An Interpretation of Icons and Symbols ~ by Ben Lacy

Man is not a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate, waiting to be shaped by the external world.  Man is instead filled with organismic, instinctual drives and eager to act upon them. The primary drive Freud called Libido, a life giving force of sexual energy housed in the unconscious recesses of the brain known as the id.  He viewed humans, like all animal species, as being born at odds and in competition with their environment.  Men and women are hard-wired, like animals, to pursue simple gratifications such as eating, love making, power and aggression.

Evolutionary Zoologist Desmond Morris’ groundbreaking book, The Naked Ape, describes humans as the “sexiest primates alive”.  Much of what we assume as “human” evolved through several million years of sexual selectivity.  Morris argues that many core physical attributes separating us from other primates relate to our unique sexual relations.  Unlike other primates, humans evolved to be relatively hairless- the lack of hair enhances the skin contact and pleasurable feelings associated with sex.  The male has by far the largest penis of any primate; the female is “always in heat” yet she can only conceive a few days per month.  Further attributes such as large breasts, full lips, and ear lobes serve no real purpose other than to catch the eye of the opposite sex.  Many of these evolutionary changes from early primates are thought to support longer term male/female pair bonding. 1

I never thought of ear lobes as all too sexy until realizing that women (and men) accentuate them in most cultures around the world.  Why does my wife wear those hoop earrings every time we go on a date?  Sexual messages that arise from the unconscious are often cryptic.

Freud and others found that accessing unconscious thought is difficult.  Certain treatments were developed such as hypnosis and free association so the patient could relax their repressive defenses long enough to view the unconscious, often sexualized, thoughts.

Dream interpretation is described as the “royal road to the unconscious”.  However, there are other well known paths for example, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, conversational associations, facial expressions, veiled humorous statements, and symbolic representations (art, architecture).  Attempts to describe what’s behind the mind’s eye is usually met with resistance.  We are deeply invested in blocking inappropriate thoughts from reaching consciousness in order to maintain social order, moral principle and a sense of self.

In parallel fashion, we are often unconscious of the degree to which sexual themes permeate sports, perhaps none more so than surfing.  Unlike nearly all adventure (or contact) sports, surfing requires near nakedness to achieve success among the waves.  The impact of this near nakedness courses throughout surf culture.

Sex and surfing comingled long before the Reef Brazil ads of today.  Mark Twain described, ‘In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing [surfing].’2

Women in ancient Hawaii more commonly engaged in surfing, and most available information suggests a closer ratio of male to female surfers than the current days. Surf historians Finney and Houston wrote, ‘This equality and sexual freedom added zest to the sport and was important to its widespread popularity.  No doubt many an amorous Hawaiian who didn’t feel at all like surfing that day, found himself paddling for the breaker line in pursuit of his lady love, knowing full well that if a man and woman  happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried on in the surf, when a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.’ 3

This aspect of close sexual proximity and courtship through surfing was met with condemnation from the sexually repressed yet highly influential Calvinistic Europeans who settled the islands in the early 1800’s.  In 1892, anthropologist Nathanial Emerson noted, “the zest of the sport was enhanced by the fact that both sexes engaged in it, when this practice was found to be discountenanced by the new morality, it was felt that the interest in it had largely departed and this game too went the way of its fellows”.4 By the mid 1800’s surfing went from a national past time to a sport engaged in by only by a handful.  As repressive sexual morays loosened in the early 1900’s, a resurgence of surfing occurred.5

Though naked surfing is still taboo, symbolic representations of sex abound in surf culture today.  Some scholars have argued that the surfboard itself is a phallic symbol, the large Olo board of ancient Hawaii only fit for the powerful Alii class.

In modern times, the way in which the board is carried, displayed, posed (by some) at a beach full of girls may relate to unconscious, phallic representations. Phallic competition occurs  in the water – Short boarders getting hostile with long boarders; long boarders hostile with Stand Up Paddle boarders.

A counter valence to all of this is the maternal ocean.  Glassy, tubing waves are most desired.  Before long, surfers find themselves in an eternal quest for more barrel rides, a symbolic representation of returning to the vagina to enter the mother’s womb.  These are the odd sounding, unverifiable ideas that psychoanalysts play about when trying to access the unconscious through symbols.

On the surface, the Freudian notion that unfulfilled sexual passions lie beneath the art of surfing sounds a peculiar, maybe a bit of a stretch.  Then I ponder all the surfing comparisons made to sex that I’ve heard over the years, and it brings me back. I recall Mark Richards once stated, “[There is] nothing better than sex and tube rides”.  Difficult choices between having sex or going surfing eventually arise in some form.  Such situations are undeniably Freudian. Surfing must either fill a direct natural desire or unconsciously supplant some other primal one (sex, aggression) indirectly.  Freud would argue the later.

In Freud’s view, surfing diffuses the anxiety created by unconscious desires for sex and aggression that must go unfulfilled during our everyday lives.  This type of defense mechanism was coined sublimation, a defensive process which harnesses the power of sexual impulses and channels it to more socially appropriate activities (surfing).  Even when drives are sublimated, however, they often retain, in disguised form their sexual or aggressive qualities.  Hence, there is “nothing better than sex and tube rides.”

Open any Surfer or Surfing Magazine and on page one is the Reef Brazil ad portraying a well positioned female ass in the foreground and a small, usually male, surfer in the background.  Why page one? These ad fellas know what they’re selling.   It’s beneath the cover.


  1. Morris, Desmond.  The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal. Dell Publishing. New York, NY  1967
  2. Lueras, Leonard. Surfing the Ultimate Pleasure. Workman Publishing, New York, NY. 1984. p. 52
  3. Finney, Ben and Houston, James. Surfing, the Sport of Hawaiian Kings, 1966, Tuttle Company, Ruttland, VE. 1966, p. 42
  4. Emerson, Nathaniel B. “Causes of Decline of Ancient Polynesian Sports,” The Friend, L, viii, 57-60. Honolulu, 1892, p. 59. See also Finney and Houston, 1966, p.56
  5. Gault-Williams, Malcom. Legendary Surfers Vol 1, 2500 B.C. to 1910 A.D., 2005