The sexual instinct is often mixed with the need for power, affection, and belonging and this complicates the sexual relation
By Roberto Assagioli, A Paper Read at the Conference on Psychosynthesis held at Rome, 29 September – 3 October, 1968, Original English Document.  Reformatted and annotated by Jan Kuniholm. From the Assagioli Archive in Florence, Document #22275
It appears advisable to point out and dispel at the outset a confusion that often arises between sexual education in its true and wider sense and mere instruction in the biological facts of the sexual instinct. A knowledge of the physical aspects of sex, that is, of the structure of the sexual organs and their functioning, is certainly useful, and indeed necessary. Ignorance about them has often bred, and often still breeds, an almost morbid curiosity and a quest for knowledge through questionable and detrimental channels.
Naturally, parents should be the ones to impart this knowledge at the right time and in the right way. But since so few of them are either able or willing to do so, it is both desirable for, and indeed incumbent upon, the school to assume this task. The matter is not as difficult as it might appear. The best way of going about it is by means of objective, scientific teaching on the sexual function, beginning with the vegetable kingdom and then passing through the lower and higher animals up to man. Taught thus, naturally, objectively, in a “cold” matter-of-fact way, the necessary information can be imparted, eliminating in the process the sense of mystery surrounding “something forbidden” in which the subject of sex has been generally shrouded.
Good books and anatomical charts are readily available for facilitating the task of the teacher, who should be well aware of the importance of himself assuming this objective and scientific attitude. But if such teaching is necessary, it is still far from being sufficient. We have ample proof of this in the fact that medical students — and I would permit myself to add a proportion of doctors — do not solve their sexual problems satisfactorily for all their wide anatomical and physiological knowledge in this field. Emphatic confirmation is provided by what is occurring in Sweden, where sexual education is widely disseminated. I quote here what Dr. B. Linner writes: “If sex in Swedish social life exhibits one truly sad aspect, it is the increasing frequency of venereal disease. Every year sees gonorrhea and syphilis claiming a growing number of victims, especially among young people between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.” And this is happening notwithstanding widespread education on the subject.
Dr. Malcolm Tottie of the Swedish Ministry of Public Health has expressed the official disappointment in the following terms: “In spite of all our efforts to educate the young by means of lectures, pamphlets and other media, it really appears that they are quite unconcerned about the matter. They cherish a blind faith in penicillin and many of them even consider it a sign of toughness to run risks by deliberately dispensing with preventatives and choosing their sexual partners recklessly.”
It is significant that at the Seminar of the American Institute for Family Problems in July 1968, attended by teachers from many parts of North America, a number of them expressed the opinion that it seemed of little value to try to teach something about venereal disease to high school students, in view of the apparent indifference and contempt displayed by the young in general. 
The difference between mere information and true education concerning sex emerges clearly if the subject is given objective consideration, free from prejudice. Let us start with a simple and realistic observation: The sexual instinct is an animal function. In fact, we have it in common with the animals, and this is natural as the human body is in reality an animal body. From this is follows that physical sexuality is of itself neither moral nor amoral; it is simply pre-moral.
But if man has an animal body, he is not only an animal. Man is, at the least, a “psychological being,” who possesses emotions, feelings, imagination and thoughts, and also an innate moral sense, more or less developed. A continuous and intensive reciprocal action is proceeding between body and psyche, between biological and “human” life. This gives rise to innumerable complications and conflicts, and even illness, as psychosomatic medicine is establishing more and more; but it is also the source of great possibilities of experience and development. In the case of the human being, love is not only sexuality, and there are forms of love in which the sexual component is absent. I shall return to this point later.
All those therefore who would reduce all love — and not only love — to sexuality commit a fundamental error. The gross materialism of this pseudo-scientific conception has been shown up with blistering irony by James Hinton. It was he, a man of free and avant-garde spirit, who, already at the beginning of this century, had said that to treat the great fact of sexual love only from the physical standpoint would be like thinking, during a Sarasate recital, only of the catgut and horsehair used for the violin strings and the bow.
Erich Fromm, no “moralist” of the old school but an avant-garde psychoanalyst and sociologist, has stated in strong terms now “unsatisfying” is sexuality without love. “Sexual attraction,” he writes, “creates, for the moment, the illusion of union, yet without love this “union” leaves strangers as far apart as they were before — sometimes it makes them ashamed of each other, or even makes them hate each other, because when the illusion has gone they feel their estrangement even more markedly than before.”
Clinical practice provides impressive confirmation of the great and often decisive importance of psychological factors on the functioning of the sexual instinct. It has been ascertained that numerous cases of impotence in men and frigidity in women, unamenable to any form of physical and medicinal treatment, have responded to psychotherapy; that is to say, they have been cured by the elimination of the psychic obstacles and blocks which were inhibiting the normal functioning of the physiological instinct.
But at the present time there is in the mass of the public an interest in and overvaluation of all that concerns sexual life that not only are excessive, but might be called obsessive. This situation has arisen through a variety of causes.
- A reaction to the old mistaken and restrictive conception of sexuality as something sinful, forbidden and not even to be referred to among ladies and gentlemen. This produced harmful repressions accompanied by unjustified or exaggerated guilt feelings. Naturally this attitude could not suppress the sexual instinct, but merely succeeded in masking it with veils of hypocrisy and encouraging its satisfaction in clandestine ways and through corrupt practices. The reaction against all this has been eminently justified, but unfortunately, as is the case with all reactions, it has been pushed to the opposite extreme and has produced a glorification of sexuality and consequently uncontrolled license. This reaction forms part of the general reaction against the constraints of every kind to which humanity, and particularly the young, were subjected in the past.
- The prevailing materialism — materialism not only theoretical but practical — which has led to the overvaluation of material goods and possessions, of physical pleasures and of outward success, and to the exploitation of natural energies and even of animals and human beings.
- The shrewd, intensive and cynical commercial exploitation of sexuality. It has been, and is, responsible for an enormous mass of books and magazines specializing in it, and countless erotic and exhibitionist films in which the pornographic element is purveyed under the hypocritical pretext of the “freedom of art.” There is in this respect a pronounced lack of conscience not only on the part of the general public, but also among more cultured people and those in high positions. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness that this is a matter of veritable “psychic poisoning,” the effects of which are more harmful than those of unwholesome substances introduced into food, in respect of which legal controls have rightly been established. Incidentally (since it does not come within the purview of our subject), I may remark that the above applies largely to a similar glorification of violence, and the description end representation of acts of violence, cruelty and criminality.
I well realize how difficult it is to run counter to and actively oppose this overwhelming tide, which has behind it powerful and well-organized interests. But I deem it not useless, and in any case a matter of duty, to state the truth clearly and draw attention vigorously to the grave responsibility incurred by all who can and should intervene to fight, or at least moderate, this collective psychic contamination.
To revert to the examination of sexuality, we shall do well to recognize an often neglected fact: the exaggerated prominence given to sexuality is not due solely to the natural stimulus of the instinct as such, but is attributable as well to other elements and impulses of a different kind. Sexual desire and activity are often regarded as symbols and demonstrations of potency, and in the case of men as signs of “virility;” while true virility is something far more expansive and superior, one of its manifestations being self control. In women, the urge to acquire and exercise sex-appeal is frequently motivated (far more than by the instinctive impulse) by the desire for power, in particular for power over men and the advantages accruing from it; or by vanity and the satisfaction of outshining other women.
There are also other motives that associate themselves with the instinct and intensify the urge to sexual union:
- The desire, or rather the need, to escape from isolation and loneliness, and thus to gain freedom from the suffering they produce.
- The urge to enter into psychological union with another being, which, it is believed, is made easier by physical union. This is true in some cases, but not in all, while sometimes the simply physical relationship arouses negative reactions.
- The need or desire to be the recipient of affection. This “hunger for affection” often stems from an affective deficiency in the early years of life, particularly where the mother appears to withhold love. It is the source, by way of reaction, of a plea, indeed a demand, for affection on the part of others that is at times insatiable. It is strong in those endowed with intense, affective natures.
The above motives, associated as they are with the biological sexual instinct, show how varied and complex are the actions and reactions between sexuality and psychological life which I referred to at the beginning. Thus sexual education worthy of the name must give the utmost consideration to this complicated play of bio-psychic energies, so as to set in proper perspective the problems deriving from it and indicate the methods by which these problems can, at least in some measure, be resolved. This demands a scientific study of the nature of love and of the various forms and expressions it assumes.
The true nature of love, its most authentic meaning, is the relationship and union between all that is most real and essential in the beings who love each other. A somewhat paradoxical expression may serve in stating that the “object” of our love must be considered a “subject,” a living being like ourselves, another “thou.” The “subject” must be recognized, respected and appreciated as such; not regarded as something to be possessed, something that serves to gratify our need or desire. This has been strongly emphasized by Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou and in other works.
But given the complexity of human nature and the great diversity of the “subjects” with whom we can enter into relationships, love assumes a wide range of characteristics and expressions, and mingles, so to speak, with many other impulses, desires and feelings, with which it is often confused. This raises the issue — a much discussed question — of ascertaining if, or to what extent and in what ways, sexuality is linked with the various forms and expressions of love.
As is known, there exists a strong tendency to attribute the origin of every type of love to sexuality; but this implies a conception of sexuality so broad and generic as to deprive it of its precise and real meaning. Indeed, in the very field of physical manifestations, recognition should be given to the difference between sexuality in its proper sense, i.e., genital sexuality, and various other forms of sensuality. It seems, for example, neither correct nor scientific to confuse oral sensual pleasure, associated with the gratification of the need for nutriment, with sexuality.
On the other hand, it is right to recognize that in many kinds of love sexual elements are to be found intermingled, or that they produce physical repercussions and echoes of a sexual character. This calls for a scientific study of the nature of love, of the different forms it assumes, and of its different expressions. Such a study is still in an initial stage, since up to now psychologists, with rare exceptions, while they regarded sexuality as a subject worthy of scientific investigation, have not deemed love a “serious” enough matter to engage their attention! But for some time a few valuable works have been appearing that treat love in a serious vein. I should mention the psychologist and sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, who has written an excellent book, The Ways and Power of Love. Hermann Keyserling, in addition to enlarging upon the subject in various essays and some chapters of a number of his books, promoted the publication of the best and most comprehensive book in existence on marriage. In it [The Book of Marriage] he assembled articles by the most eminent specialists and writers, among them Jung, Tagore, Maeder, etc., he himself contributing the Introduction and Conclusion. To these I should add Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving (1956) and Maryse Choisy’s Le Scandale de l’Amour (1930), the latter full of shrewdly penetrating observations presented in a deliberately paradoxical manner.
Space permits only a brief résumé of the different types of love in human relationships.
- Love for ourselves comes first. This may cause some surprise, as, superficially regarded, love for oneself may appear to be synonymous with egotism and narcissism; but in reality it is not. In this case also, as in many others, the great complexity, the many-sided constitution of the human being must be kept in mind. Thus everything depends upon who is loved in ourselves and how. If it is our egocentric and separative personality, with its greed for possessions and domination, that is loved, this is indeed egotism. But if, on the other hand, the object of our love is what is higher and better in us, i.e., what we are “in spirit and in truth,” what can be called “the human in us,” with its wonderful potentialities for growth, development, creative activity and love for others — then we are dealing no longer with egotism but with an urge to live worthily and nobly. Then love of self not only does not hinder but is almost conditional for loving others in the same way.
- Maternal love, observed without sentimentality, but at the same time without preconceptions of a psychoanalytic kind, reveals a curious contradiction, also explicable by the multiplicity of the human psyche. True maternal love is primarily oblatory: the mother dedicates and gives herself naturally to the little creature to which she has given life. She envelops it with her affection and devotes herself with joy to satisfying its needs, with no feeling of sacrifice.
But by and by son and daughter grow and gradually develop an autonomous life, an independent personality. Many mothers cannot understand end accept this fact: their love — or rather their affection — becomes possessive and exacting; the child’s independence is felt and disapproved of as ingratitude. Now what she has done for him does seem a sacrifice and she says so; in the most extreme cases moral blackmail is resorted to. This is naturally counter-productive, because it alienates the child, except in cases where the mother succeeds in keeping him in submission and under her thumb. hut such cases are becoming less frequent.
- Paternal love is another type of love in which several components exist in varying proportions in different cases. On one hand, a good father has a genuine love for the child as a human being that grows, to whom he joyfully gives the necessary help for his development from baby to man. On the other hand, the father may often assume undesirable attitudes and behave badly; he frequently wants to assert his authority and demand obedience. Or he seeks to identify himself with his son and tends to mold him in his own image and likeness. Or, again, he exerts pressure to make the son accomplish in life what he himself has not succeed in doing.
- Love for a person of the opposite sex. This is called by various writers “erotic love;” but it is necessary to dispel the confusion created by the diversity of meanings given to the word “erotic.” In common parlance, as well as in the language of some scientists, this word is employed in a sexual sense, and, indeed, often as a synonym of pornographic. But some psychologists and philosophers, in accordance with the myth of Eros and the meaning attributed to it by the Greeks, regard Eros as the attraction of one sex to the other, as the desire to unite and fuse at all levels, and particularly at the affective. In fact, pictorial representations of Eros and Cupid show the latter aiming his darts at the heart and not elsewhere. Thus love between individuals of different sex reveals a mixture of physical, emotional, mental and in some cases spiritual attraction, in different and variable proportions. This explains the great difficulty two human beings find in understanding each other, in uniting and integrating themselves harmoniously. It explains also the conflicts that crop up and the sufferings resulting from them.
The most recognized and common forms of this type of love are: passional love; sentimental love; idealistic love. No less important, however, although frequently not given consideration, are intellectual understanding and spiritual communion.
Intellectual understanding consists in a community of cultural interests, in a shared participation in the world of thought. It is to be noted that this does not mean, nor does it demand, “thinking in the same way,” or being in agreement on everything; but it does mean an exchange of information and ideas, without attempts to impose personal convictions. This is well expressed in the phrase “to agree to disagree.” Here also psycho-sexual diversity can and should constitute the reason, not for dissension, but for integration. The woman’s intuitive way, and the man’s rational way, of viewing the same fact, situation or problem can, within the framework of a free and serene exchange of ideas, make for the attainment of a more comprehensive and synthetic vision.
Spiritual love, the communion of souls, a shared devotion to higher, transcendental values, beings and tasks, is the most lofty and joyous aspect of love between two human beings. Where it exists and develops during cohabitation, it is the firmest guarantee of the union’s continuity, the sheet-anchor in crises and conflicts, the crucible in which the other aspects of “living together” are refined and sublimated with the passing of the years.
- Brotherly, altruistic, humanitarian Love is brought to blossom by a richness of love that radiates more and more fully. It is frequently aroused and intensified by compassion for human pain and by the feeling of substantial identity with our “brothers in humanity.” In the most exalted cases it extends, like the love of St. Francis, to all creatures. A beautiful exposition of altruistic love is contained in Strength to Love by Martin Luther King,Jr. who himself has been a noble example of it and paid with his life for his humanitarian work.
- Love for an idea or an ideal can appear in different guises, or, better, a variety of components may enter into it. The fascination of an idea and the beauty of an ideal can inspire heights of dedication and sacrifice, but can also kindle fanaticism or induce an idée fixe. A man can be “possessed” by an ideal to the point of being blind to everything else, and inconsiderate and ruthless to all who do not share it.
- Love for God. Religious feeling, a sense of devotion, reverence and adoration directed towards a Supreme Being, is innate in the heart of man and is found in every age and every country. It may assume a variety of appearances and give birth to a diversity of forms, both conceptual and objective, according to the psychological type of the devotee and to historical and social conditions. It attains its finest flowering in mystics who have the living experience of union with God through love.
This love has been the object of sharp controversy. A number of writers with a materialistic or positivistic bias have considered it a derivative of unsatisfied sexuality through a process of sublimation. Others have flatly regarded it as something abnormal and sought to find in it some morbid aspects. But these interpretations are unjustified and not scientifically valid. Spiritual love is authentic and genuine, independent of, and at a completely different level from, that of the sexual instinct. The above erroneous interpretations are derived, in this case also, from the complexity of human nature and the reciprocal influences exercised by different elements and functions on each other. It may thus be admitted that spiritual love can become intensified by sublimated affective and sexual elements, and, conversely, that the fire of an authentic spiritual love can arose repercussions and stimulation on affective and physical levels. But, I repeat, it is a question of reciprocal actions and reactions of substantially different elements.
To complete the picture, I will mention that there are various pathological forms of sexuality and love which are today being given a prominence that savors of the morbid. They must certainly be recognized and studied, but objectively and scientifically, and not arouse unhealthy curiosity and fascination. In addition to these, there exists also a deformation or downright degeneration of love: idolatrous love. It is rooted in blind admiration for, and fanatical emotional glorification of, cinema stars, champions of sport, dictators or other leaders, etc.
A penetrating analysis of a number of these different forms of love is to be found in Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, which I have already mentioned. The title of the book correctly suggests that to love is not only a matter of feeling and affection, but that to “love well” demands all that is demanded by the practice of any art: first of all, discipline and self-control, then concentration, and also patience and persistence. All these qualities call for the use of the will, of which they can be said to be manifestations. But while their indispensability in learning the various arts is readily conceded — and therefore any determined student is willing to devote thereto all the time, energy and expenditure it takes to arrive — it is overlooked or acknowledged with reluctance when it comes to the “art of loving.” And yet this art is of central importance in life, far more important indeed that any other separate art.
If the art of living is to be well learned and applied, a series of specific, biological, psychological and even spiritual recognitions are necessary. The principal ones are:
- Knowledge of the laws governing the reciprocal action of the various biological and psychological energies, and the methods of transforming and sublimating them.
- The differential psychology of the sexes, that is, the branch of knowledge dealing with the important psychological differences existing between man and woman. (I have discussed these in my monograph, The Psychology of Woman and Her Psychosynthesis.)
- Awareness of the problems concerning the relationships with a person of the opposite sex, and of the methods for rendering them not only harmonious, but also such as to promote and encourage the psycho-spiritual development of both parties and their mutual integration, that is to say the psychosynthesis of the couple. This, of course, presupposes acquaintance with the ways of carrying out a personal psychosynthesis, i.e., the formation of an integrated, complete and harmonious personality. It may be termed “education in maturity,” and should be begun from the earliest years.
An important component of this psychosynthetic education is sexual education, understood in its widest sense, i.e., education to love in all its aspects. Here also — one might rather say here above all — the education of educators represents the initial necessary step. But it may be objected: “Where are the educators of the educators to be found?” This is no mere play on words, but reflects a very real lack. It points to the necessity of ail professors of education and psychology acquiring competence in this field and instructing future teachers of every grade and future doctors, in a manner commensurate with the importance of the subject.
Meanwhile every individual of a certain cultural level, who sincerely wants to, can undertake his own self-education in this field. The means to this end are not lacking. Good books which offer the needed information and instruction are available. One of the first things to be done would be their compilation in a well-edited bibliography, to be given wide distribution. Then textbooks would need to be written to assist teachers in performing this delicate out imperative task in the different school grades. No less important is the establishment of Schools for Parents, in which they can be given sound instruction and guidance in the performance of this same task in the family. The young of both sexes should have access to Prematrimonial Advisory Bureaus, in which they can be helped to solve their specific individual problems and, most importantly, to understand and cope with the difficulties and responsibilities of family life.
No less necessary are Marriage Advice Bureaus for giving married couples help of a similar nature with their problems and conflicts at every level, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Thus would much suffering be avoided or reduced, and many marriages in danger of breaking up saved. Much is already being done abroad in this direction, particularly in the United States, and to a lesser extent in some European countries, but it is still insufficient and inadequate in comparison with a need so widespread and pressing.
There is thus an immense task awaiting the efforts of those who are aware of the existence of this need, who possess a sense of responsibility, and who are gifted with humanitarian and social sensibilities. Faced by the challenge presented by this and other great and arduous tasks, let us always be mindful of the Chinese proverb: “The longest journey begins with the first step.”
 Archive Document #22276 is a typed version of this essay marked “Draft” and contains numerous hand-written corrections, but we have followed the final version (Doc. #22275) for this reformatting, except for corrections of punctuation, typographical errors, etc. Even though the only manuscript found in the Archives is in English, there are various stylistic elements (including an inaccurate quote from Erich Fromm’s book) that suggest that the original lecture was either conceived or given in Italian and translated by an unknown person under Assagioli’s supervision. —Ed.
 Source Unknown. —Ed.
 This information is contained in an article published in the Italian review Riflessi, No. 2, pp. 46-48 – Milan, 1968. —Author’s Note.
 James Hinton (1822-1875) was an English surgeon and author, writer on physiological and ethical relationships. —Ed.
 Pablo de Sarasate, perhaps the most famous classical violinist of his time. —Ed.
 Erich Fromm (1900-1980), German-American psychologist, sociologist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, and author. —Ed.
 Fromm, The Art of Loving, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1956, 54-55. This citation has been taken from the original American edition. The archival document version of this quotation is different form the original, suggesting that perhaps Assagioli read the original, translated it into Italian for his own use, and then re-translated it back into English for this essay. —Ed.
 Boston, Beacon Press, 1954. —Author’s Note.
 Das Ehe-Buch, translated into English under the title The Book of Marriage, London, Jonathan Cape, 1927. —Author’s Note.
 The great German mystic, Meister Eckhart, went so far as to state, “If you love yourself, you love others as you love yourself. As long as you love another person less than yourself, you will never succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all men in the same way, including yourself, you will love them like one person, and that person is both God and man. He is great and just who, loving himself, loves equally his neighbor.” —Author’s Note.
 I have developed this subject in Chapters 11 and 12 of the book Creating Harmony in Life: A Psychosynthesis Approach,—Author’s Note. This book was translated into English by Catherine Ann Lombard and published by the Istituto de psicosintesi in 2022. Assagioli’s draft of this essay makes this citation but at the time it had not been translated into English, so the note was omitted in the final version of the essay. —Ed.
 Published by Psychosynthesis Research Foundation in 1968 as well as in earlier editions. —Ed.