To understand more generally about the concept of defence mechanisms, and how they relate to psychotherapy and counselling, please read prior posts in this series. To learn more about the defence of this post: sexualisation, please read on.
When we use the defence of sexualisation we imbue something (or someone) with sexual significance in order to avoid our anxieties around feelings such as aggression, dependence, or loss. Like other defence mechanisms, there is something remarkable about our capacity to do this. We not only avoid experiencing something painful, but through the pleasure we receive through the sexual association, we may actually be able to make that experience pleasurable. In general, a psychotherapist or counsellor will only confront a client with their defence if it is hurting them. This seems worth pointing out given our propensity to make judgements around sexuality. Sexualisation isn't bad, and is not something to be ashamed about, but sometimes it gets in the way of living a fulfilling life.
To clear up another possible misconception, the defence of sexualisation is quite a different concept from the concern about people (usually children or women) becoming sexualised. According to Duchinsky this different and later use of the term sexualisation developed in the USA in the 80s, to describe a maladaptive form of socialisation which causes a premature entry by the child into adult forms of sexual subjectivity and desire. It seems likely that many of those who have been prematurely sexualised in this later sense of the word will then resort to the use of sexualisation as a defence mechanism, but they are different ideas.
To bring this out of the heady realm of theory, it might be useful to give a couple of common examples of the defence mechanism of sexualisation. Because men are often taught that we must be independent, many of us feel uncomfortable with dependence. But, inescapably, being social animals, we are dependent on others for social connection. When men who are uncomfortable with their need for dependence feel lonely or disconnected they may sexualise this threatening sign of dependence. Instead of seeking out intimate emotional connection, they may go out on the town looking to "get laid" and having the sort of sex that leaves them feeling more empty and alone than ever. (This pattern is not restricted to men, but seems more common in men due to masculine socialisation to be independent.) In extreme form this can result in men (or women) seeking psychotherapy or counselling for sexual addiction or other sexual problems that are really problems with emotional intimacy.
A more common example of the defence of sexualisation amongst women can arise in women who have been taught in one way or another that women are weak and men are powerful. Such women, being afraid of powerful or aggressive men, may sexualise this fear to the point where they instead feel attracted to powerful or aggressive men. Another side effect of this is feeling understandably envious of the power that men are perceived to (and may actually) have. This form of sexualisation is actually the basis of Freud's much maligned and misunderstood concept of penis envy, which (depending on how you interpret Freud) can be seen as a sympathetic and understanding view of the terrible impact on women of patriarchy. Women (or less frequently men) who sexualise in this way often come to psychotherapy or counselling having had a string of very painful relationships with men.
Most of us find talking about sex uncomfortable, perhaps especially if we're talking about a difficulty that relates to our experience of sex and desire. This means that often in therapy I've noticed that clients talk about everything other than sex. Therapists may be hesitant to ask about sex, out of fear of this being interpreted as dirty or seductive or leading by their clients. On the other hand, because of many of our shyness about discussing sex, if a therapist doesn't ask, often a client won't talk about sex. It's difficult. In couple's therapy, talking about sex can be particularly complicated, as sometimes the sexual topic that one couple feels they need to bring up, is the source of great shame for the other. There is no easy fix for this, but having a therapist who feels comfortable talking about sex, does help.
Welcome to my series of posts on the concept of defence mechanisms, and on how this concept can help us to understand ourselves in psychotherapy and counselling. If you haven't read my prior post on defence mechanisms, you may find it helpful to read it now as an introduction, then return to read this post.
In this post today we turn our attention to the defence mechanism of sublimation. We sublimate when we transform a socially unacceptable urge into an urge that is beneficial and acceptable to the community. An example is the religious tradition of celibacy, in which erotic urges or energy are transformed into spiritual and/or creative pursuits. When this works well, the conflict between the erotic urge and communal needs is circumvented, and the individual who is sublimating their sexual desire is not left frustrated, but instead experiences satisfaction via the creative or spiritual work that they accomplish. When this process of sublimation is working poorly, we see incidents such as the terrible phenomenon of sexual abuse being committed by catholic (and other) clergy. (Having said this, I'm sure these incidents of sexual abuse by clergy involves many other psychological processes, so please forgive the simplification.)
Another example of sublimation may be the artist's relationship with the muse, in which the erotic energy towards the muse (a real or imaginary figure) fuels works of great creativity. It's worth noting that although psychoanalytic thought gets a lot of flack these days, at times seeming bizarre for it's reducing our ideas of life into strange contorted expressions of craving for sex, this is a misrepresentation of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic thinking. The word erotic derives from eros, which is intimate or romantic love (as opposed to selfless love.) Psychotherapy understands the erotic as much wider and more important than mere sex, the erotic is an energy that creates intimacy, sex, romance, and a great deal of our passion and energy for life.
The goal of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is not to dismantle all of a person's defences, but to help a person to graduate to using defences that serve them better. Healthy sublimation is regarded as one of the most mature and worthwhile defences. When other conflicts and less helpful defences are clearer out of the way, through psychotherapy or counselling a creative person may be able to clear their creative block, and free up more energy than ever before for satisfying creative work. A spiritual person whose sublimation is not serving them well, may be able to renegotiate their relationship with sexuality through therapy, hopefully with the outcome of feeling less frustrated and more connected to their spiritual side.
Doing sex therapy, either individually, or as a couple, often involves looking deeper into the meanings that we may give sex, without even realising it. Here is a partial list of some of the meanings that people give to sex: love, lust, enjoyment, stimulation, connection, comfort, duty, conquest, competition, validation, entertainment, work, distraction, relaxation, attention, security, reproduction, reward, and affection. This partial list can give you a little bit of a sense of how complex sex can be.
We rarely directly discuss the changing multiple different meanings each partner can hold around sex, and how these meanings and needs might best be fulfilled. Sex therapists are trained to help you to talk about these sensitive and personal topics in a way that is likely to get things unstuck in the bedroom, and out of it.