The authors conception is that perversion is a technique of mental excitation which arises out of isolation and is pursued in the personal imagination. The excitation is self-generated through certain specific configurations centring on the pleasure of dominating or possessing another or, conversely, of being dominated or possessed. To understand the nature of perversion, it is very important to use the term sexualization rather than sexuality. Without wishing to deny the role of sensuality and the search for pleasure in infancy, the author wants distinguish sexuality in the child from the sexualized child. Clinical psychoanalytic work confirms that, while traumatic experiences in infancy may facilitate the establishment of a perversion, many perverts were in fact adequately protected in infancy. In the authors opinion no normality exists in the perverts family environment. It is often found that the parents are totally indifferent to the childs psychic withdrawal, in which the perversion is secretly maturing. This contribution draws attention to the nature of the emotional trauma that fuels the childs secret withdrawal and the pleasure he derives from perverse fantasy.

Key words: perversion, perverse pleasure, sexuality, sexualization, psychic retreat, early withdrawal, trauma, emotive trauma, ------------------------------------

Views differ on the significance of early infantile traumatic experiences for the development of later adult pathologies.

Although many studies are very informative on the development of aggressive and destructive behaviour, they fail to establish a manifest link between trauma and perversion. Clinical psychoanalytic work confirms that, while traumatic experiences in infancy may facilitate the establishment of a perversion, many perverts were in fact adequately protected in infancy. This contribution draws attention to the nature of the emotional trauma that fuels the childs secret withdrawal and the pleasure he derives from perverse fantasy.

Trauma and Perversion

psychic retreat, early withdrawal, trauma, emotive trauma, ------------------------------------

Views differ on the significance of early infantile traumatic experiences for the development of later adult pathologies.

Although many studies are very informative on the development of aggressive and destructive behaviour, they fail to establish a manifest link between trauma and perversion. Clinical psychoanalytic work confirms that, while traumatic experiences in infancy may facilitate the establishment of a perversion, many perverts were in fact adequately protected in infancy. This contribution draws attention to the nature of the emotional trauma that fuels the childs secret withdrawal and the pleasure he derives from perverse fantasy.

A famous patient

The analysis has essentially established the following:

The physical chastisements administered to the patients posterior by her father from the age of four until seven unfortunately became associated with the patients premature and now highly developed sexual awareness. This sexuality came to be expressed by the patient from very early on by her rubbing her thighs together to commence an act of masturbation. Masturbation always occurred after she underwent punishment from her father. After a while the beatings were no longer necessary to initiate sexual arousal; it came to be triggered through mere threats and other situations implying violence, such as verbal abuse, threatening movements of the hands, etc. After a time she could not even look at her fathers hands without becoming sexually aroused, or watch him eat without imagining how the food was ejected, and then being thrashed on the buttocks, etc. These associations extended to the younger brother too, who also masturbated frequently from an early age. Threats to the boy or ill-treatment of him aroused her and she had to masturbate whenever she saw him being punished. In time any situation which reflected violence aroused her, for example, being told to obey. As soon as she was alone she was plagued by obsessional fantasies: for example, she would imagine all kinds of torments. The same happened in her dreams: for example, she often dreamt that she was eating her lunch and simultaneously sitting on the lavatory and that everything was going straight out through her bottom; at the same time she was surrounded by a large crowd of people watching her; on another occasion she was being whipped in front of a great mob of people, etc.

This clinical report forms part of a letter dated 25 September 1905 in which Jung presents the case of Sabina Spielrein to Sigmund Freud (Covington & Wharton, 2007, p. 105f.). It is in my opinion a good illustration of the environmental and family conditions that facilitated the development of masochistic arousal in the patient and psychoanalyst-to-be Sabina Spielrein. Consideration of her case in the light of Freuds 1919 paper A child is being beaten suggests that Sabinas masochistic fantasy arose not by chance but as a result of a real traumatic event: the child in this instance really was beaten.

The relationship between trauma and perversion, which is the subject of my contribution, is not always as straightforward as the reconstruction of Sabina Spielreins infancy appears to indicate. In addressing such a complicated and problematic issue, I shall begin by attempting to identify the dynamic factors that characterize sexual perversion, and shall then consider whether this psychopathological state can derive its strength from a traumatic experience in infancy.

The nature of perversion

Whereas textbooks usually subdivide the perversions into distinct syndromes (voyeurism, exhibitionism, sadomasochism, paedophilia, etc.), clinical experience shows that one and the same individual may present a number of perversions simultaneously. This is because all perversions have in common a particular type of sexual arousal that can be attained by means of fantasy. For this reason, an individual can achieve this special kind of pleasure in a variety of ways.

It is indeed the case that the specific characteristic of perversion is sexualization, a mental state that permits self-induced sexual pleasure. In this case, orgasm or sexual pleasure can be rendered purely mental, capable of being experienced by fantasy production. That is what is meant by the notion of the sexualization of psychic reality.

In the encounter with the other, a pervert must enact what has been constructed in fantasy. Objects exist only in so far as they perform the function assigned to them by the imagination; the sexual encounter is a repetition of something prethought and imagined, involving little spontaneity and a total absence of freedom on the part of the participants.

For each patient there is a particular chain of events, a secret place, a specific setting for the scenario of arousal. To achieve arousal a pervert must enact his fantasy (for instance, in sadomasochism that of exerting absolute power over a consenting partner). If the partner were experienced as a real object, the freedom and omnipotence of fantasy would be lost; a genuine partner, with needs and requirements of his own, would set a limit to the imagination and hence reduce the level of arousal.

Sexualization occurring in infancy is equivalent to a special mental state with a masturbatory character, which causes the child to withdraw from reality and from relating to the world and prevents the development of ordinary sexuality. The infantile roots of perversion consist essentially in a psychic withdrawal in which sexualized fantasies of various kinds seduce the child. This process, which develops at an early age in a child destined to become a pervert, is described systematically by Sigmund Freud in A child is being beaten (1919), in which all the clinical examples are of children who have become able to experience sexual pleasure by engaging at length in fantasies of violence. As we know, Freud held that perversion was one of the paths that could be chosen by the sexual drive precisely because of the presumed perverse and polymorphous character of infantile sexuality. For Freud, the potential for perversion was inherent in primitive sexuality and could in some cases become autonomous and develop unilaterally.

My own approach as reflected in this paper, as set out at length elsewhere (De Masi, 1999), diverges from Freuds theory in seeing perversion as a different developmental pathway which is at variance with that of normal sexuality. My conception of this psychopathology agrees with that of Caper (1998), who distinguishes primitive from pathological aspects. The former condition is capable of development, whereas the latter entails a distortion of development. (1) In his interesting paper the author points out that some schools of psychoanalysis identify the primitive with the pathological, on the basis that psychopathological states contain the concreteness, idealization, grandiose fantasies and anxieties observable in the infant psyche. This equation gives rise to the erroneous supposition that pathology is the expression of primitive mental states. This is not, however, the case: the forces at work in the perversions are destructive and progressively erode the mental capacities, such as the ability to depend on human objects and the possibility of learning from emotional experience, which is the very foundation of psychic health. Meltzer (1973) maintains that there is a fundamental distinction between (primitive) polymorphous sexuality and perverse sexuality. Whereas the latter represents a destructive attack on the symbolization of the parental couple, the former belongs to the realm of undifferentiated sensuality.

A polymorphously perverse child who is a prey to fantasies that provide him with sexualized pleasure has already withdrawn into a world of sexual arousal and is therefore already a sick child. Perversion is in my view not a continuation of infantile sexuality but a deviation from normal psychosexual development.

This divergence in clinical nosology also implies a difference on the level of theory. Should the entire complex of sexual experiences be seen as a single whole, or ought different forms of sexuality to be distinguished in qualitative terms?

The first (drive-based) psychoanalytic model regards sexuality as a unitary experience, with all components of primitive oral, anal and phallic sexuality flowing together into a single sexual entity. According to this view, anomalous sexuality is nothing but an abnormally developed version of one component at the expense of the others.

It seems to me that the unitary view of sexuality does not permit of a clear distinction between sexuality proper and the processes of sexualization that underlie pathology. (2) Whereas, in infantile sexuality, sensory pleasure is a way of relating to objects, pathological sexuality with onset in infancy is self-arousing in nature and is indicative of an early severance of the childs bond with the emotional world that will have dire consequences in adulthood.

To understand the nature of perversion, it is very important to use the term sexualization rather than sexuality. This distinction involves the notion of different categories of sexual experience with mental states differing from that of ordinary sexuality.

States of perverse sexualization seem to be very widespread in severe mental pathologies; Alvarez (1992), for example, refers to them in her accounts of the therapy of autistic children.

The self-excitatory experience seems to have particular characteristics in some perverts. The fetishistic patient described by Joseph (1971), who dressed from head to foot in a rubber garment, could ejaculate only through stimulation of the skin. Like erotic dreams that cause the dreamer to ejaculate, sexualized fantasies can cause orgasm. Subjects who exhibit perverse behaviour may have particular sexual excitability. Because the imagination is so powerful, sexual orgasm can be achieved without the intermediary of the body; in such cases the mind behaves like a continuous generator of sexual excitation. (3)

My basic conception is that perversion is a technique of mental excitation which arises out of isolation and is pursued in the personal imagination. The excitation is self-generated through certain specific configurations centring on the pleasure of dominating or possessing another or, conversely, of being dominated or possessed. Even if the sphere of action in perversion is confined to that of sexuality, the excitation stems not from the primitive form of sexuality but rather from the idea of power, without which no perverse sexuality would ever be mobilized.

Hence the importance assumed by infantile sexuality in perversion a concept that is in turn complex and riddled with contradictions. Without wishing to deny the role of sensuality and the search for pleasure in infancy, I should like to distinguish sexuality in the child from the sexualized child. As stated earlier, the experience of sexualization consists in a technique of transformation of perceptions whereby a particular kind of orgasmic pleasure can be obtained. It is a pleasure arising out of an anti-relational sexuality an expansion of the mind produced by the imagination. The child may resort to sexualization following an environmental facilitation, for example if stimulated by the erotic attentions of adults, or on account of a particular personal excitability.

The situation is at any rate one of early withdrawal what Steiner (1993) calls a psychic retreat in which the sexualized pleasure obtained by masturbatory techniques becomes the pole of development and attraction. In the perversion, strength of character is weakened from the earliest years of life by submission to the pleasure of bad behaviour, whereby children, even if they seemingly develop and acquire operational capabilities, preserve a relational and affective world distorted by the erotized fascination of perversion. The conquest of the mind by the perverse pleasure a mixture of excitation and indifference replaces relational hate and aggression. The child therefore fails to develop a vital rage towards bad objects, but instead fears and idolizes them.

Virtual sexuality

A particularly telling example of the sexualized mental state can be found in Georges Batailles self-description in The Tears of Eros. One way in which he attains sexual ecstasy is to identify totally with a young Chinese man photographed while being gruesomely tortured to death. The cruel depiction, the ecstatic facial expression and the exposed, flayed ribs of the dying man send him into paroxysms of pleasure. Bataille identifies with the dying prisoner and reports that during his sexual ecstasy he felt a flood of light rising up through his head, accompanied by a voluptuous sensation like that of the passage of semen in the sexual act. He writes that he feels transformed into an erect phallus and believes that astonishing similarities exist between (religious) ecstasy and the mental orgasm of the perverse act.

The photograph used by Bataille to attain ecstasy is of little moment compared with the myriad images placed at the disposal of the perverse imagination by todays online world. The unlimited use of pornographic images in the service of the imagination (whether sadomasochistic, paedophilic, fetishistic or whatever) bears witness to the voyeuristic, exhibitionistic character of every perversion.

Virtual sexuality and cybersex are the names applied to the use of new technologies to obtain material for stimulating sexual fantasies. According to recent studies in the United States (Cooper, 2002), at least 70% of online spending is accounted for by sexual pursuits. It is not unusual for people to become Internet addicts in the proper sense of the term.

Internet use is consistent with an essential aspect of perversion namely, the fantasy of omnipotent control and domination of the object. In the solitary imagination (it is the patient who creates and derives pleasure from it), a mere click can conjure up bodies that afford the stimulation needed for arousal, and the subject can then do what he likes with them.

The voyeuristic use of the Internet could be said to confine the perverse act within the virtual world, thus avoiding the risk of its having to be acted out in reality. Perverse acts of a criminal nature are limited to more serious cases. For instance, the Marquis de Sade, having retreated to his castle after being convicted of inflicting violence on prostitutes, engaged young people of both sexes as servants with a view to subjecting them behind closed doors to a complex programme of sexual abuse and bodily mortification, intended to culminate in a criminal orgy. Sade was unable to put his plan into effect because he was betrayed to the authorities by his mother-in-law. Incarcerated in the Bastille and no longer able to act out his fantasies, he set about writing the novels that were to make him famous and helped to contain his sadistic obsessions.

So the Internet constitutes the frame, the imaginative field, into which any virtual representation of the perverse sexual scene can be projected and hence removed from the realm of action; often, however, it also paves the way for consolidation of the pathological process. In any case, the Internet appears to be the ideal container for putting the perverse act into effect. As stated earlier, the perverse act is a product of private fantasy that must undergo unlimited expansion, and the Internet is a virtual container that is infinitely expansible according to the users imagination. It is precisely this infinite potential that causes a pervert to see affective exchanges between ordinary human beings as banal.

If the nucleus of perversion lies in progressive submission to an over-sensual orgiastic pleasure that acts as a hypnotic force, the sexual perversions could be seen as belonging to a mental area akin to that of drug addiction, as first pointed out by Meltzer (1973). They would then be the expression of enslavement to a mental drug of a sexual nature, along the same lines as alcohol or drug dependence. In other words, perversions are techniques for inducing a state of mental arousal sought out for its own sake and devoid of any relational aspect.

Clinical examples

Alfredo, a masochistic transvestite, is a patient who inflicts severe corporal punishment on himself whenever he gets something wrong. Having identified his mistake, he plans a punishment that has to be inflicted as many times as is indicated by throwing dice. He dreams that he has on his payroll the Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, who appears to him dressed in white while preaching to a group of people. The confusing aspect of the dream concerns the criminality of the character. Eichmann, dressed in white while trying to gain converts, is innocent.

It is obvious from the dream that the sadistic perverse structure as personified by Eichmann is seen as good and is nurtured by the patient himself (Eichmann is on his payroll). _ Another sadomasochistic patient, Bruno, uses parts of his body to stage sadomasochistic sequences: he binds up his penis tightly and hits it. The beating hand represents a sadistic man, while the ill-treated penis becomes a tortured little boy. Although greatly improved after a long period of analysis, when I am briefly away he dreams that he is striking his penis with a chopstick; meanwhile the analyst appears with a confused, uncertain expression on his face._

In the dream I represent a projection of his own aroused, perverse confusion, but I am also a psychologically absent parent figure, similar to the mother of his past who failed to understand or interfere with his infantile sexualized withdrawal.

At first sight these two patients appear very similar: both are dominated by sadomasochistic arousal and both are overwhelmed by perverse propaganda. In what ways do they differ from each other?

Alfredo, who suffered from severe congenital hypospadias, underwent repeated reconstructive surgery in the first years of his life. It may be postulated that these operations, accompanied by prolonged periods of hospitalization, had traumatic effects that may have facilitated the onset of the masochistic perversion. In Brunos case, on the other hand, there is no indication of any traumatic event in his infancy, and his family seem to have provided him with a good-enough environment.

To return to Alfredo, the psychoanalytic literature contains evidence that the erotization of trauma is one of the possible facilitators of the perverse fantasy. Glenn (1984) reports on three patients who underwent major surgery in infancy and subsequently developed erotized sadomasochistic fantasies. Similar observations were made by Stoller (1975) in adult patients. The American Psychoanalytic Associations panel on sadomasochism in children (Panel, 1985) includes a number of accounts of premature babies who underwent traumatic surgery, families in which adults plainly abused children, games played by children who had been sexually abused and the therapy of abused children (Grossman, 1991). These dramatic case histories constitute evidence that very young infants readily respond to trauma with erotized masochistic behaviour.


A psychic trauma is an action, either sudden or repeated, that proves harmful because the defences required to protect the individual who undergoes it are not yet ready. It is typical of the traumatic situation that the subject is confronted by a crushing event that cannot be understood or coped with mentally.

There is no doubt that various types of emotional trauma, if experienced continuously, will inevitably alter the course of a childs development. There are many different and even opposing views on the significance of early infantile traumatic experiences for the development of later adult pathologies or forms of suffering. The uncertainty begins with identification of the type of experience to be regarded as traumatic in any individual case. An appraisal may well be possible only retrospectively. The possibility of partial assimilation of the traumatic experience largely depends on the response of the childs adult caregivers. Given a constant, understanding parental presence, the consequences of the trauma will be less severe. For this reason, the relationship between early trauma and the subsequent development of a perversion is more complex than it at first sight appears. Besides physical aggression such as beating or sadistic acts, a child may be exposed to sexual traumas, such as episodic or continued instances of sexual violence and repeated sexual stimulation.

I am convinced that major traumas (ill-treatment, violence or sexual abuse) are not the natural and most common background to the construction of perverse behaviour in adulthood, although such early abuse admittedly does substantial harm to a childs personality, inhibiting his development and making for behavioural problems, including ones of a sexual nature. An ill-treated child may develop a state of evacuation or masochistic passivity or, conversely, may readily, by identification, turn into a sadistic aggressor. There is ample evidence that abused children become violent parents when they grow up. Both masochistic passivity and sadistic violence due to infantile traumas must, however, be distinguished from sexual perversion.

Some analysts favour a traumatic theory of perversion, in which the idea of the trauma takes on a specific psychological character. For these authors, the traumatic factor is the psychological pressure, which is both seductive and authoritarian, that may be exerted by an adult (usually the mother) on the childs mind, thereby attacking his perception of independence and separateness and his sense of personal and sexual identity.

The infantile microtraumas subsumed by Masud Khan (1963) in the concept of cumulative trauma may facilitate the formation of certain narcissistic and autoerotic areas in the character which in this authors view become specific to the development of perversion in adulthood. Other authors, however, consider that perversions result from an infantile withdrawal due to the emotional remoteness of the parents. This kind of interpretation applies to the case described by Betty Joseph in her paper Addiction to near death (1982).

The sequence of trauma → perversion may even be reversed, suggesting that in children secretly devoted to sadomasochistic pleasure traumatic experiences may stimulate sexualization. In such cases, rather than being perceived as a source of anxiety the trauma may be thought to arouse sadistic pleasure and to mobilize the masochistic fantasy.

Bruno, the patient mentioned earlier, reports that when he was a child he was once approached and groped by an old paedophile, from whom, however, he ran away in terror. Even so, that evening he had a sexually exciting fantasy in which he was sucking the old mans filthy penis.

The trauma had insinuated itself into an already existing perverse disposition and opened the way to the masochistic fantasy and its accompanying arousal.

Trauma in the primary relationship

Even when a child is not exposed to explicit violence, he may nevertheless undergo a trauma, which could be described as emotional, stemming from the overall complex of absent or distorted emotional responses on the part of his caregiver. (4 ) My view is based on the finding that, in order to grow, we require the mind of another in order to accommodate questions, anxieties, wishes and needs. The stable repetition of this experience and the return of our projections invested with meaning permit the introjection of an object capable of performing the function of emotional understanding. To my mind, such a trauma not only leaves holes in the personality but also impairs its structuring, giving rise to anxieties, arrested development and emotional disturbances that may lead to the formation of pathological processes and a strong tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.

The definition of emotional trauma is similar in some respects to that of Masud Khans concept of cumulative trauma (1963), but emphasizes in particular the existence of early distortions of parent-child emotional communication that will adversely affect the subsequent course of the childs development.

Emotional trauma takes place in, and distorts, the primary relationship. This pathogenic primal configuration could be described by the term traumatic distortion of emotional experience, meaning a set of responses by the primary objects and the child that interfere with his potential for development and may direct it into psychopathological channels.

Sometimes the parents give discordant or permissive emotional responses that fail to structure the childs mind. What is on occasion particularly obvious is not traumatic suffering but the dramatic absence of mental structuring in the patient. If a child lives in a world lacking in parental emotional responses, he will be deprived of the representations vital to the constitution of his reality sense. In some cases, indeed, there is no evidence of an actual traumatic event, but instead a parental presence has been lacking, thus favouring a pleasurable flight into the world of the imagination or into the body by way of masturbatory mechanisms. In this way the parents intentions, whether conscious or unconscious, affect their childs growth and undermine his potential development.

I contend that the future perverted patient will have experienced a profound relational and emotional deficiency in the earliest stages of infancy and will as a result have resorted to sexualized withdrawal. This withdrawal may be regarded as the traumatic factor that paves the way for the perverse experience in the adult. Hence it is not strictly speaking a matter of a limited or painful event, but instead sometimes of distorted or permissive emotional responses that facilitate separation from psychic reality and enhance the childs sense of omnipotence.

What context can therefore be postulated for the correlation between trauma and perversion? The factor that can condition the infant mind in the direction of psychopathology is in my view the emotional trauma stemming from a pathogenic parent-child relationship, which facilitates the formation of psychopathological structures or objects that continue to function as parts of the self. These structures (e.g. sexualizations or withdrawals into megalomania or fantasy) develop early on as defences against states of evacuation or nonexistence, and have to do with the character of the primary objects and their interaction with the patient.

Giuseppe came to analysis on account of severe depression and anxiety for which he has been frequently admitted to psychiatric clinics; he reveals that he has been erotically attracted by womens feet since childhood. Even now, these are the stimulus that awakens his uncertain sexuality. The infantile image that emerges in the analysis is of a little boy entrusted to a succession of nannies and already emotionally remote from his mother. The child goes into his mothers room, where she is getting ready for a fashionable party, and is aroused at the sight of her applying red varnish to her toenails. His other memory of infancy is of lying on the couch at his mothers feet while she is absorbed in a television programme; he caresses her feet and fantasizes having sex with her. He squeezes his penis between his thighs and achieves (mental) orgasm. Since childhood the foot has been the only part of the mothers body accessible to the patient; meanwhile she is so indifferent that she simply lets her son become sexually aroused.

It is interesting to note that this patients foot fetishism arose at an early age, when the lack of maternal affective involvement was replaced by erotic arousal. Even today, Giuseppe frequents porn venues where he can watch sexual performances through a window or touch the body (or rather bodies) of the women who cater to his voyeuristic arousal.

Dino is another foot fetishist. This young patient is very depressed and passive, and feels that his existence is totally meaningless. He constantly indulges in masochistic relationships with women in whom he has fantasies of selfobliteration, putting himself completely at their service. Another characteristic form of masochistic behaviour intended to allay the anxiety that grips him is to have sex with a prostitute chosen to be as ugly and unpleasant as possible. Although heterosexual, he sometimes has fantasies of being a young man attractive to homosexuals, who can penetrate him at will.

During his analysis Dino often has fantasies of submission and obliteration, and stresses the idea of the magic foot the fetishistic fantasy that plunges him into a state of ecstatic pleasure in his relations with women. The magic foot is part of a newly created reality, an area totally split off from the remainder of his mental functioning another reality, which cannot be integrated with the rest of his personality. The arousal afforded by the magic foot (connected with something dirty and evil-smelling) has to do with masturbatory anality and with psychic withdrawal, but is also bound up with a fantasy of obliteration (beneath a womans feet). Dinos pathology also results from a particular infantile history, in which the parents affective deficiencies given their narcissistic mutual relationship kept them psychologically remote from their son and condemned him to isolation.

Sexualized withdrawal

While a perversion can certainly develop without manifest trauma, there is in my view no such thing as normality in a perverts family environment. The parents very often prove to be utterly indifferent to their childs psychic withdrawal, in which the perversion is secretly maturing. Even if other kinds of trauma are present at the same time, what facilitates these states of sexualized withdrawal which, however, does not always culminate in a structured perversion is parental indifference or emotional remoteness.

Francesca is a 32-year-old woman who still has the appearance of an adolescent; her slender but athletic build is due to the various sports, including rock-climbing, in which she constantly engages. This highly intelligent woman works as a financial adviser. She is characteristically and continuously involved in promiscuous sexual activity, for which she is much sought after by possible partners of both sexes. A few months into her analysis she confesses that when she was about 12 years old she was subjected to continuous sexual abuse by her maternal grandfather, who repeatedly forced her into oral sex and physical contact. Francesca has always remained silent about this violence, and has always suspected that her sister and, in particular, her mother were in turn victims of abuse from the grandfather and also the father. Together with accounts of erotic or sexual promiscuity, the sexual experience and the ensuing confusion seem to have the function of a possible suggestion for treatment in the analysis too.

The first dream she brings is as follows: I am in a foreign town. I come to you, my analyst, in a building that seems to be immersed in deep water, like in Venice. I find you in a room and you suggest that we have sex ... I am confused, because I dont know if I want to or not. Then I decide I dont want to, and I calmly say no. It all left me feeling bewildered ... and the waters were rising, rising, and I had to leave ... feeling sad. The room was dark, and we were talking on a bed; I said to myself that in general I am happy to engage in a wider range of experiences, and though I imagined this to be possible, its not something I want now.

In this first dream the sexual treatment is equivalent, for Francesca, to a suggested therapy, and the intimacy of the analysis can be transformed into the sexualized confusion of her infancy. The building in which the dream is set is not a suitable place to receive her (water leaks into it on all sides), and the analyst, who is cold and remote, is in the position of an adult under the sway of incestuous wishes. The dream also seems to suggest that the confusion between adult and infantile sexuality can be seen as a possible event which the patient herself might desire. After the first year of analysis Francesca is progressively distancing herself from the sexualized mental state, and in her life outside the consulting room too the episodes of compulsive sexual promiscuity are becoming fewer. In her dreams compulsive sexuality no longer appears as an exciting treatment that does her good, but instead seems to threaten her good internal relations and infantile experiences. During this period the attraction to sexualized confusion is often symbolized as a dangerous event that arouses anxiety.

What, then, is the relationship between the sexualized arousal that invaded Francescas life in infancy and now conditions it, and the infantile trauma? Was it the trauma that activated the sexualization of the patients mind, or, conversely, was the trauma grafted on to an earlier process of sexualization?

Light is cast on this problem by a dream in the fourth year of Francescas analysis: My aunt moves a piece of furniture against the door to stop anyone entering the room where the sexual encounters with my grandfather happened. She later recalls that she used to withdraw into masturbatory seclusion behind the same couch: I dont know if the business of the couch or the living-room was in the dream or in my childhood: I hid behind this couch and it had something to do with my sexuality, but I was all by myself... This happened long before the age of 12, from which the sexual encounters with the grandfather dated.

It is, I believe, important to note that in the course of this analysis the memory of the incestuous sexual abuse came up very early on, whereas it was only later, as the patients sexualized mental state gradually diminished, that it became possible to establish the reason for the complex infantile situation that preceded the abuse. It could thus be inferred that the sexual abuse by the grandfather was accommodated inside a prior sexualized withdrawal on the part of the patient as a little girl a withdrawal that was no doubt facilitated by the lack of maternal empathy and affective communication.

The description of this case is intended to demonstrate that the factor responsible for the patients suffering and psychopathology was not so much the grandfathers repeated abuse (the incestuous trauma) as the lack of a structuring parental emotional presence.

Masochistic fantasies

Unequivocally pathological family relationships are obviously harmful. In the case of a girl, the experience of seeing the parents engaged in sadomasochistic collusion (the mother apparently consenting to be dominated by a sexually abusing husband) reinforces her idea of a sadistic penis and an unequal relationship. She gains the impression that the sexual encounter takes place without mutual pleasure. If this is the little girls emotional world, it is easy to imagine the likely nature of her later adult sexual experience.

A female patient was unable to experience pleasure in sex with her boyfriend except by imagining him having intercourse with another woman. In her fantasy she was watching the scene as a non-participant. She could not experience pleasure in the first person, but only in a voyeuristic fantasy. This enabled her to experience arousal without her sexual desire involving guilt, because the pleasure was someone elses.

_Another variant of masochistic pleasure was to imagine herself being abused against her will by a violent man. The patient was manifestly thoroughly immersed in the sadomasochism that had characterized the relationship between her parents, and she had clearly identified with her mother, who was probably frigid but seemingly consented to being dominated by her husband. Her partner was unconsciously experienced as her intrusive, psychologically and physically violent father. The parental couple, at least as experienced by the patient, lay at the root of the sadomasochistic fantasy in which the state of submission was sexualized. _ Sexuality experienced as traumatic in infancy does not kindle desire. When a woman with this background is in a sexual situation, she will not succeed in attaining orgasm, for that demands freedom and total trust in the partner. For her this is impossible. The partner, as in the above case, is unconsciously experienced as the intrusive, psychologically and physically violent father. Sexual desire, being devoid of any affective component, is experienced as bad and degrading. Personal pleasure is not allowed; the woman can experience it at most as a reflection of the others pleasure. It is impossible to achieve orgasm in unison, although sometimes it can be obtained solitarily or after actual intercourse.

In many cases of frigidity and the presence of masochistic fantasies that lead to the experience of pleasure, it is found that the lack of a good relationship between the parental couple prevented the development of the sexual imagination, which arises out of the infantile pre-conception of a good relationship between the parents. Such patients fail to achieve sexual pleasure because they are unable to explore and project wishes for pleasure. The masochistic fantasy has to do with the emotional trauma that impressed its stamp on the delicate and sensitive sphere of sexuality.

Such infantile psychic traumas in my view contribute substantially to creating areas of suffering in the subjects love life in adulthood and underlie many forms of sexual masochism in women. By preventing the development of the capacity for sexual pleasure, the trauma is channelled into masochistic pleasure: having been passively subjected to a trauma, the subject can now obtain active pleasure.

In some women, frigidity due to sexual abuse in infancy can be circumvented by the mobilization of fantasies of self-obliteration. However, these are manoeuvres directed towards the achievement of orgasm in normal sexual intercourse, and not cases of perversion proper.

Even if aggressive or sexual traumas can be identified in the history of certain patients, a direct correlation between these and perversion cannot yet be established. A child who is sexually abused by an adult undergoes a catastrophic attack on his trust in the world, which undermines his capacity to believe in dependence on human objects. Sexual abuse is surely the most serious form of adult betrayal of a child (Parens, 1997).

More than a century on from Freuds first intuitions, the abundance of psychoanalytic publications, mostly by American authors (typified by the contributions in Psychoanalytic Inquiry 17 (3), 1998, a monograph on sexual abuse), shows on the basis of clinical accounts that sexual trauma distorts the development of a child, causing him to forget the traumatic experience and making him unable to understand it.

Sexual trauma and seduction by adults induce a child to confront the processes of growth by dissociating the experience of abuse and thus erasing its memory (Davies, 1996). According to Novick & Novick (1996), masochistic children with stubborn beating fantasies, unlike adolescents with episodic symptoms, will always have had emotional difficulties in the first months of their lives. A lack of mutual pleasure in the mother-child relationship is frequently observed in psychoanalytic treatment. In cases of non-sexual trauma, the tendency is to recreate the painful events by identification with the aggressor or by reliving them in defensive erotization.

Sexualization of trauma

The emotional trauma that impels a patient towards perversion is sometimes due not to the emotional remoteness of the parents, but to their intrusive, pathogenic presence. In this case the emotional trauma is sexualized by compulsive repetition.

I should now like to present a somewhat longer case history to demonstrate the interlacing of psychic trauma with a perverse construction. Here the perverse outcome results not only from the fact of the analysands having grown up with a pathological parent, but also from the sexualization of the emotional trauma. In other words, the emotional trauma is paralleled by the development of a psychopathological construction in which the very meaning of the violence undergone is lost. The following account disregards the dynamics of the transference and countertransference and is not intended as an overall description of the course of this long and eventually successful analysis, because these matters are beyond the scope of this contribution.

Although the patient, Carlo, a married man with two children, used drugs at the beginning of his analysis, it was his masochistic fantasies on which he was really dependent. He had been very ill since infancy and had grown up without a father the father had died when he was very small in a steady relationship with his mother that was at one and the same time over-intimate and frustrating. The mother used to take him into her bed when she was alone, but promptly banished him from it whenever she happened to have a lover. The absence of a father figure had been crucial and caused the patient to despair that a filial relationship with the analyst might constitute an experience of emotional growth.

Carlos dominant pathological structure was characterized by the fact that instead of separating from his mother, he was overcome by the experience of total passivity where she was concerned. Precisely on account of the pleasure involved in turning activity into passivity, he confessed himself unable to bring up his children properly, instead allowing them to bully him. He lived in a constant state of perverse withdrawal in which he could obliterate affects, emotions and conflicts through the masturbatory pleasure he could achieve in fantasy. The patient appeared to be repeating the same pattern at all times. Incapable as he was of tolerating conflict with his relational object, he turned his rage into a form of acting out against himself, treating his infantile self as a slave. His imagination was in fact pervaded by unremitting fantasies of being reduced to slavery and subjected to a domineering figure (usually a woman); these fantasies were accompanied by anal masturbation involving penetration with a variety of objects.

There was, however, one part of his life which was free of sadomasochistic fantasies (in which he also acted out the sadistic role) and which he could respect: he could write well and loved literature.

During the analysis his compulsive sexuality was often exacerbated after a good session. The figure of the analyst was very weak and readily faded away during separations. He not only indulged frequently in masturbatory fantasies but also resorted to the addictive abuse of medication that put him in a euphoric state of mind. Both the sexualized fantasies and the medication were used to create a void in his mind, thus concealing all the conflicts and bitterness of the analytic relationship. Expressions of admiration for the benefits derived from the analysis, such as a firmer attitude towards his children, alternated with flights or withdrawals into masturbation accompanied by devaluation of the analytic work.

It became increasingly clear that by returning to the fantasy of being a slave the patient was able to blot out his emotions and even his relational life. In the slave fantasy he was no longer himself but became a third person, losing himself in the other; he ceased to have a will or emotions and entered a different world. The obliteration of his identity gave him genuine pleasure; it was a positively erotic act. As a result, he felt so empty in the mornings that he was forced to masturbate so as to arouse himself and feel a little more active. During the daytime he would often stay glued to the television to fuel his masochistic fantasies; he would identify with slave figures or go online seeking someone to act as a master. When withdrawal into perverse fantasy held sway over him, the analyst was put in the position of a passive spectator, a voyeur of the patients arousal.

With the progress of the analysis, these fantasies gradually ceased to be a source of pleasure. The patient started avoiding them, and their return was attended by anxiety.

An important change occurred around the fourth year of Carlos analysis, in a series of sessions when he became thoroughly aware of the pathological nature of his relationship with his mother. In one of these sessions he had begun to talk about a fantasy he had tried to act out with his wife. He had seen her as the Queen of Sheba and prostrated himself at her feet. He had remembered that he had had a similar fantasy after seeing the film Helen of Troy with his mother as a child. His mother having become the Greek beauty, he had identified with her female slave.

All of a sudden he began to rail against women: they were all whores, who seduced only contemptible men. He then became angry with his mother herself, insulting her and calling her too a whore. He shouted that she had castrated him, treating him like a girl, taking him to bed with her and always having him there when she invited her female friends to parties. _ This series of sessions was important because the patient was able to start comparing his hatred for his mother with his tendency to kneel down before her. He had previously been unable to experience his negative feelings towards his mother, which he had blotted out in the fantasy of submission. He began to recognize that, whereas in fantasy he would promptly go down on his knees before the mother-as-queen, in reality he hated her. He saw that his mother had seduced him but never really loved him. She had never valued him and had always chosen other men with whom he as a child could never compete. She had seen him hysterically as a little appendage to herself, as her little penis and not as a person. He now understood why he so often slipped away into masochistic fantasies. If it was impossible to have a relationship between equals with his mother and he always had to be in an inferior position, then he might as well subordinate and obliterate himself completely and take pleasure in his obliteration._

For a long time the patient expressed nothing but hate for women in general, all of whom he saw as whores. The reason for his unremitting anti-female propaganda was that he wanted to win over the analyst to his view, to make him think the same as himself.

Demonizing his mother and the entire female sex may have represented a first attempt at separating to some extent from the female figure, but was principally a defence against the sense of guilt. If all women were whores, then the guilt for the perversion was his mothers and not his own. Were he to admit the possibility of some kind of good relationship with a female figure, the guilt for his failure might also be his. The guilt was about never having been able, or perhaps never having been willing, to separate psychically from the pathological relationship with his mother and the associated subordination based arousal.

While this patient had been traumatized by a hysterical mother, part of his perversion nevertheless lay precisely in his continued destruction of every good aspect not only of his object but indeed of all objects and of himself. He admired womens cruelty and coldness and confused their arrogance with strength. What had made him weak and castrated had been his submission to a bad object (the dominatrix).

Carlo persisted for a long period with his pessimistic, cynical view of life; he needed to demonstrate that the world was completely bad and that his perversion was justifiable. In this way he continued to nurture a bad and narcissistic internalized object that opposed his growth and emotional development.

In the course of the analytic process this patient gradually succeeded in ridding himself of the perverse aroused state and the pathological, self-obliterating relationship with women, and ceased to project everything negative on to the female figure. He now recognized that no one had helped him in his development or protected him. He was an only child and had no friends. How could he have defended himself? _ The relationship with the analyst assumed increasing significance because it enabled him to develop a genuine personal identity. Given that confusion reigned in many areas of his personality (in particular, between healthy and sick parts and between infantile and perverse parts), only the analyst could help him to distinguish between them._


A number of considerations are suggested by the clinical cases described above. As I have attempted to show, there is no obvious connection between trauma and perversion. The links between these two entities are complex and intricate and call for extremely close examination. A correlation between them can be established a posteriori by making hypothetical reconstructions of the patients past and by identifying with him, thus enabling us fully to understand his history and its course. Even granted that no psychopathological state can develop without a concomitant traumatic action, the subjective disposition of some children to develop the psychopathological structures that will lead to perversion remains a mystery.

Parental neglect often takes the form of a failure to understand that a child is not as calm, serene and well brought up as he appears, but is in fact a human being who has withdrawn into a world of sexual arousal and masturbation, remote from relationships. For this reason I consider that the non-acceptance of a child by the family environment can also be seen as pathogenic or traumatic. In some cases, on the other hand, the interference of a pathological parent is obvious.

Perversion is facilitated not so much by major traumas of infancy these are responsible for other severe pathologies as by the silent absence of support for a childs growth. This deficiency is accompanied by a flight into sexual arousal, by which the child attempts to compensate for the relational void, thus making for the establishment of psychopathological constructions that will stand in the way of development and divert it into the channels of a life dissociated from reality and relational love.


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1 The equating of the primitive with the pathological in many psychoanalytic models may explain certain conceptualizations of perversion that tend to stress its defensive aspect or that of arrested development. Khan (1979), for example, regards the perverse structure as an intermediate formation (almost a transitional object) equivalent to an attempt to repair damage occurring in the formation of the self.

2 However, the attempt at conceptual separation of sexuality from sexualization was not foreign to Freud, who writes: One of the components of the sexual function has, it seems, developed in advance of the rest, has made itself prematurely independent, has undergone fixation and in consequence been withdrawn from the later processes of development [the development of primitive sexuality FDM], and has in this way given evidence of a peculiar and abnormal constitution in the individual (1919, p. 181). Later, he seems to allude clearly to sexualization: they [certain infantile impressions] offered an occasion for fixation (even though it was an accidental one) to precisely that component which was prematurely developed and ready to press forward (ibid., p. 182). Again: If the sexual component which has broken loose prematurely is the sadistic one, then we may expect, on the basis of knowledge derived from other sources, that its subsequent repression will result in a disposition to an obsessional neurosis (ibid.). Freud stresses the premature character of the component drive rather than the fact that the sexuality of a child destined for perversion is masturbatory and not directed towards an object. In his view, the sexuality concerned is non-relational because it is primitive.

3 Krafft-Ebing was the first to draw attention to the perverse predisposition of people who exhibit hyperexcitability and a tendency to sexual ecstasy. The term sexualization should not be used in the sense of hypersexuality. Sexualization is a mental state that often accompanies impotence.

4 Although I could have used the term traumatic situation (Anna Freud, 1967) to distinguish this configuration from its acute and more specifically traumatic counterpart (e.g. sexual abuse), I prefer that of emotional trauma, to emphasize the fact that emotions, or rather the first emotional affective experiences that will eventually make up the perception of the self, may be tantamount to traumatic situations.

_Translated by Philip Slotkin MA Cantab. MITI _