Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Freud's Sexual Theory
To Freud, his sexual theory was his most important work. He explained almost all unusual psychological phenomena with references to sex.
For example, Freud explained the déjà vu experience by saying it was an unconscious memory of the mother's genitals (Slochower, 1970). That may sound extreme but it is actually typical of how Freud thought.
Which part of this theory did Freud think was most important? How did Freud's early associates react to his ideas?
Many of Freud's early associates objected to the extreme and rather exclusive emphasis he put on sex. They thought sexual conflicts were involved in some, but not all, mental problems.
Freud insisted his sexual theory applied to all mental illness. Freud himself described his sexual theory as having all the popularity of "a freshly painted wall."
But Freud stuck to his theory and would not agree to any modification of it. Breuer, an early mentor and colleague of Freud's, wrote that Freud was "a man given to absolute and exclusive formulations."
Freud was aware of Darwin's theory. Evolution acts strongly on anything related to reproduction, so sex and everything connected with it is important in animal behavior. Survival hangs in the balance.
This lends a general plausibility to the idea that sexual issues are important and psychologically potent. Sex is also very strange and primitive in the context of civilized life.
Sexual impulses are not always rational and may seem completely mysterious to unsympathetic people. Pride and shame get involved. During the Victorian era, when Freud formed his theory, European culture tended to avoid frank discussions of sexuality.
All of this made Freud sensational, when he decided sex was at the center of everything. He became notorious, famous, despised, and admired.
However, that does not mean Freud's particular theories are correct. Psychologists of today agree that sexual impulses and conflicts are psychologically important to human beings, but research evidence fails to support the specific theories outlined on this page.
The Psychosexual Stages according to Freud
Freud believed that, as children matured, the libido moved around to several different areas of the body called erogenous (er-ROJ-e-ness) zones. If the child received too much or too little gratification during any stage, the result could be mental disturbance as an adult.
The oral stage occurs first of all, in babyhood. Babies are very mouth-oriented. They have well-developed nursing reflexes when born, and during early months of life, most of the baby's pleasure (as well as life-giving sustenance) comes through the mouth.
In primitive cultures, babies nurse for more than a year, sometimes several years. The mouth, a point of intimate contact with the mother, is the first erogenous zone.
What supposedly happens during the oral stage?
Freud said that if a baby gets too much or too little oral stimulation, the baby might be permanently affected. As an adult, the individual may act like a baby: dependent, pleasure-oriented, gullible, child-like, easily led astray.
The person may become obese, or smoke, or chew gum a lot. According to Freud, this person is trying to recapture a lost paradise in the oral stage, or perhaps making up for deficiencies in gratification during that stage, or express the pressure of forbidden impulses encouraged during that stage.
In any case, such a person is fixated at the oral stage, unable to grow past it. The result, Freud said, was an oral personality.
What were two "oral personality" types?
Freud also described a type of person who reacts to an oral fixation by repressing it, using the defense mechanism called reaction formation to develop the opposite characteristics: sarcasm, independence, toughness and cynicism–the exact opposite of the oral type. This tough, cynical personality is termed the oral aggressive type.
During the next psychosexual stage, the anal stage, pleasurable sensations become centered on the anus, and children become fascinated with their own waste products. It is common to observe young children, around the age of 2, playing with their feces or acting animated and excited about bathroom references.
Freud pointed out that waste is a child's first production. It is fascinating to the child because it is the first thing a child controls in a world dominated by adults.
What happens during the anal stage, and how did Freud interpret it?
Freud believed some children used their newfound bowel control against parents in a struggle of wills. If a parent tried to force toilet training, the child might deliberately hold back in rebellion, or else go at an inappropriate time.
If fixated at the anal stage, Freud believed, the child who holds back might become an anal-retentive personality as an adult, fastidious and neat, while the child who goes at inappropriate times may become an anal-expulsive personality, chronically messy.
What are two types of anal personality?
If you are familiar with the Neil Simon play The Odd Couple or the old TV series of the same name, you will recognize that Felix Unger was the anal-retentive type, Oscar Madison was anal-expulsive. Simon had the bright idea of putting two opposite anal personalities together for a comedy.
Sometimes the same thing happens in college dorms. A messy person is paired with a very neat person, and the result is a lot of conflict about how the room should be maintained. (Despite Freud's theory, there is no evidence that these differences can be traced back to the toilet training phase.)
What happens during the phallic stage?
After the anal stage, children finally discover their genitals as a source of pleasure, according to Freud. Showing his typical male bias, Freud labeled this psychosexual stage the phallic stage, even though it was supposed to apply to both sexes. Children of this age–from about three to seven–are uninhibited about their bodies until they learn about modesty from parents or siblings.
The Oedipal and Electra conflicts are said to occur during the phallic stage. These conflicts are part of a sequence of events that Freud thought occurred in most families. He labeled it the family drama. The family drama involves the Oedipal conflict for boys and the Electra conflict for girls.
The Family Drama
According to Freud, a little boy in the phallic stage begins to feel vague erotic feelings for his mother. Father is seen as a competitor for mother's affections.
The boy begins to fear and hate his father as a rival. He is sure his father knows about this hate.
Meanwhile (Freud asserted) the father has probably caught the boy masturbating and threatens to cut off his penis as punishment. (Freud must have experienced something like this, because he claimed it was a universal event.)
Therefore the boy centers his emerging fear of the father on his penis. The result is castration anxiety (fear that his penis will be cut off).
What was the sequence of events in Freud's family drama?
This state of affairs is so uncomfortable that the boy deals with it using two defense mechanisms: reaction formation and identification. The boy decides he loves his father (reaction formation) and he wants to be like him (identification).
Freud thought this was where a young boy's sexual identification came from. Sexual jealousy was followed by the defense mechanisms of reaction formation and identification.
Similarly, a little girl was said to develop love for her father during the phallic stage. In her case, noticing she had no penis, she would develop penis envy, concluding that the dreaded castration had already taken place.
She would notice her mother had suffered the same fate, so she would dislike her mother. These feelings were resolved by reaction formation and identification, so the young girl ultimately loved and identified with her mother.
What caused penis envy, in Freud's view?
Freud put great emphasis on the family drama, using it to explain early roots of adult psychopathology (mental disturbance). He dismissed lack of memory for these traumatic events of childhood by saying that when the Oedipal and Electra conflicts are resolved, the memories of these events (or phantasies about the events) are successfully repressed.
For example, few if any males remember being threatened with castration as a young child, or having any worry about it. Freud thought it was a universal occurrence, but once the Oedipal Complex was resolved, the fears were repressed.
Few present-day psychologists in the United States think the "family drama" is anywhere near as common or influential as portrayed by Freud. Howver, Freudian theories are still taken more seriously by psychiatrists in countries with strong psychoanalytic traditions such as Mexico and Belgium.
A person in Freudian psychoanalysis can expect to have strange dreams or symptoms explained with these concepts. Difficulties are said to arise from too much or too little breast-feeding, pressure during toilet training, fears of castration, lust for the opposite-sexed parent, or ego contortions in trying to avoid these forbidden thoughts.
As before, one can draw a distinction between Freud's explanatory theory and his observations of behavior patterns. Many of the patterns Freud described do occur in some children. For example, young children are often fascinated with their waste products in an erotic way.
The family drama theory receives little support from research, but it is true that many little girls love their Daddies, and many little boys love their Mommies. Each can feel jealous of the opposite-
One mother writes:
For the last two years I have had an opportunity to observe a child in the Oedipal stage of development. My son who is eight years old and the "baby" of the family is a perfect example.
Some observations I have made that bring this to light are:
1. He tells me several times each day, "I love you Mommy" or "Mom, I really care about you."
2. I can do no wrong in his eyes. He accepts whatever I do without too much question even if he is disappointed.
3. He will not let anyone but me help him dress or do his homework. He relates to me better on a teaching basis than anyone in the family.
4. He doesn't dislike his father but doesn't have a whole lot to do with him and follows me instead.
5. He picks wild flowers in the yard or field and brings them to me.
6. If an argument comes up he will take my side.
7. He goes out of his way to please me whether at school or play.
This is a delightful stage of development to participate in from my angle (his mother) and it is very rewarding to teach him at this time. He is open to most suggestions and eager to please. [Author's files]
Freud might shake his head and say this mother is doing her son harm by failing to encourage resolution of the Oedipal conflict. A Freudian psychologist might predict that this boy will someday expect his girlfriend or spouse to "be" his mother, or will suffer from various defense mechanisms as he fights off mysterious longings from his id.
Other psychologists might see nothing here but a son who loves and delights his mother. The adaptive value of loving the opposite sex should be high, and the tendency of young creatures to love those who raise them is universal even in human/animal interactions.
Another student writes of the Electra conflict:
When we discussed the Electra conflict in class it made me remember how I was when I was a child. I was always "Daddy's little girl."
Wherever my dad went I went too. When we went shopping as a family, my older sister went off with my mother to look at the "girlie" stuff, and I always went off with my father.
My mother and I didn't get along during this time. I never wanted to do what she told me to do. I guess that was a form of resentment I felt toward my mother because of the attention she got from my father.
As I have grown older I have become closer to my mother even though I still care a lot for my dad. [Author's files]
What evil consequences might result from an unresolved Electra complex? Freud said such a woman might become a castrating female, like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, teasing men without being serious (and activating their hidden fears of castration) because her heart still belonged to Daddy.
How do modern researchers disagree with Freud about the latency stage? What were characteristics of the genital stage?
Freud said the latency stage (or latent stage) occurred after the phallic stage, around 8 or 9 years of age. From this age until puberty, he said, children concentrated on growing up and playing with same-gender friends. Sexual urges went underground and seemed to disappear.
Again, modern researchers do not agree with Freud. Some say the latency period does not exist. Sexual concerns are no more or less present in children of this age than at other pre-adolescent stages.
With adolescence comes sexual maturity and the genital stage. Freud said this stage is marked by a growing concern for the psychological and erotic satisfaction of one's partner, replacing the self-centered focus on the erogenous zones typical of earlier stages.
Freud and his followers resisted attempts to test their theories with experiments or other scientific research. In fact, they seemed threatened by the very idea.
Mackinnon and Dukes (1962) told of a research psychologist in the 1930s who wrote to Freud full of enthusiasm about a study supporting one of Freud's ideas. Freud responded by informing him that no such testing was needed.
What happened when a psychologist wrote Freud with good news about research?
Fisher and Greenberg (1985) carried out an ambitious attempt to survey all the scientific research that tested any of Freud's ideas, such as the idea that dreams are full of sex symbols, or the idea that all children go through the Oedipal or Electra Complexes. Their review ran to almost 500 pages, with a list of bibliographic references 75 pages long. Their conclusions were largely negative. For example:
"Not a shred" of evidence for Freudian ideas about sexual symbolism in dreams.
No support for Freud's idea that an anal character results from difficulties in toilet training or that an oral character results from events surrounding breastfeeding.
What did Fisher and Greenberg find out, in their review of research?
No support for the Oedipal and Electra complexes. The eventual identification of a young boy with his father correlates not with earlier sexual jealousy but with a nurturant attitude on the part of the father.
In general, there is little evidence for the family drama with its panorama of lusts and hostilities. There is also no evidence for penis envy in girls or women. (Fisher and Greenberg, 1985)
The idea of defense mechanisms fared better. People do indeed use self-
Many therapists accept the idea of repressed memories brought to consciousness in therapy, resulting in relief to the patient. This is the goal of the cathartic method, which we will discuss in the Therapies chapter.
Freud originally developed that idea along with Breuer in the 1880s. However, as discussed on the page about repression, Freud later changed his theory and decided memories of sexual abuse in childhood were not real incidents but id-generated phantasies.
Perhaps the most devastating criticism of Freud is that the part of his work he thought was most important, the sexual theory, receives the least support from research evidence. Such ideas as phantasies of the id, unconscious repression of id impulses, and lustful or murderous impulses toward parents are hard to justify in evolutionary terms, and they lack research support.
Fisher, S. & Greenberg, R. P. (1985). The Scientific Credibility of Freud's Theories and Therapy. New York: Columbia University Press.
MacKinnon, D. & Dukes, W. F. (1962). Repression. In L. Postman (Ed.), Psychology in the Making. (pp. 662-744). New York: Knopf.
Write to Dr. Dewey at email@example.com.