In an early post on neediness, I discussed some psychological strategies people use when they can’t bear the experience of dependency. Denial of need, a delusion of self-sufficiency or a fantasized merger with the object of need are some of the ways to avoid feeling separate and dependent. When it comes to our sex life, an intensified kind of excitement is another. By relating to sex partners in an almost pornographic way, where a stereotyped excitement replaces particular desire for a specific person, one treats other people as if they were interchangeable and therefore easily replaced. I’m not dependent on you as my particular object of desire because I can easily find someone else to make me feel exactly the same way.
So-called “sex addicts” use this defense, although I object to the way our culture has adapted the language of addiction to describe virtually everything, including an absurd “addiction to self-esteem,” as I described in an earlier post. This kind of sex may indeed function as a heady drug, sometimes warding off depression, but describing the behavior as an addiction tells us nothing about its defensive function; it shifts our subject to the biological realm of medical syndromes and cures, deleting meaning in the process. Men and women with serial partners seek the heated thrill of a completely new sexual encounter in order to avoid true intimacy, especially the feelings of need and dependency that go with it. They may idealize those sex partners for a brief time, but once the excitement begins to wane, the sex addict devalues the other person and moves on, as I discussed in my post on love junkies.
Fetishism can work in a similar but more stable way. By reducing the sexual relationship to one of body parts (e.g., a foot) instead of whole people, the fetishist depersonalizes the individual. I don’t desire you as a complete person; it’s your foot that gets me going … and other people’s feet, as well. Stereotyped fantasies of a fetishistic nature can work in the same way. There’s usually an important unconscious meaning to these fantasies that must be understood, but in addition, they replace personal and intimate desire with an excited fantasy that predates the relationship and will continue after it’s over. I’ve had
clients, both men and women, who consistently wanted to be degraded in a sexual manner, across their relationships and with no particular reference to their partners. All of these individuals had difficulty sustaining those relationships once they became aware of feeling needy and vulnerable.