The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life  

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"However strange it may sound, I think the possibility must be considered that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the achievement of absolute gratification ... The erotic instincts are hard to mould; training of them achieves now too much, now too little. What culture tries to make out of them seems attainable only at the cost of a sensible loss of pleasure; the persistence of the impulses that are not enrolled in adult sexual activity makes itself felt in an absence of satisfaction.

So perhaps we must make up our minds to the idea that altogether it is not possible for the claims of the sexual instinct to be reconciled with the demands of culture....This very incapacity in the sexual instinct to yield full satisfaction as soon as it submits to the first demands of culture becomes the source, however, of the grandest cultural achievements, which are brought to birth by ever greater sublimation of the components of the sexual instinct. For what motive would induce man to put his sexual energy to other uses if by any disposal of it he could obtain fully satisfying pleasure? He would never let go of this pleasure and would make no further progress." --"The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life" (1912) by Sigmund Freud

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"The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life" (1912) is an essay by Sigmund Freud. It is quoted in Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and in The Other Victorians. The essay is collected in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (1963).

Full text[1], translation Joan Riviere

2. The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life 1 (1912)


If a practising psychoanalyst asks himself what disorder he is most often called upon to remedy, he is obliged to reply ■—apart from anxiety in all its many forms—psychical im¬ potence. This strange disorder affects men of a strongly libidinous nature, and is manifested by a refusal on the part of the sexual organs to execute the sexual act, although both before and after the attempt they can show themselves intact and competent to do so, and although a strong mental in¬ clination to carry out the act is present. The man gets his first inklin g in the direction of understanding his condition by discovering that he fails in this way only with certain women, whereas it never happens with others. He knows then that the inhibition of his masculine potency is due to some quality in the sexual object, and sometimes he describes hav¬ ing had a sensation of holding back, of having perceived some check within him which interfered successfully with his con-

1 First published in Jahrbuch, Bd. IV., 1912; reprinted in Samm- lung, Vierte Folge. [Translated by Joan Riviere.]


scious intention. What this inner opposition is, however, he cannot guess, or what quality in the sexual object makes it active. If the failure has been repeated several times he probably concludes, by the familiar erroneous line of argu¬ ment, that a recollection of the first occasion acted as a dis¬ turbance by causing anxiety and brought about the subsequent failures; the first occasion itself he refers to some “accidental” occurrence.

Psychoanalytic studies of psychical impotence have already been carried out and published by various writers. 2 Every analyst can, from his own experience, confirm the explana¬ tions adduced in them. The disorder is in fact due to the inhibiting influence of certain complexes in the mind that are withdrawn from the knowledge of the person in question. As the most universal feature of this pathogenic material an incestuous fixation on mother and sister which has not been surmounted stands out. In addition to this, the influence of accidental impressions of a painful kind connected with infantile sexuality comes into consideration, together with those factors which in general reduce the amount of libido available for the female sexual object. 3

When cases of severe psychical impotence are subjected to exhaustive study by means of psychoanalysis, the following psycho-sexual processes are found to be operative. Here again —as very probably in all neurotic disorders—the root of the trouble lies in an arrest occurring during the course of development of the libido to that ultimate form which may be called normal. To ensure a fully normal attitude in love, two currents of feeling have to unite—we may describe them as the tender, affectionate feelings and the sensual feelings— and this confluence of the two currents has in these cases not been achieved.

Of these two currents affection is the older. It springs from the very earliest years of childhood, and was formed on the foundation provided by the interests of the self-preservative

2 M. Steiner, Die funktionelle Impotenz des Marines und ihre Behandlung; W. Stekel, in Nervose Angstzustande und ihre Behandlung; Ferenczi, “Analytic Interpretation and Treatment of Psychosexual Impotence.”

3 W. Stekel, loc. cit. p. 191 et seq.


instinct; it is directed towards the members of the family and those who have care of the child. From the very begin¬ ning elements from the sexual instincts are taken up into it— component-parts of the erotic interest—which are more or less clearly visible in childhood and are invariably discovered in the neurotic by psychoanalysis in later years. This tender feeling represents the earliest childish choice of object. From this we see that the sexual instincts find their first objects along the paths laid down by the ego-instincts and in accord¬ ance with the value set by the latter on their objects, in just the same way that the first sexual satisfactions are experienced, i.e. in connection with the bodily functions necessary for self- preservation. The “affection” shown to the child by its parents and attendants which seldom fails to betray its erotic char¬ acter (“a child is an erotic plaything”) does a great deal to increase the erotic contributions to the cathexes that are put forth by the ego-instincts in the child, and to raise them to a level which is bound to leave its mark on future develop¬ ment, especially when certain other circumstances leading to the same result are present.

These fixations of the child’s feelings of affection are main¬ tained through childhood, continually absorbing erotic ele¬ ments, which are thus deflected from their sexual aims . Then, when the age of puberty is reached, there supervenes upon this state of things a powerful current of “sensual” feeling the aims of which can no longer be disguised. It never fails, apparently, to pursue the earlier paths and to invest the ob¬ jects of the primary infantile choice with currents of libido that are now far stronger. But in relation to these objects it is confronted by the obstacle of the incest-barrier that has in the meanwhile been erected; consequently it seeks as soon as possible to pass on from these objects unsuited for real satisfaction to others in the world outside, with whom a real sexual life may be carried on. These new objects are still chosen after the pattern (imago) of the infantile ones; in time, however, they attract to themselves the tender feeling that had been anchored to those others. A man shall leave father and mother—according to the Biblical precept—and cleave to his wife; then are tenderness and sensuality united. The greatest intensity of sensual passion will bring with it


the highest mental estimation of the object (the normal over¬ estimation of the sexual object characteristic of men).

Two factors will determine whether this advance in the development of the libido is accomplished successfully or otherwise. First, there is the degree of frustration in reality which is opposed to the new object-choice and reduces its value for the person concerned. For there is no sense in entering upon a choice of object if one is not to be allowed to choose at all or has no prospect of being able to choose one fit for the part. The second factor is the degree of at¬ traction that may be exercised by the infantile objects which should be relinquished, and this is proportionate to the erotic cathexis already attaching to them in childhood. If these two factors are sufficiently powerful, the general mechanism lead¬ ing to the formation of neurosis will come into operation. The libido turns away from reality, and is absorbed into the creation of phantasy (introversion), strengthens the images of the first sexual objects, and becomes fixated to them. The incest-barrier, however, necessarily has the effect that the libido attaching to these objects should remain in the un¬ conscious. The sensual current of feeling is now attached to unconscious ideas of objects, and discharge of it in onanistic acts contributes to a strengthening of this fixation. It con¬ stitutes no change in this state of affairs if the step forward to extraneous objects which miscarried in reality is now made in phantasy, if in the phantasied situations leading up to onanistic gratification the extraneous objects are but replace¬ ments of the original ones. The phantasies become capable of entering consciousness by this replacement, but in the di¬ rection of applying the libido externally in the real world no advance has been made.

In this way it may happen that the whole current of sensual feeling in a young man may remain attached in the unconscious to incestuous objects, or, to put it in another way, may be fixated to incestuous phantasies. The result of this is then total impotence, which is perhaps even reinforced by an actual weakening, developing concurrently, of the or¬ gans destined to execute the sexual act.

Less severe conditions will suffice to bring about what is usually called psychical impotence. It is not necessary that


the whole amount of sensual'feeling should be fated to con¬ ceal itself behind the tender feelings; it may remain suffi¬ ciently strong and unchecked to secure some outlet for itself in reality. The sexual activity of such people shows unmis¬ takable signs, however, that it has not behind it the whole mental energy belonging to the instinct. It is capricious, easily upset, often clumsily carried out, and not very pleasurable. Above all, however, it avoids all association with feelings of tenderness. A restriction has thus been laid upon the object- choice. The sensual feeling that has remained active seeks only objects evoking no reminder of the incestuous persons forbidden to it; the impression made by someone who seems deserving of high estimation leads, not to a sensual excitation, but to feelings of tenderness which remain erotically ineffec¬ tual. The erotic life of such people remains dissociated, divided between two channels, the same two that are per¬ sonified in art as heavenly and earthly (or animal) love. Where such men love they have no desire and where they de¬ sire they c ann ot love. In order to keep their sensuality out of contact with the objects they love, they seek out objects whom they need not love; and, in accordance with the laws of the “sensitivity of complexes” and the “return of the re¬ pressed,” the strange refusal implied in psychical impotence is made whenever the objects selected in order to avoid incest possess some trait, often quite inconspicuous, reminiscent of the objects that must be avoided.

The principal means of protection used by men against this complaint consists in lowering the sexual object in their own estimation, while reserving for the incestuous object and for those who represent it the overestimation normally felt for the sexual object. As soon as the sexual object fulfils the condition of being degraded, sensual feeling can have free play, considerable sexual capacity and a high degree of pleasure can be developed. Another factor also contributes to this result. There is usually little refinement in the ways of obtaining erotic pleasure habitual to people in whom the tender and the sensual currents of feeling are not properly merged; they have remained addicted to perverse sexual aims which they feel it a considerable deprivation not to gratify, yet to such men this seems possible only with a


sexual object who in their estimate is degraded and worth little.

The motives behind the phantasies mentioned in the pre¬ ceding paper, 4 by which boys degrade the mother to the level of a prostitute, now become intelligible. They represent efforts to bridge the gulf between the two currents of erotic feeling, at least in phantasy: by degrading her, to win the mother as an object for sensual desires.


So far we have pursued our inquiry into psychical im¬ potence from a medico-psychological angle which is not justi¬ fied by the title of this paper. It will prove however, that this introduction was necessary in order to provide an ap¬ proach to our actual theme.

We have reduced psychical impotence to a disunion be¬ tween the tender and sensual currents of erotic feeling, and have explained this inhibition in development itself as an effect of strong fixations in childhood and of frustration in reality later, after the incest-barrier has intervened. There is one principal objection to raise against this doctrine: it does too much, it explains why certain persons suffer from psychical impotence, but it makes it seem puzzling that others can escape the affliction. Since all the factors that appear to be involved, the strong fixation in childhood, the incest- barrier, and the frustration in the years of development after puberty, are demonstrably present in practically all civilized persons, one would be justified in expecting that psychical im¬ potence was universally prevalent in civilized countries and not a disease of particular individuals.

It would not be difficult to escape from this conclusion by pointing to the quantitative element in the causation of dis¬ ease, that greater or lesser amount of each single factor which determines whether or not recognizable disease results. But although this argument is in my opinion sound, I do not myself intend to employ it in refuting the objection ad¬ vanced above. I shall, on the contrary, put forward the proposition that psychical impotence is far more widespread

4 Cf. p. 54.


than is generally supposed, and that some degree of this condition does in fact characterize the erotic life of civilized peoples.

If one enlarges the meaning of the term psychical im¬ potence, and ceases to limit it to failure to perform the act of coitus, although an intention to derive pleasure from it is present and the genital apparatus is intact, it would comprise, to begin with, all those men who are described as psycho¬ anaesthetic, i.e. who never fail in the act but who perform it without special pleasure—a state of thin gs which is commoner than one might think. Psychoanalytic study of such cases has discovered the same aetiological factors in them as those found in psychical impotence, when employed in the nar¬ rower sense, without at first discovering any explanation of the symptomatic difference between the two. By an analogy which is easy to justify, one is led on from these anaesthetic men to consider the enormous number of frigid women, whose attitude to love can in fact not be described or under¬ stood better than by equating it with psychical impotence in men, although the latter is more conspicuous. 5

If, however, instead of attributing a wide significance to the term psychical impotence, we look about for instances of its peculiar symptomatology in less marked forms, we shall not be able to deny that the behaviour in love of the men of present-day civilization bears in general the character of the psychically impotent type. In only very few people of culture are the two strains of tenderness and sensuality duly fused into one; the man almost always feels his sexual activity hampered by his respect for the woman and only develops full sexual potency when he finds himself in the presence of a lower type of sexual object; and this again is partly con¬ ditioned by the circumstance that his sexual aims include those of perverse sexual components, which he does not like to gratify with a woman he respects. Full sexual satisfaction only comes when he can give himself up wholeheartedly to enjoyment, which with his well-brought-up wife, for instance, he does not venture to do. Hence comes his need for a less

5 At the same time I willingly admit that the frigidity of women is a complicated subject which can also be approached from an¬ other angle.


exalted sexual object, a woman ethically inferior, to whom he need ascribe no aesthetic misgivings, and who does not know the rest of his life and cannot criticize him. It is to such a woman that he prefers to devote his sexual potency, even when all the tenderness in him belongs to one of a higher type. It is possible, too, that the tendency so often observed in men of the highest rank in society to take a woman of a low class as a permanent mistress, or even as a wife, is nothing but a consequence of the need for a lower type of sexual object on which, psychologically, the possibility of com¬ plete gratification depends.

I do not hesitate to lay the responsibility also for this very common condition in the erotic life of civilized men on the two factors operative in absolute psychical impotence, namely, the very strong incestuous fixation of childhood and the frus¬ tration by reality suffered during adolescence. It has an ugly sound and a paradoxical as well, but nevertheless it must be said that whoever is to be really free and happy in love must have overcome his deference for women and come to terms with the idea of incest with mother or sister. Anyone who in the face of this test subjects himself to serious self-examina¬ tion will indubitably find that at the bottom of his heart he too regards the sexual act as something degrading, which soils and contaminates not only the body. And he will only be able to look for the origin of this attitude, which he will certainly not willingly acknowledge, in that period of his youth in which his sexual passions were already strongly developed but in which gratification of them with an object outside the family was almost as completely prohibited as with an incestuous one.

The women of our civilized world are similarly affected by their up-bringing and further, too, by the reaction upon them of this attitude in men. Naturally the effect upon a woman is just as unfavourable if the man comes to her without his full potency as if, after overestimating her in the early stages of falling in love, he then, having successfully possessed him¬ self of her, sets her at naught. Women show little need to degrade the sexual object; no doubt this has some connection with the circumstance that as a rule they develop little of the sexual overestimation natural to men. The long abstinence


from sexuality to which they are forced and the lingering of their sensuality in phantasy have in them, however, another important consequence. It is often not possible for them later on to undo the connection thus formed in their minds be¬ tween sensual activities and something forbidden, and they turn out to be psychically impotent, i.e. frigid, when at last such activities do become permissible. This is the source of the desire in so many women to keep even legitimate relations secret for a time; and of the appearance of the capacity for normal sensation in others as soon as the condition of pro¬ hibition is restored by a secret intrigue—untrue to the hus- i band, they can keep a second order of faith with the lover.

In my opinion the necessary condition of forbiddenness in the erotic life of women holds the same place as the man’s need to lower his sexual object. Both are the consequence of i the long period of delay between sexual maturity and sexual i activity which is demanded by education for social reasons, j The aim of both is to overcome the psychical impotence re- i suiting from the lack of union between tenderness and sensu- i ality. That the effect of the same causes differs so greatly in men and in women is perhaps due to another difference in the behaviour of the two sexes. Women belonging to the higher levels of civilization do not usually transgress the prohibition against sexual activities during the period of wait- i ing, and thus they acquire this close association between the ! forbidden and the sexual. Men usually overstep the prohibi- i tion under the condition of lowering the standard of object • they require, and so carry this condition on into their subse¬ quent erotic life.

In view of the strenuous efforts being made in the civilized i world at the present day to reform sexual life, it is not superfluous to remind the reader that psychoanalytic investi¬ gations have no more bias in any direction than has any other I scientific research. In tracing back to its concealed sources what is manifest, psychoanalysis has no aim but that of dis- i closing connections. It can but be satisfied if what it has brought to light is of use in effecting reforms by substituting more advantageous for injurious conditions. It cannot, how¬ ever, predict whether other, perhaps even greater, sacrifices may not result from other institutions.



The fact that the restrictions imposed by cultural education upon erotic life involve a general lowering of the sexual object may prompt us to turn our eyes from the object to the instincts themselves. The injurious results of the deprivation of sexual enjoyment at the beginning manifest themselves in lack of full satisfaction when sexual desire is later given free rein in marriage. But, on the other hand, unrestrained sexual liberty from the beginning leads to no better result. It is easy to show that the value the mind sets on erotic needs instantly sink s as soon as satisfaction becomes readily obtain¬ able. Some obstacle is necessary to swell the tide of the libido to its height; and at all periods of history, wherever natural barriers in the way of satisfaction have not sufficed, mankin d has erected conventional ones in order to be able to enjoy love. This is true both of individuals and of nations. In times during which no obstacles to sexual satisfaction ex¬ isted, such as, may be, during the decline of the civilizations of antiquity, love became worthless, life became empty, and strong reaction-formations were necessary before the indis¬ pensable emotional value of love could be recovered. In this context it may be stated that the ascetic tendency of Christi¬ anity had the effect of raising the psychical value of love in a way that heathen antiquity could never achieve; it developed greatest significance in the lives of the ascetic monks, which were almost entirely occupied with struggles against libidinous temptation.

One’s first inclination undoubtedly is to see in this difficulty a universal characteristic of our organic instincts. It is cer¬ tainly true in a general way that the importance of an instinctual desire is mentally increased by frustration of it. Suppose one made the experiment of exposing a number of utterly different human beings to hunger under the same con¬ ditions. As the imperative need for food rose in them all their individual differences would be effaced and instead the uni¬ form manifestations of one unsatisfied instinct would appear. But is it also true, conversely, that the mental value of an instinct invariably sinks with gratification of it? One thinks, for instance, of the relation of the wine-drinker to wine. Is it not a fact that wine always affords the drinker the same


toxic satisfaction—one that in poetry has so often been ; likened to the erotic and that science as well may regard as comparable? Has one ever heard of a drinker being forced constantly to change his wine because he soon gets tired of always drinking the same? On the contrary, habit binds a man more and more to the particular kind of wine he drinks. Do we ever find a drinker impelled to go to another country where the wine is dearer or where alcohol is prohibited, in order to stimulate his dwindling pleasure in it by these ob¬ stacles? Nothing of the sort. If we listen to what our great lovers of alcohol say about their attitude to wine, for instance,

B. Bocklin, 6 it sounds like the most perfect harmony, a model of a happy marriage. Why is the relation of the lover to his sexual object so very different?

However strange it may sound, I think the possibility must be considered that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the achievement of absolute gratification. When we think of the long and difficult evolution the instinct goes through, two factors to which this difficulty might be ascribed at once emerge. First, in consequence of the two “thrusts” of sexual development impelling towards choice of an object, together with the intervention of the incest-barrier between the two, the ultimate object selected is never the original one but only a surrogate for it. Psycho¬ analysis has shown us, however, that when the original object of an instinctual desire becomes lost in consequence of re¬ pression, it is often replaced by an endless series of substitute- objects, none of which ever give full satisfaction. This may explain the lack of stability in object-choice, the “craving for stimulus,” which is so often a feature of the love of adults.

Secondly, we know that at its beginning the sexual instinct is divided into a large number of components—or, rather, it develops from them—not all of which can be carried on into its final form; some have to be suppressed or turned to other uses before the final form results. Above all, the copro- philic elements in the instinct have proved incompatible with our aesthetic ideas, probably since the time when man de¬ veloped an upright posture and so removed his organ of

6 G. Floerke, Zehn Jahre mit Bocklin, 2 Aufl., 1902, p. 16.


smell from the ground; further, a considerable proportion of the sadistic elements belonging to the erotic instinct have to be abandoned. All such developmental processes, however, relate only to the upper layers of the complicated structure. The fundamental processes which promote erotic excitation remain always the same. Excremental things are all too in¬ timately and inseparably bound up with sexual things; the position of the genital organs —inter urinas et faeces —remains the decisive and unchangeable factor. One might say, modi¬ fying a well-known saying of the great Napoleon’s, “Anatomy is destiny.” The genitals themselves have not undergone the development of the rest of the human form in the direction of beauty; they have retained their animal cast; and so even to-day love, too, is in essence as animal as it ever was. The erotic instincts are hard to mould; training of them achieves now too much, now too little. What culture tries to make out of them seems attainable only at the cost of a sensible loss of pleasure; the persistence of the impulses that are not enrolled in adult sexual activity makes itself felt in an absence of satisfaction.

So perhaps we must make up our minds to the idea that altogether it is not possible for the claims of the sexual instinct to be reconciled with the demands of culture, that in consequence of his cultural development renunciation and suffering, as well as the danger of his extinction at some far future time, are not to be eluded by the race of man. This gloomy prognosis rests, it is true, on the single conjecture that the lack of satisfaction accompanying culture is the necessary consequence of certain peculiarities developed by the sexual instinct under the pressure of culture. This very incapacity in the sexual instinct to yield full satisfaction as soon as it submits to the first demands of culture becomes the source, however, of the grandest cultural achievements, which are brought to birth by ever greater sublimation of the components of the sexual instinct. For what motive would induce man to put his sexual energy to other uses if by any disposal of it he could obtain fully satisfying pleasure? He would never let go of this pleasure and would make no further progress. It seems, therefore, that the irreconcilable antagon¬ ism between the demands of the two instincts—the sexual


and the egoistic—have made man capable of ever greater achievements, though, it is true, under the continual menace of danger, such as that of the neuroses to which at the present time the weaker are succumbing.

The purpose of science is neither to alarm nor to reassure. But I myself freely admit that such far-reaching conclusions as those drawn here should be built up on a broader founda¬ tion, and that perhaps developments in other directions will enable mankind to remedy the effects of these, which we _hav e here been considering in isolation.

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