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Sexuality as Failure: Psychoanalytic Concepts, Cultural Perspectives

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This contribution focuses on the ways in which sexuality is negotiated in western societies today, ensuing from two cultural examples:

  • In November 2017, within the context of the #MeToo campaign, a British mother urged for the banning of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from elementary school books, stating that it promotes “inappropriate” sexual behavior.

  • The article headlined “Voll Porno” (All Porn), published 2007 in the weekly German magazine, stern, can be seen in the context of the so-called “pornographization”. The piece laments that some children “no longer learn what love is”.

This contribution argues that both of these morally laden discourses “fail” themselves. Contrary to their own agenda, the way in which their content and messages are relayed appears to, in and of itself, actually perpetrate what they are negatively evaluating rather than exclude it: namely, a victimization or fetishization of endangered white innocence and a transgression of limits, respectively. In the context of subsequent theoretical considerations, some psychoanalytic reflections about sexuality’s confusing, “transboundary” aspects are given. Here the question is: Isn’t sexuality always a form of “failure”? Overall, shown through selected cultural productions, this contribution examines the central question: What is missing in today’s cultural concepts of sexuality?

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  1. The following image is given by Sarah Hall herself; I will come back to it later.

  2. Hall is quoted as saying: “I actually think it would be a great resource for older children, you could have a conversation around it, you could talk about consent, and how the Princess might feel. 'But I'm really concerned about it for younger children, would really welcome a conversation about whether this is suitable material.” (Matthews 2017).

  3. In different contexts, there has been some criticism of Bettelheim’s positions, too.

  4. Just one oversimplifying example to get the point: a woman is drawing attention in a way she really dislikes. Let’s imagine suggestive looks, whistles, or the like. Does she have no option to speak out or say something at that moment and does she have to wait for a campaign to finally say me too? Certainly, the answer will turn out differently, depending on the circumstances.

  5. Obviously, it is not about denying infringements and fatal consequences. However, an inflationary victim role can appear cynical compared to real victims (Schmidt 1998, 122).

  6. A thank you to Sabine Broeck for this hint.—Thanks also to Heather Prüßing, Sophia von Hirschhausen, Hanna Höher.

  7. Which again means a kind of triumph over uncanny mobile or oscillating forces, the suspension of death, the denial of sexual otherness or the other’s subjectivity (to this see Bronfen 1994).

  8. Of course, that applies to #me too.

  9. A position of narcissistic upvaluation, which one can hardly get away from—even while reading this article in a critical approach. In a devaluating manner, one pushes the content matter away while knowing better…. (For aspects of cultural narcissism see “Theoretical Considerations” section).

  10. As also the excessively revolting excitement that faced the assumed scandal might show.

  11. There is a difference between the concepts of the “Other” referring to Laplanche and Lacan: the latter differentiates between the imaginary “other” on the one side, as the ego’s constitutive mirror-image (not really being an other) and, on the other side, the “Other” as an alterity/symbolic agency related to language and the law—a locus just being occupied by human beings. In comparison, Laplanche emphasizes real adult persons being close to the child—“the other of originary seduction, first of all the adult other” (Laplanche 1999, p. 136). Zupančič, in her discussion of Laplanche’s approach, also refers to a Lacanian understanding and introduces the Other as (seemingly) guaranteeing the consistency in the field of meaning: He knows everything except his own inconsistency (Zupančič 2009).

    In the course of introducing object petit a “a” refers more to the partial object in Lacan; it tends to be understood as the inaccessible object-cause, setting desire in motion and being orbited by the drives.—This again can be related to the excessive enjoyment racialistically attributed to the other (another nation, ethnic group etc.) mentioned above with Žižek. Then, this other phantasmatically seems to have access to “more” enjoyment, stealing it away.

  12. One more remark: As much as it is necessary and desirable to clearly distinguish between the two processes, it seems to me that, ensuing from Laplanche’s theory, a violent element is unavoidably operational in the “normal” process of implantation, too. Even then, sexuality does not seem to be harmless at all.

  13. On another level, it also indicates an impossibility of just conceiving sexuality as a “cultural construction” or the like, because then it is precisely the sense-making construction also made impossible by sex (cf. Zupančič 2017).

  14. Again: This also marks a difference to the violent variant.

  15. In such a psychoanalytic understanding, sex would neither be “rationalizable” nor “mind-blowing irrational” on its own (see above) but “messy because it appears at the point of the breaking down of the signifying consistency, or logic (its point of impossibility)” (cf. in another context Zupančič 2017, p. 43).

  16. Which again designates a certain (Bersanian) allure of powerlessness, of “being befallen” by sexuality—even though this now has to be understood in another mode than in the case of the Sleeping Beauty.


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Correspondence to Insa Härtel.

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Härtel, I. Sexuality as Failure: Psychoanalytic Concepts, Cultural Perspectives. Sexuality & Culture 23, 236–253 (2019).

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