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THE CONCEPTION OF SEXUALITY (II)1
BY JAMES GLOVER.
I TAKE the object of this symposium to be a discussion of the conception of sexuality and of what phenomena it may legitimately and usefully include.
To begin with, I disagree entirely with Dr Hadfield's initial contention that the progress of modern psychotherapy has been seriously impeded by “the lack of definition of the term.”
If he means by this that contemporary psychotherapists have refrained from availing themselves of the advances in knowledge and technique achieved by Freud, owing to puzzlement as to what Freud means by the term sexual, when he extends its application to phenomena not hitherto described by anyone as such, I can only point out that on the contrary their opposition arises from the fact that they apprehend only too clearly what he means, but vigorously disagree. As Dr Ernest Jones has forcibly pointed out “the heresy is not one that can be remedied by a dictionary?.”
Moreover, the progress of Psycho-Analysis itself has strikingly illustrated the relative unimportance of these rigid definitions which understandably rank so highly in the esteem of the general psychologist. Freud admittedly worked with conventions with a significant relation to empirical material, widened by later experience and perhaps formed still later into definitions with invariably some exceptions"; and he has repeatedly insisted on the provisional nature of his theoretical constructions, while insisting on the unambiguous recognition of the facts which they are intended to hold together in a comprehensible relationship. The real dispute is over the facts and not over niceties of definition.
Towards the end of his paper Dr Hadfield quotes Freud's view (regarding concessions to prejudice in this question of nomenclature) that an never tell where that view may lead to: one gives way first in words and then little by little in substance too,” but he does not seem to realize that Freud is here defending no theory but the recognition
1 A contribution to a discussion at a meeting of the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society on March 25th, 1925.
2 Collected Papers, 3rd edition, p. 27. * Triebe und Triebschicksale. Sammlung kleiner Schriften. Vierte Folge, pp. 252–3.
of facts against the admission of which strong prejudice unquestionably exists.
Nevertheless Dr Hadfield's plea for the fullest possible discussion of the conception of sexuality is one which all psycho-analysts will welcome.
Two criteria at once become obvious: (1) the teleological, (2) the descriptive. In other words, is any given tendency to be described as sexual and included in the concept of sexuality, because it demonstrably subserves some intellectually apprehended result achieved by sexual impulses, or are we justified in terming it sexual because a study of its characteristics reveals a psychological identityl with tendencies called ‘sexual' by common consent?
There remains a third criterion, the genetic, which I hope to show can resolve the apparent discrepancies between the simple teleological and the empirically descriptive standpoints.
It is necessary here to correct a misapprehension of Dr Hadfield's regarding Freud's basis of instinct classification. He says: “We presume that Freud calls these sucking activities the nutritive instinct' because their end is nutrition, that is to say he defines the instinct in terms of its end,” and goes on to point out that inconsistencies arise when instincts are classified both descriptively and in terms of biological end.
On the contrary Freud's grouping is based on the psychological characteristics of the impulses in question. He merely points out that, when considered from the genetic standpoint, his grouping does not conflict with a broad biological separation into two main groups. The confusion arises from his occasional use, e.g. of the term “nutritive instinct' as a synonym for eating-impulse.
Dr Hadfield attempts to effect a strict delimitation of the term sexual by applying a simple teleological criterion. He defines “the sexual as that group of impulses whose 'natural end' is reproduction.” Now, while I think that the term “natural end' is open to objection as savouring of an obsolete teleology, I agree that we cannot avoid speaking of instinctual impulses as having what we prefer to call a goal. But it is necessary to distinguish very clearly between the biological goal of an instinctual impulse and its psychological goal. Rightly or wrongly the biological student may say of such an impulse that its sole raison d'être is the perpetuation of the species, but for the empirical psychologist the goal of an instinctual impulse is, not an intellectually apprehended consequence which may be temporally remote, but the actual appropriate situation which brings its drive to an end.
1 See second paper, p. 200.
Thus psychologically speaking, the 'natural end of the conative activity occasioned by hunger is not nutrition as envisaged by the physiologist but the act of eating.
It is true that many civilized persons rationalize their eating impulses, by laying emphasis on the subsequent process of nutrition, regarding eating as an unworthy activity unless justified by intellectual concentration on its results as revealed by the chemistry of metabolism.
Similarly sexual gratification may be regarded as degrading unless accompanied by the wish for a child.
This rationalizing tendency is further manifested in the tendency to refer euphemistically to the sexual act in terms of its consequences, for Birth, although indecent for many, is nevertheless less indecent than coitus. Thus although Dr Hadfield is clearly emphasizing his teleological standpoint when he refers to coitus as the “act of reproduction,” to do so unfortunately coincides with this euphemistic tendency and is therefore to be deprecated in scientific language. There is as much justification for calling coitus “the act of reproduction" as for calling eating the “act of anabolism.”
I am obviously leaving out of consideration here the complicated problem of the interplay between Instinctual impulses as such and conscious intellectual appreciation of their results, a good example of which would be the impulse to drink sea-water in the face of intellectual appreciation of its unsuitability. At any rate no one would dispute the fact that the impulse to drink provoked by thirst will, in the last resort, overcome all intellectual considerations as to metabolic results !
These preliminary criticisms, however, do not dispose of Dr Hadfield's insistence on a teleological criterion. He might admit the force of these objections and meet them by modifying his definition “of the sexual into that group of impulses whose 'natural end' is coitus.”
Such a modification would constitute a substantial concession to the Freudian standpoint but would not satisfactorily dispose of outstanding differences in our respective points of view.
It is necessary therefore to follow him through his critical survey of the applicability of the term sexual.
Coitus is included, as is direct stimulation of the sexual organs, "for the stimulation of these organs naturally tends to the desire for the normal sexual act” (the phenomenon of masturbation is here too hastily disposed of). He admits that e.g. tickling and anal sensations may produce erection but characterizes these consequences rather mysteriously as due to 'surplus excitation, which seems to me to beg the whole
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question of local erotogenicity and its capacity for displacement from one erotogenic zone to another. Long before the Freudian formulation of libidinal displacement, it was recognized for instance that stimulation of the nipple produced, not only libidinal sensations in that area but associated libidinal sensations in the genital. Freud's libido theory at least gives an intelligible account of this “surplus excitation.'
Dr Hadfield next considers self-display, curiosity, self-assertion and submission.
He admits a sexual element in self-display but does not seem to realize that in respect of this, as of other impulsive tendencies, all that Freud postulates is an admixture of sexual with Ego-components, so there is here no real difference of opinion.
The psycho-analyst however would not accept Dr Hadfield's contention that 'nudism,' which he attributes to the child's biological need “to have air play on the naked body,” is devoid of libidinal motivation. Skin erotism and narcissism account more truly for the masturbatory impulses which arise so frequently when this wish is gratified. Moreover, why restrict this biological' need to children? What about adults?
He includes ‘sex perversions' in his conception of sexuality, because these arouse feelings in the “sex or genital organs which are themselves indistinguishable from those experienced in normal sex desires."
That is to say, he calls the perversions sexual, inasmuch as they arouse impulses whose natural end is reproduction. They are not in themselves manifestations of sexuality. Here is seen the weakness of his teleological criterion. Nothing is more certain than that the pervert derives from his activity a form of pleasure identical with the pleasure derived from coitus. It is for this reason that Freud, in common with the ordinary observer, regards the perversions as sexual, and not because they cause genital excitation which normally would result in coitus. To look at the matter in this way is in reality to retain the strict limitation of the conception of sexuality to genital activities biologically destined to end in reproduction, and as we have seen he has discarded this equation.
Another weakness in this teleological conception is that it is a ‘one-way' conception, whereas the facts demand a two-way' conception. It is true that excitation of a component-instinct or a nongenital erotogenic zone may excite genital impulses leading to or which might lead to sexual congress, but conversely genital excitation may precede and lead to the strong excitation of component-instincts and non-genital zones, bringing about behaviour appropriate to their libidinal gratification. The excitation can pass both ways, a fact which becomes of paramount importance in the case of what is called Regression.
Dr Hadfield thus, in spite of his disavowal, apparently limits his conception of sexuality to genital activities which result in reproduction and only in a loose sense extends the adjective sexual to comprehend events which, by stimulating genital activities, subserve reproduction. This extension of the term sexual is logically much more comprehensive than Freud's. It is at least much too comprehensive to be of any real value. Where is he going to draw the line?
Moreover he himself refutes this point of view by pointing out that, “things that stimulate the sex instinct are not themselves necessarily sexual”; and he would, I think, agree that the number of things that can stimulate sexual desire in man is practically unlimited, ranging from a beautiful sunset to the sight of an old boot. No psycho-analyst will quarrel with his contention that as yet we know too little of the psychogenesis of such impulses as curiosity, etc., to dogmatize as to their derivation. All that Freud insists is that e.g. curiosity in childhood becomes invested with a strong libidinal component. The intimate intertwining of this libidinal component with the less understood Egocomponent is interestingly borne out by the fact that repression of the libidinal component can effect a striking diminution in the strength of the Ego-component, a state of affairs which can be rectified by child analysis.
Dr Hadfield asserts that “a child's curiosity in its faeces or in the passing of its water is not essentially different from its interest in its food or in strangers.” Fortunately here we can ask the child himself to arbitrate, because he discriminates in a most dramatic way between the two sets of interests. Even before repression finally sets in he behaves in respect of the first exactly as an adult tends to behave in respect of his direct sexual impulses, i.e. with shame, guilt, etc., and is vociferously and unashamedly articulate in respect of the second. For this reason alone it can hardly be maintained that the two sets of curiosities are identical. It might of course be argued that if Ego-curiosities were exposed to the same atmosphere of parental taboo the child would behave in respect of them exactly as it does in respect of its ‘naughtynasty'interests. But it seems in the highest degree probable that, while the Ego-reactions of shame, modesty, disgust, guilt, etc., that develop in connection with tabooed curiosities and interests are largely derived from originally external attitudes of parents and their substitutes, the child in some way meets this external pressure with inherited readiness.