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Living with frustration

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Sunshine over the Outer Hebrides.
Sunset - North Uist

Masochism, sadism, sexual fantasy, voyeurism and mutual relationships

This blog charts a developmental journey. One of living with frustration by accumulating coping strategies. Masochism, sadism, sadistic sexual fantasy, voyeurism and mutual relationships. Inspired by psychoanalytic thinkers (Phillips, 2013; Benjamin, 2017; Erikson (Maree, 2022.)) A developmental journey that begins in our infant experience.

Infant experience

'The early flooding of sensations the infant must passively experience can be conceptualised as primary masochism (Benjamin, 1995, p192.)'

Masochism means learning to enjoy a painful experience. In this case, it's a way to cope with the helplessness of being an infant. So by making their helplessness pleasurable it becomes tolerable. In fact for the infant,'it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God, than to live in a world ruled by the devil (Fairbairn, 1952, p66-67.)'

As totally responsible for their submissive experience. Believing themselves as deserving of, and so able to enjoy, their experience of helplessness. Simultaneously preserving a simple, benign, god-like interpretation of their caregivers. A coping strategy with limitations.

So in time, and with physical development, an infant is likely to add to their repertoire of coping. Coping by making the inflicting of pain on others pleasurable (sadism.) Initially in fantasy, and later in action. So an infant kisses, then bites, the hand that feeds. All in order to cope with its frustration.

As children become sexually mature and physically stronger, they are able to further add to their repertoire of coping. In particular, the fantasised, and now real, possibility of reproductive sex and lethal violence. A pattern of coping that may include sadistic sexual fantasy.

Sadistic sexual fantasy

Sadistic sexual fantasy involves taking sexual pleasure from the imagined imfliction of humiliation, fear, or other forms of mental harm, to a person. This seems more likely to occur when our caregivers are absent, lost or traumatically incomplete. The individual's aggression may be sadistically sexualised if it is not contained in the care giving relationship. In this way sadistic sexual fantasies may conceal, and allow the temporary denial, of distress.

Sadistic sexual fantasies can also be understood as protest, and protection, against loneliness. Creating an inner world populated by persecutors and victims. Transforming real grievance into a fantasy of control and possible revenge. A retaliatory reversal of the omnipotent control, or absence, felt to be suffered at the hands of incomplete caregivers. A coping strategy.

These sadistic fantasies are often targeted towards the female body. This is part of a misrepresentation of the responsibility for care. Ignoring the part played by men, wider family, community and culture in inadequate care. Another problem, of sadistic sexual fantasy, is that coping mechanisms tend to become less useful over time. Making it more likely those fantasies may be problematically acted out. So, I suggest, another stage in a successful developmental journey can be the voyeuristic appreciation of the sexual representations of others.


The sexual representations of other people are present throughout culture (including those of sadistic sexual acts.) Representations that can be enjoyed voyeuristically. Voyeurism is the activity of gaining pleasure from secretly watching other people in sexual situations. People observed, and used, as objects to help our mind. To cope with the frustrations of reality and our developing fantasy world. One example of this phenomena is pornography. Specifically,'material deemed sexual, given the context, that has the primary intention of sexually arousing the consumer and is produced and distributed with the consent of all persons involved (Ashton, et al, 2019.)

We may bring these representations in and out of our experience. Drawing in and repelling stimuli. These objects may provide new experiences. With the potential to 'make us' feel strangers to ourselves. Analogous to new experiences with drugs, alcohol and love. As such sometimes our response may be experienced as if it were happening without our consent or responsibility.

'The whole point of pornography is to make us feel excited. [As if] The devil made me do it.' (Benjamin, 1995, p207.)

So surprises, gestures and invitations to consider the sexual representations of other people can be experienced as intrusive. Undermining the repression of our own, previously unrecognised, fantasies. At times experiencing their sexuality as actually coercive rather than representative. However, with graded exposure, we may come to recognise that we can contextualise and alter our response to these representations. In this way pornography (as defined here), and other sexual representations, can have a liminal status. Helping us, in new ways, to cope with our frustration. Our final addition, on this journey, involves developing mutual relationships with other people.

Mutual relationships

Developing mutual relationships with other people means experiencing other people as subjects, people with their own separate mind and feelings, as well as objects. For example, learning to notice the change we create in other people. This awareness can satisfy our (sometimes aggressive) need for recognition. In the extreme, 'because I affect you, I don't need to kill you.'

Moreover, other people who can survive the onslaught of our aggressive and/or sexual fantasies. People who note the symbolic, as well as other properties, of our fantasies. The limits of our power become clear. 'Transformational objects' who are non retaliatory but affected. A reliable escape from ourselves (Bollas, 1987 cited in Benjamin, 1995.)

'Only a good that survives hate can be experienced as an unthreatened, unprecarious good. and thus not requiring continuous defense (Benjamin, 1995, p209.)'

A good that means we can fully live with our frustration. What's more be able to accept, rather than seek to resolve, two paradoxes. That which fascinates sexually can also disgust. Secondly, that which is abominable in reality can also be pleasurable in fantasy. Finally, allowing us to recognise what actual sex and violence are :

'Real violence cannot be limited to and contained by the specular [mirroring] relationship to sexual excitement; it exceeds representation (Benjamin, 1995, p204.)'


Ashton, S., McDonald, K., & Kirkman, M. (2019). What does ‘pornography’mean in the digital age? Revisiting a definition for social science researchers. Porn Studies, 6(2), 144-168.

Benjamin, J. (1995). Like subjects, love objects: Essays on recognition and sexual difference. Yale University Press.

Benjamin, J. (2017). Beyond doer and done to: Recognition theory, intersubjectivity and the third. Taylor & Francis.

Fairbairn, R, (1952, pp. 66-67) cited in Ludlam, M. (2022). Lost–and found–in translation: Do Ronald Fairbairn's ideas still speak usefully to 21st-century couple therapists?. In More About Couples on the Couch (pp. 141-155). Routledge.

Fennell, E, (2020) Promising Young Woman, unflinching journey into some of the sexually abusive experiences of women. Bystanders and all. Free trailer. CLICK HERE

Fennell, E, (2023) Saltburn, a visceral, sexual and violent study of psychopathy. Enacted as a narcissistic fantasy of destruction. Focussed on a family who became spoiled to death. Free trailer. CLICK HERE

Gaynord, A., (2021) All my friends hate me, viseceral film of a re-enactment of group gas lighting, sadism, paranoia & eventual suicide. Powerful and affecting (free trailer.) CLICK HERE

Mapplethorpe, R. (1982) Cock and Devil. National Galleries Scotland,

Maree, J. G. (2022). The psychosocial development theory of Erik Erikson: critical overview. The Influence of Theorists and Pioneers on Early Childhood Education, 119-133.

Perry, A. (2023, April 9). Why would we put words to our desire? WIX.

Perry, A. (2022, October 11). How to have better sex, WIX.

Phillips, A. (2013). The magical act of a desperate person: on tantrums. The London Review of Books, 35(5), 19-20.

n.b. I have also collated a list of other resources associated with intimacy & sexuality. You can access them here : CLICK HERE

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