Psychosexual Development

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Psychosexual development is the progressive evolution of infantile sexuality as it passes through the different stages or phases of psychic organization (oral, anal, phallic) with due regard for a prevalent erogenous zone, which organizes fantasies, and a certain type of object relation. Complete psychosexual organization is not reached until the arrival of puberty and a final phase of libidinal development, the genital phase.

Freud saw infantile sexuality as being active from the beginning of life. This broadened the notion of sexuality, giving it a range of extension that is specific to psychoanalysis.

In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud initially saw infantile sexuality as a sort of precursor of adult sexual perversions and a blueprint for pubertal genitality, but he later described it as the mainspring of psychic development. He used the term infantile sexuality in an effort to acknowledge the existence of the stimuli and the needs for satisfaction that involve specific body zones (erogenous zones) that seek pleasure independently of exercising a biological function. He therefore described the sexual instinct as becoming separate from the vital functions that ensure the preservation of the organism in accordance with the anaclitic model (whereby the sexual instincts initially depend on those vital functions). The pleasure bonus provided alongside the accomplishment of the function would, in a second stage, be sought for its own sake. Freud thus considered anaclisis, the erogenous zone, and autoeroticism to be three intimately linked criteria for the definition of infantile sexuality.

The Freudian scheme of the phases of libidinal development links two essential components at each stage: on the one hand, an organizing erogenous zone, along with the excitations and instinctual movements for which it is both the link and the source, and on the other, the modalities of the object relation linked to development of the ego.

In the Three Essays, Freud stressed the existence and importance of oral and anal erogenous zones (in addition to the genital which is the primary erogenous zone in adults), describing them as pregenital and highlighting the autoeroticism that is linked to them: sucking in relation to oral activity, retention/expulsion for anal erotism.

The specification of infantile genital organization as phallic organization nevertheless shows clearly that the prevalence of one erogenous zone is inseparable from a certain mode of symbolic organization. The Oedipus complex is organized around the idea of castration, which is represented in the unconscious as castration of the penis (Perron and Perron-Borelli, 1996). The loss of the breast and feces that are specific to the oral and anal stages can also be considered as early symbolic forms of genital castration.

The relationship between weaning—as implementing the absence of the mother—and the Oedipus complex introduces the structural point of view, which relativizes the developmental model of the stages and gives it its best perspective (Brusset, 1992).

In the normal evolution of sexuality the component instincts of childhood are progressively integrated into the genital sexuality of the adult. What remains of them is found in the foreplay that precedes the sexual act proper.

The potential for stimulation of these pregenital erogenous zones remains present in the body and in the mind and they tend to be reactivated on the occasion of later sexual experiences. Their degree of erotism is integrated into the genital sexuality of the adult. Excessive repression of these residues from the infantile period can lead to neurotic symptoms. Similarly, what persists in a prevalent and manifest manner in the perversions is repressed in neurosis. Hence Freud's famous aphorism: "Neurosis is the negative of perversion."

The phases Freud described between 1905 and 1923 correspond to successive organizations of the sexual instinct under the primacy of a given erogenous zone: the oral phase, sadistic anal phase, infantile genital or phallic phase, followed by the genital phase after puberty. He also distinguished at the same time the different stages leading from autoerotism to full object love, that is, the progression from autoerotism, narcissism, toward the homosexual or heterosexual object choice.

Three points deserve to be raised here in order to provide a better definition of the notion of psycho-sexuality as envisaged by Freud.

  1. The body is first and foremost considered as the seat of the instincts (drives) and the source of the excitations aiming for satisfaction. In the Three Essays he makes a point of defining infantile sexuality as a criterion for organ pleasure and autoerotic satisfaction. However, in the course of the following years he integrated his earlier discoveries about the role of fantasies into this. He showed, specifically, how the fantasy works "by integrating the attachments of infantile sexuality can, depending on the case, result in conscious formations (daydreaming, for example) or, on the contrary, formations that are repressed into the unconscious" (Perron and Perron-Borelli, 1996).
  2. It should be noted that these infantile manifestations of sexuality only come to play their full role "après coup." The adult pervert's exclusive fixation on certain components of infantile sexuality must be understood as a regression and a return to pregenital fixations.
  3. Finally, infantile sexuality culminates toward the fourth or fifth year of life, the age when sexual tumult gradually enters a latency period, and is not reactivated until puberty when it leads to adult sexuality in the context of general maturity. There is therefore at this stage a halt, a decline in psychosexuality, and this period is then subjected to the infantile amnesia of the latency period. Freud related this diphasic establishment of sexual life, which can be observed only in human beings, to events in humanity's prehistory.

In any case, it is during the period of latency "that are built up the mental forces which are later to impede the course of the sexual instinct and, like dams, restrict its flow" (1905d, p. 177).

After the Three Essays, Freud gave the oedipal conflict its full organizational value, normal libidinal development being defined in psychoanalytic theory as the integration of the polymorphously perverse aspects of infantile sexuality under the primacy of the genital organization.

Following the Three Essays, Freud's successive contributions (1913-24) continued to expand on the general outline of the stages of libidinal development.

Karl Abraham tried to find the etiopathogenic basis for all of psychopathology in this model. He distinguished two stages within each of the first two phases (oral and sadistic oral, anal and sadistic anal) and he further stressed the link existing between the specific erogenous zone and the modalities of object relation particular to it.

Many authors after him, such as the proponents of Ego-Psychology (Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, and Rudolph Loewenstein), used the outline of libidinal development and made it a major element in a genetic psychology that could be integrated into a general psychology. Others, on the contrary, particularly in France (Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis; Brusset, 1992; Perron, Perron-Borelli, 1996) insisted on the importance of the notion of organization. Each stage or phase of development creates a structure, in the modern sense of a self-regulated functional system tending toward equilibrium. Each of these phases in psychosexual development organizes not only the present state of mental functioning but also its future state. Infantile genital organization therefore defines the oedipal phase as the great organizer of mental functioning, laying down in the infantile phase of sexuality what will become the genital organization of the adult.


   * Brusset, Bernard (1992). Le Développement libidinal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Freud, Sigmund (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.