Healthy narcissism is the foundation for a robust mature self. It is what fuels life-affirming autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy. Folks evidencing healthy levels of narcissism are on the whole satisfied with life and are capable of experiencing humility, empathy, integrity and adequate levels of self-esteem. As to be expected, the sexual expression of an individual possessing healthy narcissism indicates a capacity for emotional communication, spontaneity, vulnerability, empathy and mutual companionship. Sex is understood as a natural part of one’s humanity.
On the other hand, high levels of the personality trait known as narcissism can lead to overt and covert manifestations of grandiosity and entitlement. If these traits extend into the malignant end of the narcissism spectrum then the prevalence of a cluster-b personality disorder (NPD) is highly probable.
When a narcissist is personality-disordered we see extreme deficiencies in empathy, irrational grandiosity and feelings of obstinate entitlement, ruthless envy and delusional expectations of self and others. These characteristics catalyze what the narcissist believes to be justifiable rage, blame, deceit, manipulation and variable forms of calculated abuse. We also see in the disordered narcissist an addiction to supply.
Supply, a term coined in 1938 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel is descriptive of the narcissistic objectification of a designated target. As a primary supply, the insatiable needs of the narcissist are expected to be fulfilled and uncompromising compliance and worship are demanded. Reciprocity and mutuality are prohibited. The narc views the needs of their target as a threat as they are a chosen object who is to exist solely for the narcissist’s parasitic predilections. Sex is one of many forms supply can take. It is also the means by which the somatic sexual narcissist gleans supply.
Unlike the cerebral narcissist who uses their intellectual acumen to procure acclaim and amass supply (consider the haughty scholar, the brilliant artist, or the erudite spiritual guru) the somatic sexual narcissist is polarized in glorifying their physicality and sexual prowess.
When somatic characteristics are dominant and cerebral characteristics are recessive, the disordered narcissist will capitalize on their beauty and charisma to seduce targets.
Whereas the cerebral narcissist typically prefers celibacy or masturbation to sexual engagement with another, the somatic sexual narcissist wields the physical self as a manipulative tool to procure sexual exploits. Hence, along with the amplification of appearance is the somatic narcissist’s emphasis on titillating sexual activity designed to control and debase.
It’s important to note that there is typically a blend of both cerebral and somatic in all disordered narcissists, but one type will take precedence depending on the narcissist’s constitution or what they feel is needed to secure supply. Yet, whether somatic or cerebral, disordered narcissists on the malignant end of the continuum are not committed to fidelity. Their goal in life is to secure endless supply, not actualize mature love. Courtship, or what is more aptly referred to as love bombing, is merely a means to a perfidious end.
Sexual behaviors linked to malignant narcissism include promiscuity, infidelity, objectification, porn addiction, sexual assault and in extreme cases, a paraphilic disorder known as sexual sadism.
For example, a female narcissist with proclivities for sexual sadism may sublimate her sexualized aggression and need to dehumanize another through assuming the role of a Dominatrix. Alternatively, a malignant male or female narcissist might revel in sadistically coercing the target into bending their principles by engaging in sex acts they repudiate. The narcissistic sexual sadist may inflict whipping, bondage, imprisonment and biting. The intention of the sadistic narcissist is always to cause some form of mental or physical injury.
Whatever sexual behaviors and strategies are employed, the compulsive indiscriminate ventures of a somatic sexual narcissist are designed to ensure a perpetual source of validation and sexual privilege. To achieve this end the somatic sexual narcissist must be magnetic, physically alluring and larger than life. Since the body is an idolized tool to glean supply the somatic narcissist places great emphasis on appearance, health, exercise, attire and cosmetic surgery.
The female somatic sexual narcissist, also euphemistically known as a femme fatale, acquires her multiple wealthy husbands and maintains her numerous affairs by keeping up her appearance. Obsessed with an image, she will be dressed to the nines in high-end designer clothing, polished and coiffed. She may even resort to cosmetic surgeries to best embody whatever part she is trying on.
Like her male counterpart, the female narcissist uses aggressive sexual persuasion to get what she wants. In classic form, she love-bombs and uses her sexuality to control the relationship. By showering her romantic prey with compliments and barraging the courtship with steamy sex, she generates magical feelings of euphoria and specialness so as to hook her prey.
Driven by the insatiable need to be regarded as desirable and irresistible, the flashy bravado and charm of the somatic narcissist lure in unsuspecting smitten prey through love-bombing. The chase and the subjugation of the target is a sexually addictive drug and it may offer the somatic narcissist a greater thrill than the sex act itself. Moving the ‘relationship’ forward at the speed of light is an artful deception that feeds the sexual narcissist’s desire for omnipotence and control.
Once the ‘deal is sealed’ the disordered narcissist proceeds with fostering an addictive trauma bond. Periodically degrading and discarding the sexually conquered target is an integral part of the relational dynamic between the narcissist and their chosen supply. Engagement in sex tends to be impersonal and objectifying and is interspersed with flaunting ancillary sexual conquests and episodically depriving the supply of sex and affection.
The malignant narcissist understands that a pattern of intermittent reinforcement amid unpleasant consequences establishes unpredictability and confusion. They capitalize on this phenomenon. Arbitrary crumbs of positive attention offer the supply a hit of massive relief after a prolonged period of gaslighting, stonewalling, or more overt forms of debasement.
The mind of the victimized supply constantly scrambles to discover what they have to do to acquire a positive response from the narcissistic abuser. Eventually, cognitive dissonance sets in, and the desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force. Eventually, the victim is caught up in an addictive cycle and simultaneously views the tormenter as a redeemer. This sort of pathological attachment to the perpetrator is the malignant narcissist’s endgame.
In examining the machinations of the somatic sexual narcissist it’s relevant to address the commonalities and differences with sex addiction.
Sex addiction is characterized by compulsive sexual acting-out, in which the addict is impervious to insight and progressive negative consequences. The primary function of sexual acting-out is to avoid uncomfortable feelings often rooted in unresolved traumatic wounds. By losing oneself in ritualized fantastical sexual scenarios, the sex addict deflects from the distress caused by their traumatic wounds.
Pathologically dependent on the addictive cycles of pleasure and gratification, the sex addict becomes increasingly more detached, secretive, and oblivious to the impact their behavior has on themselves and those around them. As the exacerbation of intra-psychic pain and toxic shame escalates narcissistic posturing serves as a defensive shield for the addict.
Although the progressive nature of addiction leads to heightened shame, primitive psychological defenses, moral deterioration and narcissistic traits, sex addiction alone is not commensurate with malignant narcissism.
The desperate need to assuage inner pain enslaves the addict to sexual pursuit. This fix is the perceived panacea. For the sex-addicted somatic narcissist, an internal void also fuels the chase, albeit when the prospect of recovery is considered their paths diverge.
A primary definitive qualifier for malignant narcissism, as evidence suggests, is an interaction between genetics and the environment, as well as brain structure anomalies that reveal reduced connections between the part of the brain responsible for sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala which mediates fear and anxiety. As a result, the malignant narcissist’s biological and genetic inheritance incapacitates their ability to ever form a genuine, meaningful attachment.
This capacity to bond is necessary for establishing a strong therapeutic alliance, which according to consistent findings in psychotherapy research is “the most robust predictor of outcome.” (Safran & Muran). Accordingly, the sex addict not evidencing co-morbidity of NPD has the possibility of a promising prognosis with process addiction and trauma-focused treatment.
Sex addiction pioneer, Dr. Patrick J. Carnes explains, “Abandonment is at the core of addictions. Abandonment causes deep shame. Abandonment by betrayal is worse than mindless neglect. Betrayal is purposeful and self-serving. If severe enough, it is traumatic.”
Treatment for the sex addict who is not personality disordered addresses the addict’s need to satiate unbearable loneliness and traumatic betrayal so that the potential for true mature intimacy can manifest. Unlike the malignant narcissist, the addict’s latent capacity to form a meaningful connection with a therapist and those offering fellowship support can allow for recovery to occur.
In closing, breaking the cycle of sexual objectification and victimization in a culture replete with hyper-sexualized media-driven images and corporate marketing strategies which commodify sex and violence is a complex task.
Jungian analyst and storyteller Dr.Clarissa Estes wrote, “While much psychology emphasizes the familial causes of angst in humans, the cultural component carries as much weight, for culture is the family of the family. If the family of the family has various sicknesses, then all families within that culture will have to struggle with the same malaises.”
As much as Estes’s words caution us to examine the cultural impact of sexual narcissism, the romanticizing of pimp culture and the lucrative economics of a criminal sex industry speaks to collective sexual wounds in which narcissistic maneuvering and sexual exploitation is revered and rewarded. Objectification takes on a whole new meaning as human partnered sexuality competes with the burgeoning trend of AI sex dolls. Even the power submissive dynamics encoded in romantic mythology and mating practices establish mindsets that normalize abuse and set people up to dispense with intelligent guardedness in the pursuit of love or simply physical pleasure.
Evidence of a loneliness epidemic exacerbated by an isolating pandemic and a collective affinity for disengaged and desensitized sexual practices suggests societal and moral failure. I suppose time will continue to reveal how our needs for emotional sustenance and meaningful human attention will play out in the days ahead. I am hoping we will feel encouraged to evaluate the mindsets that create these chasms of disconnection so that we might rethink our responsibility to one another and the importance of meaningful life-affirming attachments.
Big thank you to Rev. Sheri Heller for submitting such a great article!