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Freud: Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex

July 13, 2021

This isn’t a comprehensive treatment or a deep reading of Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. It’s basically the notes I took on things that stood out to me during my reading, to provide a context and something to refer back to. I have the 1995 Modern Library Edition of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, which is a compilation of several works. Page numbers are from that.

The first topic we read about is “inversion,” which seems to be Freud’s categorization of same-sex attraction, whether absolute, “ambiguous” (or “psychosexually hermaphroditic”), or occasional (page 522). Some of Freud’s takes are no doubt out of fashion, but to be honest, many of his views are similar to mine as I have them today, if I can admit that. Not that I’m an expert, of course. But he says that “inversion” doesn’t seem to be “degenerate,” mainly because it quite often shows up in otherwise completely “normal” people and can vary in other cultures where it sometimes serves important functions (523-24). So far so good, for the most part.

When Freud gets to the question of whether same-sex attraction is innate, I find his analysis reasonably sophisticated. He notes that many people report never feeling anything but their “inversion,” providing some evidence for it being congenital. He also notes that many such people have had certain experiences, early or later in life, that may have affected their sexual development, though it’s hard to use that as definitive evidence because many with similar experiences don’t turn out “inverted.” He does say that treatment “may remove the inversion,” which would cast doubt on it being congenital. In the end, though, Freud concludes that “the alternatives congenital and acquired are either incomplete or do not cover the circumstances.” (524-25). I share that conclusion, at least. My view is that just because being gay may be at least partly acquired, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily something that someone chooses.

Moving on to other topics, we get to one of Freud’s themes: the struggle of between our inner and outer selves. That the sexual instinct is natural (Camille Paglia might call it chthonic), but its natural chaotic energy is channeled by society and culture towards “accepted normal limits” via shame and loathing before maturity. This struggle is necessary for society to function, but it sometimes results in the side effects of neuroses or “perversions” (540).

Our adult sexuality is the result of aspects of our nature that are influenced by our environment, leading to “perversion” or “normal” sexuality, and to varied sexual desires. There is something congenital in our perversions, but it is something congenital in all of us, and only goes sideways when our predisposition is met with certain influences (546).

Sexual inhibition: During our sexual latency period (beginning at around maybe 5 or 6 and through puberty), we develop the psychic forces of loathing, shame, and moral and “esthetic ideal demands” that are reinforced by education, but education only “imprints” what is organic more deeply (551).

Sexual inhibition leads to sublimation of sexual aims to other aims, which furnishes “powerful components for all cultural accomplishments” (552).

Young children who witness sex between adults will see it as a “maltreating or overpowering”, or that it “impresses them in a sadistic sense” (564) This is called the ‘primal scene” by Freud according to google and maybe Paglia, but he must use that term elsewhere if at all.

Masculine and feminine: the “libido” is part of the masculine nature, whether in a man or a woman; the sexual object of libido can be either “male or female” (580).

There are three ways senses in which we can distinguish “masculine” and “feminine.” First, in terms of activity or passivity. Second, biologically: meaning both the primary and secondary physical characteristics. And third, sociologically: everyone shows a mix of masculine and feminine traits, activity and passivity, and biological characteristics–no one is purely masculine or feminine, speaking sociologically. The sociological sense seems very much like what we talk about as gender these days (580n3).

An interesting note: a central position in analysis for the Oedipus complex is the “shibboleth” that distinguishes Freudian psychoanalysis from other approaches, Freud says (585).

Girls may respond to the conflict between a need for affection and the “horror for the real demands of sexual life” by either idealizing sexual love or displacing their libido as affection by clinging to family members as the object of their affection (586). Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what this means. My best guess is that girls who don’t develop a proper relationship to sex may either become promiscuous or devote more attention to the nonsexual love of family members?

Since boys and girls are friends with the same sex while young, why isn’t everyone gay? For one, sexual attraction to the opposite sex. But where being gay is not “a crime,” many people are gay. For a man, the tenderness of his mother and other female caretakers help in being attracted to women, and “sexual intimidation” and “rivalry” with the father push the boy away from same-sex attraction. For the girl, “both factors also hold true.” What does that mean? That girls would naturally like women like boys do? Also, boys brought up by boys “seems to favor homosexuality”, for examples see the Greeks and the nobility (587-88). If Freud was coherent in his own mind here, he didn’t express it perfectly. But I’m happy to forgive him, since we don’t have answers that are much better even today.

Sexual “perversions” seem to arise from inhibited development, or becoming fixated at an infantile level of sexual development (588).

More on sublimation. It can often lead to great artistic activity and enhanced mental capacity, which also means that highly productive artistic people will be more likely to show sexual perversions and neuroses (593).

A large part of a person’s “character” is sublimation of various aspects of sexuality, for example being anally fixated can go along with “obstinacy, stinginess, and orderliness,” and ambition can signal being “urethral”, which some googling says is also called being phallic (593-94 and 594n1).

Sexual development and its character effects are the result of a combination of “constitutional predispositions” and “accidental experiences” in childhood and later (594). A mix of nature and nurture.

“Sexual prematurity” is an early, probably too-early, sexual experience and can run with premature intellectual development and productivity, in which cases it may not have pathological effects (595).

From → Paglia Project

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