Using the Enneagram with Judith Searle


© 1996 by Judith Searle

The first question we ask when a baby is born is: "Is it a boy or a girl?" Gender identity is the most basic of all human identities. Though most people accept most of the socially prescribed roles for the gender they were born with, some struggle against what they see as rigid and arbitrary social norms. All of us wonder: Exactly what is this mysterious sexual urge that drives us? Is our sexuality simply the particular cravings we express in our most private moments with a lover? How does our sexuality relate to our need for novelty? Is there some universal motor that runs sexual arousal for all of us?

We wouldn't expect a fish to have much insight into the nature of water. Men and women immersed in a hair-raising ride through the whitewater rapids of sexual conflicts and attractions look like equally poor bets for insights into the nature of sexuality and its relation to gender roles. However, I believe those of us who are familiar with the Enneagram have at our disposal an extraordinary tool for transcending our individual identities to gain a broader perspective on some important aspects of human sexuality and its relation to gender roles in our society.

Before I get into my thoughts about that, it might be well to begin with a couple of definitions. By "sexuality" I mean the personal experience of arousal and the drive toward orgasm. By "gender roles" I mean our society's conventions about which behaviors are appropriate for males and which for females. Gender roles are, in a sense, the context in which our sexuality exists in society.

On the issue of the root of human sexuality, I know of no better theory than Colin Wilson's. In his provocative book Origins of the Sexual Impulse he suggests that the underlying motor of sexuality is: "the need for 'alien-ness'--the illusion of the inviolability of the other person, upon which all sexual desire depends." (p. 42). His book is basically an expansion of this idea:

Satisfactory sex is the invasion of the other's "alien-ness." This is why we call the sexual parts our "private parts." All depends upon the idea of violating strangeness....When the intensity of sexual response depends on the alien-ness that has been invaded, it follows that men will try to intensify the response still further by going further afield in alien-ness. Since their enjoyment of "normal" sex depends on the sense of violating a taboo, it follows that they will try to increase their satisfaction by including as many taboos as possible in the sexual object....All sexual perversions, from mere adultery to necrophily, can be seen as attempts to increase the alien-ness of the act by increasing the number of taboos involved. Sex can never, on any level, be "healthy" or "normal." It always depends on the violating of taboos--or, as Baudelaire would have said, on the sense of sin. (pp. 246-47)
Many writers on sexuality have observed that most of us choose as sexual partners people who are distinct in temperament from ourselves. In her book The Sexual Self (an examination of sexual types in which readers familiar with the Enneagram will see clear correspondences to the nine Enneagram fixations) sex therapist Avodah K. Offit writes:
Passive people are most frequently married to dominant ones. By dominant, I do not necessarily mean aggressive or commanding. Dominance can also be related to mood, degree of verbosity, exhibitionism, paranoia, intellect, or indeed any other prevailing characteristic. (p. 206)
This pattern, Offit points out, has deep roots in the animal world:
In mating, mammals with a cortex are always concerned with some form of dominance, submission, or protection. Without Psyche, Cupid does not function. (p. 235)
To most sophisticated students of the Enneagram, it is axiomatic that each of us, while identifying a "home base" point we call our "fixation," participates in all points to some degree. A major strength of the Enneagram as a system is its compassionate acceptance of the full range of human types and its refusal to judge one as inherently "better" than any other. Nowhere is this concept more rigorously tested than in our consideration of gender roles and their relation to the diagram. There are certain points most of us associate with the "feminine"--notably Two and Four--and a certain point most of us associate with the "masculine"--notably Eight. For each of us, the tensions that drive our fixation shape our particular sexual style as well, but I believe each of us is also powerfully influenced by the opposition between Four and Eight (in which Two participates in ways I'll discuss later).

My basic thesis in this article is this: that the Four and Eight Enneagram points form a kind of universal template for gender roles in our society, and that the opposition between them is the source of the essential "alien-ness" that serves as the motor for our sexuality.

Four and Eight is a common combination in couples, and this pairing shows an obvious complementarity. As I observed in my article "The 'Latitude and Longitude' of Enneagram Fixations," Four's gift is for authenticity: depth of feeling, aesthetic perfect pitch, a romantic and passionate orientation to life. The price of this gift is self-absorption, and its pitfall is a tendency toward self-dramatization. Fours often view themselves as passionate people doomed to chronic pain because of the insensitivity of others. The "rubber band" effect in relationships (which Helen Palmer has astutely observed is characteristic of the Four) suggests that Fours may have a problem with too much pleasure--may in fact require a certain amount of pain to keep their feelings always at fever pitch and thus reinforce their view of themselves as more sensitive and authentically alive than most people.

Eight's gift is for action: a readiness to do whatever is necessary to seize and maintain power in a situation, a thick hide, a relish for confrontation, and a strong sexual appetite. The price of this gift is impulsiveness (an inability to forego confrontation, even when restraint might be more advantageous), and its pitfall is a tendency to hold grudges--to inflict massive punishments on those who would impede Eights' pursuit of their desires. Not surprisingly, Eights often cause quite a bit of pain to those around them. And this tendency makes them the perfect partner for Fours.

Though Offit's book makes no reference to the Enneagram, she observes a similar complementarity:

On the negative side, pain dependence--the craving to receive hurt, either physical or emotional--seems to be one of the most powerful aphrodisiacs of all time. This is often related to the sadism with which many parents expressed their concern. Children accustomed to having their bodies or sensibilities abused tend to preserve their punishments in later life by forming relationships which imitate early models. Security has become associated with pain.

Both receiving gratification of dependent needs and giving it can be immensely arousing. Those who derive satisfaction from supporting, parenting, or inflicting pain on people who would be better off without these attentions generally demonstrate that form of dependency which underlies aggressive character traits. (p. 40)

The intense one-pointed focus of pain in the body has an obvious relationship to the intense one-pointed focus of sexual pleasure. In a sense, pleasure is inseparable from pain in the human nervous system the same way light is inseparable from shadow in chiaroscuro painting. Pain is actually essential to human survival. Diseases such as leprosy that interfere with people's capacity to feel pain are extremely dangerous because their victims lack the early-warning system that keeps most of us from seriously damaging our bodies.

I've emphasized the sadistic-masochistic split between Eight and Four in order to make my point, but it's important to remember that all sexuality--not just its pathological manifestations--requires a basic "alien-ness" as a motor for desire. I have found Don Richard Riso's model (which describes the range of healthy to unhealthy behaviors for each Enneagram type) enormously useful in many ways, and it has obvious applications here. The relationship between Eight and Four partners might range all the way from a passionate, fulfilling adventure to a downward cycle of battering, terror, and murder. We see vivid depictions of the pathology of eroticized pain in such literary works as The Story of O and Susanna Moore's recent novel In the Cut.

Helen Palmer has pointed out that Mexico is basically an Eight/Four culture, with the men predominantly Eights and the women predominantly Fours. (I suspect this pattern may be true of Hispanic cultures generally.) I think most students of the Enneagram would acknowledge that the Four and Eight points on the diagram have strong gender associations. But let's consider for a moment the opposites of those stereotypes. Though we all know female Eights and male Fours, we recognize that these people frequently find themselves at odds with society's expectations--the Eight females often being seen as "unwomanly," the Four males as "unmanly."

The great value of the Enneagram in this instance is that it allows us to see these types (indeed, all types) as basic human types, not restricted in their gender incidence at all. I have yet to see any reliable studies of the numbers of males and females in the Eight and Four categories (or in any of the points, for that matter), but my gut-level sense is that there are probably in the general population about the same proportion of males and females in each point. However, I do observe a tendency among certain types in certain gender categories to be homosexual in their orientation.

Among gay males there seems to be a larger proportion of Fours than in the heterosexual male population, while among lesbians there seems to be a skewed proportion of Eights. (This is of course not to suggest that all Eight females are lesbian or all Four males gay, or that examples of all nine Enneagram types are not found among gay men and lesbians.) It is interesting to note that even within same-sex relationships there are usually distinct Eight/Four assignments of roles: "rough trade" and "queen" for males, "butch" and "femme" for females.

A close look at the Two point offers another perspective on the notion that Eight and Four represent a kind of universal template for sexuality. The world's great lovers--from Casanova to Madonna--have often been Twos. Twos' gift is for empathy: a powerful ability to connect with the feelings of others. Through their extraordinary sexual empathy Twos are able to scope out the erotic longings of others, and their ability to play a variety of roles has led some psychologists to characterize them as "histrionic." The price of their gift is a lack of connectedness to their own feelings, and their pitfall is a tendency to manipulate people.

When we examine the Enneagram "anatomy" of the Two point, we see that Twos have as their "longitude" (security-stress continuum) a direct line between Four and Eight. So Two is essentially an embodiment of the Eight/Four opposition, a paradoxical combination of aggressiveness and passivity, yang and yin.

Having no compelling erotic agenda of their own, seductive Twos are skilled at adapting to their partner's sexual scenario, playing whatever role seems likely to prove most arousing. The hidden agenda for all Twos is power, which Twos often achieve through their sexual prowess. We need to remember, of course, that Twos come in many different versions--running the gamut from radiant, altruistic health to hysterical, power-driven pathology.

Of all points on the Enneagram, Twos have the most potential for "polymorphous perversity"--swinging both ways. If a reliable tool for assessing sexual orientation in relation to the Enneagram were ever developed, I suspect it would show that a large proportion of bi-sexuals (of both sexes) are Twos.

In its embodiment of the Four/Eight opposition, Two exemplifies the possibilities for maintaining variety and sexual excitement through the trading off of gender roles in relationships. Having myself been in a relationship with a Two man for nearly thirty years, I can attest to the power of this kind of sexual play in keeping sexuality alive. I suspect that most long-term couples with strong sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual, experiment with this kind of alternation of gender roles.

A look at the Enneagram Three offers yet another interesting perspective on the Eight/Four opposition as a template for sexuality and gender roles. Characteristically, the Three is concerned with presenting an appropriate image to the world, with Three women appearing conventionally "feminine" and Three men conventionally "masculine." Essential to the Three persona is an ability to gauge how one is perceived by others and a skill in fine-tuning the picture to elicit the desired response. (We all, of course, share this ability to some degree, but Threes are exceptionally adept in this area.)

I suspect that when gay men and lesbians who are Threes choose to keep their sexual orientation private they probably have more success than homosexuals of other Enneagram points in maintaining the appearance of heterosexuality.

The Three's focus on role playing makes me think of the way children play "house": "I'll be the daddy, you be the mommy." Or "doctor" (the great euphemism for childhood sexual explorations): "I'll be the doctor, you be the patient." Both these games are, in effect, practice sessions with Eight/Four polarities. Through trying on gender roles we learn to define ourselves in terms of the world's expectations.

Looking at the Three's ability to "put on the mask" of whatever gender image seems appropriate, I find myself wondering how firmly our sexuality is actually entrenched in immutable gender roles. Is it possible that all gender roles, for every Enneagram type, may ultimately be a part of our consensual social/sexual trance--a "let's pretend" that we subscribe to in the interest of generating sexual arousal? Are our "approved" lists of behaviors for each gender more arbitrary than we like to acknowledge? Does our view of distinct (and mutually exclusive) gender role categories really qualify as any more than a sort of masturbatory fantasy that allows us to maintain the "alien-ness" we need to get off?

Each of the Enneagram points tells itself a different "story" about the nature of reality. In this sense the nine points are like nine blind people trying to describe an elephant. Each of the nine stories about the elephant is true, but each is limited because it is not the whole story. I believe this situation applies also to our personal concepts of the nature of sexuality, each of us being equally blinkered by being either male or female--categories as mutually exclusive (and as connected) as the nine Enneagram types.

One of the great virtues of the Enneagram is that it allows us to grasp the possibility of an essential truth beyond our individual fixated views. In my own One fixation, for example, I am obsessed with imperfection (both in the world and in myself) and feel compelled to "fix" it. Yet beyond what I see through the flawed lens of my fixation is an essential truth: that the world is perfect, just as it is; that its very life depends on its constant changing and the growth of people within it in an organic way.

In similar fashion, each of us tells ourselves stories about the nature of sexuality from the skewed perspective of our personal sexual fantasies. But there is a kernel of truth underlying all the stories, and I believe the Enneagram can help us see the universal template we all subscribe to: that alien-ness, the motor that runs our desire, depends on our telling ourselves some version of a story about an Eight/Four opposition between ourselves and our lovers. Out of this awareness we can gain compassion for ourselves and others caught in society's fixation that there are appropriate behaviors for males that are distinct and opposite from appropriate behaviors for females.

Nothing brings us closer to our deepest human essence than the experience of a fulfilling and generous sexuality, and looking at our sexuality and gender roles through the correcting and magnifying lens of the Enneagram can offer a valuable perspective on our lives.


Offit, Avodah K., The Sexual Self, revised edition. (New York: Congdon & Weed, Inc., 1983).

Palmer, Helen, The Enneagram. (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).

Riso, Don Richard, Personality Types. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987).

Searle, Judith, "The 'Latitude and Longitude' of Enneagram Fixations," Enneagram Monthly Vol. 2, nos. 2-4 (February-April 1996).

Wilson, Colin, Origins of the Sexual Impulse. (London: Panther Books, 1966).


The above article was published in the May 1996 issue of Enneagram Monthly.