"Desexualization" may be most easily understood through a discussion of its antonym, "sexualization" (Freud, 1905d). From an analytic point of view, sexualization is a response on the one hand to the endogenous imperatives of the sexual instinct and on the other to the exogenous imperatives of the encounter with the object and its otherness. The sex drive comes into play at the boundary of the biological body and the psyche, tracing signs of its libidinal energy on the body. The body then becomes "erogenous," and bears the stamp of pleasure and unpleasure it experiences from encounters between a bodily source and a complementary object, the prime example of which is the encounter of mouth and breast.
The object, which is partial but complementary to the instinctual source, is present-absent as soon as mental life begins. Through its presence it participates in the experience of pleasure; its frustrating absence will push the mental subject toward the initial hallucinatory experience, which, interacting with perception, will constitute the basic of ideation. Sexualization and objectification are coexistent and coalescent. Sexualization is both a manifestation and an effect of the sexual impulse that libidinally cathects the object in a way that is both quantitative and qualitative, as reflected in the strength and the emotional form of the object-cathexis.
In Freud's first theory of the instincts, sexualization is subservient to and anaclitically dependent on the self-preservation that governs biological and mental life. Because of the paths taken by the object-libido, sexualization operates not only with respect to the object, but also with respect to the ego in the shape of the withdrawal of narcissistic libido. We may thus assume the existence of a desexualization of the object that goes hand in hand with the sexualization of the ego, and conversely.
If, for Freud, the sexual and the infantile are constitutive of the unconscious, it is strictly because of repression that they are preserved on this underlying level and separated from the conscious one. On the conscious level, the sexualizing activity of the psyche is not systematically apparent; signs of anticathexis and reaction formation may be discerned in manifest psychic contents that are desexualized while their latent inscriptions in the unconscious remain sexual. The gamut of psychic formations, including not only symptoms, be they hysterical, obsessive, or phobic, but also dreams, parapraxes, and slips, may appear to be "desexualized" yet betray, as compromise formations, latent sexual aspects that are accessible through free association. Childhood phobias are a case in point. The fear of a wild or domestic animal appears in the conscious mind as the repercussion of a traumatic event, associated with a concrete experience, but in fact it may be the transposed expression of, say, a guilty unconscious wish to have sexual relations with one's mother. In that case it will also express a fear of castration by the father, which is experienced as the prohibition of that wish.
Desexualization can thus be viewed as a conscious mental process that leaves repressed sexualization intact in the unconscious. Whence the importance of the preconscious as a meeting ground, a place where desexualization—characterized by the repression of sexual impulses—and resexualization—arising from the return of repressed ideas attached to infantile sexual activities and aroused during analysis by free association—can come together.
The Freudian concept of sublimation can help us understand the process of desexualization. It indicates a change of aim and object, which become social rather than sexual, and a shift from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. The sublimation of sexual impulses is associated with their plasticity; desexualization is in a way the precondition of access to socialization. Another psychic process, idealization, accounts for the transformation of the object, which, brought to perfection thanks to narcissistic projection, then becomes a model for identification.
The second theory of the instincts, and the second topography of the psychic apparatus that resulted from it, round out our understanding of the phenomena of desexualization. What is often called the great turning point of 1920 led Freud to rethink his instinct theory, taking into account a realm "beyond the pleasure principle" which he described in terms precisely consistent with the Nirvana principle, one of the basic tendencies of the psyche underpinning the compulsion to repeat and the push for a return to the inert and inanimate. Alongside the sexual instincts, therefore, and indeed predating them, another category of instincts, the death instincts, now needed to be considered. This meant that a tendency to non-sexualization and to deobjectification was present from the beginning of the development of the mind, a tendency that could serve as a focal point for desexualization now conceived as a return to the inert and the inanimate, as a kind of paradoxical desire for non-desire. The Freudian conception of primal masochism proposes a fundamental psychic structure involving the coalescence of sexual and death instincts. Masochism is fundamentally the organizer of autoeroticism as it is of narcissism, and it is at once the motor and consequence of instinctual fusion. As a sexualizing factor it may be a "guardian of life," but it can also be lethal, fostering desexualization and leaving the field open, as it were, to the death instinct. The work of melancholy that is present, more or less, in every depressive situation, includes the effects of desexualization and deobjectification: the tendency to suicide represents the most extreme form of the desire for non-desire and the victory of the death forces characteristic of this ultimate form of desexualization.
The notions of sublimation and idealization were also changed and refined by Freud's new conceptualization of instinctual dualism and of the functioning of the mind. Processes of identification, and more specifically primary identification, now presupposed a desexualization that can facilitate the transmutation of object-cathexes into the new instinctual vicissitudes implied by sublimation and idealization.
Although in the analytic literature the term "desexualization" later received more systematic treatment by Heinz Hartmann in the context of the "desexualized ego," as applied to adaptation to the social environment, it still seems important to distinguish clearly between a neurotic kind of desexualization characterized by repression of the sexual impulses, or by their sublimation and the idealization of the object, from a psychotic process engendered by the leveling effects of the death instinct on the sexual instincts.
In sum, as a result of the stimulation they represent relative to instinctual defusion, the psychic phenomena of desexualization are most clearly bound up, specifically, with the processes of unbinding, decathexis, and deobjectification; they also have a dialectical relationship with processes of identification.
See also: Ego and the Id, The ; Ego autonomy; "On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement"; Self, the ; Sublimation; Superego.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 125-245.
——. (1920g). Dr. Anton von Freund. SE, 18: 267 seq.
——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 12-59.
Hartmann, Heinz. (1964). Essays on ego psychology. New York, International Universities Press. (Original work published 1939)
Goldberg, Arnold. (1993). Sexualization and desexualization. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 62, 383-399.