In previous posts, I have written at length on the relationship between emotions and sexuality. You can see some of these articles here and here. I think most people can conceptualize how emotions can play a large part in sexual expression, but what most people often don’t understand is how emotions can actually be the primary fuel of sexuality, and in some cases, may even be the source of sexual arousal itself.

When strong negative emotions such as anger are experienced, they feel extremely uncomfortable and painful to tolerate, so the natural human impulse is to escape away or defend oneself from the pain. We may try to distract ourselves from the pain by burying ourselves in work or in seeking thrills such as alcohol, drugs, or risky sex. At other times, we may develop what’s called a counterphobic reaction to the pain by actually courting more of it as a means of building mastery over it. By taking up a counterphobic response we actually adapt strategies to face the pain head on rather than run away from it.

One example of a counterphobic response is what is known as reaction formation, which means taking on an air of overly exaggerated positive affect in response to something that may fear or hate. Examples of this can be found in many social situations. We’ve all seen group situations where people may act as if they are ecstatic to see someone about whom they were just disparaging privately. Other examples of counterphobic behavior would be the individual who becomes a pilot in order to overcome a fear of flying or the avid bunjee jumper who was previously afraid of heights.

Keeping all of this in mind, the dynamic in which a strong negative emotion becomes sexualized follows a similar process. When an emotion becomes too painful to tolerate, we may employ an unconscious strategy to sexualize it in order to avoid the pain. In essence, we are replacing pain with pleasure. Famed sexologist John Money, who I referenced in this previous article, described this process in terms of opponent-process theory, in which a painful experience can be compulsively repeated enough times that it becomes pleasurable. The painful experience would initially be replayed in order to achieve a sense of control over something that was previously experienced as out-of-control, and so in time would be experienced as pleasurable through repeated reinforcement.

Let’s take a look at a few examples to illustrate this concept. Let’s start with anger first because it is such a powerful and tangible emotion that is relatively easily accessible. Anger is also one of those emotions that lends itself to becoming sexualized. Any painful incident at a young age that may be experienced as rejecting and abandoning may produce intense feelings of intense rage. In order to deal with this rage, the individual may then adopt an unconscious strategy of sexualizing the anger. Every time he experiences the same level of emotional intensity, he may masturbate to specific fantasies that help to make the rage more bearable. I don’t intend to pathologize sexualized rage, as I think that none of us are immune to this psychological process, but for the sake of simplification, if I tried to come up with neat categories, sex offenders, in particular, would be individuals who specifically are more likely to be motivated by sexualized rage. (Note: I want to clarify that sexualizing emotions is not in and of itself a pathological process, and highly disordered individuals are driven by other factors such as sociopathy in the case of sex offenders and OCD in the case of highly compulsive individuals.)

Shame is another emotion that can readily be sexualized. Sexologists Robert Stoller and John Money theorized that many specific sexual fetishes, for example, can be traced to some imprinting process at an early age that more often than not was linked to the experience of shame. So, according to them, someone who was ridiculed at an early age for let’s say something silly like having freckles, for example, would be more likely to develop a sexual interest in freckles as a means of dealing with the shame.  Or someone who fell off a carousel wheel and fell face first into dirt and was laughed at for it by other kids would be more likely to develop a fetish for dirt, called mysophilia. Often, folks who feel sexually compulsive have some sort of sexualized shame process going on internally.

Fear may be sexualized by adopting an arousal pattern for risky behavior, such as sex in public or other scenarios in which there is the real possibility of being caught and discovered.  I could go on and on. But the most relevant point here is that strong emotions can and often are sexualized as a means of managing those strong feelings. In this way, we can view sexualizing as a defense against the experience of pain created by intolerable emotions.

For more resources on this process, I suggest a great book entitled The Erotic Mind by Jack Morin. It is a classic in my field.