Talk:Sexual Difference

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Sexual difference refers to recognition by the child of the difference of the sexes.

This refers to the way in which both sexes recognize and differentiate themselves (in the unconscious).

This recognition is related to the Oedipus complex and the castration complex.

Sexual difference refers to the way in which the subject relates to its own anatomical sex and position itself as man or woman.

(Sexual difference introduces important questions in psychoanalysis, as important as the problematic of identification/identity.)

Castration complex

The child comes to recognize sexual difference through the castration complex.

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 Symbolic identification with the Father, and hence Oedipal identification cannot determine sexual position.

Sigmund Freud

Both Freud and Lacan address the question of 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'.

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

In 1908 (1908c) Sigmund Freud presented for the first time the notion of the castration complex.

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.

The awareness of the presence or absence of the male genital organ

The genital organ will be taken into account for both sexes, based on the presence or absence of the male genital organ.

It is this awareness that leads to the question of castration.

It is through identification with the father and mother during the oedipal period that the child acquires the symbolic cues for masculine and feminine.

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan reformulates the castration complex.

Penis and phallus

Lacan distinguishes between the penis and the phallus.

For Lacan, the relation to the phallus "was established without regard for the anatomical difference of the sexes."

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

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]).

Symbolic castration

Symbolic castration is an operation through which the subject is formed.

Subject formation

Lacan developed his idea of sexuation to show the subject's modes of inscription in the phallic function.


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

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

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.

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

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

The assumption of a sexual position is fundamentally 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]

However, there is no signifier of sexual difference as such which would permit the subject to fully symbolise 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.

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 psyche 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 dissymmetry 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]

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]

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 (Sll, 204), which is to say that the subject can only Realise his sexuality on the Symbolic level.[14]

In the seminar of 1970-1 Lacan tries to formalise his theory of sexual difference by means of formulae derived from Symbolic logic.

These reappear in the diagram of sexual difference which Lacan presents in the 1972-3 seminar.[15]

The diagram is divided into two sides: on the left, the male side, and on the right, the female side.

The formulae of sexuation appear at the top of the diagram.

Thus the formulae on the male side are Exæ (= there is at least one x which is not submitted to the phallic function) and Vx¢x (= for all x, the phallic function is valid).

The formulae on the female side are Exæ (= there is not one x which is not submitted to the phallic function) and TGx (= for not all x, the phallic function is valid).

The last formula illustrates the relationship of woman (O the logic of the not-all.

What is most striking is that the two propositions on each side of the diagram seem to contradict each other: 'each side is defined by both an affirmation and a negation of the phallic function, an inclusion and exclusion of absolute (non-phallic) jouissance'.<

ref>(Copjec, 1994: 27)</ref>

However, there is no symmetry between the two sides (no sexual relationship); each side represents a radically different way in which the sexual relationship can misfire.[16]

Lacan’s formalization of sexual difference in his famous "formulas of sexuation," presented by means of an idiosyncratic usage of mathematical symbols derived from symbolic logic and set theory, attempts to distill Freud’s efforts to distinguish the girl’s experience of castration from the boy’s.

In the first logical moment of masculine sexuation, an exception to the phallic function—Lacan’s term for the interdiction of castration—is posited, which is then followed by a contradictory assertion of the function’s universality.

Though abstracted beyond immediate recognition, it is possible to discern here the logic of the Freudian primal father, who lives in the masculine subject’s fantasy as the exception that proves the universal rule of castration.

In the first logical moment of feminine castration, in contrast, it is asserted that there are no exceptions to the phallic function.

But there then follows the notion that "not-all" elements of the feminine subject, elements Lacan represents with the symbol designating the negation of the universal quantifier, are subject to the rule of castration.

This is the background to Lacan’s controversial assertion that women are "pas-toute."

Though numerous feminists, including luce irigaray, have attacked this claim as a rationalization for what they see as women’s secondary status within a patriarchal socio-symbolic order, others have argued that the implication of Lacan’s assertion is simply that women, or more precisely feminine subjects, do not avail themselves to categorization. 

Whereas masculine subjects routinely abstract themselves in such a way that they constitute a whole paradoxically unified by the exception embodied by the primal father fantasy (a masculine subject, in colloquial terms, can be "just one of the guys"), feminine subjects, so it appears, feature an irreducible element of singularity, one resistant to counting, that renders each of them, one might say, a world unto herself.

The implications of Lacan’s suggestive and oft-misunderstood theory of sexual difference for feminism and the theory of sexuality have still to find their full elaboration.

One thing, however, remains clear.

For Lacan, sex emerges as an impasse resulting from the impossibility of representing sexual difference symbolically and therefore of establishing sexual identities.

In contrast to the Anglo-American ideology of "gender," then, which upholds the idea that masculinity and femininity are socially preestablished meanings that may never be fully embodied, sex, in the Lacanian view, refers instead to the impossibility of sexual meanings themselves, of the frustration of every attempt to define sexual difference in positive terms, and therefore of the unforgiving resistance with which sexuality necessarily thwarts the ambitions of our conscious intentions.

we are led to the conclusion that psychoanalytic theory on sexual difference and, in particular, on what a woman is, remains highly incomplete. The phrase 'sexual difference' has come into prominence in the debate between psychoanalysis and feminism.

it brings together an important set of related themes in Lacan's work, and because it constitutes an important focus for feminist approaches to Lacan's work.

  1. Freud, 1925d
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.153
  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. (S3, 177)
  6. (S11, 204)
  7. (S3, 176)
  8. (E, 198)
  9. (S3, 176)
  10. (S3, 172
  11. (S3, 176
  12. Sll, 192)
  13. (Sll, 204)
  14. (S3, 170)
  15. (Figurel6, taken from S20, 73)
  16. (S20, 53-4)