The Desire for Humiliation

Erica Jong wrote this yesterday about the Eliot Spitzer-prostitution debacle:

"I once did research on dominatrixes in New York for a novel I wrote called Any Woman's Blues and discovered that one of them -- Ava was her name -- had a powerful male lawyer washing dishes in an apron and heels during her parties. Powerful men like to be humiliated. Maybe all Attorney Generals are kinky and should stay out of public office. Think of Rudy Giuliani." (

Powerful men like to be humiliated? Is that so? And if so, why would it be? And what about powerful women?
Well, it might seem a little confusing, because you have to define "powerful," first of all.
There are two kinds of power - power "over" and power "for" - one is pathological, and one is not.
Power over is what is sought by those stuck in a set of character defenses, particularly psychopathy and masochism. It seeks to control people, to bend others to their wills for the purposes of the ego, and perhaps more importantly, it seeks to have power over one's own feelings. This would certainly include many politicians, of course, and especially those who trumpet loudly their own moralistic attitudes. This "reaction formation," as it's known in psychoanalytic terms, is why so many priests and "family values" types, or law enforcers, often get caught doing the very thing they're so publicly against. The reason they're so against a particular act is because the urge to do that very thing is so strong, and harshly judged, in them. This person ultimately desires to get caught, to be "humiliated," as Erica Jong points out, because it is a relief to finally be exposed. Why else would a high profile prosecuter, or a sitting president, be so indiscreet in their sexual dalliances?
Power for is a different story. This is an expression of one's innate gifts, like the power for creating art or music, power for motivating others to develop their potential, the power for innovation, for developing new approaches to old problems. This power seeks to move others, not control them. This is healthy power, "empowerment," you could say.
But here's the interesting thing - and yes this does apply to women as well as men - whether your expression of power is unhealthy or healthy, you may find yourself attracted to humiliation or defeat either way. Why? Well, because until you've crossed the threshold into emotional and psychological adulthood (which has nothing to do with age, unfortunately), you will fear your own power, whether it is expressed pathologically or not. Obviously, you're in a different kind of struggle if you're acting out all over the place and incurring the wrath of the people around you for your hypocritical behavior, but still, subverting yourself is subverting yourself. If you're holding onto the whims and wants of childhood, you cannot accept being a genuinely powerful adult, even if you really are one.
It keeps coming down to the same things, after all, doesn't it? We have to give up on our childhoods, take the losses, and move on up to grown-up life.
It's powerful.

1 comment:

OjaiMarc said...

Well said Peter and Erica Jong.
I am reminded of the many nights in an UWS gymnasium fighting with my inner child .... for Power Over...Over what?
At any is a thought provoking scandal and one that you interpret in a very sageful, real way.
Peace and love to you


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