Sexual Problems

The rough categorization of women patients in the preceding section, according to relative degrees of dependency and autonomy, does not lend itself well in exploring their sexual problems. There seemed to be no clear or wide differences in this area in the two groups of patients.

The only palpable difference was in the degree of repression. With the more autonomous woman, there was more awareness of her sexual needs, a greater readiness to discuss them, and a likelihood to look for solutions to sexual problems. The dependent woman invoked frequently the accepted cultural norms and practices which favored more extensive sexual repression. The autonomous woman might read Masters and Johnson and Fanny Hill in her search for answers; the dependent type, regardless of education, never came to direct grips with sexual problems. The curious finding, however, was that despite these differences, the problems were similar and the degree of success of coping mechanisms hardly differed in the two groups.

Their sexual problems, as presented, may be categorized into those involving the act of sexual intercourse itself and, relatedly, into those which focused on relationship with men. The dynamics involved seemed to depart from the classical psychoanalytic formulations of what a growing girl experiences as she goes through the Oedipal conflict.

The Oedipal situation as an active “family romance” very rarely obtained. It hardly reached that level of intensity at which the girl fantasizes death wishes towards the mother and sexual strivings towards the father. Even in the more spirited girl who is close to him, father is not seen as a sexual (genital) object. I have often speculated that sexual strivings towards father either do not exist, as such, or are deeply repressed. A favorite daughter, who is very upset because father is interested in another woman, feels that way because she suspects she may no longer be his favorite. Fantasies about his sexual life with the paramour, for example, are not obtained. To suspect sexual elements in one’s relationship with father is to label him evil and unworthy of loving.

On the other hand, I was struck with the quickness in these patients to detect sex elsewhere—e.g., to denounce a naughty uncle who pinched his nieces, or a houseboy with peeping Tom proclivities, or a male guest who seemed to cast lewd glances at the young girl. A man and a woman together was primarily perceived as being in a potentially erotic situation. Contrast this with the complete denial of sex in what was unmistakably a growing attraction for and attachment to a married man. It seems that in the prototypal experience of the Oedipal period as well as in later versions of the experience, sex is conveniently, but firmly, repressed. This mechanism allows the relationship to continue until confrontation is inevitable.

In patients who were extremely close to their mothers and whose fathers tended to be distant, shadowy figures, the need for a more forceful relationship with the male parent was not strongly felt. Too often father’s presence seemed to be superfluous or at best, merely taken for granted. The relationship with father was through mother; perception of him was through mother’s eyes. This seemed to suffice for the growing girl. Recollections of him were vague. There were more active fantasies about a dead father than about one who was there but with whom the young girl did not experience any meaningful relationship. Part of this was due to mother’s monopoly of the girl’s emotional life; a part was father’s own doing because he would always push the girl back into mother’s hands. “She’s a girl; she’s your problem” was his standard attitude.

Her sexual identification is therefore predominantly feminine, in some instances due to very close ties with mother and in others, an identification also with mother, although under protest and with mixed feelings. The chink in this feminine armor, as one easily gleans from the preceding discussion, was her unsureness of herself as a woman in relationship to men. Her imperfect relationship to father, in one instance hazy and well-nigh absent and in another, devoid of the all-important genital element, rendered her unsure about how a mature woman related to a mature male. The cultural norms, as well as mother’s example, gave her the form for the role she had to play; the substance, the core of the relationship was missing and remained something she had still to discover for herself.

This very unsureness, when handled effectively and used to advantage by the well-adjusted woman in the culture, resounds to what are often labeled as her charms, her assets, her femininity. She tries her best to please the man, intuitively anticipates his needs and subtly but effectively protects his ego. She adopts his likes and dislikes as her own. Acknowledging him as her superior, she allows him to take all the credit for something which may be mostly a result of her effort.

In these patients, however, this very unsureness, when it came in distressful proportions, exploded into the open all the heretofore repressed and suppressed affects of the infantile fixations—the childish hate, the unreasonable possessiveness, the helpless clinging, and the excessive demands for reassurance. As a nurturing figure, to husband and children, she possesses enough self- confidence. But as a sexual object, she doubts her adequacy and with reason. Her concept of her sexual role is distorted and in addition to her early relationships, she has the culture to thank for this. She is told by the culture that sexual pleasure is a prerogative of men only; she is taught to disclaim interest in it or, at most, to participate mostly out of a sense of duty. At the same time, she has abundant sexual feelings and fantasies. As a matter of fact, her psychological life is devoted to defending against them.

Rape fantasies are very common. Consciously she is extremely wary of situations with less than virtuous implications. In certain situations she might embark on heterosexual relationships with incredible facility and naivete. These women chose their husbands because they were such perfect gentlemen, devoted, and who never touched them physically during courtship. According to these women and the culture, this is a sure proof that the man has honorable intentions and is really in love.

Inconsistent and erratic sexual responses are observed even in women who are sophisticated, well-travelled or working in professions or jobs alongside men. Many of these women were often sexually, active prior to marriage, short of sexual intercourse. They were responsive enough in kissing and petting sessions and had in fact precipitated marriage because they felt they had already compromised themselves sexually to the man and were therefore irrevocably committed to marry him. As soon as she assumed the role of wife and mother, the image of a woman as a sexual object gets out of focus.

In this respect, the culture again asserts itself in the form of a well-emphasized double standard of sexual freedom. A man expects to be allowed or forgiven any form of sexual freedom. Single women are expected to guard their virginity with their lives. They are told to regard it as “a jewel of great rice” the loss of which spells permanent disgrace to her. Married women should never feel any attraction, no matter how harmless, for another man. Widows are dangerous; they have known sex and are likely to be carving for it. It would be advisable for a widow to devote herself to children, churchgoing or seclusion. Otherwise, she will be unusually vulnerable to temptations.

Psychological attitudes towards sex and these cultural edicts contributed to reactions of fear, disgust, shame, guilt or plain indifference towards the sexual experience. The phallic instrument forcibly reminded her of all the limitations and inhibitions that her upbringing and her culture have brought to bear on her as a woman. In many other areas she could compensate for restrictions placed on her. Her talents for mothering, organizing and achieving could potentially be her major strengths, but they were likely to be impeded by these distorted attitudes which prevented integration of sexual and non-sexual spheres of her personality.

Fear is the predominant negative affect, the others—disgust, shame, guilt or indifference—often merely masked the fear of sex. It was most clearly seen in adolescents, single women, and in cases of sexual phobia. In married women, the other attitudes predominated but fear was still the basic underlying factor. Here are some examples: a newly married woman with a sexual phobia said she felt guilty and ashamed because her mother slept in the room next to theirs. When the mother went away on a vacation, her phobia became worse which made the husband seek help. Another woman who developed a sexual phobia during the menopause period said she was punishing her husband for all the times she had to submit sexually to him without willingness or joy on her part. Her reactions to his approach were those of hostility and disgust. She recalled that during their honeymoon, she fainted from fright at the sight of the erected male organ.

Pregnancy and motherhood—one consequence of sex—was often embraced with resignation. In general, these patients showed relatively less ambivalence where their children were concerned than with other relationships. However, there were 18 patients who had anxiety and conversion reactions during pregnancy and four who had induced abortions themselves because they rejected the pregnancy. These certainly pointed to protest against the feminine role in procreation. One has to consider however. Other factors which were probably also operant, such as too close spacing of children, lack of emotional support from husband or his family, a secret marriage, etc.

Motherhood, from both unconscious psychological and cultural points of view, was seen as part of one’s fulfillment of obligations to one’s parents. There were many evidences of this. Naming her children after her parents and offering one to them like a “gift” to continue emotional ties and assuage guilt over leaving the parents were not uncommon. Neurotic motives initiated the process; cultural practices entrenched it.