Monday, September 10, 2012

Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Sigmund Freud began developing the theory of sexuality outlined in his Three Essays during the 1880s and 1890s while working with patients, mostly women, suffering from "hysteria." Hysteria was a widespread psychological diagnosis in the late nineteenth century, and widespread in part because it was defined so variously and so loosely; its symptoms ranged from mildly irregular moods to psychotic episodes to physiological problems such as insomnia or partial paralysis. The diagnosis was overwhelmingly given to women ("hysteria" comes from the Greek word for uterus), and both its symptoms and its treatment were understood to be sexual in nature. One common treatment was for a doctor to induce an orgasm in his female patient. (The recent film Hysteria makes comedy out of this).

Pierre-André Brouillet, "A Clinical Lesson at the
Salpetrière" (1887). Freud's teacher Charcot is at right.
Freud studied the treatment of such patients in Paris under Jean-Martin Charcot, perhaps the most influential psychiatrist in Europe at the time. Charcot pioneered the treatment of hysteria through hypnotic suggestion, a technique that Freud used early in his career but later abandoned as unreliable.

Freud's own early breakthroughs in the treatment of hysteria came with patients suffering from psychosomatic symptoms: bodily disorders (e.g. blurred vision, a chronic cough) inexplicable through bodily causes, and thus attributed to mental ones. Freud hypothesized that these symptoms were caused by repressed desires, desires felt to be intolerable to the conscious self and so driven back into the unconscious parts of the mind. Once repressed, these desires would nonetheless persist, and would seek expression through channels that the conscious self couldn't censor -- in dreams, for example, or in psychosomatic symptoms. Freud's therapeutic discovery (made in close collaboration with Josef Breuer) was that these symptoms could be relieved by bringing the content of the repressed desires to the patient's conscious attention; this was the 'talking cure' of psychoanalysis.

First published in 1905 but revised continuously until 1924, the Three Essays draw on Freud's clinical experience but also on the considerable body of research on sexuality carried out by others in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the book's first publication, for example, Freud had no clinical experience with actively homosexual patients (though he would treat many later on); his knowledge of homosexuality was second-hand.

In class on Wednesday, we should start out by making sure that we have a firm grasp of Freud's theory of sexual development. Here are some questions that should help us do so: 1) Why does it make sense for Freud to speak of "infantile sexuality"? 2) How are the many forms of infantile sexuality transformed at puberty? How, on Freud's account, is this transformation different for girls than for boys? 3) How, on Freud's account, is sexual pleasure different than other kinds of pleasure? (See pages 74-8 on this). 4) What accounts for the development of "perversions" in certain individuals? 5) What does Freud mean when he writes that "neuroses are, so to say, the negative of perversions"? (31). 6) What does it mean that "the finding of an object [i.e. a sexual object] is in fact the refinding of it"? (88).

Among feminist and queer readers, the response to the Three Essays has been intensely conflicted. I'd like us as we read this text to consider why this might be so, to imagine different ways in which it might be a problematic or a productive theory of sexuality for the present. Feminists in the U.S. (less often in Europe) have sometimes rejected Freudian psychoanalysis wholesale as a sexist (and heterosexist) enterprise, and I suspect you'll see what might motivate this as you work your way through the book. Some theorists of sexuality, though, have found continuing inspiration for their own work in this foundational text of Freud's.

One reason for this conflicted reception of Three Essays is that the book is sometimes at odds with itself. You should keep an eye out for claims that seem to clash with one another -- for tensions within Freud's own theory, as he works through and rephrases it over the course of the book. I'd be particularly interested in hearing about such moments of tension in class or in your comments here.

"Normal" is a term at the heart of many debates about this book. The word carries both descriptive and evaluative burdens--it names what usually is the case, and implies what ought to be the case. Yet a range of attitudes towards normality are possible--none follow automatically from the mere fact that Freud uses the word. How typical is normal sexuality, according to Freud? How should abnormal ("perverse") sexual practices be judged, medically and ethically? When might Freud's descriptions of normal sexuality or normal sexual development appear particularly dubious or coercive to a queer or feminist reading of this text?

Another important question about Freud's theory of sexual development concerns the social quality of sexual desire. Freud tends to fall into technical terms when this question comes up: he'll discuss "ego-libido" versus "object-libido," "narcissistic" versus "altruistic" desires, or the importance of "object choice" in sexual development. The fundamental distinction in all of these cases is between self and other. How does sexual desire bring self and other into relation? Does it draw us into genuine contact with another person, or does it rather return us more deeply into the self? (See for example pages 48-9, on "auto-erotism," or page 88 on "Finding an Object" with regard to this question).

We saw in Burke and Wollstonecraft a somewhat low valuation of sexual desire: they found love to be at odds with respect, and pleasure with virtue. Where does Freud stand on this question? When in the Three Essays does erotic love appear to be ethically or socially constructive, and when destructive or regressive?

"The Oedipus Complex" (1899) and "Fetishism" (1927): Castration and Sexual Difference
Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, of which we've read the first version from his Interpretation of Dreams (in the Norton), underwent significant change in his own later writings. Later psychoanalysts have also continued to question and revise it. I'll update the end of this post over the weekend to give you an outline of how Freud himself developed the idea. Before I do so, though, I think it would be useful for us to question his initial model ourselves. What assumptions about gender and sexuality underlie Freud's description of the Oedipus complex? What experiences does it account for well, and what sorts of experience would it have a harder time accounting for?

One of the stranger features of Freud's elaboration of the Oedipus complex is his idea that a boy learns to repress incestuous desires for his mother out of fear not simply that he will be disciplined by his father, but more specifically and more melodramatically that this discipline will take the form of castration, the loss of his own penis. (In Sophocles' play, Freud understands Oedipus's self-blinding as a displaced form of castration).

It seems stranger still that Freud held castration to be an instinctive childhood explanation of sexual difference. It seems "self-evident" to a child that everyone has a penis, Freud says (see Three Essays, p. 61). When this belief is disproven by the sight of a woman's genitalia, the child holds onto his original hypothesis, that everyone had a penis once, and interprets what he sees as a lack or loss: women (and the child's mother in particular) had a penis that has been cut off; they're wounded.

In Three Essays, Freud says that the discovery of women's castration often leads for male children to "an enduringly low opinion of the other sex" (61 n.2). There's no need to belabor how that interpretation seems to reverse cause and effect, using an interpretation of sexual difference that results from misogyny to provide a myth of origin for misogyny itself. What interests me in Freud's essay on "Fetishism," which he wrote in 1927 and thus over two decades after his first edition of Three Essays, is how much more emotionally and psychologically complex his description of the psychological response to sexual difference becomes. Here, the male child's reaction to female (and maternal) castration is no longer simply one of contempt.

If you hadn't read this essay before Wednesday, Nicole's summary of its central idea in class might have sounded confused: it seems like the mother both does and doesn't have a penis. That summary is perfectly faithful to Freud's text, though. The question we might take up on Friday is what psychic or emotional purpose this self-contradictory belief serves for the fetishist in Freud's account -- what sort of a response to sexual difference does it record?

"Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman" (1920)
This is a fairly easy text to read compared to the others we've worked with this week. Here we see Freud the storyteller, writing in a more social and somewhat less technical mode than in Three Essays. (We'll see more of this very readable Freud when we get to Dora in a couple of weeks).

I'd like to leave the field as open as possible for your responses to this essay, and so I'm not going to introduce it in a way that reveals any of its surprises here. I've included it in our reading because after Three Essays, it seemed to me important to have a brief look at Freud the clinician responding to real people, and dealing concretely with female sexuality and homosexuality. Here, he has responsibilities towards both the young woman and her parents, and also towards himself. If in the Three Essays "normal" is primarily a concept, one that Freud in some ways rather admirably divests of its coercive potential, here normality manifests itself as a more palpable social pressure towards (perhaps different and competing kinds of) respectability. I'd be interested to hear how you think Freud handles those pressures.

Postscript: Freud's revisions of the Oedipus complex
Freud continued practicing psychoanalysis and re-examining its underlying theory for over thirty years after the 1899 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams.  Many developments in his theory are visible in additions to the revised editions of Three Essays. His idea that narcissism, understood as an attachment of libido to the self, plays an important part in mental life dates from the 1910s; in his earlier accounts of libido (i.e. sexual desire), he understood libido as necessarily attaching only to objects outside the self. The distinction between "ego-libido" and "object-libido" that we've seen in the Three Essays is thus a fairly late one in Freud's thinking.

An important development of Freud's understanding of narcissism came through his study of patients suffering from depression (for which he used the older term "melancholia"). Freud noticed that these patients, in their often excessive self-criticism, would reproach themselves for faults that seemed (to Freud) not applicable to the patient at all, but rather to someone that the patient loved. He inferred from this that the patient had unconsciously identified with the beloved, and was protecting them from criticism by directing that criticism inwards.

Love, in other words, involves identification with the object as well as attachment to it (to him, to her). In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud revised his own model of the Oedipus complex on the basis of this understanding of love, which also helped him to incorporate into the model his hypothesis that love is originally bisexual. A child will love the parent of the opposite sex and identify with the parent of the same sex; he called this the "positive Oedipus complex." Every childhood will also, however, identify with the parent of the opposite sex and desire the parent of the same sex; this is the "negative Oedipus complex." Together, these two formations of desire together make up the "total Oedipus complex." ("Positive" and "negative" are terms used to suggest that these two halves of the total Oedipus are complementary, mirror images of one another, and not that one half is good and the other bad).

This revision of the Oedipus complex has been important for later psychoanalysts and other theorists of sexuality, especially those who seek a fuller account of same-sex desire and of the distinctive development patterns of girls. Nancy Chodorow, a practicing psychoanalyst (and author of the foreword to our edition of Three Essays), has written an influential feminist revision of the Oedipus complex in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978). Judith Butler, in a section of Gender Trouble ("Freud and the melancholia of gender") that isn't part of the assigned reading on our syllabus, critiques Freud's theory of original bisexuality in an extensive engagement with his essay on melancholia. For fresh approach to the significance of "penis envy" and to envy within feminist debates more generally, see Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (2005).


  1. I found this to be a very interesting read. It makes sense for him to talk about infantile sexuality because he believed childhood had a huge impact on development. He believed in different psychosexual stages children progressed through; oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. This goes along similarly with the belief that sexual instinct is present in childhood, it is just repressed or hidden. Children are discovering different parts of their body and finding that they derive pleasure from them. This pleasure does not become sexual until puberty. Freud discusses how this is different for boys and girls. Both have the same erontogenic zones just different primary ones. The primary for females is the clitoris and the primary for males is the penis.
    When Freud talks about refinding an object I feel like he is talking about how in childhood you have object such as a mother. She is the sexual object because she provides you nourishment and pleasure. Later you find a new, appropriate object that will satisfy your needs.

  2. Although Freud's theories have clearly been re-worked in our modern understanding of sexuality, I thought that this reading was still very insightful. What is remarkable about Freud in these essays is that what people typically saw as "abnormal" or "perverse" sexual expression, such as homosexuality, is not seen as so "abnormal" to Freud. Instead, he argues that such perversions are rooted in normal infant sexuality, as he begins to discuss at the very start of his essay. The "abnormal" is connected to the "normal."

    This, I think, is a groundbreaking notion, as Freud is challenging the thought that sexuality is rooted simply in the "normal" biological, reproductive human nature. It was popular belief back then (and even to some people now) that sexuality did not occur in children until they hit puberty, and that this was rooted in their coming-of-age and being able to reproduce. By refuting this claim, and describing the sexuality of infants independent of pure reproduction, Freud asserts that there are not, in fact, "natural" (or normal) sexual objects of desire.

    This has interesting implications, however, because it suggests that our sexuality develops and extends over our entire life times. It can even affect our adult mental health! Sexuality, therefore, has more fluidity than was perviously thought because it connects with human experience over time, starting in infancy, and does not have a clear, natural connection to reproduction.

  3. One of the first things I highlighted while reading "A Case of the Homosexuality in a Woman," was the following passage: "By a healthy child they mean one who never causes his parents trouble, and gives them nothing but pleasure. The physician may succeed in curing the child, but after that it goes its own way all the more decidedly, and the parents are now far more dissatisfied than before" (150). While reading this, I reflected on just how relatable this quote is to almost all topics regarding adolescence and the struggle between increasingly independent children and their parents, even today.

    As Freud continues in this case study of homosexuality, he repeatedly refers to the female Oedipus Complex (which he writes about in "The Interpretation of Dreams") his patient possesses. However, the affects of this Oedipus Complex are reversed when her mother (her "rival") has another son, and the daughter is essentially "betrayed" by her father. The consequences of this are taken to the extreme when the patient turns "away from men altogether" and "foresw[ears] her womanhood" (157). Freud continues to describe the girl's affection for her older female friend as similar to the qualities of a young boy who admires an unattainable actress. All these points combine in painting a picture of homosexuality that I think is comparable to how homosexuality and its so-called "triggers" today. These moments in the case study also reminded me of a moment in Freud's first essay in which he expresses that many people think homosexuality is a result of a past event related to the opposite sex.

    Finally, another item I was intrigued by was when Freud mentions when he "recognized the girl's attachment to the father" and broke off treatment, suggesting that the family tries a female physician. Freud writes: "Bitterness against men is as a rule easy to gratify upon the physician; it need not evoke any violent emotional manifestations, it simply expresses itself by rendering futile all his endeavors and by clinging to the illness" (164). Although I can somewhat understand this logic after finishing the reading, I was initially shocked by this passage; it exemplifies just how deep the mind can reach to protect it's own logic. This moment supports the notion of how sexuality can affect mental health, from adolescence to adult life.

  4. The most intriguing passage from Freud’s “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” was when he addressed the question of whether or not the girl in question appeared to have physical attributes of the opposite sex. His response was quite puzzling because at first it seemed rather contradictory. Freud begins by saying that “sporadic secondary characteristics of the opposite sex are very often present in normal individuals…in both sexes the degree of physical hermaphroditism is to a great extent independent of physical hermaphroditism.” He is saying that in all people, whether homosexual or not, have physical attributes of the opposite sex in some small way, shape, or form, whether we are fully hermaphroditic or simply have inherited small qualities from a parent of the opposite sex. It is unclear whether or not Freud is aware that biologically, both sexes release a small amount of the opposite sex hormone (although considering the time period in which Freud lived I find it to be highly unlikely). In any case, it is extremely important that he makes this conclusion so early on.
    However, he begins to contradict himself when he states that her intellectual attributes are those of the masculine persuasion, such as her “acuteness of comprehension and her lucid objectivity, in so far as she was not dominated by her passion.” Freud also states that she seems to have taken a masculine dominance and attitude towards her object of affection. With that being said, Freud also makes sure to point out that these gender distinctions are “conventional rather than scientific,” meaning that they are part of the societal norm and have no real scientific proof.

    1. Just a quick reply to one part of your comment to which a factual answer is useful: the sexual hormones as such hadn't been discovered when Freud wrote this text. He had, however, hypothesized that there were biochemical factors influencing sexual development. For more on this, look back at the section of Three Essays on the "chemical theory," especially the helpful editorial footnote on page 82.

  5. I believe that the most interesting reading from this week of class was Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. One section that particularly caught my eye was a section of footnotes addressing Ferenczi’s ideas concerning homosexuality. He posits that “inversion” is made up of many different categories, but simply called by one name: homosexuality (Freud 13). His idea is that there are two distinctions in homosexuality known as “subject homo-erotics’” and “object homo-erotics’” (Freud 13). Subject homo-erotics’ feel and behave like women, while object homo-erotics’ are completely masculine but exchange a female sex object for a male one. Looking at these two ideas, I feel as though they are just very narrow minded and ignorant ways of looking at the homosexuality. It almost seems as though an individual living in 2012 that is uneducated around the subject of the LGBTQ population could make these two statements.
    Within the first essay, I also thoroughly enjoyed the section that stated:

    The significance of the factor of sexual overvaluation can be best studied in men, for their erotic life alone has become accessible to research. That of women—partly owing to the stunting effect of civilized conditions and partly owing to their conventional secretiveness and insecurity—is still veiled in an impenetrable obscurity” (Freud 17).

    Freud does a good job of pointing out society’s hold on women and their sexuality by describing it as “stunting” but he fails when he discusses women as having “conventional secretiveness and insecurity” (Freud 17). Personally, I believe that any sense of inherit secretiveness women had and have today, is based upon their experiences within our overtly patriarchal society. In addition, I enjoyed this passage because of the dramatic wording Freud uses. When describing women, he makes them seem mysterious by describing their sexuality as “veiled in an impenetrable obscurity” (Freud 17). To me, this statement seemed overly dramatic and far-fetched.

    1. This touches on a couple of aspects of Three Essays that we'll definitely return to. A couple bits of historical context are worth pointing out here meanwhile...

      I can definitely see why Ferenczi's classification of male homosexual types seems ignorant and dated (or, more sadly, not dated). His description of "subject homoerotics" as feeling and behaving like women, however, is less willfully unsympathetic than it might appear, in that male homosexuals in these early decades of the century often thought of their own sexuality as involving some sort of psychological femininity. This idea was in fact so widespread at the time that Freud refers to its originator, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, by last name only, assuming that his readers would know who he was talking about. He quotes Ulrichs' definition of male sexuality on page 8: "' a feminine brain in a masculine body.'" Both Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, whom Freud mentions in the same footnote you quote from, were not only homosexuals themselves, but also outspoken advocates for homosexual rights. The French novelist Marcel Proust is another prominent gay writer from this period who understood same-sex desire among men along these lines, and for this reason preferred the term "inversion" to "homosexuality."

      You're also right to note the melodrama of female sexuality's "impenetrable obscurity" in Freud-in an even better known passage in a later work, he refers to it as a "dark continent." I think he's actually on the same page with you as to the experiential basis of women's "secretiveness" here, though--in the phrase you quote, "conventional" has to be understood as the opposite of inherent.

      It's perhaps worth distinguishing the efforts of psychoanalysis to describe and understand female sexuality, however infelicitously phrased they are, from attempts to simply control or repress it, to keep it in the dark. Foucault, who we'll read next week, might not agree with this -- he'll be interested in the extent to which an effort like Freud's to know and describe sexuality _is_ a way to control it. There's a broader argument here about we should understood the inheritance of the Enlightenment, which seems to be the metaphor shaping these images of darkness chosen by Freud.

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