NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Guilt as an Emotional Aphrodisiac

My last several articles have focused on concepts about human sexuality from The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment, a book written by Dr. Jack Morin, sex therapist and researcher (see my prior articles listed below). In the current article, I'm focusing on another one of the paradoxical emotions, guilt, as an emotional aphrodisiac.

Guilt as an Emotional Aphrodisiac

My Prior Articles About Eroticism and Emotional Aphrodisiacs

Guilt as a Paradoxical Emotion
To recap from a previous article: Paradoxical means seemingly contradictory. 

The word "seemingly" is important in the context of this discussion because these emotions often have the opposite effect to what is normally expected.

Erotically speaking, guilt, as well as anger and anxiety, are considered paradoxical emotions because these emotions can have an unexpected aphrodisiac effect.

Most people are familiar with the concept of "guilty pleasures," which means enjoying something that is generally not held in high regard (e.g., sleeping late, eating a container of ice cream, binge watching a TV program, etc).  How guilty pleasures are defined is very subjective.  One person's guilty pleasure is another person's idea of an ideal pastime.

If you grew up in a relatively healthy home, you learned to develop a healthy sense of guilt that allowed you to have a conscience.  With healthy guilt, if you're about to do something that goes against your personal values, a sense of healthy guilt can stop you. 

In addition, healthy guilt helps you to live as part of a community in good standing.  With no sense of healthy guilt, people would live like sociopaths who have no empathy for others and lack remorse for their behavior.

On the other hand, unhealthy guilt is neurotic guilt with a punitive conscience.  The most extreme form of neurotic guilt leads to shame where people feel they are fundamentally flawed.  

Whereas guilt comes from a sense of doing, thinking or feeling "bad things," shame is feeling like a "bad person" (see my article: Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame).

With regard to sexual experiences, guilt is usually associated with sexual dysfunction.  According to Dr. Morin, guilt is second only to anxiety as an anti-aphrodisiac.  It's often a factor in erectile unpredictability and inhibition of sexual desire and pleasure.

Although guilt can be a sexual inhibitor, it can also be sexual enhancer--like the obstacle that heightens sexual attraction, which is part of the Erotic Equation.  

And therein lies the paradoxical nature of guilt: Guilt can be both a disrupter and an enhancer of sexual excitement (also known as an emotional aphrodisiac).

Guilt as an Emotional Aphrodisiac
According to Dr. Morin, guilt as an emotional aphrodisiac is usually associated with one of the Cornerstones of Eroticism, Violating Prohibitions By Breaking the Rules.

In Dr. Morin's research, over a third of his respondents reported their peak erotic experiences were intensified by the thrill of the forbidden.  

This might involve having sexual fantasies or actual sexual experiences with partners who are considered "inappropriate" or a risk of being discovered as in the two vignettes I discussed in my prior article about anxiety as an emotional aphrodisiac.

Clinical Vignettes: Guilt as an Emotional Aphrodisiac
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how guilt can be an emotional aphrodisiac when sexual prohibitions are violated:

At the end of a stressful business trip, Jane had drinks with her colleague, Bill, at their hotel bar to celebrate their new client.  It was their last day away from home before heading back to New York City, and they were both feeling good about the commission they would earn from this major sale.

As she was sipping her drink, Jane was aware that this was the first time in weeks she felt both relaxed that their work trip was almost over and exhilarated by their success.  

She was also aware of the growing sexual attraction between her and Bill while they were working on this project together.

While they were working on the project, Jane pushed these thoughts about her attraction to Bill to the back of her mind.  Before that night, when she had sexual fantasies about Bill, she suppressed these thoughts because she knew it would get in the way of their working together on the project.  

But now that the project was successfully completed, she was finding it difficult to suppress these same thoughts.  She also knew he was attracted to her too by the way he was looking at her and how he touched arm and ran his hand down her back while they were talking.

They both had significant others waiting for them back home, which made Jill feel guilty for having fantasies about Bill.  But the thought of Bill as "forbidden fruit" also intensified Jane's sexual feelings for him to the point where she agreed to go back to his room with him.

The next day, as they were preparing to fly back to New York, they talked about how guilty they felt that they slept together.  They also agreed this could never happen again.  But deep down Jill knew this would be the first of many sexual encounters with Bill and the inappropriateness of these encounters would make them hard to resist.

In this fictional scenario, we have at least three of the Four Cornerstones of Eroticism
  • Violating Prohibitions 
  • Longing and Anticipation
  • Overcoming Ambivalence 
Since Jane and Bill weren't sociopaths, after their first sexual encounter, they both felt guilty that they cheated on their partners and about the inappropriateness of getting sexually involved with a colleague. So, after they had sex on their business trip, instead of sexual desire being at the forefront, guilt as a sexual inhibitor, an anti-aphrodisiac, was now at the forefront for both of them.  

Aside from guilt as a sexual inhibitor, there was also another paradoxical emotion, anxiety, which was linked to their fear their partners might find out about their affair.  

You might also rightfully anticipate that, at some point, if Jane and Bill continued to have an affair, there might also be another paradoxical emotion, anger.  

For instance, if Jane and Bill's guilt caused them to blame one another for the affair, their anger could, at first, cause them to stop seeing each other for a while.  But, over time, the anger could heat things up between them and become sexually arousing, which could lead to them resuming the affair.

You can see from this example how people, who are cheating could get caught in an on again, off again cycle:
  • Sexual Attraction
  • Guilt
  • Excitement
  • Remorse
  • Anger
  • Back to Sexual Attraction
How Does Guilt Transform From Being a Sexual Inhibitor to Being a Sexual Enhancer?
As previously mentioned, guilt is primarily associated with being a sexual inhibitor.  So, if that's the case, how does it transform from being an inhibitor to being a sexual enhancer?

The fictional vignette above provides some clues: When Jane first notices the sexual attraction between her and Bill (when they're actively working on the project), she suppresses her feelings by keeping the project they're working on in the forefront of her mind.  She is aware there's a lot riding on the success of the project so, at that point, she's able to suppress sexual desire to focus on the project.

But on their last day of their business trip, the success of the project is no longer an inhibitor.  Add to this their celebratory mood and alcohol and you can see how guilt recedes into the background and sexual excitement emerges in the foreground. 

In addition, many people are also good at compartmentalizing their guilt so they consciously (or unconsciously) push it to the back of their mind.  

An Exit Strategy Out of an Unhappy Relationship
Despite their guilt, many people use infidelity as an exit strategy from their current relationship.

Some of those people actually hope (on an unconscious level) to be caught by their significant others.  This could involve being "careless" and leaving texts, email or other telltale signs of an affair to be discovered by their partner in order to end a relationship.

Other people, who are in dull or sexless relationship, might unconsciously use the sexual excitement from an affair to make them realize they are still desirable to others and they could be happier with someone else (not necessarily the person from the affair).

Using Guilt to Spice Up Sex
Similar to the vignettes in my article about Violating Prohibitions, some couples use guilt as a way to spice up their sex life.

For instance, a couple, who is at a party, might sneak away to an empty upstairs bedroom to have sex.  Although they feel guilty and anxious about getting caught, if they push their guilt and anxiety into the background and allow sexual excitement to be in the foreground, this forbidden pleasure will be exciting.

This is similar to other violations of prohibitions, like parking on a dark street to have sex in a car.

In most cases when couples do this, they know there's a risk of getting caught, but they mostly believe they won't be caught so this allows them to push guilt and anxiety into the background.

Even if the couple who violates prohibitions never does it again, the memory of that experience can be a potent sexual enhancer for a long time as they recall the experience together and relive the memory of it (see my article: Exploring Sexual Fantasies Without Guilt or Shame).

My next article will focus on the topic of Erotic Themes from Dr. Morin's work.

Getting Help in Therapy
Unhealthy guilt and shame can be difficult to overcome on your own.

If you have unresolved problems holding you back, seek help from a skilled licensed mental health professional.

Overcoming your problems can help you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I am a sex positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.