Sexual… Narcissism?

One end of sexual desire’s many spectrums is self-reflexivity, a desire not for the other but for the other’s desire. That is to say, desire indirectly for the self. Culturally this manifestation of sexuality is associated more with women than men. I’ll refrain from commenting on how gendered or inherent this kind of desire is, and instead point out some examples.


In Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Topo’s lover Mara is presented with a hand mirror as a gift. Through this mirror she is aroused with a “strong self-love,” which ends with her making love (perhaps for the first time) to El Topo in the desert dunes. As the Topo takes her she watches herself in the mirror.

In Nymphomaniac Part II, protagonist Joe has been ordered by her employer, after hitting on all the men in the office, to attend group therapy for sex addiction. There, the supervising therapist recommends Joe remove all triggers in her life that make her think of sex. Among other camera shots, we get one of Joe removing the mirror in her hallway, another of her spraypainting the full-sized in her bedroom. 

And then for completion’s sake, a mirror of the now-receding zeitgeist, Roupenian’s 2017 “Cat Person”:

As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.

The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got, and soon they were rocking against each other, getting into a rhythm, and she reached into his underwear and took his penis in her hand and felt the pearled droplet of moisture on its tip.

Without attempting to police anyone’s sexuality, this mode of sexual desire is definitionally self-centered, a narcissism which when adopted as a general mode of loving and interacting is predictably catastrophic. (Does it have to extend? From personal experience I don’t think so.) Transferred onto Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, mirror-staring during sex is played for laughs, a way of signifying Bateman’s terminal self-absorption. Tavi Gevinson knew better at 20 than to fetishize self-desire, citing (in an actually very good journal entry) Tiqqun’s (Ariana Reines-translated) Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl*: “The Young-Girl does not love, she loves herself loving.” In Gevinson’s version the emphasis is on the youngness of the young girl, the way she will phasically grow out of it one day.

A quote from a book called Smells Like Stars has been getting passed around on Tumblr, often as a kind of testimony to the difficulties of being a women. But perhaps we should be more suspicious. 

She’s submerged in futility as to what it means to have meaningful encounters with other people. Relationships make her feel used and thanked and abused and apologized to and then discarded at the end of it all. Is it possible to avoid getting reduced to what others expect of her? How is she supposed to coexist with these people?

And now David Hiles, summarizing Melanie Klein:

Klein proposed that the first object to be envied was the mother’s breast. This she called primary envy. In object-relation terms, the infant equates the mother to the breast, a “good object,” and is not able to relate to the mother as a person in her own right. The infant’s demand to be fed can be met with delay, or inadequate response. Such failed gratification is interpreted as the breast (mother) with-holding, or keeping for itself, the object of desire.

Perhaps it is not so much what happened as how it is told. Like the “good-object,” the other is not a person but a complex set of stimuli enacted upon the self. “Others happen to me.” It is self-importance passed off as consideration for others, a playbook move so classic it’s also one of the tropes von Trier pulls out in painting Joe’s nymphomania as narcissism. No one likes to honestly self-evaluate, and there’s an unpatrolled border between empathy and sympathy, caring and pity, genuine emotional labor (”I worked to spare his feelings”) and delusions of grandeur (“I took pity on him. I had just destroyed his life. Nobody knew his secret, most probably not even himself. He sat there with the shame. I suppose I sucked him off as a kind of apology.”). This is exactly the line Nymphomaniac plays for erotic thrill, the line between actual, raw female sexual power on display and the narcissistic self-hatred which distorts its relay.

(The other boundary Nymphomaniac plays effectively: where women’s sexual powers end and their larger cultural vulnerability begins; see Joe, lying bloody in the snow.)

I’m less interested in general narcissism, or even in the link between general and sexual narcissism, than I am in sexual narcissism itself. (Not a good term, sexual narcissism, since it implies judgment I don’t feel.) Feminists would point out (and rightfully so, even if exaggerated) that if men wanting to become objects of desire were a major trend in male sexuality, it may very well have become the normative definition (instead of the Lacanian “desire is for an unattainable object, petit a” discourse that is so boringly male).

From Annie Baker’s The Flick:

ROSE: When I like fantasize I just like think about myself. 

AVERY: Really? 

ROSE: Yeah. Like everyone else is blurry except for me. I’m like totally in focus. And I like look amazing. And everyone is like: holy shit. That girl looks so amazing… It’s really embarrassing,

I’ve seen some references to the pattern in psychoanalysis, even actually Lacan, though nothing quite right or substantial. The Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, who bore out an enormous influence on Lacan, appears to have suggested some half-brother theory that all humans were driven by a fundamental desire to be recognized and wanted by others. (His Marx-influenced discussion of master-slave relations is fascinating if irrelevant.) And a woman named Polly Young-Eisendrath appears to have done an… interesting… book-length take in 1999, though it’s more addressing a general psychology of pleasing than the specifically sexual desire to be the desired object. But please message with any promising leads or a relevant opinion. There must be something out there; this is a topic plenty understand intuitively (see the John Berger quote about men looking, women being looked at, etc).

* Elsewhere from Tiqqun’s Young-Girl Theory, orig. published in French in 1999:

“The Young-Girl is the Young-Girl’s ideal.”
“The tautological nature of the Young-Girl’s beauty is rooted in the fact that she sees no alterity, but only the ideal representation of herself. This explains why her supposed interlocutor is thrown into such a terrible space, even if he is free to believe, idiotically, that she is meant for him. The Young-Girl establishes a space of power insofar as this space is not, in the end, a means to approach her.”

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