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Psychoanalysis - Infantile Sexuality And The Oedipus Complex

child freud development female

This was so because of infantile sexuality, the discovery of which Freud was led to by his abandonment of the seduction theory. Freud's original theory of traumatic seduction as a two-phase process—in which the initial seduction was experienced passively, often without any traumatic significance, and registered only as traumatic and repressed as a result of a later event (often without sexual significance), typically during adolescence—prepared the way for Freud to understand the sexual desires (and autoerotic activities) of infants, which were themselves uninhibited until their repression at the time of the Oedipus crisis, and which were concealed behind the fantasies of seduction.

According to Freud, the establishment and eventual destruction of the Oedipus complex was the necessary, biologically determined culmination of the infant's progress through the psychosexual phases of development, and his initiation into the object world (the social order). These phases—oral, anal, genital, and phallic—were characterized by the development of the child's capacity for libidinal satisfaction (through the discharge of tension) from primitive autoerotism to object- (person-) oriented love, as well as the child's increasing psychic complexity. Each of these phases was rooted in the infant's physiological development, as well as in the development of the infant's relation to the world. The oral phase was modeled on the importance of eating, and the infant's relationship to its mother through the incorporation and refusal of her breast; the anal phase centered on the infant's struggles for control over bodily functions, as well as for autonomy from his or her parents; and the genital and phallic phases involved the discovery first of genital satisfaction, then satisfaction through others, and later of symbolic satisfactions outside one's own body.

Freud emphasized the psychological importance of the infant's first tie from birth (or before) with its mother, a quasi-symbiotic unity that gave way in stages to differentiation and autonomy. This tie to the mother was primary irrespective of gender, but left the child of each gender with a different imperative. For the male child, in order to reproduce, and in obedience to the incest taboo, he needed to give up his tie to and desire for his mother in favor of other, female objects. For the female child, she must give up her attachment to female objects altogether.

Around three to five years of age, in consequence of his approach and attainment of genital sexuality (which is also to say, object-related sexuality), the child experiences sexual desire for his parents. In the positive Oedipal situation, the male child feels desire toward his mother, and jealously regards the father as a rival; Freud assumed that most children had direct knowledge of this rivalry through witness of the primal scene of intercourse, either between their parents, or from another source (such as the sight of animal copulation). Freud also assumed that the child had by this time become aware of the anatomical difference between the sexes, and from this discovery, inferred the threat (or in the case of the female, the fantasized "fact") of castration—the loss of the penis as punishment for his incestuous wishes.

The conjoining in his mind of these factors, of his rivalry with his father for his mother's love and the threat of castration, awakened in the male child an intense anxiety, and set in motion the repression of the child's incestuous desires, and a subsequent switch in identification from the now dangerous mother to the powerful and punishing father. Significantly, the male child did not at the same time renounce his sexual desire for the opposite sex.

As a result of the dramatic repression of the Oedipus complex, the child unconsciously internalized the Oedipal situation, and especially the punitive idea of the father, as a way to ensure continued protection from castration. These new internalized others collectively became the new superego, which henceforth governed the child's object-oriented actions, and superintended his sense of morality.

In the female child, the discovery of the "reality" of her castration led to penis envy, and with it a hatred of her mother, a sense of rageful betrayal at having been left unmade, unfinished. In her anger, Freud postulated that she would turn toward the father, and seek from him a penis—his penis—and later a baby.

Freud believed a girl's sexuality was initially dominated by her clitoris, her "little penis." Only with the move to vaginal sexuality was a woman's sexual maturation complete. Freud himself, however, remained unconvinced as to the motives for this change.

The "phallocentric" nature of the Oedipus complex had far-reaching consequences for female development. Without the threat of castration, the girl's movement toward heterosexual object choice is not characterized by the same intensity of repression as the male's, and consequently, Freud believed, the superego development that was the legacy of the Oedipus complex was less developed.

Freud also suggested the presence in both genders of a negative Oedipus complex, involving the opposite series of identifications. In the male child, the father became the object of his (passive) sexual desire, fostering a sense of identification with his mother who was the father's sexual object. This constellation, too, required repression, and if this was insufficiently accomplished, Freud believed, it could serve as an important foundation for homosexual object choice.

Much of the rationale for the Oedipal struggle is rooted in the sexual, animal child's acceptance of the moral order of "civilized" culture, and it is often on this basis that it is criticized. Nevertheless, Freud believed that the Oedipus stage was central, not only because of its implications for the infant's psycho-sexual development, but also because it marked the infant's attainment of human subjectivity. With the Oedipus conflict the child also attained the capacity for "triadic relationships" (in which the child was able to regard others not simply from her own frame of reference, but as existing outside of and independent of her needs and wishes—and hence different from and at odds with her own) and with it the complex capacity for symbolism that was the precondition for language and for thought itself, as well as for the free association that was at the heart of analytic work.

In later years, many aspects of the Oedipus theory have received critical scrutiny. Emphasizing pre-Oedipal aspects of childhood development, female sexuality, and the degree to which the Oedipus complex was ever really abolished, many theorists have revised and extended the conception of the Oedipus complex and how it is used in clinical practice in the early twenty-first century.

Among the most vital of these contributions have been those of Hans W. Loewald, who came to regard the Oedipal conflict as an unending struggle perpetuated in the superego against the internalized imagos (unconscious representatives) of one's parents. Equally important are contributions from Karen Horney, Jessica Benjamin, and others, which emphasize the differences in female sexual development from those of the male, and question the central importance of the castration complex for girls. Other recent theorists, such as Arlene Kramer Richards, have emphasized the importance of female genital anxieties as a distinct influence on female psychosexual development, thereby further questioning the role of penis envy in the psychology of women.

Psychoanalysis - Later Revisions: Mourning, Narcissism, And The Beginnings Of Object Relations [next] [back] Psychoanalysis - Psychoanalytic Theory Of Mind

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