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What Motivates Sexual Promiscuity?

The psychodynamic meaning of nymphomania.

Key points

  • Promiscuity is formally defined as including not only frequent but "indiscriminate" sexual behavior.
  • What motivates sexually addictive or compulsive behavior is avoidance of anxiety, anger, grief or pain.
  • Hypersexuality can corrode one's self-esteem and result in a vicious cycle of endless sexual activity.

This post is in response to Dr. Steven Reiss's recent piece on motivational analysis vs. psychodynamic analysis of behavior, which I found exceedingly interesting and provocative. Reiss analyzes so-called sexual promiscuity, opposing his motivational view of such behavior to a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic one. Reiss specifically mentions my former mentor, Rollo May's perspective on love and promiscuity. Since May is no longer around to defend himself, having died in 1994 at the age of 85, let me respond to your points, Dr. Reiss, though, ultimately, I can only speak for myself here.

Promiscuity is formally defined, according to Webster, as including not only frequent but "indiscriminate" sexual behavior. Preference for frequent sexual contacts is not necessarily the same as being sexually indiscriminating. The latter, in women, indicates a possible compulsive, and therefore, pathological quality to the excessive sexual behavior, referred to traditionally as nymphomania. (In men, it is called satyriasis.)

Such indiscriminate or sometimes even random sexual behaviors can be commonly seen in various mental disorders such as psychosis, manic episodes, substance abuse and dependence, dissociative identity disorder, as well as borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial personalities, and can, in fact, often be partially diagnostic of such pathological conditions. (See, for example, the diagnostic criterion of impulsive behaviors like reckless sex in Borderline Personality Disorder and often dangerously heightened sexual drive and behavior in the manic phase of Bipolar Disorder.) Of course, some experimental promiscuity during adolescence and young adulthood is typical in our culture and considered by most to be developmentally normal rather than pathological.

Having said that, it is easy for men to be accused of imposing a double standard when it comes to female sexuality: It's fine for men to be sexually promiscuous. Even indiscriminate. Such sexual activity is often culturally encouraged and admired. But when women openly and aggressively express their sexuality like men, we tend to view them as mentally ill, promiscuous, sinful, or evil vixens.

To be fair, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Though I would argue that psychologically, sociologically, and biologically, sex holds a significantly different meaning for men and women. Sigmund Freud, the first "psychodynamic" theorist more than a century ago, was very clear that we live in a sexually repressed society. We are admittedly less sexually repressed here in America following the "sexual revolution,"free love" and "women's liberation" of the 1960s and 70s, but, perhaps more so than our European cousins, still suffer from this Puritanistic aspect of what Freud referred to as "civilization and its discontents." Society, psychiatry, psychology, and, for many, religion, still dictate what is "right" and "wrong," "moral" or "immoral," "acceptable" or "unacceptable," "normal" or "pathological," "good" or "evil" regarding human sexual behavior. (See my prior post on DSM-V.)

Just because someone, male or female, refuses to accept society's standard regarding sexual self-expression does not necessarily make him or her neurotic, perverted, pathological, antisocial, or aberrant. On this, we can agree. In the case you cited of the famous heiress and art patron Peggy Guggenheim, I don't know how much of her sexual behavior was indiscriminating in its frequency. Indeed, I know nothing of her sex life at all. Nor am I familiar with her mental health history. So any commentary on her behavior here by me is completely speculative.

But she apparently was indeed highly motivated to have frequent sexual liaisons with numerous men throughout her adulthood. So much so that you note the high number of abortions (estimated to be as many as 17) she purportedly underwent. And her sexual behavior was certainly unconventional in her day and socially frowned upon. The very important question you raise is: What was it exactly that motivated her "promiscuous" (meaning, in this case, excessive by "normal" or conventional standards) sexual life?

You seem to suggest that, generally, the primary motivation for such "promiscuity" has mainly to do with innate intense sexual drive, combined with a low extrinsic motivation for social acceptance or "honor."

But what is "sexual drive"? I have no doubt that different temperaments, sometimes congenital, can include different, e.g., more or less aggressive or powerful libidinal urgings. But here we get into the nature of a so-called "drive."

As a clinical psychologist, I think of "drive" as a combination of both biological (endogenous or intrinsic) libidinal energy, intrapsychic structure (including complexes), and external (exogenous or extrinsic) motivation. Or what psychodynamic psychotherapists call primary and secondary gain. In other words, for me, what "drives" us sexually or otherwise is a mixture of nature and nurture, as well as familial, societal or cultural influences.

But I consider it a gross oversimplification to reduce motivation in the case of sexual promiscuity to pure biology. Human motivation is a quite complex matter. Much more so than animal motivation.

For Rollo May, this motivational "drive" of which we are speaking is what he termed the daimonic. The daimonic, wrote May in his magnum opus, Love and Will (1969), "is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples.

The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both." The passionate psychobiological power of the daimonic is capable of driving us toward destructive and/or creative activity. Particularly to the extent it remains unconscious and, therefore, unintegrated into and disconnected from the conscious personality. Much of the greatest art and most evil deeds are direct or indirect expressions of the daimonic.

And it appears to me that Ms. Guggenheim was not only personally driven but both attracted to and fascinated by the daimonic manifested in the artists she worked and played with. (For more on May's idea of the daimonic and its clinical implications in both evil and creativity, see my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)

Applying May's unique psychodynamic model of the daimonic, we could conceivably conceptualize Ms. Guggenheim's hypersexuality as a manifestation of "daimonic possession," an inordinate and irresistible sexual drivenness. But what was this compelling drivenness really all about? Was it truly just about lust, sex and sexual satisfaction? If it was Oedipal in nature, the so-called Elektra complex in women, as classical Freudian analysis might suggest, were her unconscious strivings purely and literally sexually motivated? Or was it a symbolic seeking after some other aspect of Eros: the love of men, the love of other women's men, regaining the abruptly lost sense of security and love of her father during adolescence? In this particular case, she had evidently been deeply wounded by her parents' repeated marital separations, the sudden loss of her father in the HMS Titanic tragedy, and then the abandonment by her mother when she was relegated by her to being brought up by nannies.

These sorts of painful, traumatic losses during childhood or adolescence can and do affect self-esteem and self-image, and frequently manifest later in neurotically repetitive relationship patterns (see my prior post), psychiatric symptoms such as chronic depression and anxiety, and difficulties with emotional intimacy.

However, the fact is that Ms. Guggenheim married twice and produced two children, indicating at least some capacity and desire for intimacy and commitment. Yet, you may be right that marriage and monogamy simply did not suit her personality nor her voracious appetite for sex. Or, as I would put it, for love via sex.

Promiscuity or monogamy. Is one more existentially meaningful than the other? You contend Rollo May prejudically believed so, that he was someone who found monogamy meaningful and sexual promiscuity shallow, superficial and unfulfilling. And you are probably right. I agree that people derive meaning in life in different ways. Marriage or monogamy is not for everyone. Marriage or monogamy is no more inherently meaningful (or meaningless) than promiscuity, singlehood or celibacy for that matter. You call this the "brutal truth." Rollo May's psychology never shied away from, distorted or denied the tragic and brutal truth about human existence. Existential psychotherapy is based upon acknowledging and confronting reality as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. It is existentially true that meaning is where we find or make it. For a priest, monk or nun, celibacy is spiritually meaningful. For a "free spirit," which may have been how Guggenheim either described herself or was perceived by others, uncommitted sexuality is personally meaningful, perhaps signifying freedom, rebellion and self-assertion.

For the woman who identifies with the archetypal role of Muse or femme inspiratrice, providing sexual love to artists may hold profound meaning. I don't know whether Ms. Guggenheim suffered from a lack of meaning in her life. In fact, I tend to doubt it based on the little I've read, since she was apparently fully and passionately engaged in the arts and in her serial sexual adventures with various prominent and prodigious artists.

We might even surmise that, for Guggenheim, sexuality—along with her creation of cutting-edge art galleries and keen eye for up and coming artists like Cocteau, Kandinsky, Calder, Picasso, Klee, Magritte, Miro, Chagall, Pollock and Ernst--was her own personal art form, her way of creatively expressing herself in the world, her creative outlet for the vital libidinal life forces of the daimonic.

The question of whether Peggy Guggenheim engaged in promiscuous sexuality to avoid inner feelings of emptiness, anxiety and loss is very much to the point: Could that have been the reason she frantically flitted from bed to bed? Because of exactly what you cite May as saying: That in a purely sexual (i.e., merely physically intimate) relationship, "it is only a matter of time before the partners experience feelings of emptiness." This is exactly what sexual (or any) addiction is all about.

The initial "high" from sex, from orgasm, from infatuation, from novelty, from romance rapidly fades away. And then the sex "addict" searches for that next "fix." That new lover. That next conquest or opportunity to "get off." Over and over and over. As with any addictive behavior, such a pattern can serve as a kind of self-medication, a way of managing or avoiding depression and anxiety, and of filling the vacuum created when feelings of sadness, grief or rage are chronically repressed. What really motivates sexually addictive or compulsive behavior? Extraordinary sex drive? I would disagree. It is more likely the same thing that primarily motivates any addictive behavior: Avoidance of anxiety, anger, grief or pain. (See my prior post.)

Or, perhaps in this case, loneliness. That too can be a powerful motivation: avoidance. As Freud well understood. Sometimes even more motivating than the pleasure of sating one's sexual appetite and releasing sexual tension. (Whether Ms. Guggenheim's sexual escapades were fueled at all by alcohol or other disinhibiting drugs is yet another relevant question.)

Rollo May did not, as you allege, confuse "individuality with abnormality." He had great respect for individuality and tended to de-pathologize rather than moralize or pathologize individual differences. (See, for example, his groundbreaking book The Meaning of Anxiety, in which he normalizes the experience of existential anxiety.) I don't think he would have judged someone like Ms. Guggenheim moralistically.

It is true that he (like two of his teachers, psychoanalysts Alfred Adler and Erich Fromm) in Freudian tradition felt that the capacity to love, to form close and lastingly intimate connections or attachments with others, is one of the fundamental pillars of mental health and meaning. While I don't fully agree (see my prior post), I believe Dr. May would probably have conceptualized Ms. Guggenheim's promiscuity as being neurotically driven by the daimonic in this case.

I would say it is likely that poor self-esteem and feelings of emptiness and inherent unlovability may very well have been a driving force in such behavior, and that her hypersexuality, and its consequences, though probably engaged in to boost her ego, continually eroded her self-esteem. This can result in a vicious cycle of endless sexual activity. Moreover, it may well have served as an unconscious defense mechanism against authentic intimacy.

This is the distinction you refer to that May makes between "libido" and "Eros": Although both aspects of Eros, sex and love are not the same thing, and, indeed, sex can sometimes unconsciously be engaged in to defend against love and intimacy. Someone who has been severely wounded during childhood in the way Guggenheim reportedly was would typically avoid situations in which they could be rejected and abandoned again.

That becomes their primary motivation: the frantic avoidance of abandonment, even if that means engaging in ultimately self-destructive, superficial, sometimes abusive sexual relationships with emotionally unavailable partners.

My own guess is that, to the extent they were in fact "purely sexual" (which I tend to doubt), some of her serial encounters might have veered toward superficiality, and, as a result, lacked substantial meaning in the long run. And, more importantly, that her sexual promiscuity was somewhat compulsive, defensive and avoidant in nature. A form of what Freud famously called repetition compulsion: An unconscious adult re-enactment of seeking love from but being rejected, uncared for and abandoned by her emotionally and physically unavailable parents.

A self-defeating narcissistic defense against a deep-seated sense of insecurity and unlovability. A neurotic, constant turning to her lovers for something she felt she had missed out on. Or for some aspect of her own personality she was unable or unwilling to accept or fully develop, the "masculine" element in her psyche Jung called the animus. Her repeated pregnancies (representing creative potentiality) and subsequent abortions might, for example, be taken to symbolize her own aborted efforts at becoming an artist herself.

None of this is, for me anyway, a moral judgment, but rather a purely clinical one. If Ms. Guggenheim was happy with her lifestyle, if it worked for her, who am I (or anyone else) to say it was pathological, immoral or wrong? But if she or someone like her turned up in my office, miserable, dissatisfied, distraught and seeking psychological help, we would have to take a good hard look at her repetitive relationship patterns, their significance, and how they both stem from and negatively affect her self-esteem, integrity and mood.

We would need to determine what she really wants regarding relationships rather than how she rationalizes and aggrandizes her sexual behavior. And we would need to examine how what happened to her in the past profoundly affected her then--and is still affecting her now. We would need to confront what Dr. May called the daimonic, which, in this case, would likely include her repressed or dissociated feelings of hurt, abandonment, rejection, sadness, anger and rage toward her parents, herself. And possibly her own repressed creativity.

Since the daimonic (not unlike Jung's concept of the shadow) by definition becomes stronger and more destructive the longer it is repressed or dissociated, usurping control of or taking over the whole personality, we might expect to see some prior early history of sometimes religiously motivated sexual abstinence or chronic suppression of the sexual instinct in cases of promiscuity or nymphomania. This is related to Nietzsche's notion of the "return of the repressed."

I have no idea whether Ms. Guggenheim had such a history. But my point is that, both psychodynamically and existentially speaking, such a person's inordinate "sex drive" can be symptomatic of far more than some intrinsic, biological motivation, as you propose. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes it's more than a cigar.

As for the matter of meaning, which is so central to May's existential psychotherapy, you say that Ms. Guggenheim's "promiscuity" (your term) was indeed meaningful for her, and provided a primary source of meaning in her life. You may be right. But what did it really mean to her? That she could seduce a man? That she was desirable? That she was lovable? That she was worthy of love? Why did she find it necessary to flit from man to man so incessantly? Was she happy doing so? Or was she suffering? Lonely? Frustrated? And why was she so fond of artists in particular? Clearly, she had a deep love and appreciation of art.

During the 1920s, she lived a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle in Paris for many years in the company of struggling artists, and, decades later, married Max Ernst, remaining married to him for several years. But to conclude that she behaved the way she did simply because of her unusually strong sex drive does little if anything to explain, for instance, why she couldn't have satisfied her sexual appetite within a more traditional, monogamous relationship. And concluding that she was promiscuous because she didn't really care about her "honor" or social standing would, for me, be equally unconvincing. Ultimately, sex, in such cases, serves as a symbolic substitute for love. And that is what makes it so meaningful.

Curiously, the daimonic (not unlike the "Force" in the Star Wars saga) seems to have been strong with Ms. Guggenheim. Hence her self-reported sexual vitality and passion. For me, this represents a positive prognostic quality. Rollo May was quite insistent that the daimonic is not only about destructiveness, pathology and evil, but can also be positive, constructive and creative. It's all about how we channel the daimonic. What we do with it. How we use it. Here is what he wrote in his brief foreword to my book: "The daimonic (unlike the demonic, which is merely destructive), is as much concerned with creativity as with negative reactions. . . . That is, constructiveness and destructiveness have the same source in human personality."

For May, that source is the daimonic or "human potential." Peggy Guggenheim apparently sublimated or discharged her daimonic energy into her love of art and her art of love. Since the daimonic demands some expression, had she not directed her life force into art and love, had she merely repressed or suppressed it in order to live a more conventional and respectable lifestyle, she might have fallen into despair, or the daimonic could have come out destructively, negatively or even violently. So it may well be that for Ms. Guggenheim, sexual promiscuity was the best possible and least destructive choice. Short of some good psychotherapy, that is.

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