Jung and Sexual Ethics

by Tim Hannon

In any review of ethics and psychotherapy in the twentieth century, Carl Jung’s
 contravention of sexual norms stands out as a fascinating, if perhaps little
 understood, phenomenon. His well-publicized affairs with ex-clients, Sabina
 Spielrein and Antonia Wolff, were tolerated and even secretly admired by his friends
 and followers. While some of this behaviour may not appeal to late twentieth-
century political correctness, such behaviour seems then to have been almost the
 norm. One need only look to Perls and Ferenczi, amongst others, to observe the
 scant knowledge or respect of sexual boundaries that existed at the time.

What is particularly interesting in Jung’s case, however, is the rationale possibly used 
to justify this polygamous lifestyle. In 1907, Jung’s conservative opinion that sexual
 repression was a very important and civilizing factor was seriously challenged by his
 prolonged analysis of the bohemian and Nietzchean physician, Otto Gross, who 
seems to have won Jung over to his belief in the sexual short-circuit.

Gross was a chief protagonist in the German counter-culture so prevalent at the start 
of the century and he saw the matriarchal culture that preceded patriarchy as the
 new modern ideal. For him, culture could be revitalized through sexual liberation.
 As an avant-garde Freudian analyst, Gross envisaged the truly healthy state for the 
neurotic as sexual immorality.

Richard Noll in his book, The Aryan Christ, remarks that according to this view
, “polygamy was considered a strong ancestral impulse that ruled even modern 
human beings. Civilization, despite its wonderful qualities, tended to injure humans
 by creating social conventions that required them to repress their true savage 

While Jung refrained from the more dissolute of Gross’s dionysian exploits, his 
letters to Freud show that in “Gross I have discovered many aspects of my true 
nature, so that he often seemed like my true brother, except for the dementia 

As a result of his encounter with Gross, Jung’s obsession with an ex-client from the 
Burgholzi, Sabina Spielrein, deepened. In one of her letters, she writes:

“I sat there in a deep depression. Now he arrives beaming with pleasure and tells
 me with strong emotion about Gross, about the great insight he has just received. 
He no longer wants to suppress his feelings for me. He admitted that I was his first
, his dearest woman friend, etc. (his wife of course excepted) and that he wanted to
 tell me everything about himself.”

Their relationship lasted for four years and was superseded by a life-long affair with
 the highly-talented Toni Wolff, who assumed the role of ‘inspiratrice’ and mistress for
 Jung. She became a regular guest for Sunday lunch in the Jung household, Emma
 Jung seems to have considered divorce, but only in the latter years did she limit
 Wolff’s access, due to Jung’s declining health.

Jung seems to have recommended this therapeutic channel to some of his patients. 
An American, Medill McCormack, wrote: “Jung warned me against being too good
 and asked particularly if I felt free. He rather recommended a little flirting and told 
me to bear in mind that it might be advisable for me to have mistresses – that I was
 a very dangerous and savage man, that I must not forget my heredity and my infantile 
influences and lose my soul – if women would save it.”

It is difficult to assess the extent to which this polygamous philosophy influenced 
Jung’s client work. It did however provide a convenient rationale for preserving a 
troubled marriage, and avoiding some of the main ambiguities in Jung’s life.

References are from: Noll, Richard: The Aryan Christ (1997) Macmillan, London.