Female Sexuality

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Freud's observations on female sexuality were made between 1923 and 1933, late in his career. They cannot be understood without reference to his thesis of the primacy of the phallus, according to which, for both sexes, "only one genital"—the male one—played a structuring role (1923e, p. 142). Structurally speaking, the phallic phase defined the girl as much as the boy, but the girl's embrace of the phallic—at once real (experienced directly), imaginary (fantasized in an oscillation between power and impotence), and symbolic (thought-cathexis)—was centered on the clitoris. Even though the Freudian theorization of the girl's psychosexual development toward femininity took as its sole basis the psychosexuality of the boy, Freud continually emphasized the differences between the sexes in this regard, and hence too the specificity of the female Oedipus complex.

Penis envy and the castration complex play the major, organizing roles that made access to femininity possible.

As Freud wrote:

[Little girls] "notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions, at once recognize it as the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ, and from that time forward fall a victim to envy for the penis."[1]

This injury, at once phallic and narcissistic, was experienced to begin with as a personal punishment, then accepted as part of a broader truth: women do not have them. That the mother should have omitted to "give her a proper penis"[2] constituted the main motive, specific to the little girl, for transferring her affections to the father. This reversal was more a flight from the mother than a choice of the father as object. It was this disillusionment, coupled with the depreciation of the mother contingent upon the discovery that she was castrated, that occasioned the abandonment of the relationship with the mother as object.

The renunciation of pphallic activity (clitoral masturbation) allowed passivity to come to the fore: "The transition to the father-object is accomplished with the help of the passive trends in so far as they have survived the catastrophe. The path to the development of femininity now lies open to the girl."[3] The girl placed all her hopes on her father, waiting for him to give her the penis that her mother had "refused" her. The feminine attitude would be reached only if an equivalence was established between penis and child and the wish for a penis transformed into the wish for a child.

What Freud had discovered in 1931 was that for the little girl the mother as dispenser of the earliest bodily care is the object of a particularly intense and long-lasting archaic cathexis. He compared this first bond between mother and daughter to the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization so long obscured from view by the civilization of Athens: "Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus, phase in girls comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery, in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind the civilization of Greece" (p. 226). He immediately pointed up the ambivalence of this earliest bond: primary homosexuality, the idea of which was to be further developed by Freud's successors, was built upon the amorous or tender current in mother-infant coexcitation, which was nevertheless not devoid of aggressiveness. Attachment and hostility toward the mother were differently inflected depending on whether they related to the oral or the anal phase. During the oral phase, after the withdrawal of the breast, they arose in response to the little girl's fears of being devoured, poisoned or killed by her mother. During the anal phase, the pleasure associated with various maternal manipulations was related to the intrusive anal mother (described by Ruth Mack Brunswick as arousing the girl's aggressiveness).

His discovery of a primal coexcitation sensorily uniting daughter and mother, and of the dramatic rift that ensued between the two female members of this initial dyad, supplied Freud with much support for his conclusion that the mental bisexuality of women was more marked than that of men. The subsequent route to femininity was a long one, marked by the detachment from the pre-oedipal mother and calling for both a change in the erogenous zone cathected (the shift from clitoris to vagina), and a change of object. Taking the father as love-object is thus seen as a second phase in the little girl's mental development, so that it is possible to speak of a two-phase oedipal period for women (Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, Julia Kristeva). Freud went so far as to say that he saw no dissolution of the Oedipus complex in the female. Whereas in the boy the complex succumbed to the threat of castration, it would have no end in the case of women and would manifest itself as such in both the need for motherhood and in the character of "females as social beings" (p. 230). In addition to the path leading to the choice of the father as object, Freud evoked two other possible routes: the young woman might turn away from sexuality into neurosis (inhibition), or she might refuse to renounce the phallus and develop a masculinity complex.

Freud's phallocentric account, which he took up again in the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), has been widely criticized. In the first place, a number of psychoanalysts, among them Karen Horney, Ernest Jones, Melanie Klein, and Helene Deutsch, have in particular contested the claim that penis envy is a primary given rather than a construction developed or used in a secondary way in response to primitive wishes. At the same time feminists have castigated Freud for incorporating his own phallocratic and bourgeois prejudices into his theory. But it must not be forgotten that Freud's theorizing here addresses the Unconscious, so that only criticisms doing likewise have relevance (André, 1994). Furthermore it is essential to bear in mind that according to Freud the phallic organization in fantasy is based on the "infantile" genital organization, and that the primacy of the phallus, for the girl as for the boy, is deemed an aspect of the child's development and can in no way be conflated with the adult genital organization. Last, and most important, the idea of phallic primacy must be understood as the primacy of a symbolic dimension, not an organic one. In hisÉcrits (1966), Jacques Lacan describes the dynamics of a human psyche, dependent on language, which necessarily embraces both the male and the female speaking subject. Even though the "detachability" of the penis inevitably makes it the "signifier of the lack," and hence the symbol of the signifying function itself, men and women nevertheless relate to it differently. Recent psychoanalytical research has paid particular attention to the exploration of this difference, and notably to the "strangeness of the phallus" for the female (Kristeva).

See Also


  1. André, Jacques. (1994). Sur la sexualité féminine. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. (1923e). The infantile genital organization. SE, 19: 141-145.
  3. ——. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 241-258.
  4. ——. (1931b). Female sexuality. SE, 21: 221-243.
  5. ——. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
  6. Kristeva, Julia. (2000). The sense and non-sense of revolt (Jea-nine Herman, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. (Original work published 1996)
  7. Lacan, Jacques. (1966). Ecrits. Paris: Seuil.