This essay will look at the origins of sexual desire and how this most primitive of desires has been tamed by modern society. It will also explore the dark side of sexual desire, by examining how it can lead to jealousy and violence. Throughout the essay I will highlight books, films, theatre productions and case studies which have inspired my final images.
In order to understand sexual desire, it is important to understand where it fits within the human psyche. Freud defined a structural model of the human psyche which contained three psychic apparatus: the id, the ego and the superego.
The id “contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth, is laid down in the constitution — above all, therefore, the instincts.” (Freud, New Introductory Lectures on psychoanalysis 1933. p.106). The id contains basic instinctual desires such as sexual desire and is guided by the ‘pleasure principle’ in that it aims to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
The desires created by the id are then responded to by the ego through action and activity that helps to gratify the need. The ego must find a balance between primitive desires and reality through a set of psychic functions such as synthesis of information, reality-testing, judgment, intellectual functioning and memory.
The super-ego’s demands oppose those of the id. The super-ego wants to ensure the individual acts in a socially appropriate manner in contrast to the id, which simply desires instant self-gratification. The super-ego helps us fit into society by getting us to act in socially acceptable ways (Snowden, Ruth (2006), Teach Yourself Freud, McGraw-Hill, pp. 105–107).
Freud used the twin concepts of the ego and super-ego to explore the process of human evolution. He described human evolution as a constant battle between these two parts of the human mind. The ego represents our most primitive desires – violent, sexual and selfish – while the super-ego represents our desire for security and order. As the super-ego increases in dominance, the more civilized human society becomes (Freud, Totem and Taboo, 1913). Freud argued that the more humans were able to repress their darker desires, the more evolved and civilized they would become. In essence, the super-ego was borne of our need to overcome our animalistic selves and was the driving force behind our evolution as human beings.
So, how have our primitive sexual desires been affected by the increasing dominance of the super-ego?
Research into sexual desire in primates has shown that apes respond to each other through sexual aggression. For example, if the female doesn’t offer herself to the male he becomes aggressive. Studies of human sexual history have shown that in spite of our civility we humans still have these underlying negative behaviors (Muller, Martin N. and Wrangham, Richard W., An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression against Females, Harvard University Press, 2009). It follows that if our ‘id’ had its way (as it did in Neanderthal times), then sexual aggression would be socially acceptable. The fact that this is not the case today can be attributed to the increasing dominance of the super-ego.
Current attitudes towards sex and sexual desire reflect how civilized our society has become. Our social structures do not allow extreme dominant and submissive behavior between the sexes and laws have been passed to cement this position. These social structures have changed the relationship between men and women. Unlike our primate ancestors, we have suppressed our baser sexual desires and developed social structures which encourage long lasting monogamous relationships with the opposite sex, creating a pair bond (Morris, Desmond, The Naked Ape).
Although society (and its collective super-ego) has sought to control and repress the more violent aspects of sexual desire, these primitive feelings still exist within all of us underneath the surface. Sometimes individuals cannot or choose not to repress the darker side of their sexual desire.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde is a powerful fictional example of a situation where one man’s id and ego have won out in a battle with his super-ego. In the book, the main protagonist, Dorian Gray suffers a moral breakdown (as a result of a devilish pact) and succumbs to his primitive desire for sexual pleasure.
Sexual jealousy is a prime example of an emotion which can result in primitive feelings gaining dominance over the super-ego. Sexual jealousy stems from an actual or perceived relationship threat. This threat “emanates from knowing or suspecting that one’s partner has had (or desires to have) sexual activity with a third party.” (Guerrero, Spitzberg, & Yoshimura, 2004, page 311). Jealousy can be deadly – statistical studies rank jealousy as the third most common motive for murder (Harris, C., The Evolution of Jealousy, American Scientist).
Sexual jealousy can have a negative effect on a relationship which can ultimately lead to feelings of loss of control, fear of being alone, betrayal, distrust, insecurity, anger and potentially violent revenge.
Domestic violence can be another byproduct of sexual desire. The perpetrator will often use violence as a way of controlling the object of his or her sexual desire. In such cases, the primitive urges of the perpetrator are more dominant than their super-ego, and they will often give no thought to how their actions will be perceived by society. The perpetrator may also gain pleasure from the violence. This pleasure comes from attaining power and control and discharging the anger. (Gottfretson, Michael R, A General Theory of Crime, 1990. pg 94)
The Grand Guignol short play ‘The Final Kiss’ (Le Baiser dans La nuit,1912) provides a theatrical example of violent revenge as a result of sexual jealousy. The play is about a couple who fall in love. However, when the man leaves his lover, she takes revenge by throwing acid in his face. The play ends in a dramatic fashion when, six months later, the now disfigured man retaliates by throwing acid in his ex-lover’s face. This final scene inspired one of my final images, which shows a woman who has been scarred by acid following a violent attack by her partner.
The following two real life case studies provide further evidence of what happens when sexual desire turns to jealous and violent revenge:
Case study 1 – Katie Piper
Katie Piper was a young model and TV presenter aged 23, who made a living through her appearance. A former boyfriend arranged for her to be savagely attacked. His aim was to disfigure her and take away the traits which made her desirable to others. Her face and upper body was badly scarred by sulphuric acid which ate through four layers of her skin and muscle leaving her severely disfigured. (http://www.katiepiperfoundation.org.uk 08/11/2010). Again, this tragic story provided me with inspiration for my final images, in particular where I recreated the effect of acid burns on my model’s skin.
Case study 2 – John Bobbit
In this infamous case, Lorena Bobbit was frequently physically and mentally abused by her husband, John. He would often come home intoxicated and kick, strangle and rape Lorena, as well as bragging about his extra marital affairs. On one particular night John returned home drunk and raped Lorena who then proceeded to cut off John’s penis after he had passed out. (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/vaw00/Bobbitt. 10.11.2010). This case inspired the final image I created of a woman holding a knife whilst covered in blood.
Although humans have substantially evolved from their primitive beginnings, many of the primal instincts and desires which were so important for our ancestor’s survival remain hard-wired in our psyches. As we have evolved, our society has become increasingly civilized and we have created sophisticated social structures to repress some of the darker, socially unacceptable aspects of our primitive desires. The modern world has reined in our primitive instincts and control has been asserted over us to allow for more harmonious social interactions. Unfortunately these instincts still lay dormant in our psyche and can erupt when the right triggers are set in place. We can only ever hope to control our primitive side as it is impossible to eradicate it altogether. Indeed, to do so would be to eradicate part of what makes us human.