Sexual Excess and the Meaning of Love

Exploring psychodynamic accounts of male homosexuality

In his autobiography, Chance Witness, the journalist Matthew Parris describes one day standing by an exit of the London Underground, from which commuters are pouring, and asking himself how many of the passing men he would like to have sex with? His answer is low: barely one in a hundred. So what sense, he asks, does it make to define himself as gay – a man supposed to seek sex with other men – when the overwhelming majority of men do nothing for him erotically?

If Michel Foucault is right, the modern experience of being human has been shaped, in part, by a scientia sexualis. The science established a link between the truth of an individual’s personhood and their sexual activity, ‘a new rationality whose discovery was marked by Freud – or someone else,’ as Foucault puts it. And yet, Foucault also argued that sexual rationality is simultaneously alienating, as it provokes anxiety about the truth of an individual’s sexuality identity too. Parris’s confusion is a case in point.

Freud himself was ambiguous on homosexuality. On the one hand, he describes the homosexual individual as having made a manifest narcissistic object-choice that renders him identifiable as an ‘invert’ and ‘pervert’. His default position on human sexuality has usefully been characterised as ‘norm and deviation’, the norm signified by heterosexual functioning that, resonating with his biologism, is best orientated towards procreativity.

But on the other hand, Freud complicates his analysis by blurring the boundaries between the ‘pathological’ homosexual and heterosexual others. All people, he notes in a universalizing move, are ‘capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious’, adding that psychoanalysis is opposed to the separation of people on the basis of a supposed orientation and, further, that homosexuality is not explained either by the hypothesis that is it innate or acquired. If the aim today, following the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, is to develop non-pathological understandings of homosexuality, then these latter principles are worth remembering.

Jung too seemed undecided about homosexuality. He variously regarded homosexual desire as psychologically immature; not criminal; symptomatic of cultural and historical factors as well as psychological; not defining a person; and as having meaning for the individual concerned. That meaning would unfold through individuation, the complex and individually unique process of psychological development that aims at personal wholeness. From Jung, it could be concluded that there is no such thing as homosexuality, but rather, as many sexualities as there are people.

However, as Foucault spotted, the notion of defined sexual orientations has a powerful appeal because establishing a link between sexual activity and personal identity promises knowledge, about the client for the analyst, and about themselves for the ‘gay individual’. As a result, more recent strategies for developing non-pathological accounts of homosexuality often sustain the link. Isay, for example, re-describes the Oedipal situation so that the peculiar emotional difficulties gay men have with their fathers are explained as a consequence of a gay orientation, as opposed to a cause. This is still a normative approach, in which the deviant becomes, say, the bisexual.

Another tendency, that over-values the link in a different way, might be described as the romantic politicization of homosexual sexual activity. It is found amongst queer theorists. Bersani, for example, describes a character he refers to as the ‘gay outlaw’. The outlaw pursues a variety of subversive sexual activities that threaten dominant cultural ideologies and, further, do not seek the mutual exchanges of loving human relationships in them. The political eclipses the personal.

This fascination with the cultural politics of sex is common in the gay sub-cultures of many modern cities, though it is not clear that it is has led to the outcomes queer theorists celebrate. Instead, it can be argued that it has merely fed the commoditization of sex in gay clubs and saunas. As Mark Simpson dryly remarks, ‘Gays have indeed changed the world and the shape of men’s underpants forever’. More seriously, from the point of view of the therapist, it has arguably contributed to what has recently been described as a ‘mental health crisis’ amongst gay men. ‘LGB people are at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental disorder, substance misuse and substance dependence than heterosexual people.’

Now, this is an enormously complicated predicament, weaving socio-economic, cultural and psychological elements. However, from the therapeutic point of view, there is value in returning to those early intuitions from Freud and Jung.

Freud’s universalizing instinct emphasizes that human sexuality is a continuum, rather than hanging on singular object-choices, which renders it an unstable source of identity. To embed the insight further, it is also necessary to critique his heteronormative biologism, the implication that the main or normal goal of sexual activity is procreative. It is a move inherent in Lacan who, in his theory of the mirror phase, builds on the observation that human beings are born prematurely. This results in erotic gestures carrying meanings that are psychological rather than biological, and further, that are ‘permanently out of synch’ with one another. Hence, for example, Lacan’s axiom, ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’, focuses on the failure he sees as inevitable in a man and a woman’s attempt to relate to each other sexually (even when, biologically speaking, they are successful): rapport means both rapport and ratio in French, implying that their sexual connection never completely matches up.

What this highlights is that human beings experience erotic desire as excessive, in the sense that whatever objects it becomes attached to, they will not satisfy it. Whether this is due to a fundamental lack at the origins of human subjectivity, as Lacan proposes, or because the erotic reaches for a plenitude ultimately beyond human experience, as Plato proposes, is another moot point. Nonetheless, psychodynamic accounts that aim to deliver a complete scientia sexualis will similarly always fail too. Better, like Shakespeare, to pose an open question to love: ‘What is your substance, whereof you are made?’

So, Hedges suggests, the scientia sexualis should be treated as a generator of ‘local myths – just-so stories’. They are valuable and inevitable as they are the way we deal with reality. But also limited and limiting. Hedges continues: ‘I believe it is our task as psychotherapists to listen to individual just-so sex stories, as well as to professionally generated just-so sex theories, and to try to untangle whatever limiting meanings have become attached to them.’

This resonates with Jung’s insight about homosexuality having meaning for the individual concerned, implying that the task for everyone is to discover the meaning of love. ‘Love is always a problem,’ Jung wrote, an ‘intensely individual’ one, and is such that every ‘general criterion and rule loses its validity’ when we try to make sense of it – though, for the sake of our development, try, we must.