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.
Such self-protective behaviors usually involve an element of control that wards off feelings of helplessness. When you think about it, desire and need for one particular person is scary. If you truly love someone, you could be terribly hurt if that person died or abandoned you. Especially when early childhood experiences have been traumatic, many people grow up avoiding that experience. Some of them become isolated and can’t reach out; others find a kind of compromise, where they connect with people in apparently intimate ways but ward off true dependency through sexual excitement and fantasy in the ways I’ve described.
One client in particular, a fetishist who liked to be degraded by his female sex partners, struggled with the element of vulnerability involved in our therapeutic relationship: he found it almost impossible to talk to me, to ask for help in any way because the moment he did so, an exciting sexual fantasy would obtrude and he’d either envision himself giving me oral sex, or “see” me anally penetrating him. This happened repeatedly during any given session and made an authentic link between us almost impossible. It was an extreme example of the phenomenon I’m trying to discuss.
I don’t mean to imply that sexual fantasy and excitement have no place within truly intimate relationships. That excitement is crucial in the early stages of any romance but it usually mellows over time. Many stable couples, after years of a familiar sex life, try to enliven it with pornography (The Kids Are All Right is an amusing recent example, where a lesbian couple watches gay male porn during sex). The question would be whether pornogoraphy brings them closer together. I’ve known couples where it did just that, and others where it was a prelude to infidelity and divorce.
Finding Your Own Way:
If any of this description rings a bell, you might want to focus on neediness and how you feel about it. This early post offers some suggestions for how you might challenge your defenses against the awareness of need.
As I’ve suggested in other posts, one way to challenge a defense is by trying to avoid using it for a very limited time and see what alternative feelings come up; this might be especially difficult for the person with serial partners in search of sexual excitement. If an active fantasy life is part of sex for you, see what happens if you don’t fantasize. Do you still become aroused? Do any feelings of anxiety come up instead?
What about pornography? Does it play a role in your sexual relationships and in what way? Does it bring you closer to one particular person, or is your relationship to pornography more consistent and enduring than your links to any single partner?