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December All-Day Conference Report
Muriel Dimen Presents on Sex and the Psychoanalyst: Perversion and Desire

By Ruth Lijtmaer, Ph.D.

How can psychoanalysts view sex, perversion and desire using the lens of 21st century feminism? On December 11, Muriel Dimen, PhD, a psychoanalyst and feminist scholar well-known for her engaging, thought-provoking presentations, shared her ideas on this challenging topic. The day-long presentation was divided into four inspiring sections. First, Dr. Muriel Dimen recounted her journey from anthropology to psychoanalysis along the feminist path, and discussed the clinical negotiation of sexuality. She then illustrated those ideas through the presentation of her paper, “Part Objects and Perfect Wholes: Clinical Slants on Perversion.” Following lunch, Dr. Nina Williams presented a case that was discussed by Dr. Dimen. And, finally, Dr. Dimen introduced the topic of sexual subjectivity and relational psychoanalysis.

Dr Dimen’s journey started with anthropology. In the 1960’s her ethnographic work in northwestern Greece made her aware of the role of women in society. Then, through her experience in creating Consciousness Raising Groups, she became aware of the intersectionality of gender, class, sexuality and the political. In the early1970’s Dr. Dimen started study groups of feminist therapists emphasizing the connection between the new left and feminism, and developed her ideas on the need to think of gender experientially. In the late 1970’s she developed the Group for a Radical Human Science, relating Marxism with Psychoanalysis, and Social Theory and Psychoanalysis. In the early 1980’s Dr. Dimen, with Jessica Benjamin, Adrienne Harris and Virginia Goldner, formed a group to further develop gender theory and intersectionality. In the early 1990’s Dr. Dimen‘s paper “Desconstructing Difference: Gender, Splitting and transitional Space” was published, in which she questioned what gender is made of and said that gender is symbolically tied to many kinds of cultural representations, which, in turn, set the terms not only for understanding the relations between women and men but for organizing self-experience. Consequently, problems of self may come to be coded in terms of gender, and those of gender, in terms of the self.. From then till now her involvement in relational psychoanalysis helped her conceptualize sex and gender in relational terms.

In her paper “Part-Objects and Perfect Wholes: Clinical Slants on Perversion,” Dr. Dimen stated that implicit in a category like perversion are binary ideas of what’s good and bad, normal and abnormal, sane and mad, and so on. In print, we use typography the way, in speech, we use gesture, a raised eyebrow, a pulled lower lid. But sometimes she feared that this typographical irony preempts careful inquiry into all the unstated meanings that a term like perversion carries. In other words, people engage in certain physical, emotional, and mental processes that are named, with pride or shame or shaming, “perverse.” Therefore, perversion implies the normal, the regular. As argued by Laplanche and Pontalis (1973): “It is difficult to comprehend the idea of perversion otherwise than by reference to a norm,” a slant that renders perversion a relative category. She believes that perversion is a cultural construct.

Like gender, perversion is an analytic category we cannot do without, for if we did not have it, how would we know what is ‘normal’? Perversion and that inadequately specified term, “normal,” construct each other. If perversion can coexist with health, if its status as illness varies with cultural time and place, then, conversely, any sexuality may be symptomatic or healthy.” Sexuality, in Laplanche’s theorization of Freud’s view, is by definition perverse. Dr. Dimen gave a clinical example of a patient who was on the road to mentally representing others as whole objects, beings with separate centers of subjectivity whose existence precedes and exceeds and is other to his needs. This patient described himself as a pervert. She brought up the idea of ‘whole object’ because “ it arises so frequently when marginal sexual practices enter our scope, because it does much theoretical and clinical work, and because, as central to what psychoanalysis considers the “normal,” it might be overdue for deconstruction. In fact, what she was proposing was that we have to think about the idea of the whole object, like that of normality, an addiction moving inf in many question of my not getting it.ollowing comments might have the benefit of suggesting a few morea theoretical position that uses and echoes the ordinary uncertainty of the clinical project”. She believes that the idea of whole object indicates a process.

In twentieth-century psychoanalytic theorizing, relationship has replaced sexuality as the engine, common denominator, and goal of psychic process. Instead of seeing reproductive genitality as the sign of adulthood and mental health, we now consider relational pairing as an equally good signifier of normality, and interpret sexuality in object-relational terms. Therefore, when perversion relocates from sex to relatedness, its moral trappings come with it. If psychoanalysis once carved heterosexual order out of the polymorphously perverse jungle, now it fashions a model of mature total object relation as the criterion of mental health.

Dr. Dimen ended the morning by stating that: “We might situate wholeness in irony. Not seamless, perhaps it yet serves, as some hold for the idea of truth, as a vanishing point. If corporeal experience is always tinged with the primal connection between bodies; if minds are founded in relationship, and made of object-relation or, if you would, joined representations of self, other, and affect; if there is no such thing as an infant; if desire emerges in the space between need and demand, if subjectivity is founded in a rupture, then, given the radical reorganization of psychoanalytic knowledge and practice that has been taking place, wholeness is always and only temporary, and no better or worse than any other states.”

In the afternoon, Dr. Nina Williams presented the clinical case of a 53-year-old male patient with complex sexual and gender identities.  She described her initial countertransference of boredom with the patient's slow, painstaking narrative shifting to acceptance that the patient needed to describe his life in minute detail because this was how he experienced it and how he could control the session. She then described her efforts to curb her enthusiasm when the patient had insights because to show enthusiasm would shut him down. Dr. Williams finished the case presentation by describing her struggles with his binary views of gender and sexual orientation. 

Dr. Dimen commented on the patient's use of repetitive detail and lack of affect as ways to create distance while trying to connect with others who desire him; his use of rigid sexual beliefs to substitute for an internal sense of incompleteness; and his inability to find his own desire because it signals his terror at emptiness. In this last part of the presentation, more questions were raised by the audience about Dr. Williams’ case. Dr Dimen commented on the questions by mentioning the work of Ferenczi (1988) who remarked on the hate-impregnated love of adult mating, and said that hostility, aggression and sexuality are not opposites.