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Sexual Difference

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The phrase "sexual difference", which has come into prominence in the debate between psychoanalysis and feminism, is not part of Freud's or Lacan's theoretical vocabulary.

Freud speaks only of the anatomical distinction between the sexes and its psychical consequences.[1]

Lacan speaks of sexual position and the sexual relationship, and occasionally of the differentiation of the sexes.[2]

However, both Freud and Lacan address the question of sexual difference, and an entry has been included for this term because it brings together an import set of related themes in Lacan's work, and because it constitutes an important focus for feminist approaches to Lacan's work.

Freud on Sexual Difference

One of the basic presuppositions underlying Freud's work is that just as there are certain physical differences between men and women, so also there are psychical differences.

In other words, there are certain psychical characteristics that can be called 'masculine' and others that can be called 'feminine.'

Rather than trying to give any formal definition of these terms, Freud limits himself to describing how a human subject comes to acquire masculine or feminine psychical characteristics.

This is not an instinctual or natural process, but a complex one in which anatomical differences interact with social and psychical factors.

The whole process revolves around the castration complex, in which the boy fears being deprived of his penis and the girl, assuming that she has already been deprived of hers, develops penis envy.

Lacan on Sexual Difference

Following Freud, Lacan also engages with the problem of how the human infant becomes a sexed subject.

For Lacan, masculinity and femininity are not biological essences but symbolic positions, and the assumption of one of these two positions is fundamental to the construction of subjectivity; the subject is essentially a sexed subject.

"Man" and "woman" are signifiers that stand for these two subjective positions.[3]

Becoming a Sexed Subject

For both Freud and Lacan, the child is at first ignorant of sexual difference and so cannot take up a sexual position.

It is only when the child discovers sexual difference in the castration complex that he can begin to take up a sexual position.

Both Freud and Lacan see this process of taking up a sexual position as closely connected with the Oedipus complex, but they differ on the precise nature of the connection.

For Freud, the subject's sexual position is determined by the sex of the parent with whom the subject identifies in the Oedipus complex (if the subject identifies with the father, he takes up a masculine position; identification with the mother entails the assumption of a feminine position).

For Lacan, however, the Oedipus complex always involves a symbolic identification with the Father, and hence Oedipus identification cannot determine sexual position.

According to Lacan, then, it is not identification but the subject's relationship with the phallus which determines sexual position.

"Having" or "Not Having" the Phallus

This relationship can either be one of "having" or "not having"; men have the symbolic phallus, and women don't (or, to be more precise, men are "not without having it" [ils ne sont pas sans l'avoir]).

The assumption of a sexual position is fundamental a symbolic act, and the difference between the sexes can only be conceived of on the symbolic plane.[4]

It is insofar as the function of man and woman is symbolized, it is insofar as it's literally uprooted from the domain of the imaginary and situated in the domain of the symbolic, that any normal, completed sexual position is realized.[5]

"Am I a man or a woman?"

However, there is no signifier of sexual difference as such which would permit the subject to fully symbolize the function of man and woman, and hence it is impossible to attain a fully "normal, finished sexual position."

The subject's sexual identity is thus always a rather precarious matter, a source of perpetual self-questioning.

The question of one's own sex ("Am I a man or a woman?") is a question which defines hysteria.

The mysterious "other sex" is always the woman, for both men and women, and therefore the question of the hysteric ("What is a woman?") is the same for both male and female hysterics.

No Signifier of Sexual Difference in the Symbolic Order

Although the anatomy/biology of the subject plays a part in the question of which sexual position the subject will take up, it is a fundamental axiom in psychoanalytic theory that anatomy does not determine sexual position.

There is a rupture between the biological aspect of sexual difference (for example at the level of the chromosomes) which is related to the reproductive function of sexuality, and the unconscious, in which this reproductive function is not represented.

Given the non-representation of the reproductive function of sexuality in the unconscious, "in the pysche there is nothing by which the subject may situate himself as a male or female being."[6]

There is no signifier of sexual difference in the symbolic order.

The only sexual signifier is the phallus, and there is no "female" equivalent of this signifier:

"Strictly speaking there is no symbolization of woman's sex as such... the phallus is a symbol to which there is no correspondent, no equivalent. It's a matter of a dissymetry in the signifier."[7]

Hence the phallus is "the pivot which completes in both sexes the questioning of their sex by the castration complex."[8]

Dyammetry between Men and Woman

It is this fundamental dissymmetry in the signifier which leads to the dissymmetry between the Oedipus complex in men and women.

Whereas the male subject desires the parent of the other sex and identifies with the parent of the same sex, the female subject desires the parent of the same sex and "is required to take the image of the other sex as the basis of its identification."[9]

"For a woman the realization of her sex is not accomplished in the Oedipus complex in a way symmetrical to that of the man's, not by identification with the mother, but on the contrary by identification with the paternal object, which assigns her an extra detour."[10]
"This signifying dissymmetry determines the paths down which the Oedipus complex will pass. The two paths make them both pass down the same trail - the trail of castration."[11]

Opposition Masculine-Feminine

If, then, there is no symbol for the opposition masculine-feminine as such, the only way to understand sexual difference is in terms of the opposition activity-passivity.[12]

This polarity is the only way in which the opposition male-female is represented in the psyche, since the biological function of sexuality (reproduction) is not represented.[13]

This is why the question of what one is to do as a man or a woman is a drama which is situated entirely in the field of the Other,[14] which is to say that the subject can only realize his sexuality on the symbolic level.[15]

See Also

References

  1. Freud, Sigmund. "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex." SE XIX, 183. 1925.
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.154
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.34
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.153
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.177
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.204
  7. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.176
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.198
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.176
  10. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.172
  11. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.176
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.192
  13. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.204
  14. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.204
  15. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.170
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.
  2. ——. (1923e). The infantile genital organization (An interpolation into the theory of sexuality). SE, 19: 141-145.
  3. Lacan, Jacques. (1966). "La signification du phallus (Die Bedeutung des Phallus)." Écrits. 685-695. Paris: Le Seuil. (Original work published 1958)