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Traumas, Threats and Terrors: Psychoanalytic Sex and the Assaults on the Nervous System

by dany nobus


January 13, 20 and February 3, 10 and 24, 2024

Saturdays: 15h-17h (Lisbon Time) Online (zoom) with recordings


It has been repeated ad nauseam over the past hundred years or so that one of the major problems with Freudian psychoanalysis is that it places too much emphasis on the importance of sexuality in the human condition. The criticism dates back to the mid 1890s, when Freud advanced his theory of the sexual aetiology of the neuroses; it was subsequently embraced by Jung, and it has since been endorsed by countless others, including by quite a few people working within the psychoanalytic tradition itself. In the preface to the fourth edition (dated May 1920) of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud defended himself against this accusation of ‘pan-sexualism’ by stating that he had merely expanded upon concepts and ideas that had already been formulated by Schopenhauer and “the divine Plato”, but maybe Freud’s best riposte would not come until later that year, when he argued in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, that sex should always be balanced against death and, indeed, that most of the time sex and death are inextricably mixed in the mental economy of the human drives. My argument in this lecture course is that any commentary on the significance of sex in psychoanalysis must start with the acknowledgement that ‘psychoanalytic sex’ is conceived in a radically different way from all common-sense notions of sex, which tend to portray it as a force or an activity that is intrinsically and unequivocally pleasurable, whether practiced for reproductive or for recreational purposes. A careful reading of the Freudian corpus reveals that, with very few exceptions, Freud emphasizes another, ignored, forgotten or repressed dimension of sex, notably that it is fundamentally traumatic, threatening, terrifying and destructive. This is borne out, for example, by how the child’s discovery of sexual difference impacts upon its mental life: the boy is left with castration anxiety and the girl develops penis envy. Yet it is also present in numerous other Freudian accounts of how sex imposes itself upon the human mind as an alien form of bodily and psychological horror. Although the child is allegedly endowed with a ‘polymorphously perverse’ disposition, which would seemingly equip it with all the necessary tools for pursuing its sex life in a carefree, unrestrained modality of limitless enjoyment, in most cases it enters adulthood with a conception of sex that is associated with guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear and jealousy. Despite its own ‘infantile sexuality’, the child’s first observation of the sexual act, which Freud designated as the ‘primal scene’, generates sensations of terror and fascination, not to mention a haunting impression of a mysterious consensual violence.

In his Seminar IV, Lacan proclaimed at one point that the real scandal of Freudian psychoanalysis is not so much that it purportedly exaggerates the significance of sex, but rather that it demonstrates how human sexuality is inherently problematic. Employing this statement, which Lacan subsequently also captured with the formula ‘Sexuality is always inherently traumatic’, I propose to trace and unpack this ‘other dimension’ of sex, its dark and destructive side—where it shatters the human representational world, where it unexpectedly manifests itself as a non-negotiable disruptive power, where it is being used as a weapon, in short where it becomes a figuration of death. In addition, I shall show that this dialectical underside of sex has been captured for thousands of years by the human cultural imagination, both in literary texts and in the visual arts, and that psychoanalysis may therefore also contribute to a new appreciation of the troubling images of human sexuality, as a fundamentally death-driven and terror-stricken force, in various artistic representations of human eroticism. Indeed, Freud’s observation, in the opening pages of his 1907 study of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva, that “creative writers are valuable allies [to psychoanalysts]” because in “their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people”, does not just apply to the study of dreams, but also and perhaps more importantly to the inherently traumatic, threatening and terrifying dimension of sex. Drawing on a wide range of literary sources—from ancient Greek and Roman times to the contemporary period, from Western culture to the Oriental creative imagination, from Ovid and Apuleius to Bataille and Moravia, and from Thomas Aquinas to Shitao—I shall argue that the “sexual night” (as Pascal Quignard has called it) is effectively a tautology, and that psychoanalysis fractured and ruptured conventional conceptions of human sexuality, in order to bring this inherent darkness of sex to the light of day.

Yet I shall also balance and test ‘psychoanalytic sex’ against contemporary research in (cognitive) neuroscience and, more specifically, against neuro-psychological conceptions of trauma. Two questions will guide this part of the argument: To what extent does contemporary neuroscience allow us to think about the traumatic impact of sex? In what way could neuroscientists shed led on the idea of an eroticisation (and sexualisation) of trauma? Finally, I will offer a model of psychoanalytic sexuality in which the traumatic force of sex is acknowledged in its purest sense, notably at the point where it shatters the coordinates of identity. This model will be based upon a critical exposition of contemporary debates around gender and trans* and will consider the possibility of an experience of human sexuality without gender identity.


SEMINAR 1 - 13 January, 2024


In this introductory lecture, I will explain the foundations of ‘psychoanalytic sex’, i.e. the way in which human sexuality was conceived within Freud’s theory and practice of psychoanalysis, from the mid 1890s until the mid 1920s. I will demonstrate not only how psychoanalysis was born with a certain conception of sexuality, but also how its emphasis on the primacy of sexuality came under attack from both external and internal sources of resistance. Drawing on Freud’s own revisions to the theory of the drives, the primacy of sexuality will simultaneously be questioned through a reading of the consecutive editions of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and a new perspective will be opened upon the relationship between narcissism and the death drive.

SEMINAR 2 - 20 January


Following on from the first lecture, this presentation will first of all develop the 5 constitutive components of ‘psychoanalytic sex’: 1. The anatomo-physiological components of the sexed body; 2. Sexual identity; 3. Sexual orientation; 4. The sexual fantasy; 5. Human sexual behaviour. I will argue that each of these components stands in a meaningful relation to each of the other components, yet that no component can be singled out as hierarchically superior, or determining the relations between the other parts of the model. In this respect, I will rely on Lacan’s statement in Seminar IV that the real scandal of Freudian psychoanalysis is not its emphasis on the primacy of sexuality but rather its suggestion that human sexuality is inherently disorganised, in order to articulate a first approach as to why human sexuality is intrinsically traumatic.

SEMINAR 3 - 3 February


This lecture will focus on a single component of the model that was presented in the previous lecture, notably sexual identity or—as it is more commonly designated now—the experience of gender. Starting from the ubiquitous question ‘What is gender?’, I will develop the argument that gender first needs to be questioned in its ontological status—so that the question shifts from ‘What is gender?’ to ‘Does gender exist?’—and gauge the implications of a model of human sexuality without gender. Throughout the lecture, I will also engage with the criticisms of psychoanalytic epistemology that have been formulated by Paul B. Preciado and others, and endeavour to formulate a new contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the significance of sexual difference.

SEMINAR 4 - 10 February


Whereas it cannot be doubted that psychoanalytic theory has made important contributions to the study of human sexuality, its own perspective on (the components of) the human sexual experience has not always been as emancipatory as some psychoanalysts would like to believe. In this lecture, I will move away from theoretical considerations of human traumatic sexuality to an exploration of how sexuality has been used (and to some extent continues to be employed) within psychoanalytic institutions as a criterion for excluding candidates from training, on the grounds that their sexual pathology could not be reconciled with the psychoanalytic profession.

SEMINAR 5 - 24 February


In this final lecture of the series, I will draw on some clinical case vignettes to illustrate how sexuality enters the psychoanalytic consulting room and how practicing psychoanalysts can deal with specific instances of traumatic, threatening sexuality. Throughout the lecture, I shall develop the argument that a patient’s sexuality, even if it is presented as a symptom, cannot be dissociated from a fantasy, which mediates between activity and passivity, and between the subject and the other. Relying on Lacan’s exposition of the fantasy as a circular yet non-reciprocal sequence of alienation and separation, the case vignettes will be employed to demonstrate what and how psychoanalysts can contribute to the psychoanalytic process of ‘working through’, and how this process does not by definition make human sexuality less threatening, but may allow it to become more acceptable as a representation of unrepresentability.

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