A Middlesex University resource by Laura Leland
home page for
science home page to
Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide
home page

Was my son's `baby' erection sexual? It is according to Sigmund Freud. In his book `An Outline of Psycho-Analysis', Freud maintains that

"Sexual life does not begin only at puberty, but starts with plain manifestations soon after birth." (Freud 1938 par.3.2).

In this essay I will discuss the relationship between sexuality, gender, personality and society in the work of Freud. My starting point will be infantile sexuality with its three sexual phases. I will discuss Freud's concepts of the id and the ego, then how the super-ego develops out of the Oedipus Complex.

I will concentrate on the theme of sexuality, but will argue that it underpins and impacts on gender, personality and society in the work of Freud. I will argue that Freud seems to define a girl's sexuality only in relation to that of a boy and how this concept was a product of its time. I will refer to two main works by Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938) and The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex (1924). I also refer, in passing, to a number of his essays on sexuality.

infantile sexuality

Freud's ideas on sexuality were extremely controversial when he was writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He saw the prevailing view of sexuality as a narrow one:

"an endeavour to bring one's own genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex ... This endeavour is supposed to make its appearance at puberty." (Freud 1938 par.3.1)

He found this common definition of sexuality too limiting. Through his psychoanalytic work, he discovered that the neuroses and hysteria of his patients had their origins in sexual desires and impulses. He set out to trace the course of development of the sexual instinct in human beings, which he believed began in infancy then passed through a regular process of increase. This continued towards the end of the fifth year, when progress stopped, until advancing once more with puberty. Freud wrote that

"sexual life is diphasic, that it occurs in two waves"

and that during the period of latency

"much is unlearnt and there is much recession." (Freud 1938 par.3.3a)

Freud divides the sexuality of early childhood into three distinct phases: the oral phase, the anal phase and the phallic phase. It seems obvious that babies start their lives with an oral phase. Babies put everything into their mouths. It is the way they explore the world. As the mother of three children, I know that babies do not just suckle at the breast for nourishment. I had always felt that my children carried on sucking at the breast after they had fed simply for comfort. A feeling of comfort can be a pleasurable one. Freud says that a baby's persistence in sucking shows evidence of a need for satisfaction, and although it originates from a need for nourishment, the baby

"nevertheless strives to obtain pleasure independently of nourishment and for that reason may and should be termed sexual." (Freud 1938 par.3.4).

Is this the reason why in our society we expect breast-feeding mothers to hide themselves away? Female Members of Parliament are still fighting for the right to breastfeed in that bastion of male authority, the House of Commons. If Freud is right then perhaps it could be argued that our male MPs find their authority threatened by a breastfeeding woman.

The second phase is the anal phase, which Freud calls the sadistic-anal phase. He says that the sadistic impulses that have occurred with the appearance of the teeth develop,

"because satisfaction is then sought in aggression and in the excretory function." (Freud 1938 par.3.5).

Does this mean that Freud sees the excretory act as an aggressive act?

The third phase is the phallic phase, and Freud thinks that this is

"a forerunner of the final form taken by sexual life" (Freud 1938 par.3.6).

He thought that after the phallic phase children fell victim to what he called `infantile amnesia', repressing all but a few memories of their early sexual life, which, through the Oedipus complex and the development of the super-ego, formed the unconscious mind.

a theory of the mind

Freud's theory of sexuality led him to develop a theory of the mind. He divided the structure of the mind into three parts, which he calls the id, the ego and the super-ego.

Freud describes the id as the part of the personality that

"contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth ... the instincts" (Freud 1938 par.1.3).

It is the repository of an individual's sexual and aggressive instincts - the basic human drives. The demands of the id are almost primitive in their simplicity and can be illustrated by the example of a newborn baby, who only wants to feel warm and well fed. He wants to be comforted and satisfied by his mother's breast, with the pleasurable, sexual feelings that Freud thinks this brings. The baby wants all this satisfaction immediately and cries until he gets it. Freud had written previously about the `pleasure principle', and this is what the id is ruled by. It demands instant gratification.

The baby eventually works out that gratification is not always immediate and when this happens the ego comes into being. The ego

"acts as an intermediary between the id and the external world" (Freud 1938 par.1.4).

In other words, a kind of `go-between', repressing the id's inappropriate urges and desires, seeking pleasure whilst avoiding pain. It becomes aware of stimuli from the external world then stores these experiences up as memory, so that, for example, we will know when either `fight or flight' is the best option. The ego is governed by the `reality principle'. The third part of the mind (according to the structural theory), the super- ego, develops as a result of the child going through the `Oedipus complex' in the course of his sexual development.

Freud used the Greek mythological story of Oedipus to illustrate his ideas of the `love triangle' that exists in early childhood. According to Freud, the boy child is so in love with his mother that he becomes jealous of his father. This brings him into conflict with his father; his urge is to kill him and take his place. During the phallic phase, boys become aware that they possess a penis. When they realise that touching it feels good, they

"manipulate it frequently" and then find out that "adults do not approve of this behaviour." (Freud 1924 par.5)

Freud thinks it is at this point that the boy's mother threatens him with castration. In order to strengthen her authority, the mother says that the father will carry out the punishment. However, Freud believes that the threat of castration does not make sense to the boy unless something else happens at the same time: the sight of the genitals of a little girl. Somebody who is just like him in so many ways but with one major difference: her penis is missing. On seeing a naked girl,

"the loss of his own penis becomes imaginable, and the threat of castration takes its deferred effect." (Freud 1924 par.7)

By accepting the possibility of castration, the child realises that the Oedipus complex will cost him his penis, and because he has a

"narcissistic interest in that part of his body ... the child's ego turns away from the Oedipus complex." (Freud 1924 par.8)

The unconscious resolution of the conflict with his father results in the development of the super-ego. It is the result of the child internalising the parental authority figure, in this case the father, as part of himself.

"The super-ego is in fact the heir to the Oedipus complex and is only established after that complex has been disposed of." (Freud 1938 par.9.2b).

It is affected by parental influence, which includes

"not only the personalities of the actual parents but also the family, racial and national traditions handed on through them." (Freud 1938 par.1.7b).

It also receives `contributions' from parent substitutes, such as teachers and other role models. We may call these factors `social conditioning'. Freud says that the super-ego acts as our conscience - it is the aspect of mental functioning that has to do with morality. This is reflected in society, with laws existing that may be seen as limiting our pursuit of (id) pleasure but at the same time encouraging order and morality.

daddy's girlfriend

Originally Freud only talked of the Oedipus complex in terms of boys, but he needed to explain the super-ego in girls as well. In his essay The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex (Freud 1924), Freud writes that girls too, develop an Oedipus complex, though it is of a much simpler variety than that which boys experience. He writes that

"it seldom goes beyond the taking of her mother's place and the adopting of a feminine attitude towards her father." (Freud 1924 par.13)

Freud maintains that a girl's Oedipus complex

"culminates in a desire ... to receive a baby from her father as a gift - to bear him a child." (Freud 1924 par.13)

The way a little girl behaves with her father could be construed as a `dry run' for her later sexual relationships with men, with the affectionate term `Daddy's girl' just a shortened form of `Daddy's girlfriend'. Indeed, Freud writes that the wish to possess a penis and the wish to bear a child

"remain strongly cathected in the unconscious and help to prepare the female creature for her later sexual role." (Freud 1924 par.13)

Freud believed that girls also experience a castration complex. When comparing her genitals to those of her brother, a little girl thinks that she has been badly done by and feels inferior to him. She assumes that she once possessed a penis and then `lost it by castration'. Freud says that this is an essential difference between the sexes, because

"the girl accepts castration as an accomplished fact, whereas the boy fears the possibility of its occurrence." (Freud 1924 par.12b)

Does this mean that a little girl views her vagina as the scar left behind from her castrated penis?

heavily attacked

Some aspects of Freud's theory have been heavily attacked in recent times, particularly `penis envy', which infuriated feminists. In `An Outline of Psychoanalysis' Freud writes that when a girl recognises the lack of a penis and the inferiority of her clitoris, this has

"permanent effects on the development of her character" (Freud 1938 par.3.7).

Does this mean that from this moment on girls will always feel inferior to boys? Why should we assume that having a clitoris instead of a penis disadvantages girls? Is it not just the freedom a boy has to stand and urinate that invites penis envy in little girls? However, it could be argued that Freud was explaining a cultural phenomenon; that of women's inferior position in society, in terms of his theory of the developing mind.

Another problematic theory was that of child abuse. In his original clinical practice, Freud treated many women who were suffering from hysteria. His work with them led him to believe that they had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their fathers. Predictably, this provoked a huge outcry. However, this lead Freud to develop the idea that the abuse had not really happened, but was a fantasy - that girls fantasised about replacing their mothers and having a sexual relationship with their fathers. This is one of the origins of him developing the idea of the Oedipus complex.

to conclude

To conclude, I return to the image of my son as a baby. There was something in my child that was similar to an adult man and, according to Freud, this was because his sexual life was beginning and it can continue to be mapped out right through his life. The pleasurable feelings he was experiencing can be termed sexual.

Freud's theory of sexuality led him to develop his theory of the mind. The id, ego and super-ego are all aspects of the developing personality. The id is the receptacle of the most basic human instincts: sexuality and aggression. These develop from the pleasure of the oral phase and the satisfaction of defecation during the anal phase. The ego `polices' the inappropriate instincts of the id.

"An action by the ego is as it should be if it satisfies simultaneously the demands of the id, of the super-ego and of reality ..." (Freud 1938 par.1.7a).

The super-ego then develops as a product of the Oedipus complex. This is when boys and girls become aware of the difference in their genitals. Freud refers to penis envy as one aspect of the growing awareness of gender difference, and this theory has been criticised. However, it is possible to imagine small children responding to a difference in their physiology, which is interpreted by the society in which they live as either inferior or superior.

Freud sees the super-ego as taking up

"a kind of intermediate position between the id and the external world; it unites in itself the influences of the present and the past." (Freud 1938 par.9.3).

The unconscious internalisation of parental authority shapes how we behave in, and react to, the society in which we live.

The development of Freud's theories over his lifetime was due to both the attacks of his critics and his clinical experience. He was able to develop his ideas while the central core of them remained valid. I would argue that many of his theories are still valid and workable today.


Freud, S. 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Freud, S. 1924 The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex

Freud, S. 1931 Female Sexuality

Freud, S. 1938 An Outline of Psycho-Analysis

Essay copyright Laura Leland 2002

Suggested bibliography entry:

Leland, Laura 2002 Beautiful Baby, available on the Middlesex University Web at http://studymore.org.uk/xleland.htm

with in-text references to (Leland, L. 2002).

ABC Referencing includes general advice on referencing internet sources as well as printed sources.

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

click on the children
playing to see what Freud thought