Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The Deeper Meaning of Sexual Images
Wait . . . don’t go just because I said PENIS. Come on. Don’t tell me you haven’t had that dream where your sister is performing oral sex for you – I mean on you. You’ve at least dreamt about having sex with someone other than your partner or spouse, right? And what about those fantasies of being tied up by a woman who spanks you if you're a man (or woman), or if you’re a woman, being asked by someone like Christian Grey (from Fifty Shades) to assertively request that you kneel in front of his naked body with your head just high enough to . . .
Except for those who have been victims of sexual assault, the embarrassment or shame you feel may have less to do with literal sex and more to do with coming into relationship with a part of yourself that has been neglected, and once related to, could release a new creative urge – or help you overcome some sexual hang ups – both of those things happened to me.
C.G. Jung, one of the founders of depth psychology, suggested that the language of the psyche (or soul) is the image, and our unconscious grabs onto images in an effort to get our attention. In our overly literal world though, the language of the unconscious seems mysterious, so we need to learn to think more metaphorically or symbolically to decipher the images that are presented to us in dreams, fantasies, and even emotional responses to film images that linger in our bodies.
Even when you have a pretty good understanding of this new language, the journey to finding meaning feels more like detective work than solving a mathematical problem. I thought one way I could get you excited about exploring this topic in your own life would be to share my own story and to offer you some practical tools.
A Little Context
That’s such a phallic symbol, was a common declaration, expressed with annoyance, by many women like me, who came of age in the 1980s. It was a time of great progress for women, and also of severe backlash. Women had to be like men to get into the world of work, and once we got there, we had to look down on other women. And if we were too much like men, we were bitches. Add to that the religious animosity towards independent women and especially their natural sexual desire, and it becomes difficult to over-estimate the psychological damage done to an entire generation of women.
So, to say that women have a complex relationship with the penis or phallic symbol in general may be an understatement. A significant obstacle in coming into relationship with one’s sexuality is that it requires the capacity to be vulnerable and receptive, as well as the willingness to surrender to receiving sexual pleasure. This is difficult to do in a culture where the masculine has been distorted and held hostage by a dominator model of social organization – Patriarchy. How is a woman to surrender to sexual pleasure if she has a fear – conscious or unconscious – of being violated?
For many women, this fear is grounded in lived experience and is conscious. Other women, like me, who have not experienced literal sexual violence, may still carry a fear of being violated – literally or metaphorically – grounded in the past and present collective experience of women who were oppressed and even murdered for the crime of being women.
One of the ways this unconscious fear emerged into consciousness in the 1980s was as a marginal and radical perspective that all sex with men was somehow violent because the sexual act required a man to penetrate a woman. It was not so radical though given that patriarchy had raped women literally and symbolically.
In Transforming a Rape Culture, Naomi Wolf, in her essay Radical Heterosexuality . . . or How to Love a Man and Save Your Feminist Soul, painted a picture that is still relevant today.
“All over the country, millions of feminists have a secret indulgence.
By day they fight gender injustice;
By night they sleep with men . . .
Is sleeping with a man ‘sleeping with the enemy’?”
My Changing Relationship with the Penis
I did not realize the extent to which my desire for independence, feminist consciousness raising, and my newly discovered patriarchal God wound, had interfered in my capacity to receive not only sexually but spiritually as well.
Intellectually, I may have set these notions aside as I built a career, marriage and a family, but the transformative nature of my first post-divorce romantic relationship brought it all back to the surface. Only consciousness about my unconscious fear of surrendering allowed me to heal this wound and safely embrace the surrender required for sexual and spiritual pleasure. The path to complete surrender though happened through a gift of grace.
In the research that led to my PhD in depth psychology titled Women, Sex & God: Through the Lens of Jungian Theory of Individuation, I explored women’s experience of the intertwining of sexuality and spirituality. My gift of grace came in the form of being swept up in a romantic relationship with a younger man that brought to the surface wounds I didn’t realize I had having to do with my sexuality and spirituality. The fundamentalist Christian's naturally intense sexual desires seemed to escape from his shadow against his will in eruptions of pleasure. The relationship acted as the perfect vessel for my ultimate transformation, which led to inner reconciliation between my sexuality and spirituality.
It was not until a recent dream though that I felt I came full circle in my relationship with the penis - literally yes, but more importantly symbolically. The dream:
I’m in bed and I discover I have a penis.
It’s mine and it’s attached to my body. I love it.
It’s big and soft and hard and warm.
For some reason it’s close enough to my face that I can kiss it,
So, I do, and it explodes all over my pillowcase.
Throughout this transformative relationship, I had tended to all sorts of dream and fantasy images that featured the penis. With a growing understanding that images are how our unconscious speaks to us, I let go of my literal notions of this powerful symbol and became open to the deeper meaning of its presence during this part of my life.
My dream images evolved from distorted penises that brought feelings of shame and disgust to a specific fantasy about sexual submission that I knew was asking me to be open to receiving something new.
This particular fantasy plagued me until I was able to let down my defenses in order to receive sexually and spiritually, and experience arousal and pleasure that had eluded me until then.
This experience of surrendering – or emptying – and then receiving led to an eruption of creative energy that eventually found form in a workshop I presented about healing the collective wounds that prevent deep connection between women and men.
I realized that my psyche seized upon an image that triggered shame in order to help me recognize pieces of me that needed rescuing.
New evidence-based theories that systems scientist Riane Eisler outlines in her book Sacred Pleasure suggest that in the more partnership-oriented societies that existed before Patriarchy, where neither women nor men were subordinate, the union of male and female through sexuality was viewed and experienced as sacred. Not only was the phallus revered, but the “female vulva was revered as a magical portal of life, possessed of the power of both physical regeneration and spiritual illumination and transformation.”
My dream images eventually evolved in a way that the penis had nothing to do with a literal man.
I’m in bed with a man and
he’s trying to enter me.
Wait, there’s no man, just a penis.
I’m so aroused, but I resist for some reason,
And I’m concerned because there’s no condom.
I surrender slowly, and . . .
I feel like I’m going to explode.
The Greek Myths that Live Through Us
During the course of my midlife unraveling and research for my PhD, I came to appreciate that while my personal experience was unique, to a certain extent, the story that runs through my life is universal. I became excited when I discovered that there were a couple of Greek Gods and Goddesses that might be seeking literal expression through my life. C.G. Jung would call these archetypal experiences.
I write about this in my research, but to sum it up, Hermes, the Greek God who is known to be the guide of souls, has played an important role in my life as Trickster and Messenger. Hermes was embodied in the man who swept me up. Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Beauty and Love seemed to take my body over in her desire to be with Hermes. In the Greek Myth, Aphrodite and Hermes have a daughter, whose name is Pleasure and she is a hermaphrodite, meaning she reflects a kind of wholeness or reconciliation.
What does this have to do with the penis? My soul’s journey has been about inner reconciliation, specifically between the feminine and masculine, the body and mind, and sexuality and spirituality. The images in my dreams and fantasies have tracked with this transformation. What could be a more powerful symbol of inner reconciliation than claiming my inner penis, also a symbol of the creative urge. And now I embark upon a new journey to share in a way that contributes to others’ inner reconciliation.
Want to Try?
Are you intrigued? Ready to dig into your own embarrassing dream and fantasy images to find the guidance and wisdom that awaits you? Try these three things:
FIRST, write down your dream or fantasy with as much detail as possible. Consider capturing it in images by drawing it.
SECOND, journal what comes up for you when you think of the image. Keep going until you can’t think of anything else.
THIRD, ask yourself, Where or how is this appearing in my life right now?
FOURTH, set it aside and just be alert to how these images may continue to present themselves in dreams, film, synchronicities, emotional responses in the body. Continue journaling. If an image continues to follow you around, even torture you, there is definitely a treasure of insight waiting to be found.
Be patient. You’re not likely to gain some big insight right away, but over time you’ll be surprised at what you learn about yourself.
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