A few weeks ago the Boston Study Group discussed psychotherapy clients upset by their confusions and uncertainty regarding sexual identity and the way this plays out in their behavior. As it happened, what started our conversation was a different issue. We moved from addiction to the concept of therapeutic through-lines to talking about people confused and uncertain regarding their sexuality. We wondered if there are regularly expected, rule following consequences to being confused about one’s sexual feelings and identity. (We were not taking about people whose self-assigned identity is clear, whether acceptable or not to their relevant communities or to themselves. I looked at this some in “The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life”. It matters what other people think.)
Here’s a summary of what we talked about.
The idea of a “therapeutic through-line” was offered by one of the group as a description of the development of coherence and renewed satisfaction in what might otherwise remain confused, problematic and failed attempts by an addict to find significant satisfactions in life. Addiction and recovery groups figured into this as a means of maintaining a common thread of satisfaction that linked the addiction to the recovery. But what of the confusion itself? Another member wondered if trying to understand his client’s confusion about her sexual feelings and identity might throw some light on this. His example involves a young woman who loves a man but wonders if she’s a lesbian. She doesn’t have strong erotic feelings toward her boyfriend, but believes she should. She is also adamant about her love and deep intimacy with him and insists that that not come into question. Lately, however, she feels what might be erotic stirring when around a woman of her acquaintance. What is she to make of the nuanced and complex nature of her attachments and desires?
From this we wondered about a wide class of people uncertain about their sexual identity, confused about what to make of their urges and desires. A variable considered was whether the people in question accept what they believe are the social norms regarding appropriate sexuality and desire, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or a bit of both. (And then of course, there’s the relational mode of engagement: sadistic, masochistic, and so on, along with the autoerotic. We assumed, correctly or not, that most adult masturbation involves a fantasy “object” related to in some imagined manner of encounter).
The people we wondered about are those who don’t know what category fits them, but believe in conventional categories whether they see them as social constructions or a given by nature. They may even know the categories are inadequate but nonetheless struggle to fit themselves into some Procrustean bed.
The whole notion of lust is also a confusing variable, especially when people believe they should have a stronger urge than they feel. To make matters more complicated, what does this all mean regarding love and intimacy? This last question was tabled for the time being.
Since the study group is interested in behavioral logic, we sorted out three categories of confusion and/or uncertainty regarding erotic behavior.
Three behavioral variations of uncertainty regarding I to You:
1. I’m attracted to you but don’t clearly understand what’s being evoked. I’m curious to find out, so let’s explore if you’re willing.
2. When you are near me or I think about you, I feel uncomfortably awkward and defensively attempt to avoid you and what you are evoking. I might become hostile or submissive if you get too close owing to the anxiety, guilt, shame, or some other discomfort you stir up.
3. When you (or it) appear, I freeze or panic.
As a first move, let’s take the first relation, if consensual, as healthy. Curiosity opens up behavior potential and expands a person’s world. (Rarely does it kill the cat). The second two cases are more or less pathological, since they restrict or prevent choice and limit the range of deliberate activity. Defense and panic constrict the world. In the second case the person has a defensive ability to establish distance at the cost of flexible association, but in the third case the person is simply disabled. I suspect these groupings can be applied usefully to other behaviorally significant issues as well.
Social norms can exacerbate problems in the second case. When self-accepted norms conflict with hunger for a taboo relationship, fear and hatred for what is desired but forbidden is unsurprising. This can occur in incestuous, homosexual, pedophilic, and other proscribed relations and may produce urges to coerce, eliminate or destroy the anxiety or panic producing “object”. The greater the taboo, the more self-degrading the encounter is felt, the more the encounter can provoke a hostile reaction. Here desire becomes shameful, inducing reactive hatred, disgust, and violence.
In contrast to a hostile reaction, a submissive stance can also result. This may involve a self-deceiving avoidance of blame for the sanctioned behavior, akin to what Sartre meant by “bad-faith”. The defensive move attempts to abdicate agency or accountability. The person disowns responsibility by claiming they were seduced or overcome by desire. Perhaps they were. This can be a variation of the devil made me do it, something I examined in “Sex and a Person’s True Colors”: The perpetrator as victim of their biology or the other’s enticement.
When erotic hunger is intense, correctly labeled or not, all three cases intensify, with different consequences given the person’s self-awareness and competence to manage and tolerate desire. Given the usual complexity of people’s values, conflict is inevitable and the ability to manage and tolerate ambivalence crucial. Rarely is the erotic free of some degree of ambivalence.
And that was how far we got in discussion.
So what do you think? What are other useful complexities? Where else can these three grouping of health, defense, and disability apply? (Or what relevant themes would be distorted or misconceived using this model?)
And what are most of us to make of how complex and nuanced our erotic lives actually are? Long ago, as a summer student at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Allen Ginsburg was my seminar teacher in a course on Blake and spiritual poetics. He ended class with a reminder and a rousing, “Now Everybody Sing!”
But since we shouldn’t table love, Ray Bergners’s essay published in The American Journal of Psychotherapy, Love and Barriers to Love: An Analysis for Psychotherapists and Others, provides some of the subtle complexity useful for clear thinking (when clear thinking is called for).
Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D
Confusions and Uncertainty in Sexual Feeling and Identity was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.
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