Taking the piss

A recent article in the Museums Journal described a project at Tate Liverpool which brings men who have been convicted of domestic violence into the gallery for educational workshops.

Through thinking about and discussing paintings in the gallery, the aim is to challenge stereotypes and explore emotions about sex, power, gender and control. The simple act of recognising that there may be more than one interpretation to a situation (or work of art) is an educational experience for some of the men.

“So many times we hear the men say that their violence to their partner was reactive.” explained probation officer Paul Wynn. “They describe a situation as ‘obvious’, and that whatever they perceived the situation to be – she was having an affair, she was taking the piss – was undoubtedly the truth. The aim of the Tate session is to illustrate that there are many different ways of appraising a situation”.

Reading this article I was struck by the phrase ‘taking the piss’, and its association with sexual infidelity. ‘Taking a piss’ means urinating; the phrase ‘taking THE piss’ means subjecting someone to humiliation and ridicule. The linguistic clue allows us to suppose that, suspecting their wife’s infidelity, it was the blow to manly pride which unleashed the subsequent aggression.

The infidelity brings to the fore the Oedipal triangle; the reference to micturation highlights the penis. The Oedipal situation is experienced for the little boy as a terrible humiliation and threat. The father is bigger and more powerful, and the necessary subservience to him is humiliating; the threat is castration. You would think that urinating was a natural function. Yet somehow it gets caught up in the convoluted process of sexual development.

Three recent encounters allowed me to map the process:

The first was in the middle of Camden High Street. The child’s parents, parked twenty yards from a public toilet and full of good intentions, had been thwarted by their three year old son who had to go ‘NOW!’. Having relieved himself at the side of the car, the little boy pulled up his underpants as far as they would go, thrust out his hips and paraded around the pavement in front of the car singing a raucous ditty. It was actually a joyful sight – the unashamed phallic exhibitionism of a three year old, full of the swank and swagger of oedipal grandiosity.

The second encounter, at Tate Modern, was with two boys a few years older than the first. They came into the toilet where I was urinating, ignored me completely and began to engage in a ribald but edgy discussion about pooh and penises. One of the boys chanted: “Put your willy on your bum and send it off to China’ – a surreal conjunction until one translates ‘China’ as ‘vagina’, and the common wish-anxiety of transforming into the other sex is revealed in all its graphic intensity. There was an unmistakeable manic quality about their competitive banter, unmistakeable intimations of anxiety.

In the third encounter, positions were reversed. I entered the restaurant toilet where a boy of eight or nine was urinating with his father. He turned round with a look of alarm and panic, wide-eyed and ashen-faced like someone who had been ‘caught in the act’, with all the furtive shame of the latency age child. The fear on this boy’s face showed that he had not escaped what Freud described as the ordinary human trauma of ‘sexual intimidation’.

It is the humiliation and threat of the Oedipus complex that links the wife’s infidelity to phallic insecurity. But surely, you might argue, beneath the fearful humiliation that the wife’s infidelity evokes, there must be a more powerful fear of abandonment by the mother-figure. Given that Freud’s insistence on the centrality of the castration complex increased as he got older, we can be confident that he would have demurred from this suggestion.

The two threats are connected, however. In days when psychoanalysts, following Freud, used their own lives as part of the data of analytic investigation, E. Pickworth Farrow described his reaction after uncovering the memory of castration threatened by his cousin and her companion:

“For some days the writer was utterly miserable, and felt himself back in the time when he was a small helpless child expecting his genitals to be clipped off the next moment” he writes, “and he never felt so completely lonely and lost in the world before”.

E. Pickworth Farrow, 1925, “A Castration Complex” International Journal of Psychoanalysis Vol 6 pp45-53)

This sense of being ‘alone’, bereft one might say, shows how the castration trauma can meld with and accentuate earlier separation anxiety. Now we see the reason for the strange association – ‘she was having an affair; she was taking the piss’ – and, through violent repudiation and projection of the castration threat, why it can have such dire consequences for family life.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *