Sex sells, excites, intrigues, arouses. And it’s not an acquired taste, but something that’s there from our first moments of existence.
“The human infant is turned on by everything, each and every thing arouses infants sexually, they’re not selective,” says the scholar of sexuality and psychoanalyst Danielle Knafo. “The infant doesn’t care whether you’re man, woman or trans, whether you’re old or young, animal or inanimate object – it’s excited by everything. The point of departure of all of us is polymorphous sexuality, as Freud termed it, that’s how we start our life, and it has a tremendous influence.”
That exciting beginning very quickly brings about a painful clash. “The point is that we need to live in society and therefore we can’t do whatever we wish,” Knafo says. “And a large part of what we’re forbidden to do is related to sexuality. Laws, parents, the school system, religion – they’re all there in order to control us, and mainly to control our sexuality. That’s what makes us so complex. It’s not only because we have strong impulses. The thing is that, society keeps saying, ‘You can’t,’ it’s constantly trying to restrain our innate polymorphic sexuality.”
That restraint is experienced as a trauma and leaves scars that shape our continued life as sexual beings. “Trauma exists at different levels,” she continues. “Not everyone has been sexually abused, but as human beings we all experience a trauma of boundaries: It doesn’t matter how good-hearted our parents are, they tell us what to do, and that always feels aggressive by the very fact that they are commanding us. My son was angry at me for years because I told him he had to go to Hebrew school. He felt I had caused him a trauma, and that was over something simple, positive. I sent him to a good place. All parents are dictators, enlightened more or less, who rule for a very long period: 18 years.”
Many times the psyche’s way to cope with the unavoidable traumas of childhood, Knafo says, is by returning to the place of the hurt during adult sexual relations: “To return to a place of trauma is dangerous, we can be hurt again, but if that doesn’t happen, there can be a feeling of achievement, of control, and that is exciting. For example, a patient whose family mocked his masculinity – his older sisters and his mother dressed him in girls’ clothes and humiliated him. When he grew up he became a cross-dresser. He doesn’t want to be a woman, he only dresses like a woman and then takes out his penis and says, ‘Ha! I’m a man, in spite of what you did to me.’ And that excitement makes him orgasm.
“Human desire is restless, and people are looking for thrills all the time,” she notes, “including forbidden thrills and experiences that unconsciously reconstruct hurts, humiliation and destabilizing events from childhood that have remained unprocessed. One of the most widespread perversions is of men who put on a diaper and are humiliated by a dominatrix. They are replaying something that happened to them, but now feel in control over the situation and even derive pleasure from it.”
Hang on, is that widespread?
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I’m not in the loop.
“The British psychoanalyst Brett Kahr analyzed sexual fantasies of 23,000 men and women of all ages. He found that many of them contain strong imagery of sadism, masochism and other types of forms of harm. If we were to actualize our fantasies, a good many of us would end up in prison, he wrote. Perversions come from places of conflict, abuse, trauma. People take something very hard and try unconsciously to do something with it.”
Twisting the truth
Knafo, a professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University, is one of the world’s leading theoreticians of sexuality. The fruits of her years of research are concentrated in her 2020 book “The New Sexual Landscape and Contemporary Psychoanalysis” (co-written with Rocco Lo Bosco; Confer Books), which interweaves therapeutic insights with the latest sociological research.
Knafo was born in the port city of Safi in western Morocco and moved as a child with her parents to the United States. “That was a tremendous change,” she relates, “but the home remained Moroccan – the food, the tradition, the music.” She continues to visit Morocco frequently and is the vice president of the Muslim-Jewish association of Moroccans in New York.
At the age of 17 Knafo came to Israel alone and studied Hebrew (her fourth language, after French – which she spoke at home – English and Spanish). She obtained two academic degrees in Israel, in clinical psychology and English literature, and then returned to the United States where she trained as a psychoanalyst. Subsequently she spent another period in Israel, where she gave birth to her son, her only child, as a single mother. We meet in the apartment she’s renting in Tel Aviv on Hayarkon Street by the sea during a visit to Israel, during which she lectured at Tel Aviv University.
Knafo’s research in sexuality has led her to insights that go beyond the bedroom.
“In psychoanalysis we emphasize sexuality, but perversion can appear in every human activity,” she says. “It’s a very widespread phenomenon today in big companies, in the mental health industry, in governments. It exists in every system that in its activity distorts its original meaning and goal. Let’s look at the police system, for example. It’s obvious that they’re there to guard us, to provide protection, but then we see a police officer pressing on someone’s neck for nine-and-a-half minutes – that is a perversion of policing, he’s doing the opposite of what he’s supposed to do.”
Perversion, Knafo observes, is the phenomenon that most characterizes our era. In her 2016 book, “The Age of Perversion: Desire and Technology in Psychoanalysis and Culture,” she writes, “Although we agree that anxiety, narcissism, terror, and psychopathy are powerful forces in today’s culture, we see them subsumed in what we call the age of perversion.”
What is perversion?
“A central aspect of perversion is denial of some aspect of reality. The main defense mechanism in perversion, according to Freud, is that of disavowal. Perversion always involves an illusion that reality is not what it is, which is a central characteristic of our culture. Along with that, in perversion there is objectification, dehumanization and exploitation, which are also very prominent in present-day society.”
By your definition, Israel is a perverse country.
Perversion is in every human activity. Take the police. It’s there to protect us, but then we see a cop pressing on someone’s neck for 9.5 minutes – that is a perversion of policing, he’s doing the opposite of what he’s supposed to do.Knafo
“There is disavowal of the Palestinian reality here. I was here for two weeks and no one talked about it, as though it doesn’t exist. In perversion you take a slice of reality that you can’t cope with, and deny, invalidate or reverse it. For example, the fetishist who can have sex with a woman only if she’s wearing high heels. That’s a very common perversion, but what’s happening there? According to Freud, that man is actually afraid of the female genitals, and his only way to approach a woman is to obliterate the difference between the sexes, which he does by giving her a phallus: the high-heeled shoe. But it’s an illusion: There is no actual phallus, she’s just wearing shoes. Or another example: necrophilia. I wrote an article about that. The necrophile denies that the object is in fact dead.”
Isn’t the necrophile turned on by the fact that the body is dead?
“No, what arouses him is that the object can’t resist – just as there are people who drug women so they will be completely submissive. But he imagines that the corpse is alive and can love him. There’s a denial of the difference between living and dead.”
Let’s return for a moment to the perverted attitude toward the Palestinians.
“We imagine that they don’t exist, and then occasionally a war breaks out and the disavowal doesn’t work. Suddenly people have to cope with reality. But it’s not only that we deny their existence; we ignore their humanity, their civil rights. That’s a perversion, because we like to think of ourselves as a democracy, as being humane, moral. But then they [the Palestinians] are not given vaccinations. We are the good guys, but go to the border crossings and see what is being done there to people. That’s the definition of perversion: dehumanization, the treatment of people as object and not as subject. You see it in politics, in business, even in psychology. In the United States, when they would catch terror suspects, psychologists were in charge of the interrogation.”
I imagine that the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service also employ psychologists.
“They are people who are supposed to treat others, to help, and they make use of their knowledge to oversee torture! They overturn the very essence of the profession. That is perversion.”
What would you say about Benjamin Netanyahu?
“Oh, that’s a tough one.”
All over the world, it’s sex that sells newspapers. In Israel, sex has a serious competitor.
“Netanyahu is a political genius who believes that rules that apply for others apply for touch him. He’s not willing to accept certain aspects of reality, he’s not willing to forgo his power; his sense of omnipotence is unbounded.
Does he really think he is above the law, that what he does is all right?
“Yes, he is denying an aspect of reality.”
That’s why it’s so convincing to others.
“Look at Trump. Do you remember how he held up the Bible but the book was upside down? He was asked which part of the Bible he likes best, and he replied, ‘I love all of it.’ It’s obvious that he’s never read the Bible, but evangelicals think he’s the messiah. Trump is the farthest person from morality and religion in the world, and they deny that reality. That’s perversion. And of course, the biggest denial is of the fact that he lost the election to [Joe] Biden.”
From what you say it turns out that between a quarter and a half of U.S. citizens are perverted in some way, and the same in Israel. Netanyahu has broad support from Mizrahi and traditionalist population groups, even though he’s totally secular and Ashkenazi.
“I am Moroccan by origin, and that isn’t the politics I’d like to see. But yes, if you want to strengthen your religious tradition and you vote for Netanyahu – there’s something perverted about it, because it means acting against your traditionalist values. You start to see that everywhere. The leader twists the truth and people follow him.”
Does following a perverted leader mean that you too are becoming perverted?
“It means that you are agreeing to take part in the perverted illusion, to deny an aspect of reality.”
Can perversion be a collective phenomenon?
Can perversion be a collective phenomenon? “Of course. Nazism was a collective perversion.”
“Of course. Nazism was a collective perversion.”
Do you discern collective perversion on that scale today?
“There are many countries that are moving in a fascist direction. Denial of the environmental crisis is a collective social perversion. The world is liable to be destroyed, everyone could die, and we are denying it.”
Death and sex
The denial of death is the oldest, biggest and most common perversion of all. It’s also here that perversion and sexuality unite in full force.
Knafo: “Perversion is in effect the subversion of society, religion, laws, everything that limits us. The pervert wants to shatter limitations, and that includes the limitations of the body. The body sickens, ages and dies. The pervert denies that. Sex makes us feel alive, and it also gives life. So it is the counterforce to this absolute limitation that exists in us, that we all want to shatter. Sex is a fistfight with death, and perversion is the existential revolt that is implanted in the consciousness of a self-aware animal.”
People were dying, and protested that fact a thousand years ago, too. Why then is our era the age of perversion?
“There have been many ages of perversion, ours is not the first. But two things set our age apart. First of all, the finality of death is a bigger problem today than in previous eras, when most people believed in a divine plan and in the promise of immortality. But what makes our times unprecedented in their perversion is the technology – the speed with which technology is advancing and changing everything in our life. There are wonderful things about that, too, but there are also aspects of our use of technology and of our addiction to technology that are making our dehumanization of others more extreme, and much more commonplace.”
People tend to assume that the dehumanization is always directed at the Other, not at oneself.
“But the two always go together. If you dehumanize the Other you also always identify with that unconsciously. It happens in pornography. There are no subjects in pornography, there is no intimacy. If you watch porn you are killing something within yourself: the ability to care about the Other, the ability to identify with the Other’s humanity. I have treated quite a few porn addicts – many of them develop the feeling that they are like zombies, they lose themselves.”
Knafo says she is not against pornography. She even finds two things to say in its favor (“If you have a singular sexual preference but live in a conservative community, you will not feel as isolated or strange [if you use porn]; and, it can also spice up couples’ sex lives”). But she is very much opposed to two phenomena related to pornography, both of which she finds highly problematic.
“One is that children today are exposed to porn before they develop their sexual tastes as young people – what they like and what they don’t. On average, children today are exposed to porn at the ages of 9 to 11! Pornographic images are very strong, and they confuse them. They see porn, and they think, ‘That’s what I want.’ It forces on them something from the outside instead of them developing their own desires.
“The second problem with porn is the addiction. More and more people are becoming addicted, even at a very young age. The younger a child is when exposed to porn, the more easily they become addicted. The brain is more susceptible to influence [at that age]. In China, there are hundreds of re-education camps for children who have become addicted to porn. I am currently treating two addicted men. Both are in long-term relationships, and they haven’t had sex with their partners for years. Yet they love them. There are more male addicts, but women are catching up. Thirty percent of porn viewers are women, and there are addicts among them, too.”
Knafo quotes researchers who maintain that without porn, the web would implode. “Pornography is what sustains the internet. One of every six visits to the web is for the purpose of pornography, and according to estimates, 80 percent of the dark web is devoted to child pornography. If you want to understand how important sex is, all you need do is go on the internet. I tell my students that if they want to learn about their patients’ unconscious, they should ask them which sites they use. If they’re into pornography, ask them what they look at, whom they identify with.”
You actually ask your patients what they do online?
“Absolutely! I ask when it’s appropriate, but I definitely ask. And the answer is always a surprise. I have been a therapist for many years, I’ve worked with hundreds of patients, and I am surprised anew each time I learn about the sex life of the patients, about their porn viewing habits. That’s one of the things I can’t guess in advance.”
Why is sexuality such an unexpected aspect of our personality?
“Because it’s a compartmentalized region of behavior, which undergoes dissociation. Our personality is relatively cohesive, but this is something that doesn’t belong to it. Our sex life is separate from the rest of life, starting in childhood. Parents mirror everything the child does: The child eats, the parent eats with them, the child even goes to the bathroom with the parent. But sex is always behind closed doors, the parent will not mirror it. If the child starts touching himself, we don’t say, ‘What a cutie! He discovered his little pecker!’ The message is that it’s private, secret. It’s the only region of behavior that parents sidetrack. And as the child grows up this becomes even more problematic for the parents. So that part of who we are becomes foreign to us.”
Not only do the parents not observe, they also forbid it.
“We have our polymorphous sexuality from birth, and the parents keep saying, ‘Not yet, not yet – when you grow up.’ But children aren’t able to delay gratification. What? Wait 15 years? I want it now! So what do we do? We fantasize. That’s why fantasizing is such a central aspect of human sexuality. From a young age we’re told, ‘Put that aside, wait,’ but we don’t put anything aside, we create stories that become part of our sexuality, which is largely unconscious.”
Sex is a fistfight with death, and perversion is the existential revolt that is implanted in the consciousness of a self-aware animal.Knafo
Which is another reason why sex is such a complex issue.
“Humans have not only a sex drive, which is biological, but also an erotic drive. Eros is the addition of meaning to sex, the addition of fantasy to sex, the addition of complexity to sex.”
We can’t simply have sex.
“Not really. There could be relatively straightforward sex, but even then there will always be this human aspect, the erotic. Should I be with this person? Was it too fast? Too slow? Does she want me to do it? It’s there all the time in the background. Animals don’t have that, they just do what they do. They don’t have impotence problems, which by the way is something that young men are experiencing increasingly today. A quarter of the men who suffer from impotence are under 40.”
‘Too much trouble’
You’d have thought that there would be a decline in sexual problems, considering that society is becoming more open.
“Things are open, permitted, but alongside that there is more anxiety around sexuality. Young people are having less sex and starting later, even though sexual maturity is arriving earlier. Between a quarter and a third of the young people in Japan, people in the most hormonally driven part of their lives, forgo sex. They’ve decided that it’s too complicated. They even have a word for it: mendokusai, meaning ‘too much trouble.’ They can masturbate while seeing porn, but with other people – too much trouble! And it’s true. People are problematic, complicated. You have to think all the time: What does he want? Does this mean I’m committed now? Am I all right?”
A substitute for a human relationship that has become more widespread in recent years, thanks to technology, is the use of sex dolls. Knafo talks about a lengthy study she conducted in the United States on men who maintain a sex life and family life with dolls. One of them, for example, has been married for 25 years to a doll he named Sidore – a Japanese sex doll. “He even learned Japanese so he could talk to her.”
Wait a minute – she speaks Japanese?
“No, of course not, she doesn’t speak, she’s a doll. But this is exactly where the denial comes in. I asked him about that – he’s a very intelligent person – and he said, ‘I’m treading a very thin line between knowing she’s a doll and thinking she’s human. And sometimes I fall over the line.’ I asked him how he explains their long, stable relationship, and he replied, ‘We never argue.’”
Delightful. They probably also don’t experience a decline in desire after they have children, have to take out a mortgage, all that.
“That did happen, actually. Just like with human couples after a few years together. This man took a second doll as a lover. He told himself that he took her so Sidore wouldn’t be alone when he was at work. We all need renewal. There’s an equation: Sexual excitement equals attraction plus obstacle.”
So for a longtime couple who are a bit jaded you would recommend adding an obstacle?
“Yes, whatever can introduce renewal, a little spice, in the relationship. It could be a fantasy that one of the sides has, or the addition of a third person.”
Meaning, the polyamorous solution – or the second popular practice of our time: BDSM.
“One of the reasons that BDSM is so popular today, I think, is the growing equality in the relations between the sexes. In the past, the man was responsible, he was the provider, and the woman was more submissive and dependent. Today there’s less tension there, and BDSM brings it back. Because what does it do, after all? It makes one person dominant and the other submissive. And then you can preserve the power game in sex even if it doesn’t exist in everyday life.
“One study found that Scandinavians, whose relationships are more gender-equal, have sex less than in cultures where the differences still exist. I have a female patient who has a considerate, gentle, charming partner, but he doesn’t turn her on in bed. So she demands that he play macho. It shows how far sexuality can be detached from who we are in everyday life. In the everyday, she wants a gentle guy – but not in bed.”
With Facebook offering 60 genders to choose from, can we still talk about differences between men and women? Hasn’t that distinction become passé?
“Gender is a fluid and diverse structure. It’s a mixture of culture and experiences that a person has had in different contexts, even a result of our creativity. But we are still born into a biological body. Many people who change their gender also change their biological body, by taking hormones or having surgery. One of my patients, who transitioned from a woman to man, told me that on the day he started taking testosterone, he entered an elevator and wanted to punch everyone in it. So it’s impossible to say that there is no difference between men and women.
“By the way, there are also differences between men and women in perversions. Men express the perversion, like many other pathologies, more externally. They dehumanize the Other, manipulate and objectify. Women, though, will internalize, will objectify themselves or someone who’s connected to them whom they see as their offshoot, like their child.”
The finality of death is a bigger problem today than in previous eras, when most people believed in a divine plan and in the promise of immortality. But what makes our times unprecedented in their perversion is technology.Knafo
And then the object of the perversion is the child?
“Yes. There are women with perverted motherhood, like those who do everything so their child will be someone – a model, or a musician. They are obsessive, and the child becomes an object for them. Women who have plastic surgery time and again are also trying to transform themselves into the perfect object.”
BDSM plays exactly on this tension, between internalizing and externalizing the perversion.
“It’s a practice that always existed, but in the cellar. Now it’s everywhere, because of the changes we talked about. Even Harvard has a BDSM club! Everywhere you go you can be taught how to tie up your partner.”
Isn’t that sort of missing the point? If it’s no longer in the cellar, what’s the purpose?
“It’s true that the thrill frequently comes from doing something you’re not supposed to do. That’s why people are becoming more extreme. In a study we found that people who started with soft porn simply get used to it, and then they need something more intense. It’s a very slippery slope. Everyone thinks that to be a pedophile you need to be ‘that way,’ but there’s a study that found that there are people who had no pedophilic inclination, but they became addicted to porn, moved from soft porn to the harder and harder variety, and ended up with pedophilia.”
Raising the ante
Something similar happens in politics. What was once extreme, illegal, is today considered legitimate.
“It’s the same process. We habituate ourselves to something and then we feel the need to up the ante.”
How does all this sit with the fact that in the West, we are living in a society that is probably the most politically correct in human history?
“First of all, it’s good that there is more freedom to be who you are and not be attacked for it. But sometimes it goes to such extremes that it becomes perverted in itself. In academia, you can hardly say anything anymore. At my university, we had a very well-known professor who, on one occasion, used the word ‘riot’ instead of the acceptable term, ‘demonstration.’ He was punished. Well, there really are riots, not only demonstrations. The thing is that whenever there is something that’s forbidden, a perversion will appear.”
The stricter the ban, the more blatant its violation will be.
“You’re saying that this is forbidden to me? I’ll show you what’s what! So we have BlackLivesMatter on the one side, and thriving racist porn on the other side. The pornography on the internet is the farthest thing there is from the politically correct. Incest is one of the popular categories on sex sites. We learned that there’s a taboo that is universal, in all cultures. And then comes porn and shows us: forget the taboo! The id runs wild on the porn sites.”
We talked about aggression, trauma, perversion. What about love? Is there a connection between sex and love?
“There might be, but there doesn’t have to be.”
But it’s the ideal.
“It’s the fantasy of us all. We grew up with those fairy tales – ‘and they lived happily every after.’”
And had amazing sex.
“We never get to that part in fairy tales! Of course they could go together – love and sex – and it’s marvelous when that happens. But sometimes it doesn’t happen, and that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that the couple isn’t good. When I was a psychology student – a long time ago – it was said that only psychologically healthy people have good sex. That’s bull. I work with very disturbed people, and some of them have terrific sex. And there are also healthy people, with a great partnership, couples who are best friends, and they haven’t had sex for years.”
But doesn’t love improve sex? All other conditions being equal, isn’t sex with love preferable?
“Sometimes it improves things, sometimes it spoils them. There are people who can enjoy sex only when they’re with someone they don’t love, who doesn’t remind them of Mom, or someone about whose feelings they don’t have to be considerate.”
So we can’t say that love contributes to sex.
“It can. But it can also be the opposite. Sex is a strange thing. Susie Orbach, who was Princess Diana’s psychotherapist, wrote a book titled ‘The Impossibility of Sex.’ It is simply impossible. We need it, we want it, it drives us crazy, we are unable to forgo it. Even when people can’t have sexual relations, they still think about it incessantly. It is something so significant in our outer life, and even more in our inner life, if not directly then as a sublimation. It’s everywhere.”