SIGMUND FREUD began his researches into the workings of the human mind in 1881, after a century during which Europe and America saw the reform of the insane asylum and an ever-increasing interest in "abnormal" psychological states, especially the issue of "nervous diseases" (which was the first phenomenon that Freud studied, examining the nervous system of fish while gaining his medical degree at the University of Vienna from 1873 to 1881). Freud turned to the issue of psychology after reading in 1884 about Breuer's treatment of hysteria by hypnosis and after studying under Charcot at the Sorbonne in 1885. Freud faced opposition and even ridicule for many of his ideas until a group of young doctors began to follow him to Vienna in 1902, leading to the creation of the Viennese Psycho-Analytic Society and, then later in 1910, the formation of the International Psycho-Analytic Association.

Although he often distinguished his ideas from medicine and biology, Freud was especially interested in establishing a scientific basis for his theories and, so, he often turned to biological models in order to underline the empirical basis for what were, by necessity, subjective interpretations of apparently illogical and certainly multivalent symbols (for example, in his analysis of dreams). In A Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (First Lecture), Freud confesses of the difficulties faced by a psychoanalytical critic at the turn of the twentieth century: no empirical evidence; a reliance on the spoken word, because of the talking cure; the extremely personal (because barbaric) nature of sexual drives, which therefore resist exposure (hence the notion of the unconscious); and civilization's "natural" antipathy to the revelation of the instinctive pleasures that we continually sacrifice for the common good (15.15-24).

Despite these caveats, Freud was, indeed, drawn by scientific models for his theories. Although Freud's main concern was with "sexual desire," he understood desire in terms of formative drives, instincts, and appetites that "naturally" determined one's behaviors and beliefs, even as we continually repress those behaviors and beliefs. (As a young student in Vienna, Freud was, in fact, especially fascinated by Charles Darwin's theories of evolution.) Following a biological logic, if you will, Freud therefore established a rigid model for the "normal" sexual development of the human subject, what he terms the "libido development." Here, then, is your story, as told by Freud, with the ages provided as very rough approximations since Freud often changed his mind about the actual dates of the various stages and also acknowledged that development varied between individuals. Stages can even overlap or be experienced simultaneously.

0-2 years of age. Early in your development, all of your desires were oriented towards your lips and your mouth, which accepted food, milk, and anything else you could get your hands on (the oral phase). The first object of this stage was, of course, the mother's breast, which could be transferred to auto-erotic objects (thumb-sucking). The mother thus logically became your first "love-object," already a displacement from the earlier object of desire (the breast). When you first recognized the fact of your father, you dealt with him by identifying yourself with him; however, as the sexual wishes directed to your mother grew in intensity, you became possessive of your mother and secretly wished your father out of the picture (the Oedipus complex). This Oedipus complex plays out throughout the next two phases of development.

2-4 years of age. Following the oral phase, you entered the sadistic-anal phase, which is split between active and passive impulses: the impulse to mastery on the one hand, which can easily become cruelty; the impulse to scopophilia (love of gazing), on the other hand. This phase was roughly coterminous with a new auto-erotic object: the rectal orifice (hence, the term "sadistic-anal phase"). According to Freud, the child's pleasure in defecation is connected to his or her pleasure in creating something of his or her own, a pleasure that for women is later transferred to child-bearing.

4-7 years of age. Finally, you entered the phallic phase, when the penis (or the clitoris, which, according to Freud, stands for the penis in the young girl) become your primary object-cathexis. In this stage, the child becomes fascinated with urination, which is experienced as pleasurable, both in its expulsion and retention. The trauma connected with this phase is that of castration, which makes this phase especially important for the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Over this time, you began to deal with your separation anxieties (and your all-encompassing egoism) by finding symbolic ways of representing and thus controlling the separation from (not to mention your desire for) your mother. You also learned to defer bodily gratification when necessary. In other words, your ego became trained to follow the reality-principle and to control the pleasure-principle, although this ability would not be fully attained until you passed through the latency period. In resolving the Oedipus complex, you also began to identify either with your mother or your father, thus determining the future path of your sexual orientation. That identification took the form of an "ego-ideal," which then aided the formation of your "super-ego": an internalization of the parental function (which Freud usually associated with the father) that eventually manifested itself in your conscience (and sense of guilt).

7-12 years of age. Next followed a long "latency period" during which your sexual development was more or less suspended and you concentrated on repressing and sublimating your earlier desires and thus learned to follow the reality-principle. During this phase, you gradually freed yourself from your parents (moving away from the mother and reconciling yourself with your father) or by asserting your independence (if you responded to your incestuous desires by becoming overly subservient to your father). You also moved beyond your childhood egoism and sacrificed something of your own ego to others, thus learning how to love others.

13 years of age onward (or from puberty on). Your development over the latency period allowed you to enter the final genital phase. At this point, you learned to desire members of the opposite sex and to fulfill your instinct to procreate and thus ensure the survival of the human species.

To explain the early psycho-drama of your childhood, Freud turned to a dramatic work, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus (who, according to a prophecy, is fated to sleep with his mother and kill his father) attempts to escape his fate but, in the process, unwittingly does the very things he was attempting to avoid. Freud therefore coined the term, the Oedipus complex. One should note that anyone can get arrested at or insufficiently grow out of any of the primal stages, leading to various symptoms in one's adult life. (See fixation and regression.)

One thing "you" have surely noticed is the decidedly masculine bent of Freud's story of sexual development. Indeed, Freud often had difficulty incorporating female desire into his theories, leading to his famous, unanswered question: "what does a woman want?" As Freud states late in life, "psychology too is unable to solve the riddle of femininity" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.116). It is for this reason that many feminists have criticized Freud's ideas and one reason why many feminists interested in psychoanalysis have turned instead to Kristeva. (See also Gender and Sex.) To explain women, Freud argued that young girls followed more or less the same psychosexual development as boys. Indeed, he argues paradoxically that "the little girl is a little man" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.118) and that the entrance into the phallic phase occurs for the young girl through her "penis-equivalent," the clitoris. In fact, according to Freud, the young girl, also experiences the castration-complex, with the difference that her tendency is to be a victim of what Freud terms "penis-envy," a desire for a penis as large as a man's. After this stage, according to Freud, the woman has an extra stage of development when "the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.118). According to Freud, the young girl must also at some point give up her first object-choice (the mother and her breast) in order to take the father as her new proper object-choice. Her eventual move into heterosexual femininity, which culminates in giving birth, grows out of her earlier infantile desires, with her own child now taking "the place of the penis in accordance with an ancient symbolic equivalence" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.128).

Sigmund Freud in conversation with the archaeologist
Emanuel Loewy, 1932 Vienna, courtesy of the Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna
(If you can't see the movie, try clicking here.)


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Freud: On Psychosexual Development." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.







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