Theories of female and male sexuality
Controversy – sexual and cross-cultural
It was in the wake of the mass feminist struggles for women’s suffrage that the first significant controversy over female sexuality broke out within the psychoanalytic movement. The egalitarian demands of the suffragists formed a backdrop for the entire debate. Between 1919 and 1935 at least nineteen prominent analysts wrote papers on the topic, arguing vigorously with each other and with Freud. This debate, which centred on Freud’s theory of female penis envy, set the agenda for discussions of sexual identity for the rest of the century.
Since the 1920s there has been an off-and-on engagement with the issue of how an originally male-dominated theory might apply to women. In contrast, questions about the universal applicability of psychoanalytic theories to all cultures have not been consistently addressed until very recently. This is significant since psychoanalysis developed through clinical work with bourgeois, early-twentieth-century Europeans.
Freud’s attitude towards women’s demands for equality was highly contradictory, in common with that of most other early male psychoanalysts. He revealed a deep ambivalence over the question of female inferiority, at times implying that women actually are inferior while at other moments suggesting that they are simply viewed in that way within a male-dominated society. For instance, in 1933 he suggested that a female patient’s long-held wish for professional and intellectual success might turn out to be sublimated childhood penis envy (Freud 1933). But he had also insisted, against opposition from male colleagues, and at a time when many professions barred females, that women should be able to train and take up prominent positions within the psychoanalytic movement. He was a sexual liberal, supporting the radical causes of his day, including the legalisation of homosexuality, the liberalisation of divorce laws and a woman’s right to abortion.
During the 1920s one of Freud’s most influential opponents, Karen Horney, a young German psychoanalyst, accused Freud of ‘male bias’, of creating a theory which devalued women (Horney 1924, 1926). Freud’s theory revolved around the child’s relationship to the father and its struggle to come to terms with the authority and privilege of the patriarch, a struggle in which the mother seems to become almost a bystander. Horney’s view was that each sex has something uniquely valuable which arouses fierce envy in the sex lacking it. This argument and other aspects of her critique of Freud won influential support from colleagues who later transformed the role of the mother in psychoanalytic theory. For British object relations theorists and North American ego psychologists, women – far from being deficient – have enormous emotional power based on the ability to reproduce the species and the utter dependence of the human infant at the beginning of life. From this theoretical perspective the influence women have over the psychic lives of children is seen as far more significant than the political and economic power wielded by men. At issue here are divergent notions of power and control and arguments about which parent is viewed by the child as more potent and enviable.
Feminists have always remained divided as to whose views on sexual identity were the more radical – Freud’s or Horney’s. A crucial area of disagreement was over whether women and men are born heterosexual or ‘made’ so by culture. For Freud, the girl only begins to desire men sexually and want their babies once she realises she can never be male; Horney, on the other hand, argued that women are born with tendencies towards heterosexual femininity. By emphasising innate womanliness in this way, Horney intended to defend women against the Freudian charge that we are merely men manqué. But present-day feminists have pointed out that in doing so she ‘threw the baby out with the bath-water’, abandoning one of Freud’s most subversive insights, his theory that all sexual identities are formed through the influence of personal history and culture rather than being the inevitable outcome of biological sex (Mitchell 1974).
The dispute between Horney and Freud raised fundamental questions about the transformative potential of psychoanalysis. If women have inborn tendencies towards a certain kind of feminine heterosexuality, then the possibility of change in female identity, and any subsequent shift in power relations between the sexes, might be limited. Freud had argued against the idea that psychoanalysts
should encourage patients to conform to prevailing social and sexual norms. But if his theory showed a bias against women, who was to judge what counted as genuine therapeutic success rather than mere conformity to current notions of authentic femaleness? Contributors to the debate probed such questions, wondering to what extent the prejudices of the psychoanalyst influenced the course of a treatment. They also speculated about whether the psychoanalyst’s gender shaped the way the transference unfolded and whether opposing theories of sexual identity might in turn reflect varying experiences of the therapeutic relationship.
The debate was crucial to the future of psychoanalytic theory and the practice of psychotherapy. For the first time, Freud’s authority as theoretical leader was challenged in an open and sustained way by dissenters who stayed to argue their case. The psychoanalytic movement began to split, its members taking fundamentally different paths, but still seeing themselves as part of the same community. Opposing factions in the debate coalesced into theoretical tendencies which continue to dominate contemporary psychoanalytic thinking about psychosexuality and identity.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities between himself, Horney and others, Freud had had little to say about female sexuality as such. His Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905a) offered a general theory of psychosexual development which did not dwell on the differences between men and women. Freud asked a series of questions about what sexuality was and how it came to be associated with the onset of neurosis. He concluded that sexual libido was a wild, insatiable force, the ‘most unruly’ of all the instincts. In order to build civilisation it was necessary to repress desire and sublimate sexual libido into culturally constructive pursuits. But this resulted in psychic conflict in individuals who could not tolerate the way society restricted their sexuality. Neurosis was the inevitable result, particularly for women who were denied pleasure and knowledge through the sexual double standard.
Freud’s infant is a hedonist who at first seeks ‘autoerotic’ pleasure from its own body, purely for pleasure’s sake. In Freud’s theory sexuality is not intrinsically linked with reproduction or with the need for closeness. (Here Freud differs from later object-relations theorists who argue that the infant seeks human intimacy rather than sexual pleasure from the moment of birth.) Neither, according to Freud, does infantile sexuality have any predetermined object. Instead it is diffuse and ‘polymorphously perverse’, experienced in
relation to everyone and everything the infant encounters. Only after a primary period of narcissistic self-preoccupation is the infant seduced into intimacy through the physical ministrations of the mother.
Freud stresses the continuity between adult and infantile sexuality and between erotic desire and other forms of love. The mother derives erotic pleasure from her child, responding to it ‘with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object’ (Freud 1905a: 145).
Central to Freud’s theory of sexual identity was his argument that all children are born bisexual, psychically androgynous, possessing a complex combination of ‘masculine’ (active) and ‘feminine’ (passive) mental characteristics. Heterosexuality only begins at the Oedipal, genital phase. As the infant becomes less preoccupied with the oral pleasures of feeding and the anal struggles of toilet-training it becomes more aware of genital sensations and the accompanying fantasies.
Until female sexuality became controversial among his colleagues, Freud had written mainly about the boy’s experience. In his early writings on sexuality he assumed that the girl’s experience would be a mirror-image of the boy’s. For her too the opposite-sex parent, the father, would be most significant.
Freud confirmed some of his theories of sexuality through his analysis of three-year-old Hans, a ‘positive paragon of all vices’ (Freud 1909: 179). As his Oedipal desire for the opposite sex parent grew, Hans wanted his mother to touch his penis because ‘it’s great fun’ (Freud 1909: 182). His father was at these moments a hated rival. He had fantasies about marrying his mother and having a baby with her. Hans also reported eroticised daydreams about the plumber visiting him in the bath and penetrating his stomach with a great big ‘borer’. These homosexual desires are an expression of the negative Oedipus complex – Hans had also taken the same-sex parent as erotic love-object and felt rivalry towards his mother.
Freud says that ideally the son relinquishes his Oedipal desire for the mother because of a real or imagined threat of castration by the father. He then accepts that he must wait until adulthood to possess his own woman sexually. The little boy sublimates his incestuous desire through identifying with his father’s potency and cultural privilege. This identification forms the basis of the male super-ego or conscience. If the Oedipus complex is not resolved in this way,
the boy may grow up to feel an intense hatred and contempt for women. Freud argued that this kind of misogyny is an expression of male castration anxiety – the man is terrified that he will lose his masculinity and become like the women he hates and fears.
It was not until 1924/5 that Freud published a theoretical account of female sexuality – and then in some haste, with incomplete clinical data. Apologising for the schematic character of his arguments, he cited his failing health as the reason for hurrying into print. It is also possible that he wanted to stake out territory and reassert his theoretical leadership against challengers such as Horney. The battle-lines were being drawn. Freud’s own famous interjection – ‘Here the feminist demand for equal rights for the sexes does not take us far’ (Freud 1924a: 320) – indicates how heated and oppositional the theoretical atmosphere was becoming.
In spite of his provocative tone, Freud was preoccupied with questions which are still relevant for contemporary women. For instance, he noted that little girls seemed initially to be ‘more intelligent and livelier than boys of the same age’. He asked how those assertive little girls came to lose their intellectual confidence and capacity to act directly on their desires (Freud 1933: 151). Whether through nature or nurture, it is at the point where the little girl becomes interested in the father and men that she appears to become more passive.
Freud’s explanation for this is that the little girl goes through a phase where she is a ‘little boy psychologically’ and is active or ‘masculine’ in her love for her mother before she becomes heterosexual. It is penis envy, Freud argued in 1924, that sets the girl on the path towards psychic womanhood. As soon as she sees the boy’s penis the girl recognises her inadequacy ‘in a flash’ and blames her mother for sending her into the world ill-equipped (Freud 1925: 336). Neither she nor the boy knows of the existence of the vagina until adolescence. Both imagine that the clitoris is a stunted penis. In bitter disappointment at her lack, the girl turns to her father in the hope of gaining a penis and becoming like him. When she realises that she can never be a man, she reluctantly accepts the second-best option of femininity. She begins to feel heterosexual desire and to hope for the father’s baby – ideally a boy, a penis by proxy.
According to Freud, the girl has to make a series of renunciations in order to become a heterosexual woman, none of which are required of the boy. Most significantly she must give up her mother – her first love-object – and the active sexual strivings she felt in relation
to her. Her aggressive urges turn inwards as she becomes more passive in relation to her father and men (Freud 1931, 1933). Not surprisingly, Freud thought that many girls never do become entirely heterosexual. They may remain attached to their mothers, identify with their fathers, or lose interest completely in sex. Freud described how a woman may marry in order to havp a penis-baby, and then transfer her love completely to the infant. A marriage is only consolidated, Freud later said, when the woman has also made the man into her child (Freud 1933).
Freud argued that girls are further disadvantaged in the moral sphere since they cannot identify with patriarchal authority. ‘I cannot evade the notion (though I hesitate to give it expression) that for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men’, he admitted (Freud 1925: 342). He went on to explain that women have a weaker super-ego and a stronger sense of pity, disgust and shame, due to the repression of their sexuality and their envy of men.
By the early 1930s, after a decade of pressure from his female colleagues, Freud had become more able to recognise the early mother-daughter relationship as a foundation and crucial determinant of later experiences with the father. He now argued that penis envy had its roots in the inevitable narcissistic wounds of breastfeeding. These only become organised into a sense of gender-inferiority once the girl sees the boy’s penis. The ‘reproach against the mother that goes back furthest is that she gave the child too little milk – which is construed against her as lack of love … the child’s avidity for its earliest nourishment is altogether insatiable … it never gets over the pain of losing its mother’s breast’ (Freud 1933: 155–156).
Female sexuality always remained mysterious and elusive to Freud, but by 1933 he was more able to detect the maternal transference. For instance his patient H.D., the symbolist poet, assumed at first that he represented a father-figure, but Freud insisted that she had transferred her early feelings about her mother onto him. Mistakes had, he explained, been made in the early days because psychoanalysts did not realise that some girls never do transfer their affections from the mother to the father. He told H.D.: ‘I do not like to be the mother in the transference, it always surprises and shocks me a little. I feel so very masculine.’ She asked him if others had mother transferences to him. He said ‘ironically … and a little wistfully “O, very many” ’ (H.D. 1956: 147). It seems clear that Freud
had always been able to elicit strong maternal transferences from his patients, but had not been able to recognise that this was happening because of his own unresolved conflicts about his sexual identity (Freud 1905b).
Some prominent women analysts, including Helene Deutsch, Jeanne Lampl-de-Groot and Ruth Mack Brunswick, declared their agreement with Freud’s theory of female sexuality although each gave far more importance to the mother-daughter relationship than he had done. Some of them fully endorsed Freud’s belief that as ‘more suitable mother-substitutes’ women analysts would have access within the transference to aspects of the female psyche that their male colleagues would never encounter (Freud 1931). ‘The undeveloped, primitive woman with scant heterosexuality and a childish, unquestioning attachment to the mother, presents herself almost regularly to the woman analyst … [but] does not consult the male analyst because of a total lack of contact with the man’, Brunswick wrote in a coda to the debate (1940: 62).
Women’s sexuality: the theories of Freud’s female contemporaries
Helene Deutsch was typical of Freud’s contemporary female supporters in that she always stressed her loyalty to his views on penis envy without acknowledging that she disagreed with him fundamentally about female sexuality in general. Most significantly, Deutsch was certain that the psychological differences between the sexes were rooted in biology. She also abandoned Freud’s central emphasis on the father, focusing instead on a mother-daughter identification based on the shared child-bearing function over the course of the life-cycle. Her mother-centred perspective, like many contemporary theories, focuses on what women possess – the capacity to bear children – rather than on what they lack.
Deutsch argued that women tend to focus inwards, seeking gratification through children and family life, because their psychic life revolves around the reproductive cycle and sexual organs located inside their bodies. In contrast, men are driven to possess women and sublimate their sexuality in the external world. She attributed this partly to the penetrative urges of the penis, whose location directs men’s attention outside themselves (Deutsch 1924).
Freud didn’t know whether women were naturally more passive or became so through cultural repression of their sexuality. But Deutsch became notorious with later generations of feminists for insisting that three traits – narcissism, passivity and masochism – were integral to female psychology (Deutsch 1930). Deutsch asks, as many contemporary feminists have, why women have accepted throughout history the ‘social ordinances’ that prevent them from gaining sexual gratification while simultaneously denying them the possibility of sublimating their sexual urges through artistic or cultural achievement (Deutsch 1930). She argues that it must be the ‘magnificent gratification’ women gain from their reproductive capacities. Yet her writings are concerned with a painful paradox in female experience. According to Deutsch, many women gain little pleasure from the passivity and self-sacrifice required of them in vaginal intercourse and motherhood. This is because they are born with a component of active ‘masculine’ sexuality – the clitoris, a stunted penis, the remnants of which do not allow them to submit without conflict. Therefore many women find little gratification in heterosexual intercourse, to which they feel they must resign themselves. They may also be highly ambivalent about pregnancy, childbirth and mothering, especially if their identifications with their mothers are ambivalent (Deutsch 1924, 1930).
This biological reinterpretation of Freud became profoundly influential and was widely perceived as the Freudian orthodoxy, particularly in the United States after the Second World War. It was hardly surprising, then, that feminists coming to psychoanalytic theory in this period perceived it as deeply conservative, particularly when influential analysts actually ...