Same-sex desire through a post-Jungian lens

HOMOSEXUALITY is a loaded word, scary or offensive to some, an object of fascination or pride to others. It acknowledges a bond between same-sex people that, particularly in the case of men and when sex is involved, has always triggered anxiety and a need for practical regulation or theoretical explanation. It is a relatively recent term (coined less than 150 years ago) that has provided a unifying frame for a range of desires and behaviours previously defined on various grounds across different cultures.

Freud recognised and described his own homosexual feelings, which took the form of a fusional longing and were played out particularly in his relationship with Fliess. He oscillates between embracing them (‘I do not share your [Fliess’s] contempt for friendship between men’), triumphing over them (‘I am pleased with the greater independence that results from my having overcome my homosexuality’), only to subsequently fall back into new doubts (‘There is some piece of unruly homosexual feelings at the root of the matter’ – the matter being his fainting in Munich during a discussion with Jung). His theoretical edifice accounts both for the recognition of a homosexual current in each individual, and for the aspiration to overcome it in mature sexual life.

Jung was just as straightforward in acknowledging his own homosexual feelings when writing to Freud, towards whom he admits feeling ‘an undeniable erotic undertone’, but he was less ready than Freud to engage with those ‘abominable feelings’, due to the profound anxiety that the possibility of intimacy with men aroused in him. He understood his fears around being ‘hampered’ by closeness with men as related to a sexual assault he suffered as a boy by a man, and refers to homoerotic feelings in terms of disgust, sentimentality, banality and other various defensive language. Fear of homosexuality, which Jung defines as the greatest source of resistance in men, significantly contributed to shaping various aspects of Jung’s attitude to Freud: idealising, apologetic, wary, withholding.

And yet, in spite of his defensive prejudices, key aspects of Jung’s psychology, if critically reviewed, help pursue a creative understanding of same-sex desire as distinct from the perspective offered by the psychoanalytic notion of bisexuality.

Jung developed a notion of contrasexuality that allows for some fluidity when compared to the more static organisation of desire implied in the Oedipal resolution. Contrasexuality means that every woman has an unconscious masculine side (animus) and vice versa (anima in men) and that psychological development entails integration of one’s contrasexual aspects, representing bridges to the unconscious. In Jung’s time this was no ordinary claim.

If we were to simplify we could say that whereas Freud’s focus was on the object choice that both limits and holds together one’s various dispositions, Jung addressed the subject and the function that erotic desire plays in one’s development, which he explored through the notions of animus and anima. Jung promoted a view of personal development based ‘on how and not on what one loves.’

Also, while Freud’s theory concerning organisation of desire is static after Oedipus resolution, Jung claimed that spontaneous and late changes in life are seen as possible. Psychic energy, or libido, is seen by Jung as a dynamic and polivalent unity that can shift from homosexual to heterosexual investments and vice versa – at least in theory, as in fact Jung only referred to cases in which he saw homosexuality as a misunderstanding of an otherwise appropriate need, or in which it had a purely regressive function. Whereas Jung’s theory of libido grants the subject mobility of cathexes (and object choices) throughout a lifetime, his notion of contrasexuality, which conflates biological sex, gender roles and sexual orientation, is embedded in essentialist, binary assumptions that restrict its capacity to fully recognise psychic fluidity,

Besides, Jung only considered two kinds of archetypal foundation for homosexuality. In his psychoanalytic years and for some time after, he regarded it as embedded in a mother complex – in a nutshell, too much mother for the boy and too little for the girl. The gay son’s eros is seen as being too loyal to Mother and engulfed by her phallic demand for fidelity, whereas the daughter’s eros is wounded by lack of mother and prone to idealising, anger-denying projections onto other women. Later, in his alchemical years, Jung put the archetype of the hermaphrodite at the very heart of his psychological model. From this perspective, homosexuality is seen as premature and incestuous identification with the hermaphrodite, before a fuller differentiation of the masculine and feminine aspects is achieved.

Nonetheless, in the (scant) clinical material he presents, Jung often takes a descriptive, phenomenological approach, aimed at discerning how homosexuality is expressed in an individual’s life, and then goes on to examine the effect of this expression on the development of an individual’s whole personality. For instance, in ‘The love problem of a student’ he writes: ‘The homosexual relation between an older and a younger man can be of advantage to both sides and have a lasting value. An indispensable condition for the value of such relation is the steadfastness of the friendship and their loyalty to it.’ Thus, although he doesn’t come to see homosexuality as an option of mature, adult choice, his descriptions of patients with homoerotic feelings is very respectful of their individuality and open to recognising the plurality of subjective meanings.

Jung’s theories about homosexuality may then be understood as descriptions of some of the possible pathways, difficulties and opportunities for psychological development within a same-sex organisation of desire. If we take homosexuality as a given, as opposed to considering it aetiologically, we will find ourselves in a more favourable position to explore, for instance, how a gay boy might be specifically affected by an absent father, or by one who has not developed a connection with his anima, or by a narcissistically wounded mother and so forth. All these factors variously at play shape the pathways along which homosexuality will unfold in one’s life, the specific psychological problems to be faced as well as the transferential dynamics experienced in the consulting room.

After Jung, the most decisive contribution to a deeper understanding of homosexuality has come from the archetypal school. James Hillman, its initiator, articulated various key points of criticism of both classical and developmental Jungian theory. Firstly, its being spellbound by the mother archetype (rather than the homosexual being so) while neglecting archetypes involving the masculine. Secondly, its being only concerned with the union of opposites rather than with the union of same with same, which he exemplifies with reference to the puer-senex archetype, seen as a pattern of male wholeness, made to split by a certain kind of consciousness incapable of ambivalence. Hillman states that ‘the union of opposites – male with female – is not the only union for which we long and is not the only union that redeems. There is also the union of sames, the re-union of the verticals axis, which would heal the split spirit.’

Besides, Hillman has offered an important contribution to the psychological differentiation of eros from lust (an undifferentiated lust for life) through his archetypal exploration of Pan as a representative of the archaic, instinctual life, characterised by compulsion and intense energy, and articulated in its various manifestations of panic, masturbation, rape, nightmares and convulsions.

Although Hillman did not examine homosexuality per se, his seminal thinking inaugurated a more complex notion of the desiring subject, whose homoeroticism became embedded in the flesh and in a network of archetypal possibilities more faithful to experience than just the mother complex or the Union of male-female opposites. The subsequent elaboration of some of these ideas by (few) post-Jungians offers a fertile ground for a dialogue with post-modernism and cultural studies and for further theoretical and clinical advancement in this area of psychology. Acknowledging the archetypal specificity of a given human experience helps rescue it from the silencing effect of diagnostics – whether psychiatric or psychoanalytic – and allows a bringing out of its specific connotations.

Rafael Lopez Pedraza, in his study on Hermes (Pan’s father), further explored the archetypal foundation of a type of sexual connection between men characterised by the lack of personal intimacy and the relation to fantasies shaped by the physicality of the encounter of desires. This perspective is in line with a deconstructive approach to sexual desire decoupled from romantic or even personal relating and helps to understand a variety of sexual behaviours and choices – particularly within the male gay community. Leo Bersani, from a cultural studies perspective, examines this area of male homosexual practices and understands anonymous sex as a psychological experience in its own right, rather than pathologising it as perversion or lack of relatedness. Sexual practices in this area can be explored in all their psychological richness, as they involve, for instance, a largely ritualised renegotiation of the notions of activity and passivity, control and surrender, strength and weakness, paranoia and trust – in a way which deconstructs, challenges and subverts, at times even ironically, dominant male practices (such as in highly competitive workplaces).

Mitch Walker (like Otto Rank before him from a psychoanalytic perspective) considers homosexuality in the light of the Double, which is the archetype of a relation of particular warmth and closeness with a same-sex person experienced like a soulmate (Achilles and Patroclus for instance). The projection of the double generates homosexual attraction, similarly to the projection of anima and animus for heterosexuals. It is strongly connected to one’s sense of identity – and it would be tempting to see this archetype at work in Freud’s (only partially reciprocated) attachment to Fliess.

The perspective of the Double stimulates reflections on the issue of sameness and identity for gay and lesbians, on the peculiar conflation between identification and object choice that inherently characterises a homosexual choice, and on the self-enhancing effect of homosexuality on one’s psychosexual identity as opposed to a dismissive understanding in terms of pathological narcissism. From this perspective, various manifestations of gay desire – such as for instance cruising within same-sex spaces – are more aptly understood if thought about in terms of a search for a shared identity and a form of community.

As clinicians dealing with same-sex desire, in ourselves as well as in the patients, I suggest that the following orienting questions may ensue from what I have just sketched as a post-Jungian approach to homosexualities:

  • How may the power and rawness of archaic sexual drives be contained in human connections, and what responses are gays (particularly) formulating to this problem?
  • How is the perception of one’s body affected by being desired by someone of the same sex? What particular pleasures and gratification are at play in such situations of identification, recognition and reconnection to one’s sexual matrix via a same-sex partner?
  • What identifications are available for gays and lesbians that may help them to develop a capacity to desire, given that desire is to an extent the product of a history of identifications?
  • Is a particular form of same sex desire generative of aliveness and renewal? Does it generate growth/expansion of the personality? Does it connect to a transcendental (i.e. transpersonal) source of energy?
  • Are we and our patients able to maintain a dialectic tension between capacity for symbolisation and openness to actual, embodied experience in the realm of sex and desire?

These perspectives may help increase our capacity as therapists to receive some communications from homosexual patients, to disentangle analysis of gays and lesbians from preconceptions of diminished masculinity and femininity, and to release our thinking from the assumptions of desire rooted in the heterosexual relational model, which has informed the classic object relations theory.

The therapist’s alertness may then focus on the capacity of the patient to move flexibly between symbolic and concrete (the alchemical solve et coagula) and to hold on to some basic and protective ego boundaries while allowing a different experience of ‘relationality’ to unfold according to the patient’s spontaneous gradient of energy active at any given time.

Giorgio Giaccardi is a Jungian Analyst, member of the British Jungian Analytic Association (BJAA), working in private practice in London. He teaches modules on sexual diversity and gender identity both at the Tavistock Clinic and at the MSc in Psychodynamics of Human Development, jointly run by bpf and Birkbeck. He is a member of the BJAA Executive Committee.

Giorgio Giaccardi