/ 5 January 2018

Are men, by their nature, brutish?

Outrage about sexual harassment
Outrage about sexual harassment


South Africa is a global frontrunner in rape and domestic violence. The international news is now focused on the mistreatment of women in the United States by powerful men such as Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. This recently prompted a New York Times columnist to suggest that men’s commonality is “the grotesquerie of their sexuality”, a claim that needs to be seriously addressed.

To understand the dark side 
of male sexual passion, we must examine not only the explicit violence of rape but also the violence implicit in all forms of harassment, from groping to innuendo. We must consider how lust is so often entangled with hostility — the need to dominate, possess or conquer the “other”. This must include the latent hostility of men who come in the orifices of a consenting partner without any consideration for the other’s enjoyment.

Sexual interaction does not always have to be “soft” or gentle. Passionate encounters can be consensual and mutually gratifying, “rough” in a manner that is playful. Male sexuality can be wild, robust and energetically lustful. As long as it is playful, it can even be (one must use this term with caution and qualification) aggressive and yet not tainted with the hostile dynamics of domination.

But for many men, the dynamics of power — the forceful subordination of the other — all too easily overtake authentic sensuality (which is, by definition, playful and consensual).

Psychoanalysis, a discipline that explores the deepest unconscious roots of our psyche, has much to contribute here, for it can illuminate some of the significant intrapsychic and interpersonal components of male lust. It demonstrates how, from an early age, humans are fuelled by both sexual and aggressive “drives”.

Some assert (without much evidence) that both are innate. Others (such as myself) are convinced that sensual pleasure-seeking is more or less innate, whereas aggression develops later in the young child, in response to frustration and as a mechanism for survival.

The most significant aspect of psychoanalytic discovery is the way in which these two drives inevitably converge and diverge in the course of every individual’s life.

A related and significant contribution from psychoanalysis is the distinction between “phallic” sexuality, which every small boy exhibits, and “genitality”. Phallic passions are infused with motives to dominate, possess or conquer. They are animated by the anxieties that inevitably accrue during development and that still unconsciously operate in adulthood. These have three main sources.

First, boys come to identify themselves as “masculine” according to prevailing cultural constructs (we are born with sex, but acquire gender and gender roles). They do so at least partly by censoring within themselves any identification with their femininity. Adult men who struggle with their femininity are typically misogynistic.

Second, the development of a more or less fixed sexual orientation is also achieved by censorship. Children are born wired with the erotic capacity to enjoy any and every type of sexuality. Boys become heterosexual largely by censoring their homoerotic fantasies. Adult men who are unable to acknowledge homoerotic inclinations within themselves often become virulently homophobic.

Third, small children are comparatively vulnerable and routinely compensate by developing a repertoire of omnipotent and magical fantasies. Adult men, terrified of weakness and vulnerability, censor such feelings within themselves and then become obsessed with the pursuit of dominative power over others.

In all these processes, development is built on the internal censorship of what is feared. In psychoanalytic terms, the boy represses aspects of his potential self into his unconscious repertoire of feelings and fantasies, and anxieties about sexuality are the result. These anxieties may convert into hostility and violence against the external representative of what has been censored within.

Phallic sexuality involves fantasy as the prime way in which humans attempt to resolve these internal conflicts, and a central lesson from psychoanalysis is that our fantasies should never be judged. By contrast, any propensity to translate fantasies into action without thoughtfulness should be subject to judgment, especially by the community. In relation to the brutishness of men’s sexual passions, there are three types of essentially phallic fantasy.

First, about whatever is “other” (other genders, other orientations). For example, an adult patient told me this “joke”: “What is a woman? … A life support system for a cunt.” Almost all little boys think of the distinction between the sexes in such crudely reductive terms.

Second, about activities in relation to the “other”. For example, a patient told me he wanted to fuck his partner until she was “bleeding yet begging for more”. This is not unlike the sadism with which many little boys have to contend with in themselves.

Third, about their own genitals. For example, I have heard of a military chant used in some marching drills: “This is my penis and this is my gun, one is for fighting, the other’s for fun.” Most little boys imagine pissing on another person as an act of defilement and subordination. Later these impulses may be translated into more adult modes of possession and conquest.

In all these examples, sexual lust is kept anxiously segregated from whatever capacity the man may have for genuine emotional intimacy; the genitals and heart are kept apart.

A big component of men’s sexual passions have their origins in the sexuality of frustrated and frightened little boys. In this sense, they may be inherently brutish, but they are not necessarily so: there is a lifelong journey from phallic lust towards something profoundly different.

“Genitality” is characterised by a relative absence of anxiety over sexuality, by a capacity to engage with the immediacy of bodily sensuality, and by a capacity to integrate lust with emotional connectedness.

How is this lifelong journey undertaken? Psychoanalytic science has shown that, whereas behaviour may be superficially modified by coercive measures, our inner world of feelings and fantasies is only very rarely, if ever, genuinely transformed by condemnation or punishment.

Men who treat others brutishly should be stopped from doing so. But more fundamental change can only occur if men are willing to examine their feelings and fantasies honestly and forthrightly.

Such an emotionally challenging programme scarcely touches on the economic, sociopolitical and cultural determinants of male brutality. But in terms of the inner world that activates much of our outward behaviour, authentic healing can only occur through such open understanding and with much discussion between us.

Dr Barnaby Barratt is a psychoanalyst and sexologist, and a senior research associate at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand