Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1963 ), coined the term sexual object, along with sexual aim, in order to discuss sexuality. According to Freud a sexual object is "the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds," whereas sexual aim refers to "the act toward which the instinct tends" (Freud 1905, p. 1, 2). Thus, the sexual object of a heterosexual man could be a woman and his sexual aim could be the completion of intercourse by orgasm. Such an example is regarded by Freud as a basic norm, but he then expands on the many and varied types of sexual objects that range from the mundane to the bizarre. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud not only highlights aberrant sexual patterns and describes their roots from a psychoanalytic perspective but also stresses that normal sexual behavior and object choice remain on the same continuum as deviant practices.
Drawing a fine line between perversion and normative behavior, Freud states that perversions occur in relation to typical sexual objects and aims. Perversions merely sexualize and eroticize nongenital bodily regions or fixate on close relations to the sexual object itself. The degree of abnormality achieved in perverted object choice and/or sexual aim is considered in a Freudian psychoanalytic view to be linked to a childhood conflict. Inability to seek a more appropriate and fulfilling object may present itself as a consequence of certain memories or fears.
In the realm of psychology deviant object choice is often a factor in the diagnosis of paraphilias. The paraphilias, representative of aberrant sexual patterns and behavior, are usually chronic conditions diagnosable through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV (1994). The following four examples of abnormal object choice are paraphilias.
Fetishism involves fantasy, arousal, and/or sexual behavior concerning a singular body part or inanimate object. As the DSM-IV notes, these sexual objects are not limited to things specially created for sexual gratification (i.e., vibrators). Common items utilized for sexual pleasure include leather, bras, panties, stockings, shoes, hair, and feet. To attain the given sexual aim the fetish object is necessary, or at the very least, intensely preferred during the sex act. Without the object the aim may not be achieved.
The attraction to the fetish may form, as presented by the psychoanalytic perspective, through a childhood conflict, or it may serve as a symbolic reminder of another sexual object. Some researchers attribute the fetish's power to a Pavlovian type of classical conditioning in which the fetishized object is continually experienced in conjunction with other sexually arousing material until at some point the fetish alone triggers the response of typical sexual objects.
One of the main paraphilias in the DSM-IV, voyeurism is the practice of watching others as they are disrobing, naked, or participating in sexual acts. Those who are being watched tend to be strangers and do not realize that they are in direct view. The unsuspecting individual becomes the sexual object for the voyeur, and he or she may fantasize that they are having sex with the object while looking and masturbating. Unlike the majority of the paraphilias, both men and women engage in voyeurism.
Some researchers hold that the exhibitionism involved in voyeurism is the result of traumatic childhood experiences. Studies also show that voyeurs often experience anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsiveness, and interpersonal communication difficulties. As is the case with a number of the paraphilias, people can engage in voyeurism more easily since the advent of the Internet; for example, via web cam feeds that allow the public access to private spaces.
Pedophilia, from the Greek for love of children, involves sexual urges, fantasies, and behavior focused upon or enacted with children. In such cases an immature sexual object substitutes for the typical adult, perhaps because the pedophile does not feel comfortable in adult relationships, feels empowered by the difference in age and authority, and/or has fixated upon and wishes to recapture some sexually arousing experience from childhood. Pedophiles tend to be males who appear to be well-adjusted and have steady work histories, although they can often be shy loners. Some child-abuse researchers draw a distinction between pedophiles and child molesters, noting that the latter generally have sporadic work histories along with histories of arrest. According to such definitions the child molester is also considered more likely to use aggressive force. The law, however, does not acknowledge such distinctions and prosecutes adults engaging in sexual contact with children regardless of the perpetrator's tendencies or history.
One of the rarer paraphilias is necrophilia, meaning love of the dead. Marked by obsessive interest in or sexual attraction to the dead, necrophilia may serve as an outlet for individuals who intensely need to confront death and dying. Necrophilia is not limited to sex with a corpse. A number of sexual acts such as stroking, rubbing, or masturbating in the vicinity of the body can be labeled as falling under this paraphilia.
There are three types of necrophilia: violent, fantasy, and romantic. The violent type may desire a corpse so relentlessly that they kill for one. Fantasy necrophiles sate their desires by imagining sexual encounters with a deceased sexual object and/or have sex with a person who is pretending to be dead. Finally, romantic necrophiles are those who cannot accept that their sexual object has died. Unable to sever the living bond of love, they forgo burial or cremation of their sexual object and keep the corpse.
Freud's usage of the term sexual object carries over into sexology and sociology while maintaining its psychoanalytic meaning. Sexual object in this sense must not be confused with the sociological understanding of sexual objectification. Sexual objects are many and varied and may be anyone or anything. Though certain object choices are criminalized or considered freakish or bizarre, their status may change as cultures change and may one day be deemed more acceptable.
American Psychological Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. 4th edition. Washington, DC: Author.
Freud, Sigmund. 1963. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books. (Orig. pub 1905.)
Heasman, Ainslie, and Elizabeth Jones. 2006. "Necrophilia." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Kenworthy, Tamar Marie, and Shay Litton. 2006. "Fetishism: Development, Personality Characteristics, Theories, and Treatment Indicators for the Fetishist." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Litton, Shay. 2006. "Pedophilia." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Neumann, Stephanie. 2006. "Voyeurism." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Peck, Matthew. 2006. "Somnophilia: A Paraphilia Sleeping in Social Science Research." In Sex Crimes and Paraphilia, ed. Eric W. Hickey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.