Transient Sexual Desire: Sartre’s Philosophy on Lust by Nick Holt

Sexual desire is widely recognised as a physiological response to a human instinct ostensibly referred to as one’s ‘sex drive’, or ‘libido’. While it is self-evident that sexual desire may organically lead to sexual activity, the motivations behind this project are not as widely understood or discussed in philosophical terms as the apparent biological motivations. For Jean-Paul Sartre sexuality holds great existential significance and is primarily driven by one’s own relational significance to other human beings. Sexual desire for Sartre cultivates a unique state of consciousness in which a human being may simultaneously become both the subject and the object. The movement from sexual desire to sexual activity disrupts this unique state of consciousness and for Sartre the disruption leads to a combination of sadistic and masochistic tendencies that become unequivocally essential to any normal sexual activity.

In order to conceive of sexual desire as an existentially motivated project rather than a biological one it is important to understand the ontological argument put forth by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre distinguishes two fundamental categories of human being: the ‘Being-for-itself’ and the ‘Being-in-itself’ (Sartre, 1956, p 120). These categories approximate to transcendence and immanence, or a self-reflective being and a non-reflective being. Sartre argues that the Being-in-itself presents to the world as a passive object with an inability to transcend what it represents. Typically this category is reserved for physical objects such as a rock that does not consciously analyse its potential to present itself to Man as something other than a rock. The Being-in-itself simply is what it is and is never anything but what it is (Martin, 1996). Sartre argues that if a human represents this category of being he fails to acknowledge that consciousness is ‘no thing’ or ‘Nothingness’ and hence he is acting in bad faith (Sartre, 1956, pp 47-67). For Sartre, the Being-for-itself is the negation of the Being-in-itself. An example of this might be one’s attempt at refusing to transcend his job title, i.e. a lawyer presenting himself to the world as nothing beyond the intrinsic and given qualities of a lawyer. The reason this example is problematic is that, while lawyer may go to great lengths to present himself to other human phenomenon as an object, he is aware that he is also a human subject. Unlike the Being-in-itself, the Being-for-itself reflects on its role as an object and is consciously aware of its freedom to transcend the object it represents. Thus, it is responsible for creating its own meaning and value in the world. An example of this might be a woman who is employed by day as an accountant, but when she arrives home from her job as an accountant she makes a choice to work on a painting she’s been crafting. She is aware of her freedom and the perpetual possibilities bestowed upon. While she paints, the woman conceives no thoughts of herself as an object, i.e., she does not wonder if her paintings are good enough, or think of the argument she had earlier in the day with her mother; she concentrates on the each brushstroke and simply paints. For the woman, consciousness is ‘Nothingness’; she has transcended it. The man, however, jostles between transcendence and imminence, and the result is angst; for of course, the notion of transcendence and imminence existing simultaneously is an impossibility.

The Being-for-others is introduced by Sartre as a third and supplementary category of being, representing one’s awareness of its objectness in the world for other human beings. The manifestation of this category occurs when another human being appears in one’s world. In essence one becomes a human object – a special kind of the Being-in-itself. The Being-for-itself creates tension between the fundamental modes of being, and one’s reduction to an object status for another human being evokes a presumed loss of control in how one is represented in the world. Take the following example as a realisation of this mode of being. A man is approaching a woman in a hotel hallway. The woman is wearing an open blouse; once she becomes aware of human phenomenon she buttons up her blouse in an effort to mitigate any angst or shame she may feel. She has become aware that she is an object to this Other and this causes angst. Of course, it could be argued that under different circumstances the woman may not have felt any angst or shame, and therefore may have left her blouse as it were. Her and the man may have found themselves sexually attracted to each other. They may have flirted, swapped their contact details and arranged to meet up after. In this instance, the ostensible trust gained through sexual desire would make it seem like the man and woman have avoided the aforementioned angst. For Sartre, the reciprocity of the seductive gaze the man and woman have just conferred upon each is a representation of human conflict. Jean-Paul Sartre argues that this conflict causes natural sadomasochistic tendencies and it is through the movement of, and interaction with, the three modes of being that one inevitably stumbles upon his sexuality and arguably misinterprets the aim of sexuality (Sartre, 1956, p 383).

Sexual desire for Sartre is the impetus for discovering one’s sexuality and is driven not by a biological motivation but by the ‘look’ or gaze imposed upon one by the Other. Sexual desire fosters a unique state of consciousness in which one seeks to retain its security in the world as an object. Sartre writes, ‘My original attempt to get hold of the Other’s free subjectivity through his objectivity-for-me is sexual desire’ (Sartre, 1956, p 382). By seducing the Other one must assert oneself as the subject but also acknowledge oneself as an object and a target of desire himself. Sartre refers to this relationship as a ‘double reciprocal incarnation’ (Sartre, 1956, p 391). It is the mutual awareness of subjectness and objectness shared by him and the Other. Sartre writes ‘I make myself flesh in the presence of the Other in order to appropriate the Other’s flesh’ (Sartre, 1956, p 389). Take for example the following scenario as a realisation of this mutual awareness. One is at a nightclub and notices the Other’s seductive gaze; the Other does the same and a mutual interpretation of sexual desire is formed. Both become aware of their role as a desired object for the Other and it is through this conscious acknowledgement that self-subjectification is sequentially separate. Sexual desire is an ideal state that has no necessary connection with some goal, aim, or end in view and is the solution to fundamental conflict between ourselves and Others (Oaklander, 194-199).

Sartre argues that the double reciprocal incarnation achieved during sexual desire is one of a temporary status and is ultimately ruptured by sexual activity (Sartre, pp 419-20). Consummation breaks down this duality and once again dichotomises one’s positional significance as either a subject or object. Through sexual activity one fractures the ideal state attained during desire and acts on the perceived necessity to assign physical pleasure as the quintessential objective of sexuality. Sartre writes ‘…we have added pleasure as desire’s normal satisfaction-for reasons external to the essence of desire (e.g., procreation, the sacred character of maternity, the exceptional strength of the pleasure provoked by ejaculation, the symbolic value attached to the sexual act). Thus the average man through mental sluggishness and desire to conform can conceive of no other goal for his desire than ejaculation’ (Sartre, p 384). If sexual desire is considered the ideal state of being then it must be accepted from Sartre’s point of view that sexual activity is the denouement of the intentional project; it is the destruction of sexual desire and symbolises its failure. The causal effect for the disruption lies in the intentionality of one’s advancement from sexual desire to sexual activity. The destruction may be accomplished by intentional pleasure or intentional appropriation of the Other (Oaklander, 194-199). Simply put, this equates to masochism and sadism. Sadism for Sartre is the choice one makes to ignore one’s own incarnation and objetness; to seize the Other’s transcendence. The result is the retention of control. As Sartre writes, ‘Sadism is a refusal to be incarnated and a flight from all facticity’ (Sartre, 1956, p 399). Conversely if one chooses to relinquish that control and become absorbed in the pleasure that the Other is providing he is engaging in masochistic sexual activity. Drowned by the intoxication of immanence, the masochist denies his transcendence and therefore his freedom. Sexually, the masochist derives pleasure from his immanence; the trade off is a dramatic reduction in his freedom. Sexual activity gives rise to the two fundamental modes of being and contained in them is the sadist and the masochist. For Sartre, this sadomasochistic tendency is irremovable from normal sexual activity, as he writes: ‘Thus sadism and masochism are the two reefs on which desire may flounder – whether I transcend my troubled disturbance toward an appropriation of the Other’s flesh or, intoxicated with my own disturbance, pay attention only to my flesh and ask nothing of the other except that he should be the look which aids me in realising my flesh. It is because of this inconstancy on the part of desire and its perpetual oscillation between these two perils that ‘normal’ sexual activity is commonly designated as sadomasochistic’ (Sartre, 1956, p 404).

Sartre’s ontological framework allows for a world in which human conflict may give rise to one’s own sexuality. The constant movement from immanence to transcendence amidst a world of other human phenomena creates indisputable aguish, and for Sartre, the exclusive method of elusion is sexual desire. Through sexual desire one may accept the delusion that immanence and transcendence form a unique symbiotic state that has some representation of the human condition, and while is it accepted that this state can be cultivated, its effect is temporary due to the rupture caused by the movement from sexual desire to sexual activity. It is this movement that differentiates sexual desire from sexual activity. Sartre argues that this movement produces a defined polarity in sexual intentionality that is represented by sadism and masochism, and it is these tendencies that inevitably form the essential components of human sexual activity. While it is perhaps more facile to distinguish sexuality as a biological project that is motivated by a physiological need, Sartre’s argument for the existential significance of sexuality is paramount in a philosophical context.

Nick Holt is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in writing and drama at UQ.


Martin, Sartre, Sadism and Female Beauty Ideals, Australian Feminist Media Studies, Vol 11, No 24, 1996

Oaklander, The Philosophy of Sex (Rowland and Littlefield: Totowa, New Jersey). Pp 194-199

Sartre, Jean-Paul Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, ed. and trans. by H.E Barnes (London: Routledge, 1956)

Photo by Evan Kirby.

1 Comment

  1. I have never understood more completely the tension between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, between immanence and transcendence, and especially as this applies to being as subject or as object for the other until I read this eloquent and elegant essay. So much of philosophy is torture to read- apparently there exists a tension between being a good writer and being a good philosopher? Anyway, this is wonderful.


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