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love is tender: a

critical approach

to pansexualism

by Julie Reshe, PhD

from: The Materiality of Love

(edited collection), New York:

Routledge, 2017, pp. 39-53.

My daughter is lying next to me. I kiss her forehead and breathe her scent, she smells of my

milk. She licks my nipple several times, gently swirling her tongue around it and stroking my

other breast with her hand. Im moving her closer to me, feeling the warmth of her body.

When my breasts fills with milk, she sucks my entire nipple into her mouth, latches on

tightly, and starts sucking it. I feel the rhythmic orgasmic vibrations spreading over my entire

body. I dissolve in tenderness and affection for her, smiling and whispering in her ear I love

you. She looks happy and satisfied, I cover her with the comforter and she falls asleep in

my arms.

Although undoubtedly sensual sensual, this act of lovemaking with my daughter is

asexual. To that psychoanalysis would object claiming that the denial of this acts sexual

nature, proves that it is sexual, since the mind of a civilized human works in such a way

that it represses the awareness of sexual nature of his or her actions. My rejection of

the pansexual perspective only affirms its pansexuality. It looks like there is no way out

except to acknowledge that all sensual manifestations of love are sublimated

manifestations of sexual desire. Or, is there some other possible approach?

According to a frequently cited claim, [y]esterday's science is today's common sense,

and tomorrow's nonsense (as quoted in Banton 1975, 58-59). The same can be said of

pansexualism. Foucault was the one to question it by defying its role for determining

who we really are (1980). Sex has become so fundamental that we are unable to

conceive of truth as separate from sexuality. Or, as expressed in one of Foucaults

central statements: [i]t is up to sex to tell us our truth, since sex is what holds it in

darkness (1980, 77). Because we are first seen as sexual beings, we are now socially

pressured privately to believe and publicly to proclaim our social identities as a defining

truth of who we are (Katz 2007). Even those who are defined as asexuals, still have to

be defined in reference to the prevailing discourse of sexuality.

Foucault provides strong criticism of psychoanalysis, which he sees as a modern

successor of religious practice of confession. The pansexual perspective of

psychoanalysis has turned sex into a pivotal explanatory device: everything is explained

in terms of repressed or deviated desire. Accordingly, the psychoanalyst is the one who

takes over the role of priest, being the sole interpreter of our genuine inner life (Foucault


Freud based his theory on the initial hypothesis that the distinctive and defining property

of humans is an overdevelopment of the sexual instinct. It is to this excess that we owe

the existence of human culture, which appeared because sexual instinct was

sublimated into a cultural activity. Freud claims that,

the sexual instinct [] is probably more strongly developed in man than in most

of the higher animals; it is certainly more constant, since it has almost entirely

overcome the periodicity to which it is tied in animals. It places extraordinary

large amount of force at the disposal of civilized activity, and it does this in

virtue of its especially marked characteristic of being able to displace its aim

without materially diminishing in intensity. This capacity to exchange its

originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is

psychically related to the first aim, is called the capacity for sublimation. (quoted

in Laplanche and Pontalis 1973, 432)

The prevalent notion of the self, which, as Foucault showed, reduces our essence to

sexuality, still implicitly affirms Freuds hypothesis. Being declared as the hidden

ultimate truth of who we are, sexual drive is also seen as the very materiality that

underlies human attachment: sexual drive is not only who we are but what brings us


Accordingly, todays conventional concept of love is centered around sexuality. It

implies that the secret essence of intimate relationships is sexual desire. In particular,

the most material expressions of love kissing, licking, and tender touching are

unthinkable as phenomena autonomous from sexuality.

According to common intuition, the adult romantic bond is formed for sex, and sexual

desire is seen as the main indicator of love as well as its main drive. Consequently, the

idea of romantic love without sex is considered provocative (Diamond 2004).

From the standpoint of pansexualism, not only the longing of adults for each other, but

also the attachment of a caregiver and a child are seen as sexual in their nature. For

this reason, todays media is obsessed with sexual abuse of children (Traina 2011).

This concern exposes a conviction that behind every physical manifestations of

tenderness, even tenderness towards a child, there is always a hidden sexual desire

and, correspondingly, there is a danger of crossing the boundaries of care or innocent

caress that exact danger that may have manifested itself as an uneasy feeling while

you were reading the first paragraph of this chapter.

Many theorists say that we should fully embrace the sexual nature of maternal feelings

(Winnicott 1987, Marin 1994, Prager 1995, Crawford 2006, Kinser 2008). Julia Kristeva

contends that [t]o love and to think the maternal as erotic, wouldnt that be as

provocative as to speak of infantile sexuality? (2014, 69). She further discusses

maternal eroticism and claims that it should be recognized as a foundation for new

ethics. But what if pansexualists got it completely wrong and the uneasiness this topic

exerts is caused not by our moralistic intention to repress the true sexual nature of

attachment to children? What if it is caused by our deep knowledge that physical

manifestations of love are not necessarily sexual as they are universally interpreted

under persistent pressure of pansexual worldview? In other words, is the issue of

mother-child sensual contact controversial because it is related to sexuality, or because

we are constantly persuaded that it is?

The same doubts may be raised regarding sensual contact of adult lovers. Following

Freuds proclaimation that the assertion of the asexual nature of adult romantic longing

were naive and moralistic, we do our best not to look foolish. But what if Freud himself

was naive in his reduction of human love to sexual instinct and implicitly promoted

common prejudice of his time?

My conviction is that the prevalence of pansexual thinking distorts our perception of

human love, reducing it to a merely sexual experience. I, therefore, opt for an alternative

perspective of materiality of human love to challenge the dominance of pansexualism.

Yesterday's Science

Although Freuds theory comes to mind first, when the primacy of the sexual drive in

human relationships of attachment is mentioned,it wasnt Freud who introduced this

kind of thinking. He rather inherited the scientific spirit of his time, [n]othing is more

remote from the truth than the usual assumption that Freud was the first to introduce

novel sexual theories (Ellenberger 1970, 545), for this reason his pansexualism hardly

shocked anyone (Johnston 1972, 249). Moreover, the roots of the pansexual

perspective Freud represented can be traced at least to the Classics.

In his essay Group Psychology And The Analysis Of The Ego (1955), Freud proclaims

that sexual instinct is fundamental for all types of love. He also highlights that his

thinking arises from Plato and his notion of Eros that coincides exactly with the

love-force, the libido of psychoanalysis [...] (91). In Freud, libido is the nucleus of the

theoretical scope of love that consists in sexual love with sexual union as its aim (90).

Freud claims that his concept of loving includes self-love, friendship, love for humanity

in general, and what is most important for our consideration here, love for parents and

children. Respectively, all of them are understood as expression of the same instinctual

impulses (90).

Freud was right in crediting Plato as his forerunner. C. D. C. Reeve (2016) observes

that what was later believed to be the core of Freudian thinking, appears already in the

theory of love by Diotima in Platos Symposium. The ladder of love presented in this

work defines [erotic] intensity for only one body (210 a-b) as the basic form of love and

a source material for a subsequent sublimation, resulting into more elevated kinds of

love which are responsible for higher manifestations of human culture, such as science

and philosophy (210 d). Sublimation is therefore not a Freudian invention, nor is the

understanding of human love (and also human culture) as an effect of sublimating

sexual desires.

In discussing the accusation of pansexualism that was levelled against psychoanalysis,

Freud explicitly refers to Plato and to Schopenhauer (his Preface to the fourth edition

of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) to present the pansexual thinking as

such is more general tendency of the Western tradition:

People have gone so far in their search for high-sounding catchwords as to talk

of the pan-sexualism of psycho-analysis and to raise the senseless charge

against it of explaining everything by sex. We might be astonished at this [...].

For it is some time since Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher, showed

mankind the extent to which their activities are determined by sexual impulses -

in the ordinary sense of the word. It should surely have been impossible for a

whole world of readers to banish such a startling piece of information so

completely from their minds. And as for the stretching of the concept of

sexuality which has been necessitated by the analysis of children and what are

called perverts, anyone who looks down with contempt upon psychoanalysis

from a superior vantage-point should remember how closely the enlarged

sexuality of psycho-analysis coincides with the Eros of the divine Plato. (1953,


Indeed, nearly a century before Freud, Schopenhauer already asserted a view on love

understood as the strongest and most active of all human motives, as a masked sexual

desire. In his own words, [e]very kind of love, however ethereal it may seem to be,

springs entirely from the instinct of sex (2010, 227). Accordingly, already for

Schopenhauer, not in a lesser extent than later for Freud, "Man is incarnate sexual

instinct" (Schopenhauer 1966, 134).

Although Freud is not the one who, as it is often assumed, introduced the pansexual

perspective, he developed it further. The innovation of Freuds time was to ascribe

sexuality to a child, claiming that human beings are driven by a sexual instinct from

birth. However, this innovation can be seen as a logical expansion of the perspective

expressed in Schopenhauer's account of human beings as having an innate sexual

instinct as well as in Schopenhauer's account of love that implies loves sexual nature: if

all kinds of love are sexual, then caregiver-child love should be no exception.

In Freud, the childs sexuality is not yet self-contained; it is a preparatory stage to the

normal sexuality of an adult. This understanding has been inscribed into his model of

heterosexual normativity a direct successor of the procreative sexuality model that

helped Freud consider normal sexuality as aimed at reproduction and understand

perversions as deviations from this model (Katz 2007). Accordingly, even if children are

sexual beings who rely on their sexual instinct in the initial attachment to caregivers,

they are unable to reproduce, and therefore, their sexuality is perverted: children are, as

Winnicott once said, all dressed up with nowhere to go (1964, 156).

Jonathan Ned Katz, a historian of human sexuality, claims that there are two Freuds:

rebel Freud and conformist Freud. While the first one often devastatingly questions

the idea of normal sexuality, the conformist Freud was normal sexualitys prime mover

(Katz 2007, 81). We should also pay tribute to rebel Freud having clarified that he

deconstructs the line between perversity and normality (Zupani 2008). In Freuds

view, adult normal sexuality retains traces of infantile perverse sexuality (1905).

However, Freud still remains a conformist such conclusion can be drawn taking into

account the very fact that he still uses the word perversion, which inevitably implies a

prescription of a certain normality (Winnicott 1964).

In Freuds view, the caregivers attachment to a child also has a sexual nature.

The person in charge of him [the baby], who, after all, is as a rule his mother,

herself regards him with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she

strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute

for a complete sexual object. A mother would probably be horrified if she were

made aware that all her marks of [tenderness][i][1] were rousing her child's

sexual instinct and preparing for its later intensity. She regards what she does

as asexual, pure love. (1953, 223)

Freuds understanding of maternal attachment is based on his idea of penis envy. The

turning point of a girls sexual development is marked by her discovery of the difference

between the type of genitalia (Freud 1964). As a result, she feels incomplete and

develops envy for the penis that will later determine her psycho-sexual development.

Penis envy is what also determines her wish to become a mother and her attachment to

a child. The womans suffering from the lack of penis can only be fulfilled by having a

baby, preferably a boy, that, in Freuds view, serves as a substitution for a penis. He

asserts that the feminine situation is only established [] if the wish for a penis is

replaced by one for a baby (128).

Therefore, Freud defines caregiver-child attachment as based on sexuality: the infants

attachment to her caregivers is a manifestation of perverse sexual desire, while the

mothers tenderness towards a child is a redirected and masked sexual desire for a

male partner.

In his attempts to understand the nature of caregiver-child bond, Freud's pansexualistic

thinking comes to paradoxical conclusions; although this type of bond appears

chronologically first in relation to sexual experience, Freud manages to invert this

chronology, presenting it as derivative from sexuality.

The mothers feelings, Freud claims, are derived from her sexual life, as if she herself

was never a child caressed by her mother and was born out of the sexual act with a


Theorists who say that we should fully embrace the sexual nature of maternal feelings

implicitly repeat this Freudian mistake. To avoid this mistake it is necessary to withdraw

the caregiver-child attachment from the scope of pansexualism and to theorize it as

autonomous and primary in relation to sexuality.

Interestingly, a starting point for such an analytical blueprint can be found in Freuds

early thinking, which contradicts central aspects of his general theoretical position and

carries the potential of overcoming pansexualism.

Freud initially distinguished two basic human types of drives: self-preservative and

sexual, associating them with two currents of love, tender and sensual (1961). He

claimed that the tender current of love emerged earlier in the course of an infant

development, while the erotic interest appeared only as an addition to the

self-preservative attitude that generates tender affection. In this vein, he suggested that

the child's attachment to the caregiver was based on the type of attachment that

predates a sexual drive, in which an initial tender current is directed towards the

members of the family and those who have care of the child (Freud 1961, 180). Sexual

drive directs itself to an object already chosen by the tender current. Freud eventually

relinquished the concept of self-preservative instinct and replaced it with the dual

instinct theory of sex and aggression, and thus reduced the role of tenderness in his


Even if in his early theory Freud understands tenderness (Zrtlichkeit) as defining a

caregiver-child relationship, he never considers tenderness as essential in relationships

between adults (Koziej 2016). Adult manifestations of tenderness are seen in Freud as

a concealed sexual longing that, when in excess, is unserviceable[ii]. In Freud's view,

excess of need for tenderness is a pathological hysterical symptom and it represents a

typically female regression to infantile sexuality and an attempt to conceal sexual nature

of her impulses.

According to Freud, [g]irls with an excessive need for [tenderness] and an equal horror

for the real demands of the sexual life experience an uncontrollable temptation on the

one hand to realize in life the ideal of the asexual love and on the other hand to conceal

their libido under [tenderness] which they may manifest without self-reproach (1953,


Towards Tomorrow

Freudian theory has undergone numerous scientific and epistemological revisions, and

many key aspects of it have been discredited or revised. One of these revisions has

been the elaboration of the theory of attachment, developed from the 1970s by

psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby as well as other thinkers

advancing his research.

Bowlby draws on scientific research in neurobiology and cybernetics to venture a

complete revision of the Freuds theory of a child development. One of the major lines of

his thinking reverts to Freud's early theory of tenderness, by means of which he rejects

the dominance of pansexualism in traditional psychoanalysis and redefines the nature

of the mother-child relationship. He observes that the psychoanalytical reading of the

mother-child bond as based on sexuality does not allow to see it in its own right

(Holmes 1993). The focus on the system of attachment, on the other hand, allows to

see the bond as an independent mechanism autonomously selected within the course

of evolution.

Bowlby bases his theory on an observation that infants are born with a drive to attach to

other humans (1973, 1980). This drive allows them to form an enduring bond with their

caregivers, which is crucial for their survival. Unlike in other species, human infants

happen to be exceptionally helpless, vulnerable and dependent. Before they develop

the most basic skills (walking, bathing, eating unprocessed food), they remain highly

dependent on their caregivers and have no chance for survival without constant care.

Bowlby argues that the infant-caregiver attachment is a motivational system that has

evolved to ensure a close proximity between babies and their caregivers during the first

few years of life (1980).

In the late 1980s Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver (1987) observed that the signs of

infant-caregiver attachment, such as the search for proximity and separation distress,

resemble adult love relationships. On the basis of this observation they suggest that the

infant-caregiver attachment and adult attachment are governed by the same biological

mechanism. Their theory has been confirmed by a number of neuroimaging studies,

which show that brain regions responsible for romantic reactions to a partner do not

overlap with regions activated at a sexual arousal (Diamond 2004). The researchers

conclude that sexual desire and adult love are fundamentally distinct subjective

experiences with distinct neurobiological substrates (2004, 116). In a subsequent

study, Diamond et al. theorize that the biological mechanism underlying affectional

bonding between adults does not relate to sexuality but is anchored in the already

existing infant-caregiver attachment system (Diamond 2008).

The idea that it is primarily attachment, and not sex, that controls the formation and

maintenance of adult love relationships is also confirmed by Peter Fonagy (2001) who

observes that the fact that sex can undoubtedly occur without attachment and that

marriages without sex perhaps represent the majority of such partnerships, prove

beyond doubt that these systems are separate and at most loosely coupled (10).

Long-time bonds are, therefore, not an effect of sexual stimulation but of an attachment

mechanism able to consolidate and endure emotional connectivity (Eagle 2011). A

study by Farrugia and Hohaus (1998) on the experience of intimacy in romantic

relationships has shown that the attachment to a partner and sensitivity for caregiving

are the key factors for the formation and maintenance of such relationships. As

observed by Waring, sexuality is considered part of intimacy by most people, although

it is not considered to be the primary component (1980, 4).

It seems very likely that sexual aspect does not play a decisive role not only in infantile

attachment to a caregiver but also in adult love relationships, moreover, it is not even a

mandatory component of the latter. Rather, the sexual aspect gets admixed to the initial

flow of tenderness between lovers, and only to the degree this component can acquire

the property of tenderness it becomes a part of relationships of love. Such relationship

lasts as long as there is tenderness and caring behavior, and not until there is sex

(despite the idea to which we are frequently exposed that healthy adult relationships

require sufficiently regular and sufficiently fancy sexual intercourse).

Modern sociocognitive neuroscience confirms and even in several instances radicalizes

attachment theory, emphasizing our profound need for proximity with others.

Specifically, sociocognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman demonstrates that

humans are radically social (2013). Sociality is the default mode of human brain, which

activates almost from the moment of birth and is present through our entire lives (11).

For Liebermans reflections, same as for Bowlbys, the crucial point of departure is the

fact that human babies are born premature and have the longest period of immaturity of

any other species. The downside to an immature brain is that they are not equipped to

survive on their own, therefore they are in need for constant physically and

psychologically proximity and care of others.

Lieberman inverts Maslow's pyramid of needs. While for Maslow food, water, and

shelter are the most basic needs that ensure our survival, Lieberman recognizes social

needs as even more crucial. For human infants being socially connected and cared for

is paramount, since without social support, infants would never survive. Lieberman

claims: Love and belonging might seem like a convenience we can live without, but our

biology is built to thirst for connection because it is linked to our most basic survival

needs (43).

Because we are profoundly social we experience social pain much sharper than the

pain from physical trauma. Lieberman demonstrates this by predicting the answer to the

following question: Ask yourself what have been the one or two most painful

experiences of your life. Did you think of the physical pain of a broken leg or [] pain of

a loved ones dying, of being dumped by someone you loved, or of experiencing some

kind of public humiliation in front of others? (40). The fact that the human brain evolved

an ability to feel social pain peculiarity may be seen as a flaw in our nature, however

Lieberman argues that this flaw is so important for us that even the most unbearable

suffering worth it. Our ability to feel social pain is profoundly linked with our survival. In

Liebermans words, By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel

physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by

helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical

pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and


Liebermans findings suggest that it is the high level of sociality conditioned by our

extended immaturity that distinguishes us from other animals.

Although it might seem that conceptualization of humans as asexual beings is not

essentially contradictory to her conceptualization as social beings, since both imply a

certain form of need for others, yet they are crucially different. The former

conceptualization suggests that the essence of human beings is an excess of sexuality,

and sexuality is the basis that underlies our longing for others, while from the

perspective of the latter the basic mode of our existence is our non-self-sufficiency.

Thus human longing for others doesnt require any basis since human beings are

themselves a need and longing for others.

Understanding of humans as profoundly social deconstructs the line of demarcation

between childhood and adulthood that was implied by Freudian theory. Traditional

psychoanalysis, being subscribed to a reproductive perspective, draws this line through

puberty, marking the transformation of perverse childhood sexuality into normalized

sexuality of an adult. As it was shown, in accordance with the theory of attachment and

Lieberman's theory of the social brain, profound need for proximity (both physical and

emotional) is present through our entire lives and defines us as humans. Regarding yhe

Freudian demarcation of childhood and adulthood, this means that we never cease to

be immature. Accordingly, the type of our bonding with others, which Freud subdivided

into infantile underdeveloped sexuality and adult normal sexuality, rather represents an

indivisible continuum, where infantile type of longing is not fundamentally different from

that of an adult.

To recapitulate, in Freud's theory tenderness is reduced to deviated sexuality since his

thinking followed pansexualistic logic that posits sexual drive as the essence of human

being. Freud attributes tenderness as essential exclusively to relationship of caregiver

and child> Accordingly, he saw tenderness in adult relationships as regression to an

infantile type of sexuality.

As mentioned, the word Freud uses to refer to mother-child relationships is tenderness

Zrtlichkeit. By their very etymology both the German word Zrtlichkeit and the

English tenderness are associated with a child. One of the definitions of German

adjective zart is not yet fully developed, young (DWDS 2016). The English adjective

tender derives from Latin tenerem soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful

(Dictionary.com 2016).

The theory of attachment and Liebermans research provide suitable ground for shifting

the child-centered perspective on tenderness by revealing it as not only essential in the

relationship of caregiver and child, but also of adult lovers, thus, presenting tenderness

not as deviated sexuality, but the very matter and substance of human love. In other

words, it is not the sexual drive, but rather the excessive need for tenderness,

designated by Freud as an indication of female hysterical symptoms, that is the basic

raw material that human love is made of.

Such reconceptualization also problematizes common view of sexuality. Our pansexual

culture considers sexual acts as the ultimate material embodiment of love. This seems

obvious, since the sexual act involves the ultimate sensual embodiment of proximity

since it involves the fusion of bodies, the exchange of fluids and the feeling of mutual

interpenetration. However, arguing this way we overlook the fact that there is another no

less corporeal act, which to the same extent presupposes fusion of bodies, loss of

boundaries, mutual interpenetration and exchange of fluids. This act is breastfeeding.

Moreover, the similarity of those two acts is confirmed by the observation that physical

pleasure of a breastfeeding woman and pleasure during sexual intercourse are similar

(Newton 1973). But the conclusion, which is drawn on the basis of the revealed

similarity is that the pleasure of breastfeeding is sexual in its nature, which also is seen

as an evidence supporting Freud's theory of the sexual essence of mother-child

relationships (Fisher 1979). However, if one leaves behind the pansexualistic

perspective the question arises: why among these two acts coitus and breastfeeding

is the first one deemed to the central and the second one explained by analogy with it,

why not the reverse?

One of my students confessed that when he became aware that during breastfeeding a

woman experience pleasure similar to sexual arousal, he ceased to see this process as

tender and innocent, starting to perceive it as dirty and disgusting instead. I replied: but

what if we - as a result of realizing the similarity of the sexual act and the act of

breastfeeding - refrain from assigning the properties of the former to the latter; what if

we proceed the other way around and consider the physical acts of adult love as tender,

innocent and asexual? After all, kisses and even licking and sucking genitals of loved

ones - which Freud naively failed to noticed - have more in common with breastfeeding,

then with the act of mating.


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[i] James Strachey, translator of Sigmund Freud into English and the general editor of
the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,
translated Zrtlichkeit with affection, but a more accurate translation is tenderness
(Koziej 2016).

[ii] Only psycho-analytic investigating can show that behind this [tenderness],
admiration and respect there lie concealed the old sexual longing of the infantile
component instincts which have now become unserviceable. The object-choice of the
pubertal period is obliged to dispense with the objects of childhood and to start afresh
as a sensual current (1953, 200).