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SARTRE'S THEORY OF SEXUALITY
J. Michael Russell
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol.19, No.2, Spring 1979
(Pages 36-45. Published pagination is not consistently retained in this scanned version of this article.)
J. MICHAEL RUSSELL received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of
California at Santa Barbara ( 1971 ), writing his dissertation on problems
common to Freud and Sartre and the nature of self-deception. He is presently
Professor of Philosophy at the California State University at Fullerton, where
he teaches courses on assumptions of psychotherapy, existentialism, action
theory, and philosophy of mind, as well as seminars on Sartre
and on Wittgenstein. He has been extensively involved both theoretically and practically in the world of therapy, has co-led several week-long groups, and has organized numerous workshops and courses for exploring existentialist philosophy experientially. He has lectured on "Sartrian Theory and Gestalt Technique," "Sartre, Therapy, and Expanding the Concept of Responsibility," "Psychoanalytic Admissions and Speech Acts," and is currently writing a book on existentialism and self-actualization.
Given the predominance of the opinion that human sexuality results from the existence of a "sex drive" which acts on us and produces our behavior, persons involved with humanistic psychology might be interested in some of Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas to the contrary. According to him, our relationships do not result from our having a sex drive. Rather, it is because of our choosing to interact as we do that we discover our capacity for sexuality. And given the anxiety of some people to maintain that they are good lovers or bad lovers, frigid, not frigid, passionate, heterosexual, impotent, not impotent, or horny, it is instructive to learn why it is a consequence of Sartre's doctrines that one cannot represent oneself as being any such thing without entering into a fundamental spiritual dishonesty of self deception or bad faith. This article is mainly an expository one in which I try to make available Sartre's ideas. After sketching his position on human freedom, I explain how we are liable to be self-deceived in what we think about our own sexuality. Then, after briefly considering his account of why human relations are based on conflict, I examine some of his views in more detail, regarding the nature and inevitable failure of sexual desire. I conclude with some reasons for thinking that while Sartre's views may seem excessively bleak, they do provide us with a viable theoretical model for understanding our relationships, without leading us to regard sexuality as a drive which needs occasional release. In order to see this, I have us imagine a society in which sex roles focus not on the genitalia we are used to emphasizing, but on the thumbs and (or versus) the palms of people's hands. Aided by this fantasy we are able to understand a population whose anxieties are much like our own, but where a "drive" theory plays no part.
Sartre (1956) contends that we are free in that a person is nothing but what
he or she does, and that our deeds are not produced by our pasts nor by what we
have done before. Tacitly equating action with what he calls "unreflective consciousness" Sartre
denies that there is any inertia to the consciousness which we are, no kind of
forward momentum to what we do (Sartre, 1956, p. 61 ). Like our immediate
surroundings, our pasts are part of our situations and depend upon us-on how we
now act-to give them significance. This means that the connection between what
we have been and what we are is perpetually being remade, with every action that
demonstrates continuity with our pasts. Where a Freudian might portray us as
"pushed along" by our pasts, Sartre turns this sort of picture around
: our relationships with our past are made by us by our "pulling" it
along (Sartre, 1956, p. 459). Of course we probably won't reflect on this choice
nor accompany it with deliberation, but it will be a choice all the same.
Sartre's (1947) famous slogan "existence precedes essence" means
that a person isn't anything until he or she does something. Even then, what one
does cannot be reduced simply to a description of what already exists, since to
see one's action as meaningful is to understand it in terms of what the action aims
at, what doesn't yet exist, and what one is trying to realize. So what a
person is must be understood in terms of what kind of a world and what kind of a
self one is attempting to realize.
Every attempt on my part to sum up what I am ends in failure, for what I am is always in the making, in progress. I am cut off from identifying myself simply with what I have been, because it remains in question whether I will now act in the same way. I am cut off from identifying myself with what I aim at being since it is my actions now and subsequently which will decide that at which I aim. I cannot even define myself by citing what I am doing now, because the meaning of what I am now doing is in question in connecting with my past and my future. Most importantly, I am cut off from what I have been, what I have aimed at, and what I am currently doing, by becoming conscious of these things. For Sartre it is axiomatic that consciousness is other than its object. As soon as I turn from my conscious but unreflective involvement in the world to a reflective consciousness of myself, I become other than what I contemplate. I cease doing what I was doing and become one considering that person who was doing those things. At the moment when I am conscious of what I have been doing it is most patently undecided whether I will be the person who does those things.
What many of us would like to do is to flee this anguished consciousness of our own freedom and to replace it with its being settled who we are. Many of us have some degree of success in creating lifestyles which give the illusion of taking away this anguished identity crisis by adopting a spirit of seriousness about our work, our religion, the values we were raised with, the way we feel about things (as if that were all settled). Yet our lives remain fragile, haunted by the desire to achieve a consciousness which would allow us to sum ourselves up, and apprehensive about seeking this consciousness of ourselves because it would mean frank confrontation with our freedom.
It should be evident by now why on Sartre's account any attempt to portray my sexuality in static terms, or any other facet of the sort of person I am, will be self-deception. To claim to be anything which is a function of how I act is to evade the question of whether I will act that way. It is to pretend that what I am "essentially" or "by nature" is once and for all established. If being frigid or impotent or a fantastic lover or heterosexual or homosexual was a sort of state which one could identify and be apprised of independent of conduct, then maybe I could say what I am, without fleeing responsibility for how I act. But either these terms are not isolatable at all or else, at least, they are never identifiable except in connection with a person's conduct.
Ironically, many people engage themselves in being something at the very moment they speak about it, at the very moment they would most like to think of themselves as "simply telling you how they are" or "just saying how they feel." A man complains, "It's no good! I am a failure as a lover!" We see that he is engaging himself in desperation with the very words that he would tell us are only a report. A woman frets, " Am I frigid? What's wrong with me? Am I incapable of responding to this man I am with?" We can see that what she is portraying as a pure and simple incapacity is in fact an activity of distraction from her lover, an immersion in distracting anxiety, in which her words are the vehicle of her choice. By what she's saying she's making it so. (See Russell, 1978, regarding speech which is affectively constitutive of detachment and speech affectively constitutive of immersion.) Here what persons say makes them the accomplice to what they feel. Such a consideration should make us suspicious of the attitude found in some "encounter groups" which encourage people just to say what they feel, as if they weren't doing anything with such sayings, and as if they were not responsible for how they felt. They want to
treat a feeling as a state which is independent of its expression, so that its expression will be construed as a mere report of what one is undergoing. Yet typically it is not because one simply feels something, but in order to be one who feels it fully, that one says how one feels.
These examples indicate that there are at least two kinds of reasons why it will be self-deceived to represent oneself in static terms. Either when I comment on what I tend to do I cease being and doing it, I become other than it through my consciousness of it. In this case by the very detachment I achieve, I am not one who is doing those things, but only one who has done them. Or else, in saying what I am, I am making the choice to be it. But then it's no good portraying this as static or settled ("I just am what I am"), for my comment shows what I actively opt to become. In short, when I comment on what I am, I shall always be either too detached or not detached enough.
It follows that it is a kind of dishonesty, often self-deception, to excuse my conduct on the grounds of such static descriptions of myself as that "1 am horny ." My sexuality is a kind of undertaken conduct and not just a passively undergone state. And the moment I say that I am horny, I either cease to be horny or else I am actively choosing to be horny; I cannot simply be horny. So when we think about our own sexuality it is unsatisfactory to view it as most theories do, as a drive or force or state which we undergo and which is not our doing. Of course it is easy to see how comforting it is to portray myself as possessed by need. The attempt is to treat being horny as like having an itch. Yet the comparison fails. If sexual "need" were like a nagging itch, then anything which would serve to scratch would do. (One wouldn't scratch one's back with an object one found repulsive, but it would be of little consequence that the object be attractive.) The same person who would excuse his or her conduct on the grounds of being possessed by this supposed need would be quick to dismiss the option of some means of physical release that was mechanical, or self produced, or nonhuman, or unattractive. People who turn to these alternatives will in many cases tell us that their attitude according to which they needed physical release was an attitude of resignation which manages to delay problems of sexuality rather than dealing with or releasing them. How are we to account for this sense of defeat where the supposed pressure of the drive has been released? Such theories "fail to explain how we desire a particular woman and not simply our sexual satisfaction [Sartre, 1956, p. 384]."
According to Sartre (1956) we have not been careful enough in our thinking about the nature and objective of sexual desire. Because we have found through experience that having sex suppresses the desire, and also, that this is pleasurable, we have hastily concluded that the object was pleasure.
Thus the average man through mental sluggishness and a desire to conform can conceive of no other goal for his desire than ejaculation. This is what has allowed people to conceive of desire as an instinct whose origin and end are strictly physiological since in man, for example, it would have as its cause the erection and as its final limit the ejaculation. But desire by itself by no means implies the sexual act. ..[p. 385].
Sexuality in infants, eunuchs, old men, people who are unable to "make use of a sex organ to fertilize and to procure enjoyment [Sartre, 1956, p. 383]" should lead us to question whether this is somehow the fundamental aim of sexuality.
Sartre ( 1956) poses his challenge this way:
Man, it is said, is a sexual being because he possesses a sex. And if the reverse were true? If sex were only the instrument and, so to speak, the image of a fundamental sexuality? If man possessed a sex only because he is originally and fundamentally a sexual being as a being who exists in the world in relation with other men? [p. 383]
In other words, perhaps our sexuality does not result from our having sex organs. Perhaps instead we only discover and learn to use our sex organs because of being in some broader sense sexual. And perhaps our sexuality, rather than being the source of a variety of interpersonal relations, is merely one form which our more basic concern for inter-personal relations takes. We must now turn to examine why Sartre believes that human relations are characterized by conflict, and then we will be able to see how sexuality is a form of that conflict.
According to Sartre, l would like to have a sense of who I am without ceasing to be that person. That sort of consciousness of myself cannot be had, since I must make myself other than what I am conscious of in order to be conscious of it. But another person can be conscious of what I am .doing without there being this problem of my automatically being altered. Another, but only another, can be conscious of what I am and thus other people hold the key to a consciousness of me which I would so much like to have. Sometimes we recognize ~is in dramatic ways. You suddenly apprehend me while I am peeping through a keyhole, or having just done something vulgar, and in a decidedly embodied consciousness, I live shamefully and through blushing my recognition that I am as I appear before you. In shame "I recognize that I am as the Other sees me [Sartre, 1956, p. 222]." The other's look is threatening to me because he or she can see what I am now doing and how I am responsible for what I am. If I want to take away his or her capacity for this, I will try to stare down the other, I reduce the other to a role, take away his or her capacity to objectify me. On the other hand, I, may want to preserve the other's freedom enough to win through him or her recognition of what I supposedly am. I am utterly dependent upon the other, for I am nothing unless another consciousness recognizes me as such. As I "can not be an object for an object [Sartre, 1956, p. 257]." I must preserve the other consciousness, and yet I just as much want to destroy it for threatening me with judgment. Human relationships, then, will consist essentially in conflict. The impossible objective of the struggle will be to take away the consciousness of the other so that it cannot threaten, while preserving it so that it can give me a being I cannot give myself.
Perhaps it is becoming clear why the structure of human relationships is the promise of failure. In the first place, any attempt to take away the consciousness of others is a tacit recognition that there are others, and that, as the other may see, I am responsible for what I am. Since attempts to deny this other consciousness through violence, sadism, murder, or more typically, indifference, are recognition of that consciousness, such efforts fail. Either I will fail to control how the other sees me, in which case I fail to control the key to what I am, or I will succeed, in which case, having come to treat this other as an object, the other no longer is a viable means for winning recognition of myself. In love, for example: Either I will be loved not enough, or too much. The objective of love, according to Sartre, is to be valuable through the other's recognizing me as such. Here I willingly make myself an object so that the other will look at me, value me, and give me a being. If she remains free to look at another, then it is true that the fact that she looks at me gives me worth, yet I am perpetually threatened by her no longer finding me attractive. But then suppose I succeed in , winning her love, so that she is fascinated with me, "can't live without me," "can't help but love me." Who wants to be loved by an automaton? Now I experience her as incapable of being the foundation of my worth. Between uncertainty and boredom one can only expect dissatisfaction from love.
The point can be put in a different way: To want the other to bestow a value on me is to want the other to look at me. Now according to Sartre, you can either look at the other or be looked at, but not both. Seduction is the project of making myself an attractive object for you to look at and desire [Sartre, 1956, p. 371 ]. As seductive, if I look at you it will be coyly. I want to be a fascinating object. But see how absurd this is. For insofar as love wants to be loved in return, and insofar as I succeed, the other will want for me to love her. This will mean that she will make herself into an attractive object for me. But by her assuming this object role she ceases looking at me, and therefore ceases to be capable of giving me the value of being her object of love [Sartre, 1956, p. 376]. Some people will respond to this dilemma by throwing themselves into a more extreme form of identifying themselves through another's treating them as an object, namely masochism.
The other option, with its extreme form being sadism, is the attempt to dominate the other's consciousness and strip away its capacity to transcend me. This is where Sartre locates sexuality and desire. The aim of desire, he tells us, is "to make the Other's freedom recognize my freedom [Sartre, 1956, p. 393]." In sexual desire, "I make myself flesh in the presence of the Other in order to appropriate the Other's flesh [Sartre, 1956, p. 389]." According to this account, one doesn't want just to employ the other person's body. Sartre would reject the sometimes popular idea that what men are generally out to get is just a woman's body. Rather, I will want to ensnare the other's consciousness by making her identify with and experience her own body, because then I will be exercising a kind of control over her consciousness. (Sartre's text does not suggest that this role will always fall to one sex rather than to the other.) The way I do this is by allowing myself to be compromised by a sort of immediate awareness of my own body, not with the objective of loosing myself in a consciousness of my own body, but with the objective of using my aroused body to arouse the other and ensnare her in a consciousness of her body. Then I will be in control of her consciousness.
In a caress, for example, we do not just want contact with the other's body. (1)
This is because the caress is not a simple stroking; it is a shaping. In caressing .the Other I cause her flesh to be born beneath my caress, under my fingers. ...The caress causes the Other to be born as flesh for me and for herself. I make her enjoy my flesh through her flesh in order to compel her to feel herself flesh (Sartre, 1956, p. 390,391].
Sartre thinks sexual desire is doomed to failure. Remember, it has the impossible objective of winning over the other's consciousness, so as to remove its capacity for judging or scorning or making an object of me, and yet simultaneously preserving that consciousness sufficiently for it to acknowledge my consciousness as having "transcended" it. "Such is the impossible ideal of desire: to possess the Other's transcendence as pure transcendence and at the same time as body. ..[Sartre, 1956, p. 394]."
Here I shall take some latitude in interpreting what Sartre means. In the first place, I want the other to be conscious of my exciting her. .But to exactly the extent that I succeed in getting her lost in her own excitement, she loses sight of me! In the second place, there is a problem analogous to that we discussed with love. If I desire her I want her to desire me. And even though this is exactly what I want, since it is proof of my having excited her, it is also just what I don't want, since insofar as she is conscious of my body, and has the objective of trapping my consciousness in an awareness of my own body and excitement, she ceases to have been ensnared by me in a consciousness of her excitement. Just insofar as I win, I lose.
Finally, desire fails because
"coitus, which ordinarily terminates desire, is not its essential goal
[Sartre, 1956, p. 396]." It is true that I have to make myself be flesh in
order to fascinate the other's flesh. The penis is not like a sort of prehensile
organ which one can just use dispassionately. The erection of the penis or the
clitoris or the nipples cannot be obtained in, using Sartre's special sense of
the word, a "voluntary" manner (i.e., with a sort of explicit
deliberation, detachment, and calculative-ness). After all, one doesn't become
excited on the occasion of saying, "I think I'll have an erection
now!" Insofar as my aim in sexuality is to be a good lover in the specific
sense of being involved in my body just so that I can, as body, be an efficient
instrument for exciting the other, I have to let myself go with my own feelings.
To oversimplify: Either I am going to be such a good lover (an efficient
instrument) that I am not turned on, or so turned on that I am not a good lover.
For since I must be flesh in order to incarnate the other's flesh, I am liable
to have my consciousness turn away from the concern with the responsiveness I
was aiming at eliciting from the other, to a consciousness of my own pleasure.
...Consciousness by incarnating itself loses sight of the Other's incarnation, and its own incarnation absorbs it to the point of becoming the ultimate goal. In this case the pleasure of caressing is transformed into the pleasure of being caressed. ...[Sartre. 1956, p. 397].
The pleasure of the orgasm is the "death and failure of
desire (Sartre, 1956, p. 397)." In the case of the male it happens that the
erection ceases with ejaculation. But for both sexes pleasure ends desire
because what was a consciousness of the other is transformed into a
consciousness of pleasure (i.e., of oneself). Even the knowledge that the other
pleasure also, does not keep me from sensing that I am cut off from appreciating that outcome since my attention is fundamentally involved now with myself. What was a project of human interaction turns into a satisfaction which is a substitute for that interaction. Consequently, that satisfaction carries with it the sense of failure.
As with the failure of love, this failure might provoke one's abandoning oneself to masochism, but it also can lead to sadism. Both masochism and sadism fail. Masochists want to lose their own freedom and preserve the freedom of the other, but they act freely in pursuing this and they use the other as an instrument. Sadists want to preserve their own freedom and win from the other a consciousness of having been reduced to an object, but to do this sadist must use themselves as instruments. Furthermore, they tacitly acknowledge that the other is a free consciousness whom they are hoping to win. Besides, to the extent that I succeed, "when I have indeed before me a panting body, then I no longer know how to utilize this flesh. No goal can be assigned to it. ..(Sartre, 1956, p. 405]." If I have cut myself off from my own possible pleasure in order to be an effective instrument with her, then in victory I am defeated by having nothing to use her for, since I cannot even use her for my pleasure!
It seems to me at times that Sartre has obscured the possibility for people to relate in ways which are at once loving and sexual and not inherently in conflict. Sartre does not take adequate account of the simple fact that sex feels good. But then, on closer reading, he does not deny this important fact. He gives a perspective through which we can both acknowledge that pleasure and understand the vague disillusionment which some people have admitted they feel goes with it. The mere fact that sex feels good neither accounts for why it is so important to have sex with someone one finds attractive nor the dynamics of that attractiveness.
Sexuality is rather frequently a whole lot more mutually gratifying than Sartre's rather bleak-sounding theory would seem to allow. But this just begs the question of what is gratifying and why. Even though sexuality and the orgasm are pleasurable, it still must be explained why this result is so fundamentally bound up with a human interaction which seems insatiable even when one is satiated with pleasure. What besides the orgasm is gratifying? It may be that one gloats over having been so efficient, but the triumph of being able to compare oneself to a machine is not without its edge. It may be there is joy in being found desirable-though at the moment this is found, it may be tainted with self-pity and resentment over the fleeting, fragile, and dependent nature of this victory .There is, in short, ample reason for sexuality to be haunted with alienation. I do not see how a theory which portrays sexuality as a drive needing occasional "release" can account for this. But Sartre's theory of sexuality as a chosen mode of human interaction can.
Capitalizing on just this last point, one fascinating consequence of thinking along Sartrian lines is that we break loose of a causal perspective, and begin to see how to make sexual behavior comprehensible independently of any theory of drives or instincts in which sexuality is supposed to be a sort of force acting upon us. In order to deepen this insight, it is instructive to imagine a society which did not share the same bodily preoccupations as our own, but one in which there was instead an intense interest in thumbs and palms. This might have begun as a sort of child's game and worked something like this: Half the population would be taught to suppose that there was something very important about their thumbs and about getting their thumbs into someone else's palm. The other half would be encouraged to believe that they ought to keep their palms closed and unavailable to the thumbs of others. Their succeeding in the game, and their being regarded as special and desirable, would be a function of somehow keeping thumb-people aware of their closed, fascinatingly inaccessible palms. Dress habits among these people might evolve around these roles in ways reminiscent of our own dress habits. Palm-people would wear flowing garments around their hands, open like skirts, yet concealing the hand, making it concealed and inaccessible, ; suggesting passivity yet elusiveness. Thumb-people might take to bragging about how "well-thumbed" they were, perhaps adorning their wrists with dangling colorful ties which symbolized this. Jokes and speculations would circulate about what so-and-so's palm would be like. Some thumb-people would be thought successful and seductive in their approaches to palm-people; others would be regarded as too flagrant and gross; some in both groups might allow their hands to become flabby and unattractive perhaps to test whether others would still play the game with them.
We can imagine the frustrations of both groups. When a thumb-person did get into the palm of a palm-person, there would still be countless other palm-persons around, each conveying the message, "1'11 bet you can't get into mine." Palm-people might wonder whether they were simply desired for their palms and would want to be assured of their other merits, yet all the while remaining tantalizing with their clenched hands. People who had had thumb and palm relations might find security and special- ness in them and create sanctifying institutions. Yet with so much time invested in the part of the game which focuses on quest and evasion, such
stability might breed boredom. And we can imagine people in both groups .secretly longing for the other role or secretly fearing the other role might better suit them.
This imagined society amuses me partly because of its pathos. It is pathetic partly because what keeps these people in the game is not a force or drive but an ongoing choice. Each player is responsible and yet we can understand how readily one might become caught up in the game when constantly surrounded with reminders which taunt and tantalize.
Sartre hasn't written the book in which he detailed how people might turn away from their flight from freedom. Perhaps the message of such a book might be more simple than what many of us, still deeply caught up in games of our own, are ready to hear. But to the people in this imagined population I find myself wanting to say that they should relax and let go of how seriously they play their game, which has become a source of un- happiness to them. They should come more to experience their hands, their pleasures, and their interactions as neither more nor less than what they are.
(1) I In a brilliant and pregnant remark which Merleau-Ponty (1962)
seems to have pursued, Sartre (1956, p. 390) compares the caress to language
suggesting, as I read him, that often the aim of language is not so much to
inform, as traditional views of language tend to suppose, as it is to cause the
other to experience me in a certain desired way. This suggests a close
connection between anxiety over sexuality and anxiety over talking: real or
imagined in- adequacy in sexuality and in verbal communication would be versions
of the same sort of human enterprise of being anxious to control the other's
capacity for experiencing me. Similarly, I suppose good sex and good
conversation, whatever these turn out to be, would be importantly alike. (Recall
that some dictionaries include a definition for "conversation" as
"sexual intercourse," [e.g., Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary,
MERLEAU-PONTY. M. The phenomenology of perception. New York: The Humanities Press, 1962 (Colin Smith, trans.)
RUSSELL, J. M. Saying, feeling, and self-deception. Behaviorism, 1978, 6(1),27-43. SARTRE, J. P. Existentialism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947 (Bernard Frechtman, trans.)
SARTRE, J. P. Being and nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library. 1956 (Hazel Bames, trans.)
Reprint requests: J. Michael Russell, Professor of Philosophy,
California State University,
Fullerton, California 92834-6868