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Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

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Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality was a 1905 work by Sigmund Freud which advanced his theory of sexuality, in particular its relation to childhood. In short, Freud argued that "perversion" was present even among the healthy, and that the path towards a mature and normal sexual attitude began not at puberty but at early childhood (see psychosexual development). Looking at children, Freud claimed to find a number of practices which looked innocuous but were really forms of sexual activity (thumb sucking was a primary example, the implications being fairly obvious). Freud also sought to link his theory of the unconscious put forward in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and his work on hysteria by means of positing sexuality as the driving force of both neuroses (through repression) and perversion. It also included the concepts of penis envy, castration anxiety, and the yet-unnamed Oedipal conflict. This book is ideal for begginers in the area of psychoanalysis


According to James Strachey, the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality should be considered, after The Interpretation of Dreams, to be Sigmund Freud's "most momentous and original contributions to human knowledge" (Freud, 1905d, p. 126). In general, most psychoanalysts would agree. The immediate influence of the Three Essays was profound, and fostered change in the way that people thought, behaved, and learned about sexuality; this influence abides today. Published soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the book's somewhat scandalous profile heightened its impact. Its contentious reputation was not due, in all likelihood, to the first of Freud's three essays, which concerned perversions. Havelock Ellis had discussed sexual aberrations and Freud cited and praised his work; Richard von Krafft-Ebing and others had strived diligently to create a literature concerned with sexual deviations. The medical context of these publications justified their sexual content, and they were received with approbation. Nor did the last of the Three Essays, on "The Transformations of Puberty" seem to provoke much controversy at a time when personal needs, desires, and social practices only underscored the omnipresence of sexuality. Rather, the controversy (and enthusiasm) that greeted Freud's brief volume was primarily due to the second essay, in which he discussed sexuality in infancy and childhood. From a present-day perspective, it is difficult to imagine the vehement reactions provoked by suggesting the existence of infantile sexuality. Indeed, sexuality in infancy and childhood is the central theme of the book. Freud's discussion of adult sexual aberrations links them to unexpected or abnormal events during childhood. He similarly understands puberty as the sum of modifications acting upon infantile sexuality. These ideas were clearly spelled out in the first edition of the Three Essays in 1905. The first essay concerns "The Sexual Aberrations." In his treatment of homosexuality (for which he used the term inversion), Freud disputed and refuted common wisdom that invoked theories of degeneracy or offered innate or "constitutional" factors as explanatory. He acknowledged that such factors may be at the root of the perversions in some cases, but to those must be added the decisive participation of accidental causes—that is, childhood events that affected sexuality. Such events comprise the only available material for psychoanalytic work. In effect, the etiology of neurosis that Freud had previously proposed, as early as 1896 with reference to hysteria, was here reasserted and further developed. Starting from two basic concepts, instinct and object, Freud stated that "it seems probable that the sexual instinct is in the first instance independent of its object" (p. 148). He stressed that one must distinguish between types of perversion, according to whether the sexual anomaly is related to the object (as with homosexuality or zoophilia) or to the aim, that is, to the activities that lead to sexual gratification. Freud discussed homosexuality in this general theoretical context—that is, how, from a developmental standpoint, a person would make either a homosexual or heterosexual object choice, the latter representing as much of a problem as the former. Either path might be taken in consequence of the anatomo-physiologic and psychic bisexuality that characterizes every human being, a hypothesis that Freud explicitly attributed to Wilhelm Fliess. Freud sustained his argument with the concept of component instincts—several independent impulses, each related to an erotogenic zone or somatic source without being integrated with each other. One can thus better understand why numerous perversions are characterized by sexual behavior that preferentially involves the oral, and especially the anal, erotogenic zones—they are, that is to say, the result of psychic functions controlled by component instincts. (Component instincts and normal gratifications of childhood would be further discussed in the second essay.) Whereas neurotics repress the desire for instinctual gratification, the anomaly of perversion in adults resides in the fact that their sexual practices are permanently and predominantly based on satisfying component instincts. From this reasoning emerged Freud's concept that "neuroses are, so to say, the negative of perversions" (p. 165, Freud's italics), an idea which he had previously taken up in a letter to Fliess (January 24, 1897; 1950a). Ideas developed in the first essay led logically to the second, which focused on sexuality in infancy and childhood. Freud pointed to the lack of knowledge on this subject while noting, at the same time, that it would be sufficient to carefully observe young children without hastening to declare sexual manifestations as abnormal. Every adult was once a child and should in principle be able to recall childhood in more than a fragmentary way, but most do not. Freud added two important observations. First, infantile amnesia affects everything concerning sexuality in childhood. Second, the strong moral condemnation that impacts all manifestations of sexuality leads to repression or gratification through sublimation. Freud went on to advance a highly audacious and fertile idea that would lead to many further developments in psychoanalysis, both theoretical and clinical, and which would influence both his own later thought and that of his successors. He stated, in effect, that sucking activity observed in the infant should be considered as the prototype for all future sexual gratification. Thumb-sucking (or "sensual sucking") "consists in the rhythmic repetition of a sucking contact by the mouth (or lips). There is no question of the purpose of this procedure being the taking of nourishment" (pp. 179-180). Thumb-sucking has no other aim but pleasure and is separate from, but attached to or initially dependent upon, the need for nourishment. "To begin with, sexual activity attaches itself to functions serving the purpose of self-preservation and does not become independent of them until later" (p. 182). Herewith emerges implicitly the notion of anaclisis, which would later play a major role in developmental theory. Freud explicitly states that oral gratification is a prototype for every sexual gratification, is pleasurable in itself, and is autoerotic inasmuch as it does not require any other object than the infant itself. He writes that the infant seems to be saying, "'It's a pity I can't kiss myself'" (p. 182). Here we find one of the major sources of discomfort provoked by the second of the Three Essays. Freud, like most psychoanalysts after him, would view any controversy that emerged around the notion of infantile sexuality to be the result of a misunderstanding. If sucking is to be considered sexual and to lie at the root of all later sexuality, this should be understood in the context of an extended definition of the concept of sexuality itself, not confounded with, or reduced to, genital sexuality. However, objections to the idea of infantile sexuality would grow still more vehement with Freud's further declaration that sensual sucking is masturbatory in nature and serves as a prototype for such gratification which, in addition, shifts from the labial zone to the anal zone, and lastly to the genital zone. In addition, in a highly rational argument, Freud presented a further fundamental concept. The infant, due to the diverse and polyvalent character of erotogenic zones as invested by instinct and by the various means of gratification, may be characterized as possessing a "polymorphously perverse disposition." Obviously, this is not to say that the child will become perverse as an adult; quite the contrary, this is merely the foundation of the normal trajectory of psychosexual development. By contrast, adult perversion is characterized by the abnormal persistence of infantile characteristics. In so-called normal development, the genitals become the dominant erotogenic zone, other erotogenic zones become subordinate to it, and there follows integration of the sources of sexual excitation and modes of sexual satisfaction. In the last of the three essays, Freud described the "The Transformations of Puberty." In the 1905 edition, this essay might have seemed less original than the previous section. Nevertheless, Freud examined three central themes in psychoanalysis—the libidinal economy of the onset of puberty, female and male sexuality, and object relations. Again, Freud raised the notion of the integration, "under the primacy of the genital zones" (p. 208), of component instincts and erotogenic zones which serve as gateways to preliminary gratification preceding complete sexual intercourse through coitus and orgasm. But then, Freud faced a problem, the solution to which he found difficult to accept. He had long reasoned that pleasure lowers tension while unpleasure raises it, writing that "I must insist that a feeling of tension necessarily involves unpleasure" (p. 209). But if the very activity that seeks to decrease tension is perceived as a pleasure, how then to understand the search for sexual excitement, which commonly characterizes every sexual act (including foreplay) before culminating in orgasm and relaxation? Confronting the issue, Freud pursued it in connection with sexual chemistry, largely speculative at the time. In fact, the problem remained without a solution in the 1905 edition; it would only be much later, in such works as "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924c), that Freud returned to it in a more satisfactory way. Freud discussed a second theme in the third essay in a section titled "The Differentiation between Men and Women," in which he asserted rather baldly that "The sexuality of little girls is of a wholly masculine character" (p. 219), and that "it would even be possible to maintain that libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature, whether it occurs in men or in women" (p. 219). The clitoris, which Freud viewed as the distaff equivalent of the penis, is the site of masturbatory pleasure for little girls. In the woman, the clitoris may be viewed as the organ of forepleasure that transmits excitement to the "adjacent female parts," writes Freud, "just as—to use a simile—pine shavings can be kindled in order to set a log of harder wood on fire" (p. 221). Freud's subsequent discussion of these ideas, particularly in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933a [1932]), would eventually incite considerable and lively controversy regarding the nature of female sexuality. Still another theme in the third essay concerned "The Finding of an Object" during the transformations of puberty and (as we would say today) adolescence. In 1905, Freud still subscribed to an overly simplistic theory that he would later modify in fundamental ways. To infantile sexuality, which he supposed to be essentially auto-erotic, he opposed object-directed sexuality developed during puberty. The primal object, the mother's breast, has by then been long lost, so that libidinal investment in the sexual partner after puberty is in fact a "rediscovery," Freud notes. He adds, "The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it" (p. 222). This was a proposition that spawned fruitful and interesting developments. In effect, from this point on, Freud acknowledged the object-relations nature of infantile sexuality. He went on to consider infantile anxiety and the "barrier against incest" (p. 225) that forbids sexual relations between child and parent. Freud clearly established here what, beginning in 1910, he would call the "Oedipus complex." The Three Essays ends with Freud's summary of the major themes of the book. This in brief reprise is Freud's rich and provocative Three Essays as the book was published in 1905. But to understand its place in terms of Freud's later work, it is important to realize that he revised the text with each new edition, of which there were six in his lifetime. He is not known to have considered publishing an entirely new edition, such as might have seemed necessary in light of all the developments in psychoanalytic theory. In any event, from 1910 to 1924 Freud made a host of emendations, some of which were quite significant yet difficult to reconcile with the original text to which they were attached. Freud himself admitted that this could create difficulties for the reader. In a later paper, "The Infantile Genital Organization" (1923e), he wrote, "Readers of my Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality will be aware that I have never undertaken any thorough remodeling of that work in its later editions, but have retained the original arrangement and have kept abreast of the advances made in our knowledge by means of interpolations and alterations in the text. In doing this, it may often have happened that what was old and what was more recent did not admit of being merged into an entirely uncontradictory whole" (p. 141). The Standard Edition accurately indicates all the modifications, suppressions, and additions to the text as Freud revised it in 1910, 1915, 1920, and also 1924; the 1915 emendations are particularly important, appearing as they do during the period that he wrote his papers on metapsychology; so too those of 1920, which came during the transition to the second theory of instincts and what is sometimes referred to as the "second topography" or structural theory. All these emendations appear either as notes at the bottom of the page, sometimes numerous and often quite long, or are included as extensions within the text itself. Three of these extended interpolations are of particular importance. In the second essay, a section added in 1915, on "The Sexual Researches of Childhood" fundamentally reprises the Freud's work in "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c) and in "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy" (1909b). Another section, also added to the second essay in 1915, discusses "The Phases of Development of the Sexual Organization" (p. 197ff). This represented a major departure inasmuch as Freud introduced the notion of pregenital organizations—oral and anal stages—preceding the genital organization. In 1923, he added a note to the emendation itself in which he mentioned that he had advanced that same year (1923e) the idea of an intermediary stage, called infantile genital organization. "This phase, which already deserves to be described as genital, presents a sexual object and some degree of convergence of the sexual impulses upon that object; but it is differentiated from the final organization of sexual maturity in one essential respect. For it knows only one kind of genital: the male one. For this reason I have named it the 'phallic' stage of organization" (pp. 199-200). This idea implies, importantly, that the development of object choice arises in two periods separated by latency. First, from the first stage of infantile genital organization, then once again, after the final genital organization that emerges at puberty. In the third essay, a section added in 1920 concerning libido theory largely summarizes Freud's seminal article on narcissism (1914c), in the context of the economic problem (pleasure/unpleasure) of sexual excitation and discharge. In sum, the Three Essays is indeed one of Freud's major works. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that, at first publication in 1905, it was entirely novel in terms of Freud's own thinking. So far as infantile sexuality is concerned, the text represents a key moment on a long path, pursued over the course of at least a decade and marked by progress and reversal, doubt and hesitation. In fact, the question of infantile sexuality arose with Freud's theoretical efforts to create an etiology of neurosis, and can be traced to Studies on Hysteria (1895d). In Freud's early view, hysteria, and neuroses more generally, are pathological conditions triggered by a sexual "seduction" sustained in childhood. But "sexual" for whom? The adult "seducer," clearly; but, for the child "seduced," what do we mean by "sexual"? Freud wrote to Fliess on October 8, 1895, (letter 29) that he suspected "that hysteria is conditioned by a primary sexual experience (before puberty) accompanied by revulsion and fright; and that obsessional neurosis is conditioned by the same accompanied by pleasure" (1950a, p. 126). Just a week later, on October 15, 1895, (letter 30) Freud wrote Fliess with some excitement, "Have I revealed the great clinical secret to you, either in writing or by word of mouth? Hysteria is the consequence of a presexual sexual shock. Obsessional neurosis is the consequence of presexual sexual pleasure later transformed into guilt (p. 127). One can sense Freud's dilemma. Is "presexual" sexual? Does infantile sexuality exist? No, if the incident only arises later as a memory. Yes, if it incites "pleasure" in the child—but this occurs only in those who will later develop obsessional neurosis, and these are, in fact, boys. "In [cases of obsessional neurosis] the primary experience has been accompanied by pleasure. It is either an active one (in boys) or a passive one (in girls)" ("Manuscript K" in Freud 1950a, p. 149). He adds that hysteria "necessarily presupposes a primary unpleasurable experience—that is, one of a passive kind. The natural sexual passivity of women accounts for their being more inclined to hysteria (p. 154). Thus, at this stage, some ten years before the Three Essays, Freud was far from seeing infantile sexuality as part of every child's experience; he believed it might only in boys, some of whom, taking pleasure in being "seduced," would later suffer from obsessional neurosis. This early state of affairs clearly did not satisfy Freud. On one hand, he was tempted to assert the universality of infantile sexuality, while on the other, he hesitated before the audacity of it. Soon thereafter, in "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b), he tried a kind of compromise, suggesting that pathogenic trauma acts in two stages, that "it is not the experiences themselves which act traumatically but their revival as a memory after the subject has entered on sexual maturity" (p. 164, Freud's italics). In other words, the childhood trauma (which is traumatic, stressed Freud, because the child suffers a frightening assault, the nature of which he or she does not understand) will become sexual only in puberty. By this view, there is no infantile sexuality strictly speaking, And yet, one must admit "[E]ven the age of childhood is not wanting in slight sexual excitations" ("The Aetiology of Hysteria," 1896c, p. 202). If infantile sexuality were universal, however, does the trauma theory collapse? Freud noted that, "It is true that if infantile sexual activity were an almost universal occurrence the demonstration of its presence in every case would carry no weight" (pp. 209-210). Facing these theoretical difficulties, with direct implications for clinical practice, and also perhaps facing his own resistances, Freud would need another ten years to develop a coherent theory of infantile sexuality. Understanding the progression of his thought can produce a better appreciation of the audacity and novelty of the Three Essays.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Drei abhandlungen sur sexualtheorie, GW, 5: 29-145]]
  • [[Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  1. Brusset, Bernard. (1992). Le developpement libidinal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.

External links


  • Freud, Sigmund 1996 Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie. Fischer: Frankfurt am Main. Reprint of the 1905 edition