Sexual desire

sexual drive© Malcolm Idoine for Auckland Therapy Blog, 16 Jan 2019

Freud's understanding of libido

Over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud observed that in many cases of psychological disturbance there was also disturbance in sexual functioning. His leap of genius was to suggest, that psychological symptoms are the result of some, underdevelopment, blockage or diversion of the libido (life force and sexual energy). This blockage was seen to prevent the pleasurable expression of life force so instead it manifests as psychological distress (anxiety, depression, etc) and resulted in restricted sexual expression.

Sigmund Freud's understanding was based on his drive theory. His revolutionary idea was that human behaviour and experience was largely determined by unconscious processes. He considered that these processes where powered by instinctual drives. The most influential of these drives he termed the libido (life energy).

Freud suggested that when an infant was born the libido was directly primarily though suckling and feeding from which the infant derives great pleasure. This pleasurable expression of the libido changes focus as the child develops from oral, to anal, though a period of latency to a focus on the genitals from puberty and beyond.

In adulthood this life force can be expressed in an infinite number different ways, including work, play, parenting, creativity as well as all manner of sexual expression.

Connection seeking

A lot has changed since the days of Sigmund Freud. While some of his ideas have stood the test of time others have been surpassed. Through long are arduous work psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and the like have gradually deepened their understanding of the human mind, psychological distress and mental illness. This has been added to tremendously in the past few decades with understandings from neuroscience on how the brain works at a cellular and chemical (neurotransmitter) level.

In psychotherapy there has been a shift in emphasis from Freud's drive theory with its emphasis on sex and pleasure to an emphasis on relationship - seeing the need for emotional and social connection as more fundamental than the need for sex and pleasure. This shift is most evident in Attachment theory which considers how the human mind develops in relation to its caregivers, family, and wider social and cultural context.

Sadly, one effect of this shift is that sex and sexuality sometimes gets glossed over since in our culture sex remains somewhat of a taboo and sensitive subject.

Talking about sex & intimacy

Nowadays we understand that sex is fluid and dynamic - there is no normal. Everyone has complex layers of fantasy and desire, both conscious and unconscious. Also each of us have physical bodies that respond in very personal and particular ways. Thus sex is a dance both with another and with our own unconscious. So it has the potential to surprise and delight but also to disturb and disappoint. Much of this beyond our rational understanding or conscious control.

So while romantic heterosexual monogamy is still the norm for many, for many others this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are many more possibilities for sexual expression and fulfillment. Even committed heterosexual relationships are complicated because people are complicated. This means there is lots of room for confusion and muddle and subsequently potential for distress.

So if you are troubled by any aspect of sex or sexuality please feel free to bring this up with your therapist. Especially if it is in anyway intertwined with the psychological distress that brings you to therapy. Please don't wait for your therapist to ask, as your therapist may not know this is an important issue for you. Remember, psychotherapists are trained with a deep understanding of psycho-sexual development and are well equipped to sensitively discuss any aspect of sex and sexuality that you wish to bring to therapy.

See also