Dark continent

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In The Question of Lay Analysis (1926e), Freud wrote, "We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a 'dark continent' for psychology" (p. 212). The evocative phrase dark continent connotes a geographic space that is murky and deep, one that defies understanding. Freud borrowed the expression from the African explorer John Rowlands Stanley's description of the exploration of a dark forest—virgin, hostile, impenetrable. By using this phrase and comparing the adult woman's sexual life to an unknown continent, Freud indicates both his embarrassment as well as his explorer's curiosity. He also emphasizes the obscure and incomplete nature of the clinical material on the sexual life of girls and women for the psychoanalyst. His metaphor for the female sex turns it into an unrepresentable enigma, expressing the castration anxiety of the man who approaches it. For although he insists on the central idea constituting his theory of female sexuality—namely, the primitive masculinity of the little girl, who is a little man before she changes objects and wishes to acquire a child from her father—Freud does have doubts about his theory. If we consider his statements about female sexuality, a theory that was never really explained in a comprehensive manner, we see that Freud is close to being his most severe critic. In 1923, the year his most specific statements about female sexuality appeared, he presented, in "Infantile Genital Organization," his thesis of the primacy of the phallus: "For both sexes, only one genital, namely the male one comes into account. What is present, therefore, is not a primacy of the genitals, but a primacy of the phallus." He immediately adds, "Unfortunately we can describe this state of things only as it affects the male child; the corresponding processes in the little girl are not known to us" (1923e, p. 142). However, Freud himself attempts to illuminate the darkness of the continent. For he discovers that for the little girl, the mother, who first provides care for the child, is the object of an especially intense and long-lasting cathexis. This archaic bond between mother and daughter, which psychoanalytic theory would later describe as one of primary homosexuality, is compared by Freud to Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, which had been hidden for so long by Athenian civilization. Freud also insists on the function of the phallus for the woman. The phallus—not to be confused with the penis—is understood to represent the paternal function and the capacity for symbolization in all human beings. These ideas were further developed by Jacques Lacan and his school. In Freud's writing on femininity, a rigorous, sometimes even dogmatic, conceptualization always shares space with a sense of perplexity. But the invisibility of the female sex, its internal nature, a multiplicity of theories have been offered. Research by Freud's disciples, such as Ernest Jones and Karen Horney, exposed new fields of exploration that are rich and heteroclite. Female psychoanalysts deepened the investigation of the female Oedipus and the young girl's relationship to the phallic phase (Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel). Following Lacan, important work was done (Michèle Montrelay) on the "other" jouissance, which functions centrifugally in women, unlike the centripetal jouissance found in men. Influenced by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, there has also been important work on the feminine and the unrepresentable (Luce Irigaray). Finally, analysis of the female Oedipus resumed and was seen to consist of two phases (maternal object and paternal object, sensoriality and language) that constitute the basis of female bisexuality (Julia Kristeva).

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1923e). The infantile genital organization (an interpolation into the theory of sexuality). SE, 19: 141-145.
  2. ——. (1926e). The question of lay analysis. SE, 20: 183-250.
  3. Irigaray, Luce. (1985). Speculum of the other woman (G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1974)
  4. Kristeva, Julia. (2000). The sense and non-sense of revolt (J. Herman, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1996)