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Eroticized Rage

Can angry sex also be safe, fun, and hot?

Shutterstock Used With Permission
Source: Shutterstock Used With Permission

When you hear the term eroticized rage, you might think of violent sex, forceful sex, molestation, rape, and the like. You may picture disempowered individuals who use sex to feel a sense of power and control over others. If so, you’re not alone. But that highly problematic form of eroticized rage is not what I’m addressing in this post. Rather than looking at eroticized rage that manifests as pathology, this post looks at eroticized rage as an element of safe, fun, and hot sex.

Sex researchers have long known that the elements that comprise our sexual arousal template (the thoughts, desires, and behaviors that turn us on) are not random. They are impacted by our genetics as well as our life history. For some, this includes the intersection of anger and sexuality. Any strong feeling such as fear, risk, pain, or anger, can add intensity to the sexual experience. These ‘stressors’ increase neurochemical activity in ways that can cause sex to seem more intense and appealing. It’s no wonder that for some people, strong feelings, even strong ‘negative’ feelings, can be linked to and even integral to ‘positive’ sexual arousal.

For example:

  • A boy who regularly received bare-bottom spankings from his mother might unconsciously incorporate physical pain and emotional humiliation into his sexual arousal template (fetish).
  • A girl who was shamed and bullied about her looks might seek an element of domination and control (or, conversely, abuse) in her sexual interactions (reaction formation).
  • A child whose father physically abuses the mother might hide in his or her room and masturbate as a form of emotional escape, unconsciously pairing sexualized self-soothing with an element of anger and violence.

Repeated early-life trauma (especially during latency) can serve as the catalyst to adding an element of eroticized rage to a person’s arousal template, though other factors could also be in play. But more often than not, meaningful early-life experiences appear to be the driving factor in the development of eroticized rage. Such experiences could be overtly sexual in nature, or experiences that become sexualized in the child’s mind. Anything that leaves a child feeling powerless and searching for escape or control via fantasy and dissociation could ultimately lead to eroticized rage.

Despite that arousal linked to pain or anger often originates via trauma, re-enacting it in adult life doesn’t automatically mean the individual is re-enacting trauma. Thus, it would be incorrect for a professional to assume that a trauma survivor who enjoys pain or abuse roleplay during sex must stop that behavior to fully heal his or her past. While it may be necessary for such people to take a ‘time out’ from certain kinds of sex while working on early abuse, it’s often not helpful to ask them to eliminate those behaviors forever—especially when a client may already feel shameful about his or her arousal template. In most people, once adult sexuality is formed (by early adolescence), it is what it is.

In his widely read article, Eroticized Rage, Dr. Patrick Carnes ties eroticized rage to narcissism as well as early-life trauma. Essentially, Carnes states that a non-narcissist whose self-image and self-esteem have been diminished by traumatic experience will feel embarrassed, rejected, and shamed, whereas a narcissist is more likely to feel outraged and resentful. The narcissist will experience an intolerable emotion and the impulse to escape that emotion, and he or she may find that sexualized fantasy and behaviors offer the perfect, intensely powerful escape.

In a PsychCentral post, Dr. Linda Hatch expands on this idea, noting the difference between true narcissism and what is known as narcissistic defense (or narcissistic false self). About this latter category, she writes:

The narcissist’s veneer of superiority and fragile self-esteem are very easily punctured.… Any challenge to the narcissist’s facade, any criticism or suggestion that they are wrong, inadequate, or unimportant is likely to wound them to the core. Their self-image crumbles and they may exhibit extreme rage, resentment, and aggression against the source of the criticism. Narcissists are vulnerable precisely because they need to be flawless. Rage and self-hate are just below the surface at all times.

It appears that an attempt to strongly defend the unconscious self from narcissistic harm may be an underlying factor for some of the people who entwine sex and pain or sex and aggression.

Common manifestations of eroticized rage include:

  • Violent Pornography – Pornography is a fantasy-based form of sexual expression. It offers an easy escape from narcissistic wounding and other sources of emotional discomfort. There is no chance of rejection. The user is in complete control and can live out violent arousal in private.
  • Paying for Sex – People who feel rejected, unwanted, powerless, or ugly will use money to obtain sex and feel powerful (to feel as if they are in control of another person). This may involve strip clubs, massage parlors, escorts/prostitutes, webcam performers, porn, etc. Money is used as a way to turn other people into sexual objects.
  • Being Paid for Sex – Many people (more often women than men) say the only way they truly feel powerful is when they use their body to gain control, especially if they are paid to be sexual and desirable.
  • Kink/Fetish/BDSM/Roleplay – Consensual kink/fetish play is a way to amp up the intensity of sex, a way of turning pain and anger into pleasure through acts of sexual aggression, domination, and passivity. When kink/fetish play is consensual and safety is kept at the forefront, participants are able to safely indulge their feelings of eroticized rage on many levels.
  • Sex to Feel Power (#MeToo) – An example of this might be a high-level executive who feels unattractive and sexually undesirable, and chooses to use his or her position of power to sexually harass and abuse subordinates and others.
  • Sex to Restore Parity – Sex is used to change a sense of being one-down, less-than, or not good enough. This helps to build, though only temporarily, a person’s self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Sex to Get Even – A person who feels victimized, particularly a person who feels victimized in an important relationship, may use sex to get even. “My wife doesn’t respect me, I’m going to have an affair,” or, “My husband devalues my contributions to our relationship, I’m going to devalue our vows of monogamy in the same way.”
  • Lying to Get Sex – A person may lie about feelings of love and connection simply to get sex and then ‘ghost’ on the other person. In this way, promises of love and connection are used aggressively in the sexual realm.

Eroticized rage is not inherently good or bad. All of us, to some degree, bring our aggressions (and passivities) into our sexual lives in small ways and large. If dominance and rage are an integrated part of someone’s sexual arousal template, there are plenty of consensual, highly satisfying ways to meet this need/desire. As long as what’s acted out is not deeply disturbing to the individual or their partners and is carried out with the full consent and awareness of all parties, it is potentially not a problem.

However, incorporating rage and anger into sexual behavior can unquestionably cross the line, just as any sexual behavior can cross the line. This occurs when consent is lacking when there is no awareness that ‘games are being played,’ or when causing others pain on any level (not pleasure and not shared play) is the primary sexual goal.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
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