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  • Special Issue on PERVERSION, American Imago
  • Andrea Celenza (bio) and Murray M. Schwartz (bio)


Psychoanalysis as a body of knowledge has always encompassed contested areas; some of these concepts and ideas are deemed controversial yet remain within our lexicon, while others are discarded or become taboo. The topic (or even the word) perversion is one such vexed subject—pathologizing in tone and connotation, with outdated referents that arouse enormous anxiety and even hostility.

This is not without reason or merit. Historically, the term has been used in ways that have harmed certain subgroups (homosexuals being the most flagrantly harmed group) to very real exclusionary and damaging effects. Despite a complete reversal in recent years, the damage (and guilt) remains palpable and the mere utterance of the word perversion can rankle and alienate. Hence, for some psychoanalytic practitioners, the term has become forbidden territory, and those who dare to even think it are judged immoral, while others make use of it, but often without being explicit about its parameters.

At least aspirationally, we are not an industry that traffics in moralism and judgmentalism. We judge (as part of thinking) but do not pre-judge, and we do not value judgmentalism—that being a proclivity to view others absent compassion, empathy, and understanding. We aspire to openness and free communication of even hateful feelings and thoughts. Our unconscious houses the full range of human potentiality, for good or ill. Doesn't free association promote the expression of destructive forces that live in our psyche so that the naming of such can lead to greater understanding? In this vein, does naming have to be pathologizing in such a way that harms rather than facilitates understanding? The relevance of these questions varies around [End Page 627] the psychoanalytic world. Some analysts use the term perversion freely, while others, especially in North America, revile it.

Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by defining basic psychoanalytic ideals and goals that surround and embed—indeed, are definitional of—mental health. Psychoanalysis is a process with implicit assumptions about what it means to grow and flourish in ways that are healthy and expansive. What are the elements that make up such a mind and life? Though we do not legislate ways of being or instruct our patients about the choices they should make, we promote a process that engenders mentally healthy capacities, ways of being toward oneself and others that are mutually vitalizing and constructive. To cultivate these capacities is to expand the range of choices for our patients. Among these are the capacity to experience the full range of feelings, to construct meaning of one's life, to heal splits and fragmented parts of the self, and to cultivate a multiplicity of self-states, with flexibility among them. We strive toward an integration of multiple self-states (even if never achieved) and eschew binary or inflexible (either/or) ways of being. In terms of sexuality, a contemporary assumption focuses on inherent psychic bi- or multi-sexuality, a fluidity and flexibility in terms of sexual functioning and sexual experience. This does not necessitate a living out of such fluidity, but refers to the psychic acceptance of a multiplicity of racialized, ethnic, gendered, and sexual identities, a multiplicity in potential, so to speak. (Some of these identities will be metaphoric, while others have roots in concrete reality.)

All of these capacities lead to greater inner strength, affective resonance, frustration tolerance, empathic capacity, and, inevitably, wisdom. We do not teach these capacities but cultivate them, exploring defensive inhibitions and fragmentations in the process. How our patients make use of these capacities is ultimately up to them.

In these ways, the strivings of psychoanalytic processes are not conceived at behavioral or physiological levels, but rather as immersed in a process with metaphysical, psychological, and emotional goals. It is the inner life where we train our attention and embed ourselves—in the development of capacities that liberate our patients from behavioral or other psychic [End Page 628] constraints. Though these aspirations will have physiological substrates that can be linked to behavioral manifestations, they do not differentiate the perverse from the non-perverse at psychological or emotional levels.

Therefore, we...