A Freudian Analysis of Sexting
Photo Credit: By FlyBit43 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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What is a fantasy, exactly?
As we might expect, the question shows up frequently in the work of Sigmund Freud. In their 1968 essay “Fantasy and the Origin of Sexuality,” Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis note that “From its earliest days, psychoanalysis has been concerned with the material of fantasy.” And like most of the things Freud was greatly interested in, his views on the topic shifted quite a bit. In contrast to the general picture of Freud as a stubborn dogmatist, his theoretical writing actually shows a remarkable fluidity and a willingness to modify his positions rarely equaled by world-renowned thinkers. But I digress.
Fantasy is frequently understood, even by Freudians, in the same terms in which Susan Jacoby’s recent Op-Ed on Anthony Weiner seems to grasp it, in opposition to truth. There is a basic concrete reality to the world, and fantasy, in this logic, is a pale imitation of this world, a “virtual” copy of it: As Jacoby writes, “Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work.” There’s something distinctly quaint about this idea of sexting: The idea of “virtual sex,” like the idea of “virtual reality,” dates back to an era, some 20 years in the past, in which the Internet was a fad for undersexed geeks and not a fundamental infrastructure of the global economy. In this logic, as Laplanche and Pontalis summarize it, “The world of fantasy seems to be located exclusively within the domain of opposition between subjective and objective, between an inner world, where satisfaction is obtained through illusion, and an external world, which gradually, through the medium of perception, asserts the supremacy of the reality principle.”
One thing that remains consistent in Freud’s speculations on fantasy is its link to the reality principle. The reality principle provides the psyche with what we might today call “a reality check”: It examines the world to make sure that the image of it that exists in the individual’s mind reflects the actual order of things. The reality principle, properly functioning, helps ensure that our actions are a response to the world as it is and not to the world as we might like to imagine it; when the reality principle misfires, the result is delusion or delirium: psychosis, for Freud, is a “retreat from reality in the service of the id” (“Neurosis and Psychosis,” 1923).
The reality principle also helps us distinguish which objects of desire are attainable and which are not. Here, again, the true/false model of fantasy would reduce reality to simple availability: You masturbate to porn when the person you actually want to sleep with isn’t there. This notion in turn links fantasy with an entire array of value judgments: Fantasy is fake, it’s not “the real thing,” it’s not as good, it’s not as satisfying. Or, as in Jacoby’s case, fantasy is judged by way of a Calvinist work ethic: “You don’t have to do any preparation or work,” as Jacoby notes; fantasy is a form of laziness for people who want all the satisfaction with none of the effort. If you were serious about wanting sex, you’d get up and invest the time and work to make it actually happen.
But Freud understands fantasy very differently. In psychoanalysis, fantasy is not simply a pale imitation of the individual’s relationship to the real world; it is an entirely different relationship, to an entirely different world: “The opposite of play is not seriousness but reality.”