Published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, January 5th to 11th, 2018, page 15.

South Africa is a worldwide frontrunner in rape and domestic violence.  The international news is now also focused on powerful men’s mistreatment of women in the USA (Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, etc).  This prompted a New York Times columnist recently to suggest that men’s commonality is actually “the grotesquerie of their sexuality.”  It is a suggestion that needs to be addressed seriously.

To understand the dark side of male sexual passions, we must examine not only the explicit violence of rape, but also the violence implicit in all forms of harassment (from groping to innuendo).  We must consider how lust is so often entangled with hostility ‑‑‑ the need to dominate, possess or conquer the “other.”  This must include the latent hostility of men who “come” in the orifices of a consenting partner without any without consideration for the other’s enjoyment.  Sexual interaction does not always have to be “soft” or gentile.  Passionate encounters can be consensual and mutually gratifying yet “rough” in a manner that is playful.  Male sexuality can be wild, robustly vigorous and energetically lustful.  So long as it is playful, it can even be ‑‑‑ one must use this term with caution and qualification ‑‑‑ aggressivized and yet not tainted with the hostile dynamics of domination.  However, for many men, the dynamics of power, as the forceful subordination of the other, all too easily overtake authentic sensuality (which is, by definition, playful, mutual and consensual).

Psychoanalysis (a discipline going far beyond conventional psychology in exploring the deepest unconscious roots of our psyche) has much to contribute here, for it can illuminate some of the significant intrapsychic and interpersonal components of male lust.  It demonstrates how, from an early age, humans are fueled by both sexual (in the sense of bodily pleasure‑seeking) and aggressive “drives.”  Some assert (without much evidence) that both are innate.  Others (such as myself) are convinced that sensual pleasure‑seeking is more or less innate, whereas aggression invariably develops later in the young child, both in response to frustration and as a mechanism for survival (but in this respect, aggression does not necessarily imply violence).  The most significant aspect of psychoanalytic discovery is the way in which these two drives inevitably converge and diverge in the course of every individual’s life.

A related and very significant (although insufficiently discussed) contribution from psychoanalysis is the distinction between “phallic” sexuality (which every small boy exhibits) and “genitality” (to which some adults graduate, at least some of the time).  Phallic passions are infused with motives to dominate, possess or conquer.  They are animated by the anxieties that inevitably accrue during development and that are still unconsciously operative in adulthood.  These have three main sources.

First, boys come to identify themselves as “masculine” according to prevailing cultural constructs (we are born with sex, but acquire gender and gender roles).  They do so at least partly by censoring within themselves any identification with whatever they perceive as femininity.  Adult men, unconsciously struggling with their femininity, will typically oppress the external female, becoming misogynistic.

Second, the development of a more or less fixed sexual orientation is also achieved by censorship.  Children are born wired with the erotic capacity to enjoy any and every type of sexuality (I call this our “polysexual potential,” which Sigmund Freud alluded to as our “constitutive bisexuality”).  Boys become heterosexual largely by censoring their homoerotic fantasies (and vice versa).  Adult men, unable to acknowledge homoerotic inclinations within themselves, typically become virulently homophobic (and vice versa).

Third, small children are comparatively vulnerable and routinely compensate by developing a repertoire of omnipotent and magical fantasies.  Adult men, terrified of weakness and vulnerability, censor such feelings within themselves and then become obsessed with the pursuit of dominative power over others.

In all these processes, development is built on the internal censorship of what is feared.  In psychoanalytic terms, the boy suppresses or represses aspects of his potential self into his unconscious repertoire of feelings and fantasies.  Unconscious anxieties about sexuality are the result.  As is well known, internal anxieties readily convert into hostility and violence against the external representative of what has been censored within.  Phallic sexuality involves fantasy as the prime means by which humans attempt to resolve these internal conflicts, and a central lesson from psychoanalysis is that our fantasies should never be judged.  By contrast, any propensity to translate, without thoughtfulness and consideration, our fantasies into action should be subject to judgment, both by the man himself and by his community.  In relation to the brutishness of men’s sexual passions, there are three types of essentially phallic fantasy.

First, about whatever is “other” (other genders, other orientations).  For example, an adult patient told me this “joke” ‑‑‑ “What is a woman? … A life support system for a cunt.”  Almost all little boys think of the distinction between sexes in almost such crudely reductive terms.

Second, about activities in relation to the “other.”  For example, a patient told me he wanted to fuck his partner until she was “bleeding yet begging for more.”  This is not unlike the sadism with which many, if perhaps not all, little boys have to contend within themselves.

Third, about their own genitals.  For example, I have heard of a military chant used in some marching drills ‑‑‑ “This is my penis and this is my gun, one is for fighting, the other’s for fun.”  Most little boys imagine pissing on another person as an act of defilement and subordination.  Later these impulses may be translated into more adult modes of possession and conquest.

In all these examples, sexual lust is kept anxiously segregated from whatever capacity the man may have for genuine emotional intimacy.  The genitals and the heart are kept apart.  Men’s sexual passions have a significant component of their origins in the sexuality of frustrated and frightened little boys.  In this sense, they may be inherently brutish.  But they are not necessarily so.  There is a lifelong journey from phallic lust toward something profoundly different.  “Genitality” is characterized by a relative absence of anxiety over sexuality, by a capacity to engage with the immediacy of bodily sensuality (both within the individual and with his partners), and by a capacity for the integration of lustful passions with emotional connectedness.

How is this lifelong journey undertaken?  Psychoanalytic science has shown that, whereas behavior may be superficially modified by coercive measures, our inner world of feelings and fantasies is only very rarely, if ever, genuinely transformed by condemnation or punishment.  Men who treat others brutishly should indeed be stopped from doing so.  But more fundamental change can only occur if men are willing honestly and forthrightly to examine their feelings and fantasies in the three areas that I just listed.  Such an emotionally challenging program is definitely not a panacea, for it scarcely touches the economic, sociopolitical and cultural determinants of male brutality.  But in terms of the inner world that activates much of our outer behavior, authentic healing can only occur through such open understanding and with much discussion between us.