Dreaming for Freud

The internal conflicts

Is Aggression a Necessary Part of the Sexual Act

Is it guilt that lies at the heart of the wish for punishment?

Last night I took two of my grandchildren, two cousins, a 17-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl out to dinner. We went to a Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood. The service was slow, but the conversation was lively, to put it mildly. The two cousins look somewhat alike: both blond and blue-eyed, though the boy is muscular (a life guard this summer) and the girl slender and tall.

They went at it hammer and tongs as they say, the sophisticated girl stoutly and eloquently defending her feminist positions, and the boy obviously taking delight in deliberately goading her on. When one subject ran dry they went onto another.

“What do you think of polygamy?” the boy said at one point. I had to laugh. I could see they were enjoying this heated conversation which continued over cake and strawberries at home. Eventually I went to bed and left them to it.

I thought of Shakespeare’s plays where he so often has a witty young woman and a clever young man who spar like this as a preliminary to sex. The best example is probably “Much Ado About Nothing” where Benedick and Beatrice (so similarly named) go for one another until they are tricked into confessing their love. As Leonato says about Beatrice,

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“You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a

kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her:

they never meet but there's a skirmish between them.

Certainly I can think of many skirmishes between myself and my beloved husband, both as a prelude to love and sometimes just for the skirmishing part.

What, I wonder is, if all of this is perhaps a preliminary or perhaps even a necessary part of the sexual act?

One thinks, too, of Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten” (1919) and how here a fantasy of aggression by an older adult causes arousal. I have used this theme in my latest novel, Dreaming for Freud, where Freud’s young patient has a similar fantasy.

How much of this is necessary in the “normal” sexual act? Is it our guilt that lies at the heart of this wish for punishment, as has been suggested? Or is there intrinsic pleasure or need in this eternal war between the sexes?

Listening to the young cousins last night in their heated discussion and watching their bright blue eyes flash with anger, I felt there was also just a plain pleasure in the sparks which were flying, in this expression of verbal wit, this attempt to outdo the other.

Even in the end of Shakespeare’s comedy when the lovers come together they cannot entirely stop their mouths except with a kiss as Benedick says:

“A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts.

Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take

thee for pity.


I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield

upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,

for I was told you were in a consumption.


Peace! I will stop your mouth.

Kissing her.

Dreaming for Freud: A Novelby Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy nowLove Child: A Novelby Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy now





Sheila Kohler teaches at Princeton. She is the author of many books including Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, and Cracks, which was made into a film with Eva Green.


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