s—strikingly different. And this difference gradually comes to make him very uncomfortable. Freud never tried to ease the shock of the revelations of his theory, and he called this discomfort “horror at the mutilated creature,” the “castrated mother,” the sight of genitals “devoid of a penis.” Freud’s shock effect seemed to many people to partake of caricature. The horror in the child’s perceptions seemed too contrived, too pat, too much designed to fit into Freud’s own addiction to sexual explanations and biological reductionism. Others, too, saw Freud’s way of thinking as a reflection of his own ingrained patriarchy, his strong sense of masculine superiority, which made the woman seem naturally inferior if she lacked male appendages.

The fact is that the “horror of the mutilated creature” is contrived, but it is the child who contrives it. Psychoanalysts reported faithfully what their neurotic patients told them, even if they had to pry just the right words into their expressions. What troubles neurotics—as it troubles most people—is their own powerlessness; they must find something to set themselves against. If the mother represents biological dependence, then the dependence can be fought against by focusing it on the fact of sexual differentiation. If the child it to be truly causa sui, then he must aggressively defy the parents in some way, move beyond them and the threats and temptations they embody. The genitals are a small thing in the child’s perceptual world; hardly enough to be traumatic just because they lack protuberance. As Brown so well put it, the horror is the child’s “own invention; it is a tissue of fantasy inseperable from his own fantastic project of becoming father of himself (and, as fantasy, only remotely connected with actual sight of the female genitalia). Or, put another way, we can say that the child “fetishizes” the mother’s body as an object of global danger to himself. It is one way of cutting her down to size, depriving her of her primary place in creation. Using Erwin Straus’ formula, we would say that the child splits the mother’s genitals off from her totality as a love-object; they then come to be experienced as a threat, as decay.

Penis-Envy

The real threat of the mother comes to be connected with her sheer physicalness. Her genitals are used as a convenient focus for the child’s obsession with the problem of physicalness. If the mother is a goddess of light, she is also a witch of the dark. He sees her tie to the earth, her secret bodily processes that bind her to nature: the breast with its mysterious sticky milk, the menstrual odors and blood, the almost continual immersion of the productive mother in her corporeality, and not least—something the child is very sensitive to—the often neurotic and helpless character of this immersion. After the child gets hints about the mother’s having babies, sees them being nursed, gets a good look at the toiletful of menstrual blood that seems to leave the witch quite intact and unconcerned, there is no question about her immersion in stark body-meanings and body-fallibilities. The mother must exude determinism, and the child expresses his horror at this complete dependency on what is physically vulnerable. And so we understand not only the boy’s preference for masculinity but also the girl’s “penis-envy.” Both boys and girls succumb to the desire to flee the sex represented by the mother; they need little coaxing to identify with the father and his world. He seems more neutral physically, more cleanly powerful, less immersed in body determinisms; he seems more “symbolically free,” represents the vast world outside of the home, the social world with its organized triumphs over nature, the very escape from contingency that the child seeks.

[Author’s footnote: Penis-envy, then, arises from the fact that the mother’s genitals have been split off from her body as a focalization of the problem of decay and vulnerability. Bernard Brodsky remarks about his female patient: “Her concept of woman as fecal greatly stimulated her penis envy, since the lively erectile penis was the antonym of the dead, inert stool.” . . . Phyllis Greenacre—outstanding student of the child’s experiences—had already remarked on this same equation in the child’s perception: penis = movement, therefore life; feces = inertia, therefore death. . . . This makes penis-envy very natural. Greenacre even used the apt idea of “penis-awe” to refer to the spell that the large male appendage can cast in the child’s perceptions of the father. The child, after all, lives in a world of body-power predominantly—he doesn’t understand abstract or symbolic power. So, more body equals more life. A grown woman might well experience a lingering of the same feeling. An indentation and lack of protuberance, with all that goes on inside, is different from an aggressive extension that must give less of a feeling of vulnerability. . . .]

Just have to chime in to say that I laughed the first time I read this. The thought that an extension of this sort, along with the accompanying scrotum, might be associated with less vulnerability is rather odd when one stops to consider all the tales we’ve heard of these appendages being accidentally damaged, due largely to their external placement and position on the male body. I knew a guy once who somehow managed to get his nut slammed in a school locker, leading to it having to be surgically removed. Met one other man who lost a testicle in a horrible accident, though I no longer remember what happened in that story. Then there’s always stories of men landing on the dreaded bicycle bar, or the female lover who comes down wrong when riding a man from above, or the rudeness of pets who trample on men’s laps, or the spilling of hot liquids in such a sensitive place, etc. Anyway, the penis and balls don’t strike me personally as a symbol of invulnerability, at least no more so than the woman’s physique. Darn dangling fleshy bits are always getting in the way and winding up hurt, so far as I can tell, and men don’t tend to take it very well.

Quick TMI story: I have an early memory, probably from around the age of 5 or 6 though possibly younger, when I first noticed a male family member’s genitalia after walking in on him taking a bath. All I remember is laughing hysterically and pointing, thinking it was such a funny sight, before my Grandma removed me from the room. So yeah, the “awe” didn’t come along until much later.

Returning to Becker’s book, picking back up on page 40:

Both the boy and the girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the “horror, terror, contempt” they feel is, as we said, part of their own fantastic perceptions of a situation they can’t stand. This situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child’s own body. The mother’s body not only reveals a sex that threatens vulnerability and dependency—it reveals much more: it presents the problem of two sexes and so confronts the child with the fact that his body is itself arbitrary. It is not so much that the child sees that neither sex is “complete” in itself or that he understands that the particularity of each sex is a limitation of potential, a cheating of living fulness in some ways—he can’t know these things or fully feel them. It is again not a sexual problem; it is more global, experienced as the curse of arbitrariness that the body represents. The child comes upon a world in which he could just as well have been born male or female, even dog, cat, or fish—for all that it seems to matter as regards power and control, capacity to withstand pain, annihilation, and death. The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of “biological facts,” as Brown so well says. It is a fall out of illusion into sobering reality. It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one’s incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude.

And this, finally is the hopeless terror of the castration complex that makes men tremble in their nightmares. It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved by body-sexual means, even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world in order to insure one’s boundless powers, crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child, the ejection from paradise that the castration complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.

This brings up the whole matter of why sexuality is such a universal problem. No one has written about the problem of sexuality better than Rank in his stunning essay on “Sexual Enlightenment.” As I am going to talk about it in some detail in Chapter Eight, there is no point in repeating that discussion here. But we can anticipate it by showing how sexuality is inseparable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”—in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness. The child gradually learns that his freedom as a unique being is dragged back by the body and its appendages which dictate “what” he is. For this reason sexuality is as much a problem for the adult as for the child: the physical solution to the problem of who we are and why we have emerged on this planet is no help—in fact, it is a terrible threat. It doesn’t tell the person what he is deep down inside, what kind of distinctive gift he is to work upon the world. This is why it is so difficult to have sex without guilt: guilt is there because the body casts a shadow on the person’s inner freedom, his “real self” that—through the act of sex—is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role. Even worse, the inner self is not even being called into consideration at all; the body takes over completely for the total person, and this kind of guilt makes the inner self shrink and threaten to disappear.

This is why a woman asks for assurance that the man wants “me” and not “only my body”; she is painfully conscious that her own distinctive inner personality can be dispensed with in the sexual act. If it is dispensed with, it doesn’t count. The fact is that the man usually does want only the body, and the woman’s total personality is reduced to a mere animal role. The existential paradox vanishes, and one has no distinctive humanity to protest. One creative way of coping with this is, of course, to allow it to happen and to go with it: what the psychoanalysts call “regression in the service of the ego.” The person becomes, for a time, merely his physical self and so absolves the painfulness of the existential paradox and the guilt that goes with sex. Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.

[Bold emphasis mine — italics his.]

Okay, let’s leave off there on page 42.