By Max Belkin, Ph.D.
A vibrant erotic life requires synergy and tensions among our good, bad, and ugly fantasies and desires. Our sexual fantasies provide a window into our inner lives: who we want to be, as well as who we are afraid to be.
As a psychologist, I invite people to explore their sexual behavior and erotic fantasies as reflections on their upbringing, emotional needs, and relational patterns. Together we attempt to give voice to the neglected and disowned parts of their erotic selves, help them weave their loving, aggressive, tender, and kinky fantasies in the tapestries of their erotic relationships.
Growing up we learn that among the fantasies that turn us on some are considered acceptable and good, some are viewed as unacceptable and bad, while others are treated as unspeakable and ugly. As a result, while our good erotic fantasies are tied to positive self regard, our bad and ugly desires are mired in guilt and shame.
For example, I know a man who self-identifies as straight, has a hypermasculine persona, and yet routinely engages in sex with gay men. In order to avoid shame and guilt, this guy views his actions as “getting off,” akin to masturbation, rather than as sexual encounters with men he desires. Not surprisingly, when he developed romantic feelings towards one of his “getting off” buddies, their sexual contact ceased. I believe that this conflicted man is acting out erotic desires he regards as ugly and can’t accept; they are too threatening to his identity as a straight man.
Good erotic fantasies not only help us create and maintain idealized versions of our partners (“she is the most desirable woman I have met”), but they also boost our self-esteem. For example, the unemployed, ashamed, and emasculated protagonist of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Johnny, finds himself irresistibly drawn to the mysterious, beautiful, and mentally fragile Madeleine. Johnny’s infatuation with Madeleine allows him to play at once a detective, an analyst, and a lover, which bolsters his fragile masculine self.
In contrast, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” alludes to homosexual love, unbridled lust, and promiscuous sex. Given the sexual mores of the 1940s, these desires were seen as so bad and destructive by the film’s makers, characters and viewers that Hitchcock felt compelled to burn Rebecca’s presumed female lover alive.
Finally, perhaps the most shocking of Hitchcock’s movies, “Psycho” leaves us with an unforgettable, harrowing image of dissociated--and indisputably ugly--sexual aggression. The movie’s main character, a humble-looking inn-keeper, transforms into his dead mother and proceeds to bludgeon his unsuspecting female guest with a kitchen knife while the poor woman is in the shower.
I believe the erotic mind operates very much like a multiplex that is simultaneously playing our private spin-offs of “Vertigo,” “Rebecca,” and “Psycho” in three different movie theaters. For example, an individual might be enjoying a chivalrous love affair with person A, be lusting after person B, while at the same time fantasizing about eating person C alive. At other times, again similar to a movie theater, the mind is capable of showing all three erotic moving pictures consecutively--of experiencing tenderness, lust, and aggression towards the same person, but at different times.
These creative options are based on our mind’s ability to differentiate among good, bad, and ugly erotic desires and keep them from clashing with each other. Hot, steamy sex often requires channeling animalistic, aggressive impulses while temporarily bracketing our tender, loving feelings towards our partners. While on some occasions we might idealize and even worship the people we love, at other times we might enjoy objectifying and dominating them.
Moreover, the mind’s ability to compartmentalize good, bad, and ugly erotic fantasies can facilitate escape from intractable and often paralyzing conflicts between love and lust, tenderness and aggression, idealization and objectification. However, playful and creative erotic life is predicated on our ability to move freely between various erotic fantasies and desires.
Problems arise when, as in the above example of the conflicted straight guy who has sex with gay men, the boundaries between good, bad, and ugly erotic desires become rigid and impenetrable. One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help people accept and articulate different bad and ugly parts of themselves. Embracing our aggression, lust, neediness, hunger for power stimulates erotic imagination and inspires creative lovemaking.
Whenever we inquire about other people's erotic fantasies, we need to proceed with tact and respect for their privacy. Sometimes, in response to my invitation to describe his or her erotic life, the client might ask haltingly: “Do I really have to share this?” My usual reply is “No. It’s enough that you acknowledge your erotic fantasies to yourself.” I believe my accepting, matter-of-fact, humorous approach diminishes my clients' shame and guilt. This is certainly my aim.
By welcoming what we imagine to be our bad and ugly fantasies, we can harness their creative, volatile energy in the service of revitalizing relationships with those we love. By contrast, imposing oppressive constraints (“I am only allowed to fantasize about my spouse”) on people's erotic imagination frequently leads to a kind of erotic shutdown, a foreclosure of possibility. An exclusive focus on the good can lead to monotony and frustration.
In the crown jewel of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a quest for the hidden Confederate gold brings together three unlikely and unwilling collaborators. Although they hate, manipulate, and even occasionally torture each other, none of them can locate and unearth the hidden treasure alone; they are forced to team up with their foes. Similarly, in our personal search for romantic and sexual fulfillment, each of us needs to accept and wrestle with the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly parts of our erotic selves.
Max Belkin, Ph.D., is a 4th year candidate in the Psychoanalytic Training Program at the William Alanson White Institute. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. His private practice office is in Greenwich Village, New York City.