Sexual Instinct

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Sexual Instinct

A sexual instinct is the innate drive to have sexual relations. In biological terms instincts are behaviors that occur as if natural and without teaching or model. They are species-specific practices for life and survival. How animals know, for example, what to eat or that they should migrate or hibernate for the winter, are instincts. That organisms seek sexual relations with one another is also an instinct believed to be founded on a compulsion to reproduce. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) thought sexual instincts comprised a part of what he called human will. Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) also tried to understand how the sexual instinct relates to the mental and emotional mechanisms governing human behavior. Some scientists believe that humans do not have a sexual instinct at all, because humans learn primarily from their social environment and because any behavior that might have been instinctive can be altered and overcome by thought.


Biologists consider instincts to be preprogrammed responses to external stimuli. Instincts are a part of preintellectual behavior that is not based on any prior learning or experience. Many biologists consider instinct to be a series of traceable fixed-action patterns triggered by a key stimulus. Pheromones, chemical signals detected by smell, for example, constitute a key stimulus for the release of some sex hormones. These hormones in turn provoke sexual behaviors.

The behavior of animals is often understood as instinctive. Their survival techniques and drive to court and reproduce are considered instincts. But biologists debate whether or not human beings are as governed by instincts as other species seem to be. Some biologists, such as Martha K. McClintock (1999), think that humans also have pheromone signals. For example, a substance excreted by nursing women seems to increase sexual desire in other women. The perfume industry has tried to profit by including various pheromones, believed to increase sexual desire, in perfumes. Others think that humans respond more readily to facial signals, language, and other behavioral cues.

For humans, however, sexual instincts may be more psychological than responses to chemical stimuli. Schopenhauer believed that human will—the driving force of unrest—was constituted by irrational internal instincts that governed human behavior, the most important of which was the sexual instinct. In Schopenhauer's thinking individuals did not have their own separate wills, but all shared in a larger group will that governed the species. "Man is incarnate sexual instinct," Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation (1819); "he owes his origin to copulation and the wish of his wishes is to copulate." For Schopenhauer the sexual instinct is the "highest affirmation of life," and "the most important concern of Man and animal." And, "In conflict with it, no motivation, however strong, would be sure of victory." He goes on to say that the "sexual act is the unceasing thought of the unchaste and the involuntary, the ever recurring daydream of the chaste, the key of all intimations, an ever ready matter for fun, an inexhaustive source of jokes." Furthermore, as an instinct, Schopenhauer points out, the sexual instinct is "a delusion of the individual, who believes to care for his welfare whereas he is fulfilling the aim of the Species" (Ellenberger 1970, pp. 208-209).


Other philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), believed in a sexual instinct as a force operating in the human psyche, but it was Schopenhauer's ideas that influenced the thinking of Freud. Freud believed that the human psyche was a dynamic system comprised of conscious wishes, motivations, and actions, which were themselves influenced by unconscious desires and drives. Throughout his long career Freud would develop theories about how the unconscious relates to the conscious as well as how the unconscious is structured. He used these theories as the basis for treating patients suffering from various psychological disorders and symptoms. Early in his career, for example, Freud hypothesized that repressed sexual desires were the underlying cause of many psychological symptoms. As he studied female patients with hysteria—nervous tics, odd speech patterns, and anxieties—he determined that these symptoms were the effects of repressed sexual wishes.

But sexual wishes were, for Freud, different from a sexual instinct, which operated on an even deeper level. Freud understood the sexual instinct to be the force that compelled people to continue to live and mate and that pushed against such other instincts as the death instinct or the pleasure principle, which represented a desire for stillness or quiescence. This sexual instinct is much more than sexuality itself but is an intrinsic pressure to continue and seek disquiet. In terms of Freud's dynamic theories, the sexual instinct is the same as what he calls the libido, the energy that underwrites desire and drive.

According to Freud, in comparison with biological instincts, which have a specific chemical chain of cause and effect, sexual instinct is the idea of a psychic force without any specific object or aim. It exists between the body and the mind. Although the sexual instinct tends to link to one or another of the body's erogenous zones as a path for satisfaction, it can also gain satisfaction in a large number of ways with a wide variety of objects. The sexual instinct is thus fragmented and scattered and becomes organized only through an individual's fantasies and experiences.

In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud examined the various kinds of objects and aims through which the sexual instinct might work. In this theory the sexual instinct itself is undifferentiated—that is, it has no natural or inherent goal such as reproduction. Instead, the instinct is expressed through a number of different desires or aims that might fix on a variety of objects. Thus, for example, the sexual instinct works equally for an individual who wants oral sex with a male partner as it does for a male who wishes sexual intercourse with a female partner. It works as well for someone whose aim is masturbation as it does for someone whose aim is voyeurism, or watching others engaged in sexual activity.

In Freud's theory, however, this scattered sexual instinct is an intrinsic part of a developing human psyche. For Freud, small children evince a sexual instinct. Young childhood is the period during which the sexual instinct becomes associated with specific erogenous zones, aims, and types of objects. As individuals develop, the sexual instinct becomes increasingly linked to fantasies, including cultural ideas, that push the instinct in certain directions, such as reproductive sex or homosexuality. In Freud's theories, the sexual instinct also forms the material that is repressed by individuals. This means that very often individuals are not aware that the sexual instinct is the force behind certain decisions, wishes, or actions. It becomes evident, for example, in the famous Freudian slips, in which the mispronounced word generally refers to a sexual act or object.

Throughout an individual's life the sexual instinct, which Freud later calls Eros, works in a dynamic relationship with other primal forces, such as the death instinct, or the desire to stop. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud mapped the ways these various forces interact to keep individuals going. He links the sexual instincts to an Eros and later to a life instinct, which includes both the desire to create life and the desire to survive. The desire to create life, or Eros, originally represented some primeval state of joinder. Citing Aristophanes's (c. 448–c. 388 bce) story of early beings in Plato's (427–347 bce) writing, Freud saw Eros as the desire to return to a primordial state in which all beings were joined to another being in couples—male to male, female to female, and male to female. In Freud's later work the sexual instinct is linked in this way to a desire to merge with another—not necessarily as an impulse toward reproduction, but as a desire to return to an earlier state of existence.


Although the term libido refers to the sexual instinct after it has become bound to an object or an aim, most references to sexual instinct after Freud really mean libido instead of instinct. Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), for example, understood libido as psychic energy in general. Contemporary references to sexual instinct in popular culture refer primarily to libido as sexual desire.

New studies of the human genome and especially studies of the connections between genes and behavior have posited the possibility that sexual instincts are genetically programmed. There is as yet no evidence that such a complicated behavior as sexuality is genetic, nor that a single instinct accounts for sexual desire, urges to reproduce, or the libido. Sexual instinct is, however, often used as a rationale for not controlling sexual urges. A desire that is instinctive is viewed as uncontrollable, or controlled only with difficulty. Thus, as with human nature, the sexual instinct tends to excuse lapses in judgment. Sexual instinct is also seen as an inalienable right and as one of the basic motivations of humanity. As a motivation sexual instinct sometimes works better when repressed or sublimated—put aside while its energy is used to create art or conduct research. The sacrifice of sexual instinct is also considered to be virtuous, as when clerics choose to be celibate.

see also Psychoanalysis.


Ellenberger, Henri F. 1970. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 7, ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 18, ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

McClintock, Martha K. 1999. "Pheromones and Regulation of Ovulation." Nature 401(6750): 232-233.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1966 [1958]. The World as Will and Representation. 2 vols., trans. E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover.

                                          Judith Roof