Review of The Bonds of Love

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A Review of The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, by Jessica Benjamin

New York: Pantheon

Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



In the half-century after Freud's death, western civilization happily embraced his concept of penis envy: the notion that once little girls are old enough to discern the differences between their genitals and those of little boys, they feel a profound sense of despair over what they perceive to be missing in their bodies and their lives. In response, Freud claimed, each girl – all unconsciously; he was talking about virtual babies – falls in love with her father and seeks to acquire the paternal penis as her own by seducing her father, having intercourse with him, and conceiving and bearing his child.

When I was an adolescent and noticed how few famous artists were women I decided Freud had it all backwards. Men, I said, envied women their ability to conceive and bear children, and sublimated their existential anguish that they could not do the same by making pictures, books, cathedrals, and other artifacts. Thus, to my 13-year-old mind the act of creation was an expression of what a female Freud might have called vagina envy.

As it turned out, Karen Horney, one of the first neo-Freudian heretics, had written extensively about my theory in the 1920s and 30s, and had reframed a great deal of what Freud held sacred. For example, she questioned the entire matter of the Oedipus complex, and found more value in analyzing the here-and-now experiences of her patients than in re-examining their childhood sexual feelings. She also observed that in 19th century Vienna, where Freud's developmental theories evolved, females had good reason to envy males – but the reasons had to do with the relative social freedom men enjoyed rather than with some poverty in the female anatomy: the laws and mores of the time and place encouraged men to acquire wealth, property, and power, to travel, to study, and to rule, while they almost demanded that women be confined to the kitchen and nursery.

It is this kind of domination – the exercise of psycho-social power – that concerns feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin; and though she first undermines the idea of penis envy with arguments similar to those Horney used before her, she does not quite reject it. She is a Freudian, after all, if an independent and a feminist as well.

In The Bonds of Love Benjamin returns to the early days of infancy to revise Freudian theory with a new model of childhood development based in part on the research of child analyst Daniel Stern. While all previous derivatives of Freudian theory postulate that child development is a process of separating and becoming increasingly individuated from the oceanic feelings of the womb-world in general and from mother in particular, Benjamin's theory attends to the infant's increasingly sophisticated interaction with the world in general and with its mother especially. This departure from classical psychoanalytic thinking, which recognizes the mother as an important human individual rather than an object in the child's universe, is enough by itself to establish a place for The Bonds of Love in the library of psychological thought.

All infants want to interact, Benjamin says, and do so insofar as their caregivers are able to interact with them. But few mothers have become sufficiently individuated during their own childhoods to be able to interact as whole people with their children. Both the cause and the effect of this deficit, according to Benjamin, is that little girls are raised differently from little boys. Boys are taught from birth to see themselves as different, hence separate, from their mothers; therefore they learn to remain apart from all human attributes socially ascribed to women, such as nurturance and emotional support. Little girls, on the other hand, are trained to see themselves as similar to and connected with their mothers, and are thereby imbued with those same attributes.

When it is time to assert independence boys are already socialized into a condition of chronic isolation. Then and for the rest of their lives – barring a successful therapeutic intervention or some similar good fortune – they find it difficult to feel close to other human beings, or to give or receive gentle touch and caring. Instead, they develop hard-edged skills associated with rationality and calculation that shore up the beliefs of their rearing and protect them against losing their uncertain identity and selfhood by falling into femininity. When it is time for girls to assert independence, on the other hand, they are too entrenched in continuity with their mothers to separate emotionally and for the rest of their lives have problems with self-reliance. They develop the nurturing skills for which they have been trained and which shore up the beliefs of their rearing, protecting them against discovering that they have no identity or self of their own. Independence, then, is easier for boys and grown men, whereas interdependence is easier for girls and grown women.

It is this difference in the ways men and women fail to achieve true individuality, according to Benjamin, that is both caused by and results in a culture of dichotomies, where masculine left brain logic dominates while feminine right brain feeling submits, where people almost never regard themselves as others' equals, and where almost nobody ever really grows up. By nature, boys are not necessarily more inclined toward traits we consider masculine than girls, nor are girls necessarily more inclined toward traits we consider feminine than boys. But generation after generation people have been raised with these same assumptions and raised their children with these same assumptions until it seems obvious and true to most of us that, as Freud believed, anatomy is destiny.

The quintessential expression of the failure of this developmental model is that both men and women have been trained to perceive males as subjects and females as objects, so two real human beings almost never meet. This psychological configuration, which Martin Buber described in spiritual terms as an I-It relationship, sustains a society in which so-called masculine attributes dominate so-called feminine attributes. Moreover, because it is a matter of one set of ascribed traits relating to another set of ascribed traits, the real subjectivity of all people is destroyed: no one recognizes anyone for what she or he really is, and everybody lives a perverted half-life instead of the full life that results from a meeting between equals in a love that parallels Buber's I-Thou relationship with God.

Fortunately for the literature of psychology, this intelligent, articulate, and tightly-reasoned book demonstrates one plausible explanation for the genesis of the gender inequity that makes most people of both sexes feel half empty in their relationships instead of full or at least half full. It is a valiant recasting of some of the more egregious errors of classical psychoanalysis that resulted from Freud and his disciples all being human and possessing a few blind spots of their own.

Even though she is a psychiatrist, however, Benjamin is more intent on enunciating an overarching theory than she is on identifying the ways in which power dynamics operate between real people. As one consequence, she barely addresses such issues as single parent child-rearing, or the causes and effects of female dominance, male submission, and homosexual power relationships. She does note that the question "is not why are men sadists and women masochists, since this need not be the case; but rather, how have sadism and masochism become associated with masculinity and femininity?" This is a cultural, not a psychodynamic query; and having raised the issue she still writes as if male, man, masculine, sadist, and dominant are co-equal terms, parallel to female, woman, feminine, masochist, and submissive.

Much of this book is taken up with developmental theory, but not all of it. In her second chapter, for example, "Master and Slave," Benjamin endeavors to show how dominance and submission – terms she uses as if they were interchangeable with sadism and masochism, which they are not – arise from the infant's treatment by adult caregivers, most notably mom. The baby, who needs deep human connection and interaction in order to complete her own developmental cycle, usually encounters the confusion of an incomplete person – another developmental child, but in a grown-up's body – to whom she can only relate as an object. As her need to be recognized by a real adult is repeatedly frustrated, one child may become sadistic (in Benjamin's use of the term) and another masochistic.


The underlying theme of sadism is the attempt to break through to the other. The desire to be discovered underlies its counterpart, namely masochism.

....The "masochistic" child ... despairs of ever holding the attention or winning the recognition of the other, of being securely held in the other's mind.... [F]raming masochism as the desire for self-discovery in the space provided by the other allows us to recognize the wish as well as the defense....

Masochism can be seen, therefore, not only as a strategy for escaping aloneness, but also as a search for aloneness with the other: by letting the other remain in control, the masochist hopes to find a "safe" open space in which to abandon the protective false self and allow the nascent, hidden self to emerge.... The masochist's wish to be reached, penetrated, found, released – a wish that can be expressed in the metaphor of violence as well as in metaphors of redemption – is the other side of the sadist's wish to discover the other. The masochist's wish to experience his authentic, inner reality in the company of an other parallels the sadist's wish to get outside the self into a shared reality.

These dynamics, then, are not merely the stuff of domination; they are also what makes mutuality possible.


Benjamin claims her book is


an analysis of the interplay between love and domination. It conceives domination as a two-way process, a system involving the participation of those who submit to power as well as those who exercise it. Above all, this book seeks to understand how domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated.


I think it is fair to say she has succeeded to a great degree in terms of classical psychoanalytic theory, and her book is likely to be a touchstone in that school's future development. But when she asserts that her book shows "how the structure of domination can be traced from the relationship between mother and infant into adult eroticism," I think she is mistaken.

First, while The Bonds of Love propounds a theory of psychosexual development that may underlie problems in adult power dynamics, the book almost never addresses recognizable experiences of adult eroticism. Except for a cursory analysis of a few passages from The Story of O, Benjamin seems to mean by erotic something like what Freud meant when he used the term, opposing Eros to Thanatos, love to death, pleasure to reality.

Second, though she frames an inclusive, rather than an exclusive theory, Benjamin makes an error of assumption similar to the error Freud and his merry band of masculinist psychoanalysts made when they embraced the idea of penis envy and dismissed every meaningful female experience as being of second-rate importance. That error derives from perceiving the world as fundamentally dualistic, which in this book means perceiving humanity divided in two parts that are definable because their sex organs are visibly identifiable. As she confuses dominance with sadism and submission with masochism Jessica Benjamin, like Freud before her, still sees biological sex and emotional gender as identical.


In order to challenge the sexual split which permeates our psychic, cultural, and social life, it is necessary to criticize not only the idealization of the masculine side, but also the reactive valorization of femininity. What is necessary is not to take sides but to remain focused on the dualistic structure itself.


The problem, I submit, lies in the dualistic structure itself. When dominance and submission are seen as complements, as Benjamin describes them to be, neither the dominant nor the submissive is complete by definition; both must exist together for either to be fulfilled. That is probably one way to define a condition of neurosis. But if one complete person of either sex chooses to express Self through the dominant role in a power dynamic, and another complete person of either sex chooses to express Self through the submissive role in that same power dynamic, a relationship of mutuality can prevail.

Dualism is a stage all children apparently have to go through, and Benjamin has exposed the developmental dangers of that passage eloquently. But dualism itself is an incomplete human condition, associated with envy of someone for having what would be inappropriate if it were yours; and as long as theoreticians on the cutting edge of a psychological discipline see duality as the focal object, unity cannot be the subject.


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