Listening to Perversion.May/08/2022
It is quite rare for a psychoanalyst to work with a pure pervert, someone who does not complain also about neurotic traits. Neurotics and psychotics seek therapy, since their symptoms are egodystonic, but very rarely do perverse subjects, since they usually experience perverse acts as being egosyntonic. For this reason, the most exhaustive descriptions of perverse subjects are given mostly by psychologists or psychiatrists working in the forensic field, when they must report on subjects accused of criminal sexual acts, or when a judge condemns, so to speak, a pervert to undergo psychotherapy.
An analyst may indeed have neurotic or psychotic patients who also exhibit perverse symptoms and behaviours. For this reason there is no specific recommendation when following analysands – I will use this term instead of the more common ‘patients’ – who present perverse desires. No serious psychoanalytic school recommends specific techniques for the psychoanalysis of perverse subjects.
Moreover, psychoanalytic practice tends to specify its own tactics and treatment strategies in relation to each analysands, each clinical case being a case in itself. We may say that each therapy is the encounter between two singularities – which cannot be reduced to school standards –, that of the analysand and that of the analyst. Faced with the same case, two analysts may have completely different approaches; and it is not possible to say that one is right while the other is wrong. There are no Neurotics or Perverts, there are subjects who display neurotic symptoms and wish to perform perverse acts. For this reason I will not talk here about a specific technique to treat perverts – who do not exist – but about a single case of perversion in a neurotic context. Neither will I do this in order to draw overall indications on how to operate with perverts, but only to highlight the role of psychoanalytic listening in a specific case.
Fabio is a man over 50 years old who began therapy for a series of neurotic problems – so many he once said “my life is one big symptom”. He was constantly anxious about his own fragility. He had gone through more or less long depressive phases, from which he had emerged, he said, thanks to antidepressants; however, after a couple of years these stopped working. He had had other analytical experiences, which he had either interrupted prematurely, or had not brought significantly changes. Hence his pessimism with regard to the therapeutic potential of psychoanalysis – indeed he continuously considered interrupting treatment. In his opinion psychiatric medication was effective, antidepressants in particular, that he had been taking almost uninterruptedly for decades, and that he himself, with the complicity of some doctor, administered on his own. In general, we may say that he suffered from what today some call the “impostor syndrome”: also when he achieved brilliant results in his career or in his love life, he felt they were not deserved, that he had been successful only out of luck. In general, he possessed all the traits of the “as if personality” as defined by Helen Deutsch, even though throughout his life he had pursued specific and unchallengeable ideal goals. It is as if a certain ironic (or sarcastic) distance separated him from who he appeared to be to others.
Sexuality and women
Among the main symptoms that, according to him, had devastated his life was his relationship with sexuality and women. After a few months of idyllic romance – also erotic – with a new woman, very soon he would experience a remarkable decline in sexual desire: “The woman I am with becomes like a sister to me”, and “as sexually attractive as a hen”. Hence the need to find other sexual partners, in a never ending cycle. He may have loved some of these women tenderly, but it was in fact impossible for him to have sex with them again, unless he imagined he was having sex with other women while making love with them. He could also remain in a sexual relationship with a woman for years as long as she was far away, perhaps living in another city, so in a situation in which, so to speak, the relationship could not be “taken for granted”: in fact he always had to win her back or almost, so his desire was rekindled. It is as if erotic desire were ignited only in relation to sexual courtship, and once he had conquered a woman his desire disappeared. He called this a “Napoleonic kind of sexuality”. Routine sexuality made him cringe, yet he would also have liked a “comfortable” sex life, that of a stable couple, and his Don Juanism was to him a sort of life sentence. A never ending repetition.
He had only one way of keeping the flame of desire burning with a woman he somehow loved: to be betrayed by her. At first, like Sacher-Masoch, he organized meetings between his male friends and the woman he was with to “hand her over” to them. Later, he gently pushed his woman into the arms of someone she liked, trying to witness, in some way, their sexual intercourse. But over time masochistic enjoyment became more elaborate: also not being able to see the sexual encounter of his woman with another man was a source of pleasure. The suffering caused by being excluded, also visually, from his woman’s relationship increasingly became a source of enjoyment. Once he encouraged the encounter of his woman, for whom he felt an intense erotic attraction, with a tinsmith, with someone from a social class clearly inferior to his own. Fabio began to finance his woman’s meetings with the man, and went as far as posing as their driver in a seaside resort, where the couple spent a few days in a five-star hotel, while he stayed in a cheap hotel nearby, ready to satisfy all their wishes – he drove them to dinner in the evening, for example. To be treated as a driver by the couple, and to masturbate miserably in his hotel room while thinking of their pleasure, was for him a source of prolonged enjoyment, in which the experience of humiliation was continually reversed and experienced as the possibility to taste a sweet-and-sour kind of pleasure.
Although he was basically heterosexual, Fabio occasionally indulged in homosexual fantasies, which he sometimes acted out – though only of one type: being sodomized. In a relationship with a man, only the passive, “feminine” position excited him. It would have been unthinkable for him to penetrate a man. It soon became clear that he lived passive sexual intercourse as a masochistic experience: he enjoyed the humiliation of being treated “like a woman”. After all, he believed that all normal woman were “masochists” simply because they were passive during sexual intercourse, which is why the humiliations he sought were “masochisms inflicted by masochists”, as if his were a sort of exponential masochism.
Some time earlier he had formed a relationship with a slightly younger woman, and together they experimented some “games” he had never tried before. He did not value this woman, he considered her stupid and pettish. In fact, he had a lasting but chaste relationship with another woman whom he highly esteemed and respected, and a very strong erotic ‘dirty’ attraction towards this “stupid” woman. What this was is indeed an emblematic case of what Freud described as a form of degradation of love life: a man who proves to be impotent with the woman he loves and respects, and instead experiences arousal and enjoyment with prostitutes or women from lower social classes or who are intellectually inferior. One of his favourite sexual games was to tie her and himself with a chain and a bolt, and spend the whole day together (they could not free themselves not even to use to the toilet).
She liked this double constraint because she experienced it as an acted out metaphor of an inseparable couple (she was in love with Fabio, and was faithful to him, even though she knew he was promiscuous). Fabio’s enjoyment, on the other hand, consisted in self-inhibition, in the humiliation of not being able to untie himself from her. He also began to have her urinate on him, in particular on his face and also in his mouth. Once he did not hesitate to lick her vagina while she was menstruating. I repeat, all this was not proof of strong love for her, but “pure lust” as he said. He once took a small inflatable boat to her place, the type people use at the beach, and asked her to fill it with her urine: he spent the night immersed in this urine, while she slept in the bed next to the rubber boat.
All this could be viewed as being mere libertine play, given that his partner actively participated in these games and was amused. This may indeed be the case if these masochistic acts had not been performed in a more complex setting, which I would call asymptotic removal of women. It is as if, in essence, he wanted to bring about the total disappearance of women, of every woman, but never reached this goal, thus experiencing a sense of failure and of desperate defeat. What he wanted was to distance women as much as possible from himself but still remain in control of them. Like moving closer and closer towards the edge of a cliff but never falling into the precipice of pure absence of the female.
During therapy we found that masochistic fantasies had started when was very young. He remembered that as a child – perhaps at the age of 8 or 9 – he saw a film in which the hero, “a hunk” as people said then, was tied and, bare-chested, was whipped: he liked the scene. He imagined that he too, as an adult, would have stood naked while being whipped. As a child he also saw a film in which the protagonist was seriously injured in a duel, and was cared for by a girl, for months, and finally fell in love with her: he imagined that a similar story could happen to him. The idea of being hurt and cared for by a woman lulled him into a slimy kind of sweetness.
I was particularly struck by a specific behaviour that I would call self-fetishist. As a child he read a children’s story that almost corrupted him: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. Two children who are identical in appearance meet by chance in 16th century London: one is the heir to the throne of England, the other is a beggar. They swap clothes for fun, so the tramp is taken for Prince Edward, while the real Edward embarks on a long and tortuous journey in the poor and infamous slums of England. The ordeal of the prince-pauper fascinated him, and there was one detail in particular that attracted him: the boy was barefoot. The prince’s odyssey among rascals and tramps of the 16th century, in fact, allegorized Fabio’s twisted relationship with the world: he was forced to live in a universe that he viewed as being aesthetically and ethically degraded, but without being part of it, possessing an aristocratic soul of a prince, and to render his dejection bearable it was necessary to eroticize the misery of life. From then, his entire sexuality – he said – had always been like the bare feet of the prince, who – he imagined with delight – walked the lurid streets of London: the humiliation of the nobleman gave him unspeakable pleasure. And he had always felt, even as a child, he was a nobleman, although his family was not rich.
As a child he began to imitate Twain’s little hero. When he was about eleven years old, and was left alone in the house, or went out alone, he took off his shoes and ran along the street barefoot. He often met a small group of kids, some of whom were barefoot – at the time he lived in a third world country. Today we can say with certainty that what he was experiencing was an erotic sensation: meeting with the street kids, he trembled both with excitement and fear, of being “discovered”, as if he were an infiltrator, because he was “dressed up”, as he said (indeed it is possible to dress up also by taking off one’s clothes). He did not want his erotic enjoyment to be discovered: his being barefoot had to appear to others as casual. Like the prince in Twain’s story (he belonged to an esteemed local family), he dressed up as a poor man.
Contact and distance
Today, when Fabio takes off the trousers of a woman he has just started to date, he has a very similar feeling to when, barefoot, he used to set foot, trembling, outside. Being barefoot certainly did not provoke the same pleasure when he was in the house or at the beach: this happened only in public spaces, in a crowd of people wearing shoes. It was the enjoyment of transgression. In a “shoed” universe – a neologism of his – his feet would pace the transgressive antiphrasis of a naked and dirty little piece of flesh.
In summer, he would walk around barefoot, like Socrates, enjoying the excessive contact with the city. Walking around with no shoes on, he realized our cities are not built for our skin, but only for leather and rubber. “Soles isolate us from the bark of the earth, we walk on stilts, a few inches from the ground.”
Also as an adult, from time to time he would walk around barefoot in summer. Thing were made easier by the fact that it became fashionable for people to do so, for a few years, in the Western metropolises he now lived in: some young people, particularly girls, walked around the city barefoot. Fashion made his “podo-maso” transgressions more practicable. For this reason some friends of his were not that surprised when he took them on a tour of the city barefoot. He has vivid memories of how observing a famous monument of the city, he could also feel the ground, “I-was-there”. As he felt his eyes touching the marble of the statues, the skin of his feet could feel the rough roundness of the porous pavement, with one foot he touched a damp puddle, perhaps of dog urine, while the other pressed against a peanut on the ground. He felt his whole body, from his eyes to his toes, as if flayed, thrown into the sharp space of things.
In short, the nakedness of his feet compensated, with this excessive contact with the earth, for his spiritual “as if” distance. There was a gap, an ironic one, separating his consciousness, which was relegated behind the invisible glass of his professional work, from the life he was semi-living. “My podiatric sensuality – he said – is a dose of anti-venom against my exile from the present.”
We went on to reconstruct, piece by piece, his childhood history. He recalls that a crucial period of his existence was between the age of six and eight. At the age of six he had a little sister, and felt betrayed by the fact that his mother now focused all her attention on the newborn. He seemingly loved his newborn sister, in fact he became anxious every time she fell ill with one of the typical maladies of her age. There is a dream he can remember very clearly, actually a nightmare, he had when he was seven or eight years old. He dreamt his sister was sitting naked in the bathtub, his mother was washing her. At a certain point, however, he realized that the body of his little sister was made up of a myriad of cubes of meat stuck together, and some of these began to come off and fall into the water. Her whole body was about to tear itself apart. In a state of anguish, he and his mother tried to put her back together again, and then he woke up. My idea was that the dream was about castration anxiety: in the bathtub Fabio could see that his little sister didn’t have a penis, hence the idea that it had fallen off. But a more in-depth interpretation led me to these conclusions: the dream staged his aggressiveness towards his sister, the desire to crush her. Over time, his sister’s fragility became something that belonged to women in general: he was afraid of hurting them, of taking them apart, because of his resentment. The resentment towards his little sister who had “stolen” his mother from him became the model for an unconsciously hateful attitude towards women. Moreover, since puberty, he has always nurtured a sort of resentment towards his mother, a sort of contempt, which he was not able to explain. “What has my mother done to me?”, he wondered.
One day, almost certainly after the birth of his sister, he was playing in the loft with a girl the same age as him, and proposed a game to his friend: they should undress each other. He does not remember going beyond this striptease, and remembers how the pleasure of transgression had a clear erotic quality that he would experience again as an adult. Their game was discovered by their parents, who, having very conservative ideas concerning sexuality, punished him. From then on he became an extremely prudish child: when he washed in the bathtub and kept his underwear on. He even forgot the anatomical difference between male and female...
In that same crucial period he began experiencing some disorders he can remember, which we were gradually able to trace in a chronological order. In fact, just before the erotic game with the girl, he had had an obsession with a delirious quality. He was convinced that his hands swelled, that they became as big as the hands of adults, and that they turned yellow-green, a colour that is typical of smokers’ skin (his father was a heavy smoker). He would hide his hands behind his back, also when he was alone. At the table, he would take food with his mouth without using his hands, “like a dog”. It lasted a few days, but it impressed his parents enough to send him to be treated by a child psychologist. He remembers almost nothing about the psychotherapy, which ended soon because he thought it was boring. He did not however go back to suffering from the previous anxieties.
In that same period he also met a boy the same age as him in the synagogue (his family was Jewish) and fell in love with him. Falling in love seemed to him the right term, because he experienced all the feelings he would have had later, as a teenager, for the girls he loved. Intimidated by this, he didn’t dare talk to the child, whom he saw often, and thought of him all the time, planning to spend hours together... He also imagined sleeping with him and embracing him. The crush lasted a few weeks. Yet he says he was certain that at the time, at a very early age, he was experiencing all the symptoms and the suffering of being in love, something that usually does not occur before puberty. A certain feeling of shame associated with this precocious infatuation reminded him of the shame he felt when his parents discovered him playing striptease. One might ask: is there a link between being punished for sexual games and falling in love with a boy? Probably, at the time, under the impact of his change in status – he was no longer an only child, but one of two – he had become an adult very soon: his hands were as big as those of adults, he had sex like adults, he fell in love like them ... As if becoming the sibling of a little sister had forced him into an adult position.
Attracted to feet
As an adult Fabio did not become a female-foot fetishist, however, and this attraction for his own bare feet, which re-emerged in adulthood, was a form of narcissistic fetishism, so to speak. In fact, feet are, together with the anus, the most humble part of the human body. Feet however, unlike the excretory organs, are exiled from the erotic sphere. Foot fetishists, fixated with feet and shoes, are, in certain way, acting a Nemesis, executing revenge: “feet, which always come last, will be the first thing I love”. With feet and shoes the lower part of the body touches the ground in its most dirty, humble form. It is no coincidence that all expressions and metaphors of humiliation involve the feet and the anus: to kiss someone’s feet, to kneel at somebody’s feet, “I’m not worthy of tying his shoe laces”, “being trampled on”, “as useless as an old pair of boots”, “kiss someone’s ass”, “to be treated like an old shoe”, etc. Moreover, it is no coincidence that among the shoe, socks and feet fetishists there are plenty of fantasies and discourses revolving around the anus: obviously the feet and the anus are organs linked to humility. In Fabio’s case, this humiliation was connected to anatomical but also socio-political aspects: the attraction for the world of the poor and underprivileged. It later became clear, though, that from childhood he himself had felt poor, rejected, humiliated. Or rather, he had the feeling he was a disinherited and impoverished nobleman. Probably he had been disavowed following the birth of a “castrated” sister who had deprived him of maternal love.
His father was a very ambitious man, he dreamed of becoming famous as a writer. However, he had opted for the life of a family man, and was dedicated to his profession; he had indeed written something, but without success. His greatest ambitions were therefore focused on his firstborn son, he exalted his qualities and was proud of him. For instance, he praised Fabio’s school compositions.
Evidently, Fabio felt precociously marked by his father’s ambition: he had to become a great person, already at the age of seven. In his imagination, however, he had to become not a great writer, but a politician. He dreamed of becoming a great politician, perhaps even the President of the Republic... Starting in childhood he constructed what H. Kohut termed Grandiose Self, compared to which, however, he always felt inferior. On the one hand there was the belief “I cannot live if I do not become a great politician”, on the other hand a destiny of failure and ruin that made social and professional successes appear as not real, phoney, fake.
A trivial cause
The birth of his sister, his fall from the position of only child, played a crucial role in pushing him towards masochistic desires and feet self-fetishism. The birth of a little sister: what a trivial event! Millions of children have siblings but do not become neurotic or perverts. For decades, not only psychoanalysis, but also the various experimental or cognitive psychologies have tried to understand this mystery: how is it possible that an event, a trauma – such as the birth of a little brother or sister – is completely accepted and dealt with by certain children, while with others it becomes a structuring cause of deep spiritual distress, or of extraordinary perverse enjoyment? These researches and theories try to find the answer by looking at the personality and attitude of the mother, a sort of deus ex machina of the psychological or psychiatric destiny of a subject. This line of research has not produced very convincing results so far. Unavoidable individual differences – whether congenital neurological differences, or purely personal historical elaborations of events – ultimately constitute an independent variable, a cause which is not itself the effect of any other cause. His relationship with his mother was of course, as much as possible, questioned, in order to identify something else, something beyond her being “guilty” of having given birth to a second child. Why did Fabio’s psychoanalysis reveal a sort of stubborn resentment, like a kind of dormant contempt, towards his mother? As a young person he had experienced conflict with his father, though not with his mother – yet a closer glance revealed a sort of inaugural, dense, cumbersome disappointment caused by his mother, which seemed to occupy a dominant position in his detachment from the world. Hence his belief that his mother had treated him like “una pezza da piedi” (footwrap) – exactly what he asked women to do to him, to walk on him, to excite him. What had his mother done to him? We will never know. When he was a child, no psychologist observed their relationship in detail. But the turning point was precisely the birth of his little sister.
It is as if during his childhood Eros was dominated by primordial humiliation. Not because his mother or father had explicitly humiliated him – on the contrary, he was treated, so to speak, as a king. But this condition – which made him feel he was always some metres above ground, as in his recurring dreams – corresponded to the sole of his feet, a painful but also blissful counter melody of his handicapped superiority.
It is possible to say that not all fetishists are masochists, that many are excited by woman’s shoes not because they are trampled on, humiliated or dominated. It seems to me that the fetish is, paradoxically, a narcissistic object: a beautiful female shoe is a sort of bold and unrecognizable metaphor of the subject itself. “Sono una vecchia scarpa” (I’m an old shoe), could be said by an old professor who wishes to be acknowledged as a well known and established personality. The love for shoes is, to quote Klenian psychoanalysts, a form of reparation: the object that a woman separated from herself is now a subject itself, which can be virile, that is, offer its own penis to a woman, only because she is connected to the very humble object that has been thrown away, that is humiliated, and the subject feels he is this object. The shoe is no longer an appendix of a woman: the woman is herself an appendix of this shoe. In any case, Fabio was not a female shoe or foot fetishist: he was a fetishist of his own feet. Also, this self-fetishism was secondary. His real “fetish” was women’s infidelity, her enjoyment with other men. This way, by means of women (via donna), he satisfied his homosexual impulses, placing the penis at the centre of the sexual act. Exactly like male homosexuals.
In Fabio’s case the devaluation of himself was the other side of an overwhelming exaltation of himself. He had a very strong professional ambition. He was quite successful in his scientific career, but this meant nothing to him: he would have liked to achieve much more. For instance, to be awarded the Nobel Prize. His professional ambition had drained other desires: for example, he had no interest in having children (he had got some women pregnant, and had urged all of them to have an abortion). He had a very high intellectual opinion of himself, his arrogance had no limits; also, it is interesting to note that his close friends were arrogant people as well, they all believed they were real geniuses... The sphere of friendships was characterized by this shared conviction, which obviously led to comparison and rivalry and, sometimes also to dramatic rifts. But at the same time, in a cyclothymic oscillation that was in some ways also synchronous, he considered himself a failure, an empty promise. This is the specificity of narcissism according to psychoanalysis: it is never only idealization of oneself, but also always a failure of this idealization. The narcissist’s self-idealization is at the same time excessive and fragile, and Fabio’s self-esteem always depended on external feedback, on confirmation of his “success”. His self-esteem did not come from inside but from outside: it was the effect of social recognition. Any kind of defeat was debilitating. Because to be defeated, to fail, was not an accident but a revelation: failure revealed how insignificant he actually was. However, he himself described himself as “a papers-producing-machine”. Fabio had, in fact, worked to become the war machine of his father (who died when Fabio was still very young), with the aim of succeeding in order to satisfy him. His professional commitment, as well as his sexual commitment, were extreme: and in both cases what counted was “success”. Fabio’s manic-depressive oscillation mirrored what he felt towards his analyst. Kohut spoke of mirror transference. We have already said that Fabio did not believe in psychoanalysis; this means that he did not have a very good opinion of his analyst. He told me clearly that he sort of pitied me, that I was attempting some brilliant interpretation because I had no idea where to turn. Any shortcomings in my studio – a broken door handle for instance – were signs of my economic difficulties and, in short, of my professional failure. How to establish transference in this context? It was evident that, contrary to what Lacan says – transference is linked to the analyst as subject supposed to know – Fabio did not suppose I had any particular knowledge. Yet he came for years, and he was able to overcome his main problems. How was this possible?
A complex system of contradictions is visible here. On the one hand, his father greatly overestimated Fabio, who took upon himself his father’s Ideal Ego. On the other hand, however, the birth of a little sister, who became the centre of the attention and concerns of his mother, created a stark contrast to this “great” stature of his: a fragile child, always about to decompose, seemed to be more important than him. Hence the temptation to take upon himself also feminine fragility, to “act as a woman”, but limitedly to humiliation, subjugation and passivity. After all, although he said he was a feminist, his image of women was that of inferior beings.
Like most perverts, behind the facade of his existence Fabio was experiencing what I would call a radical disenchantment. He cultivated no explicit ideal, apart from a brilliant scientific career, and for him social and individual life was a pattern of illusions and hypocrisy, and psychoanalysis was part of this. Fabio defined himself as an “absolute materialist”: what counts in life are the more or less carnal pleasures, eating, drinking, defecating, fucking, having fun... In this context, the somewhat ethical aura surrounding psychoanalysis irritated him and made him smile. In his view positive feelings represented an infantile aspect of humanity. It is clear that with such a subject I had to avoid any kind of attitude that could have been seen as edifying, preaching; above all, I had to be careful never to act as if I were the source of some kind of knowledge. It was immediately clear to me that I should not attempt any interpretation with him, that is to say, I should not present myself as the carrier of psychoanalytic knowledge. It was evident that in the eyes of Fabio all expressions of knowledge were signs of imposture. He especially hated transference interpretations, which he derided and viewed as application of a psychoanalytic routine, a clumsy attempt on the part of the analyst to “put himself at the centre of the patient’s life”. However, from the very beginning I positioned myself as “he who does not know”: I didn’t know what advice to give him, I didn’t know how to help him... I showed a certain impotence, mostly sincere, because if I had faked it only to satisfy his demand, he would certainly have noticed and would have exposed me. I didn’t have to pretend I was powerless, I had to acknowledge it and admit it. All the positions adopted by a subject supposed to know fail with perverts, or rather, with narcissistic subjects who possess traits of perversion. The true pervert does not suppose anyone to know. So again, how was transference to occur? It is clear that a therapy continues only if there is transference, but how to build it in the event of such a radical rejection of all authority, be it moral or scientific?
His psychoanalysis continued, I think, simply because I showed interest and I, would say, compassion towards him. In short, transference was not based on the subject supposed to know but on the subject supposed to love, which in this case was equivalent to a subject supposed to feel compassion. After all, Fabio wanted to be loved in some way, not in spite of a certain exhibited cynicism, rather, I would say because of it. He had an extreme hunger for love, even though it was denied by an exhibited “materialistic” and nihilistic cynicism. The less “human” he was, the more he wanted to be accepted humanly. It was transference based on the commonality of ignorance and impotence, certainly not on knowledge and power. Fabio was looking for the proof of love his own way. And he obtained it, at least a little bit, from my tenacity.