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Sigmund Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”

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Sigmund Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, written in 1905, attempted to trace the course of the development of the sexual instinct in human beings from infancy to maturity. This instinct is not simply an animal instinct but is specific to both human culture and the form of conscious and unconscious life we live within it. For Freud sexuality is infinitely complicated and far-reaching in its effects and forms the basis of self-identity and interactions. His Third Essay discusses the transformations of puberty in both males and females. Part four of this essay focuses on the differentiation between male and female sexuality. Freud states in this part that ‘as far as the autoerotic and masturbatory manifestations of sexuality are concerned the sexuality of little girls is of a wholly masculine character’ . This paper will attempt to identify the assumptions that lead Freud to this contention, whilst also providing an assessment of Freud’s account of the distinctions between ‘active and passive’ and ‘masculine and feminine’.

Freud begins his discussion by noting that while it is true that masculine and feminine dispositions are already easily recognisable in childhood, it is not until puberty that a sharp distinction may be drawn between the two sexual characters. Freud identifies in young girls a tendency to sexual repression to a greater degree than is found in little boys. Young girls also tend to develop inhibitions to sexuality, the negative repressive emotions such as shame, disgust and pity, at an earlier stage than little boys and submit to these emotions with less resistance. According to Freud, little girls prefer the passive form of sexual gratification in relation to the compound erotogenic zones identified in infantile sexuality. Having noted this, however, Freud contends that infantile autoerotic activity and the erotogenic zones are the same in both sexes. Therefore, sexuality in little girls and in little boys is essentially the same. He then states that the libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature regardless of the sex in which it occurs and the object to which it is directed.

To understand this point it is necessary to first discuss Freud’s distinction between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. He clarifies in the footnote to the above statement as to the character of the libido that there are three popular uses of the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which he lists as ‘active/passive’, ‘biological’ and ‘sociological’. Freud’s use relates to the first distinction. He underlines the point that libido is described as being ‘masculine’, in that it is ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ in its aim, which is the seeking of an object. This can be understood to mean that instinct always initiates activity even if that activity is passive in nature. In this way it is clear that Freud views ‘masculine’ to be analogous to ‘active’, whilst ‘feminine’ is ‘passive’ in nature.

Freud’s notion of the innate bisexuality of human beings, discussed in his First Essay, which posits the bisexual nature of all human beings possessing anatomical and psychical traces of the opposite sex , denotes that masculine and feminine characteristics may be found in varying degrees in all human beings. This is important to an understanding of the sexual manifestations that are actually observed in men and women. By stating that the auto-erotic and masturbatory sexual nature of little girls is of a wholly masculine nature, Freud is thus contending that the sexual nature of little girls is active, unlike the sexual nature of post-pubertal girls, which undergoes a kind of transformation to become predominantly passive. The leading erotogenic zone in female children, Freud contends, is ‘located at the clitoris, and thus homologous to the masculine genital zone of the glans penis’ . Early masturbation in little girls is related to the clitoris and not to the external genitalia. Sexual excitement in little girls is expressed in spasms of the clitoris. This allows, Freud states, the little girl to form a correct judgement of the sexual manifestations of the other sex.

It is at puberty that the sexual nature of girls becomes feminine, that is, passive or receptive. Puberty for girls is marked by a fresh wave of repression in which it is precisely clitoral sexuality that is affected, thus overtaking the heretofore-active nature of a little girl’s sexuality, and replacing it with a passive non-clitoral leading sexual zone focused on the vaginal orifice. The clitoris retains a role in sexual excitement but its task is in transmitting the excitation to the adjacent female sexual parts and is not the primary sexual zone as experienced in boys.

Before women can transfer their leading zone from the clitoris to the external genitalia an interval must occur during which the young woman is anaesthetic, that is unresponsive sexually. This period occurs at the very time that the pubertal male libido is growing and seeking a sexual object. The pubertal repression of females acts as a kind of stimulus to the libido of men and causes an increase in its activity. The repression of pubertal girls leads the male libido to a sexual overvaluation of its chosen object, which is unobtainable. When a woman has successfully transferred the erotogenic zone from the clitoris to the vaginal orifice, it implies that she has adopted a new leading zone for the purposes of her later sexual activity. This is in contrast to the male erotogenic zone, which remains unchanged from childhood. Freud notes that it is precisely this transference of leading erotogenic zone together with the wave of repression at puberty, which leaves females open to a greater susceptibility to neurosis and especially to hysteria. It is these determinants, therefore, that Freud identifies as intimately related to the essence of femininity.

In his lecture entitled Femininity, Freud comments on the difficulties of equating active sexual aims with masculinity and passive ones with femininity since both men and women can take up both positions – active or passive – towards any object of desire. He does, at this later stage, however, restate that ‘the little girl is a little man’ , referring to the fact that girls masturbate at this stage using their clitoris. This statement seems to reflect Freud’s attempts to re-define ‘activity’ as ‘masculinity’, in either sex. Given that Freud is discussing variances in the normal path of male and female sexual development and that he posits the innate bisexuality of all human beings, who possess varying degrees of active and passive qualities through to maturity, seems to require a more careful use of terminology and one less likely to create confusion and value judgements (i.e. masculine/active – culturally positive, feminine/passive – culturally negative).

There is another aspect to Freud’s evaluation of the sexual development path of women in this Femininity paper, which seems to be conspicuously absent in his Third Essay. The role of society and cultural custom in demanding the passive position of women, whereby repression of active sexuality in women is culturally acceptable, while conversely active sexuality is culturally frowned upon. In this paper, Freud states that his interest in female sexual development is not to describe what a woman is or should be but ‘how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition’ . The passive nature of post-pubertal feminine sexuality is not biologically determined but seems rather to be culturally influenced. Freud’s attempts to describe the development of feminine sexuality and the use of his terminology seems to gloss over this point and ascribe biological determinates to affirm a woman’s role within society.

Femininity, according to Freud’s model, is based on a destabilising fundamental shift in erogenous zone in the post-pubertal woman, which leaves her vulnerable, if not prone to mental instability and repression. I am inclined to question the emphasis placed by Freud on the leading erotogenic zone as a stabilising factor of human identity. Given Freud’s blatantly phallocentric bias, his conclusion is not unexpected. However, connected with the earlier critique of the use of the term ‘masculine/active’, ‘feminine/passive’, the judgement of the female model reveals an inferior repressed product which is only capable of producing neurotic symptoms, and who is unable or unlikely to achieve a ‘normal’, stable emotional existence.

Regardless of these concerns, Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretation of culture is revolutionary in that it brings the physical body into the public sphere where it can be discussed openly. He ‘debunks the idealist notion of high culture as the alleged transcendence of baser concerns’ . It places these ‘baser concerns’ at the apex of human identity and cultural interactions, and is thus a revolutionary theory that requires extensive re-evaluation and critique in the formulation of an understanding of human identity and femininity for contemporary feminists.


Freud, S. ([1905], 1977), Third Essay: The Transformations of Puberty in
Three Essay on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood Australia.

Freud, S. ([1905], 1977), First Essay: Sexual Aberrations in Three Essay on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood Australia.

Freud, S. ([c.1938], 2003), Femininity in CLS2950: Freud and Feminism 2003, Course Dossier

Minsky, R. (1996), Psychoanalysis and Gender: An Introductory Reader, Routledge, London, UK.

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