Freud lays out his conception of the relationship between gender and the behaviour he observed in his paper Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes. He claims that the divergence between masculine and feminine sexuality occurs in early childhood as a consequence of differing genitalia . He further contends that this display of sexual dimorphism has significant consequences in feminine psychological development, including jealousy, same- sex relationships, and the abandonment of the mother as an object of desire in favour of the father.
An exploration of his rguments regarding the relationship between gender, sexuality, and the Oedipus complex forms the first part of this essay. However, Freud insists that penis-envy is the product of anatomical distinction rather than recognition of social reality. He also makes the assumption that differences in personality and sexual behaviour arise from the perception of genitalia when culture and upbringing are the primary shapers of those perceptions themselves.
While some of his points have merit, Freud has a tendency to attribute to the biological what is better explained as the product of socialisation viz. that adult sexual behaviour is the result of infant biology and not instead a product of a variety of social institutions. Freud’s position regarding the differences in sexuality between men and women begins with his conception of the Oedipus complex. The first sexual experience of the child is suckling at their mother’s breast for both genders; according to Freud the mother remains the sexual object for boys – for women, it is later transferred to their fathers.
Boys retain their masculine sexuality, while girls first disavow their masculine sexuality before adopting a feminine one during puberty. This change is precipitated by what Freud sees as an inevitable part of development in girls, when “they notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions, at once recognise 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 . This has a significant effect upon the psychology of the girl: they adopt the contempt men hold for women, develop a sense of inferiority as a result of the damage to their self-image, and the blame they place on their mother for “[sending] her into the world so insufficiently equipped”) sours the relationship between them. This same wound to the self-image forces the girl away from masculine sexuality and masculine masturbation, which Freud sees as associates with the clitoris in girls.
When the girl gives up her wish to have a penis, Freud suggests she replaces this lack with the wish to bear a child, with that goal the reason for the transferrence of her affections from the mother to the father. This point is the first piece of masculine repression which culminates in its replacement by feminine sexuality (associated with the vagina).
Women may deal with their Oedipus complex by repressing it or otherwise carry it into adulthood, a factor which Freud suggests may be responsible for the difference in ethics between men and women; his belief that the superego is less removed from its emotional origins in women and thus they are more susceptible to flawed emotional reasoning and less prepared to deal with the realities of life .
If the girl insists either on continuing to wish for a penis or acting as if she had one, Freud claims this can cause “strange and otherwise unnacountable actions,” or else be indicative of psychosis . In boys however observation of the anatomy is met with disinterest until he has a fear of castration, usually through negative reinforcement by caregivers towards masturbation or bedwetting, which are interpreted by the child as “inhibition of their genital activity. When this fear is realised, he reacts with either fear and horror at what he perceives as mutilation or a comfortable contempt in the notion that he has the anatomy considered most vital to the preservation of the species. It is this selfsame fear that shatters the Oedipus complex in boys, where in women it is abandoned r supressed – the complex is “smashed to pieces by the shock of threatened castration . In ‘Civilised’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness, Freud further posits that men possess stronger sexual instincts than women, an idea that conforms wholeheartedly to his idea of the innate superiority of the penis due to its anatomical characteristics. When exposed to the societal pressure to conform to sexual morality, the stronger the sexual instinct, the less likely supression is to be successful: Freud observes a tendency for the brother in a family to succeed nd remain an immoral pervert, while his sister represses her urges and becomes neurotic.
While Freud himself acknowledges the tendency for an individual to possess both masculine and feminine traits in their behaviour, he nevertheless primarily associates femininity with women and masculitnity with men, with the feminine perceived as being lacking or absent . For Freud feminine sexuality is passive, emotional, the ‘null’ with which the masculine can be compared and seen as superior: the lack exhibited by female sexuality is contingent on their biological lack, which is to say their female anatomy.
Freudian psychology is notoriously resilient to challenges on substantive grounds due to its use of the unconscious and repression to evade falsifiability, a fact Karl Popper has previously used to criticise Freud’s theories on methodological grounds . Freud’s analysis of the relationship between gender and sexuality is by no means foolproof, primarily resulting from his attribution of many adult behaviours to an innate anatomical distinction.
He casts the moment of penis envy’s birth as seeing the penis of a boy for the first time and realising that her own is missing, but would this idea not seem laughable o a preliterate society where nudity is the rule and not the exception? If she has seen it since her earliest awareness without complaint, it seems improbable that she could “[make] her judgement and decision in a flash” upon the realisation she possesses differing genitalia (if indeed there were any such realisation at allI) .
A better explanation, then, is that the women Freud observed (or at least some of them) did have a perception of the penis as superior, but that their sudden jealousy was not due to biological recognition of any inherent male superiority, ut rather the realisation that they were definitively female and thus seen as lesser by the society in which they lived. It seems likely if society disadvantages the woman for lacking a penis, then the knowledge and internalisation of this lack would be distressing and perhaps a cause of envy for the girl who wishes to be the social equal to the one who possesses one.
This is not surprising since their perceived societal requirements shape genital self-perception: if women are expected to embrace a passive, female sexual behaviour for the purpose of bearing hildren, then it is not surprising that they eventually reject the ‘male’ sexuality of the clitoris by becoming averse to masturbation. A society in which women were considered especially lucky to have a clitoris, womb, and the ability to give birth would not exhibit behaviour in accordance with what Freud sees as biological realities, especially if men were considered of lower status due to their anatomy as well.
Freud additionally alleges that the woman’s refusal to accept her lack of a penis as dangerous, something that can cause her to “be compelled to behave as though she were a man . However, this is nothing if not a rational response to gender inequality: it is a reclamation of power. When masculinity is afforded a level of respect and privilege not afforded to that of femininity, seeking to take on the role of a man is a rebellion against the patriarchy, not, as Freud claims, indicative of psychosis.
Such is seen most starkly in cases such as the Balkan sworn virgins, who give up their sexuality in favour of achieving a male legal and social status, but also in the Riot Grrrl and ‘Rosie the Riveter aspects of 20th-century Western feminism. When womanhood is defined y its passivity within society – and by Freud – it seems both churlish and in bad faith to suggest absence and lack are innate to femininity, especially given Freud’s acceptance of the variability of human behaviour and a degree of gender fluidity.
Despite Freud’s keen eye for observing human behaviour, he nevertheless errs in suggesting that sexual dimorphism in human behaviour is biological in nature. The conduct of men and women in this context is better understood by conceiving of it as a response to social reality (especially of the society in which Freud lived and wrote), rather than simple anatomical divergence.