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Sperling, M. (1947). The Analysis of an Exhibitionist. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 28:32-45.

(1947). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 28:32-45

The Analysis of an Exhibitionist

Melitta Sperling


I have tried, in this presentation, to bring out particularly the relationship with the mother. In the course of two and a half years of analysis (five times a week) such a wealth of material acoumulated that it was possible to present only what I thought most relevant and illuminating.

It is not that I believe that the relationship with the father was not important, but I feel that in spite of the intense castration fear and unconscious homosexual submissiveness to his father, the deeper roots of his perversion sprang from his early relationship and identification with his mother.

If conclusions can be drawn from one case, it would seem to me that the greatest obstacle in analysing exhibitionists is their narcissism. After breaking down the narcisistic resistances of my patient, he could be analysed like any other psychoneurotic. It also seems to me that this case lends itself well to the study of the mechanisms which seem essential for the formation of genital exhibitionism in particular, and, if conclusions may be drawn from the analysis of one case, for perversions in general.

Freud, in his Introductory Lectures, says: 'If it is correct that real obstacles to sexual satisfaction or privation in regard to it bring to the surface perverse tendencies in people who would otherwise have shown none, we must conclude that something in these people is ready to embrace the perversions, or, if you prefer, that the tendencies must have been present in them in a latent form. Since the aims of perverse sexuality are identical with those of infantile sex, the possibility of every human being to become a pervert under certain circumstances is rooted in the fact that he was once a child.' If, potentially, everyone has the makings of a pervert, what is the specific quality that, under similar circumstances, will turn one individual into a pervert and not the other? And what determines the choice of the perversion?

Freud himself later broadened his concept of the relation of infantile sex to perversions by stressing the rôle of the ego, its strength and integrated function in the formation of psychoneurosis and psychosis, respectively. In one of his last papers, 'The Splitting of the Ego', he explains, with the example of a little boy, how a very traumatic experience that would have simply overwhelmed the child's ego was worked out by denial and displacement and split off from the ego, and later reproduced in the form of a perversion.

In the case of my patient we can clearly recognize his exhibitionism as a reaction to frustration. How does it come about that he reacts to frustration in this particular way? And what frustrating experience is being touched upon by the current

frustration and brought into play in the form of a perversion?

His analysis reveals that his early childhood, when he had to watch one baby after another take his place at mother's breast, was the most unhappy time of his life. Against the loss of mother, or rather mother's breast, he defended himself as shown consistently in his later behaviour—by denial and through identification with the lost object. By identifying himself with the nursing mother he was protecting himself against intolerable pain (depression). In his symptom he was doing actively what he felt had been done to him, that is, he was teasing the others by only showing his penis but not giving it to them (like mother who only showed her breasts to him but gave them to the other children).

That penis and breast were substituted by the patient, one for the other, has been clearly demonstrated. That seminal fluid and milk also could be substituted for each other in his mind is brought out, for instance, by the following: he begrudged his girl friend his emissions, fancying them to be so copious that he could fill a container and sell them to a laboratory. He remembers how impressed he was to learn that some men pay other men to let them suck their penises and consider it very nourishing. The connection of his exhibitionism with oral frustration is well demonstrated by the incident where, when he saw children in the street sucking lollypops, he experienced a strange longing simultaneously with a strong urge to exhibit himself.

In the later part of his analysis, he was able to relinquish his exhibitionism for food. The castration fear which was very apparent in the structure of his exhibitionism also had an oral colouring, as expressed in the fear of being devoured by a lion and his fear of vampires and dogs.

When confronted with a frustrating experience affectively associated with his traumatic experience the patient reacted compulsively with the symptom of exhibitionism. In exhibiting himself, he behaved as though he had to save himself from an impending catastrophe. Although he did not experience the sensation of panic, the accompanying physical symptoms were indicative of severe anxiety. He was very tense, felt that he had to exhibit, and that nothing could stop him from doing so. His mouth and skin were dry, his heart was beating rapidly, and he felt as though he had a fever. While this was his condition before exhibiting himself, afterwards he would feel physically exhausted and would break into a sweat. This is a reaction indicative rather of release from tension, and not one for securing pleasure.

Although the patient had very strong latent homosexual tendencies, he did not become a homosexual. While we should be content with trying to explain why something happened, and not why something did not happen, in this case the answer seems so obvious that I cannot help but offer it. Since, according to his unconscious, penis represented breast and vice versâ, the woman was not really a castrated object. She had a breast (equals penis), and therefore was not a totally unacceptable sexual object. While castration fear is very apparent in one layer of the unconscious, in another layer his fear is actually that of losing his life because of having been abandoned by his mother.

The irresistibility of the urge is indicative of the weakness of his ego and it seems that this patient's main problem was his inability to tolerate frustration, which he had tried to work out narcissistically by reassuring denials.

1. Denial of being afraid. Instead of avoiding danger, he feels drawn to it. 'There was always an element of danger that attracted me (to sports)', he says. The very way in which he exhibited himself in crowded subways was extremely dangerous. It was a play with danger in which he had to master himself by a narrow escape at the last minute. This would lead us to a discussion of masochism, very much apparent in the patient's behaviour, but which is beyond the scope of this paper.

2. Denial of castration by exhibiting his penis. 'I have a penis and it is so big that I am not ashamed to show it to everybody.' (Actually he was a bashful person who felt inferior in regard to his body size and especially so about the size of his penis.)

3. Denial of the earliest frustration, the trauma of weaning (primal castration), that is, loss of the mother's breast. By exhibiting himself, he showed, 'I have a breast myself. Here, you can see it. I am showing it to everybody.'

4. Throughout his personality we can see his attempt to work with these denials and over-compensations, e.g. he is better than everybody else, much better than his brother; he can do things that others cannot do; he is liked by everybody and he has many girl friends, etc.

From the material presented here, it would therefore seem justifiable to consider his exhibitionism not as a true perversion, but as a symptomatic action like the action of impulse-ridden characters who show strong oral fixations and who are psychodynamically classified as a group between neurosis and perversion.

Oral fixation in perversion has been stressed by such authors as Jones, Fenichel and Carp, who describes a case of a mixed perversion in which the similarity of the substitution of breast and penis is strikingly like that of our patient. More recently, Christophel has emphasized the orality in exhibitionism, in one instance describing briefly some features similar to those of my case.

Freud, in the above quoted paper, also remarked upon the oral regression in his patient and described how the boy transformed his castration fear into a fear of being eaten by his father. In the case of my

patient we see the over-emphasis on food and his fear of vampires and animals in general. Oral fixation, therefore, would seem the most important determinant for the origin of exhibitionism.

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