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We live in a gendered society, in which individuals are generally categorised according to their sex, either male or female. Individuals also are identified, or identify themselves by their sexual orientation, i.e. heterosexual or homosexual. How are differences between men and women and variations within these groups to be understood? What part does culture and society play in shaping an individual? These are questions that the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud attempted to answer throughout his long career in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He contends that all human beings start out their life as innately bisexual but through the process of becoming members of society need to suppress aspects of this disposition to comply with cultural perceptions of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. He attempts, in his extensive research and theories on infantile sexuality, to trace the course of gender identification and to describe the many processes that the child must navigate in order to arrive at an adult sexual identity.
The Oedipus complex is central to this process. It is used to explain the structure of the psychical apparatus as well as the aetiology of psychic disorders. The purpose of this essay is to analyse the applicability of the Oedipus complex in understanding sexual difference.
As already stated, Freud posits the innate bisexuality of all human beings, and notes that due to this disposition, men and women rarely, if ever, achieve the idealised, pure states of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ but rather combine aspects of both in a complex mixture, allowing for endless variations of sexual identity within society (Freud 1977, pg 342).
It is during the Oedipal phase of development that the child must, for the first time, repress aspects of its bisexual nature in order to comply with cultural expectation, as represented by the father, who becomes a metaphor for culture and authority.
The Oedipus complex is contemporaneous with the phallic phase of infantile sexual development, but has its origins in the pre-Oedipal phase dominated by the child’s relationship with the mother and the wish to complete the pre-Oedipal phantasy of wholeness with a fused identity of oneself and the mother, the first phantasised love-object. It is the mother who helps to confer special value on the penis by apparently wanting one from the father. Both the little boy and the little girl become narcissistically interested in the penis, and assume that all animate (and inanimate) objects possess one, including the mother.
The nature of this struggle to understand its body and to gain some self-identification differs in boys and girls. The obsessive interest in the male organ may be expressed, in the little boy, through a tendency to masturbate, which rather than encompassing the whole of his sexual life, ‘is only the genital discharge of the sexual excitation belonging to the complex resulting from his Oedipal attitude to his parents’ (Freud 1977, pg 316). This generally results in an attempt, usually by the mother, to curb this tendency and may culminate in a threat to remove the penis if he continues to masturbate. While this threat alone does not have an immediate effect, it does remain in the boy’s memory and returns at a later stage when an understanding that some humans, that is, females, lack a penis and this makes the threat meaningful.
The Oedipus complex offers the little boy two possible means of satisfaction, an active and a passive role. He could either desire to inhabit the father’s place in a ‘masculine’ fashion and have intercourse with his mother as his father does, in which the father becomes a rival for the mother’s attention. Or the little boy could desire to replace the mother, and be loved by his father, in which case the mother becomes dispensable (Freud 1977, pg 318). Coming to terms with the discovery of the mother not possessing a penis, which he regards as ‘castration’, means that the boy can not continue to nurture either of these wishes, as both entail the loss of his penis, through punishment or as a precondition. This results in the choice being presented to the little boy between narcissistic interest in his penis, which he values so highly, and the libidinal cathexis of his parental objects. Normally the narcissistic interest prevails resulting in the ego turning away from the Oedipus complex.
This results in the parental object-cathexes being given up and replaced by ‘identifications, with the authority of the father or the parents being introverted into the ego, and this forms the nucleus of the superego’ (Freud 1977, pg 319). This process of internalisation of an external authority’ provides for self-regulation prohibiting the little boy from returning to the original libidinal object cathexis. This has the effect of both preserving the genital organ, by averting the danger of its loss, whilst also paralysing it, by removing its function. This ushers in the latency period, and interrupts the child’s sexual development.
Freud notes that the superego is created in tandem with this sublimation, or repression. Any later repression is executed entirely through the participation of the superego. However, this initial ‘repression’, is more than that, if ideally carried out, as it not only represses but also destroys and abolishes the complex. If the Oedipus complex is not destroyed, but is only repressed, it persists in an unconscious state and will later ‘manifest its pathogenic effect’ (Freud 1977, pg 319).
The Oedipus complex in little girls also has its origins in the phallic phase. Both little girls and little boys assume their mothers and other ‘respected’ women to possess a phallus, leading the little girl to initially believe her own small penis’, her clitoris, to be simply underdeveloped and that it will grow eventually to be the organ of her brothers or male peers.
The Oedipus phase for her begins when she comes to realise that this is not the case. At some point she realises that her mother also does not have a penis. This leads her to believe that originally she did, and that she is ‘castrated’. In her own case, the little girl comes to believe that she too is castrated, and it is her mother who took it away from her’ (Freud 1977, pg 321). Originally for both the little boy and the little girl the mother is the pre Oedipal object of love. For the little girl to move into the Oedipal phase of her sexual development she must renounce this object and transfer her libidinal energy to the father. The little girl feels that she must be compensated for her perceived inferior status, which is due to her mother’s castrating her, and thus symbolically equates a baby with a penis. The Oedipal desire of the little girl, long retained, is to receive as a gift from her father a baby. This wish is never fulfilled and thus is eventually given up. However, these two wishes, a penis and a baby, remain strongly cathected in the unconscious and help to prepare the female child for her later sexual role of both receptacle for the penis and mother.
It is fear of castration that provides the major motivation for the little boy to give up his cathectic libidinal attachment to his mother/parents, and thus in the formulating of the superego bringing him into ‘culture’ by internalising its laws. For the little girl, however, she has had to accept as an accomplished fact her castration before moving into the Oedipal developmental stage. The little girl, according to Freud, is not guaranteed an entrance into ‘culture’, but rather relies heavily on her up bringing which intimidates her from the outside, threatening her with loss of love, and it is for this external reason that the little girl complies with social custom (Freud 1977, pg 320).
The pre-Oedipal attachment for the mother endures for a significant period of the early sexual development of the female child’s life. The Oedipal relation with the father does not differ notably from the pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother. It is for this reason that the pre-Oedipal phase holds an important role in a female’s sexual development, much more so, Freud contends, than in the male’s development. For this reason, Freud at this later stage of his research (1931) retracts the centrality of his belief that the Oedipal phase is the nucleus of neurosis, determining a greater role played by the pre-Oedipal phase in this process. As Freud constantly notes in his writing, while he believes that male sexual development is relatively known to him, female sexuality and her development through the various phases poses a problem for him as they are more complex and buried in the ‘mists and shadows’ of the pre-Oedipal and thus less easily retrieved for analysis (Freud 1977, pg 373).
The sexual development of little girls is complicated by the need to give up the mother as her love object in favour of the father (Freud 1977, pg371). Freud is not able to definitively state why this happens. He notes that the nature of infantile sexuality is such that it cannot accept anything less than exclusive possession of its love-object. It is also characteristic that infantile sexuality has no aim and is incompatible with obtaining complete satisfaction. For this reason the first love-object relationship is doomed and must give way to a hostile attitude. This is true for both male and female infantile sexuality, but Freud explains that the male child is able to retain his first love-object by directing ‘all his hostility on his father’ (Freud 1977, pg 382). For the little girl other component factors play a role. The mother is perceived to have failed to provide the little girl with the only proper genital, she did not feed her sufficiently, she compelled her to share her mother’s love with others, she never fulfilled all the girl’s expectations of love, and finally, she first aroused her sexual activity and then forbade it’ (Freud 1977, pg 382). All these are reflective of the character of infantile sexuality as outlined above. Freud however, notes one more major motivation for turning away from the original love-object identification with the mother. For ‘normal’ adult female sexuality to be obtained, the transition from a predominantly active sexuality centred on the clitoris must be subverted to a predominantly passive sexuality centred on the vagina. The pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother favours active participation, while the Oedipal relationship with the father becomes predominantly passive. However, more so than male sexuality, the innate bisexuality of all human beings is expressed in female sexuality, with the persistence of clitoral activity into adulthood.
The Oedipus complex represents, according to the above outline of the process a child must go through in order to become members of society, a denial of a vast range of different qualities that potentially form a part of human identity. These have become divided up into two separate, unequal, and thus impoverished worlds. The little boy must suppress those aspects of his identity associated with his mother and femininity and identify himself with the father. The little girl must give up her active impulses stemming from her relationship with her mother and become both a desirer of the father, and must become desirable to him through denial of masculine aspects of her identity and adoption of a feminine position. What are the consequences of this? As noted by Minsky, men and women spend their life longing for the aspects of themselves that they have denied and unconsciously seek wholeness through their relationship with others (Minsky 1996, pg 69). However, these very relationships are doomed to emotional upset as they revive memories of loss and lack and are often suffused with rage and resentment. The pre-Oedipal phantasy of ‘wholeness’ is unobtainable, but persists in the unconscious as the desired state.
As has already been noted, Freud asserts that the notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are fictional constructs rarely experienced in the world and placing emphasis on one or the other alienates the individual from his/her original nature. However, these notions are saturated with meaning, especially lending an aspect of superiority to the male genital organ. As a result of finally comprehending that women ‘lack’ a penis, that is are ‘castrated’, the little boy often develops ‘an enduringly low opinion of the female sex’ (Freud 1977, pg 307). Strangely, the little girl also perceives her ‘lack’ as a cause for inferiority. Due to this, patriarchal society, to differing degrees, tends to insist on the superiority of masculine attributes, and as Freud argues, both men and women who have formed this very opinion in their very early childhood unconsciously endorse this.
This seems to indicate a hopeless, almost determined outcome for members of society. There are several questions that come to mind when considering this theory. First, why must a little girl place at the centre of her identity the penis, or rather a lack of a penis, which determines her inferior status in society? By positing the bisexual nature of human beings, why must the penis hold such a privileged position? Does not the womb also hold a privileged position in determining identity? Can not man and woman take their own bodies as whole and formulate a space for difference within that as necessary components of human beings, after all what is a penis without a womb and vice versa? While the notions of masculinity and femininity are fictional constructs of society, cannot education and upbringing be employed to bring about positive adaptations in the formulation of identity for the little individual? Freud’s work is revolutionary in that his conception of the unconscious explains why socialisation theory alone cannot explain gender positions within society. It is this force that undermines conscious decisions and beliefs, our understanding of the world formulated in our early childhood has a huge impact on our lives as adults. However, our parents, both our mother and father, were significant sources of information. As parents become ‘enlightened’ as to effects of certain events and impressions of childhood, why cannot they guide the child in a more empowering self-identity? In short, my question relates to the claims of universality made the Oedipus complex.
The object of this essay was to discuss the applicability of the Freudian notion of the Oedipus complex to our understanding of sexual difference. Certainly Freud’s theory of the innate bisexuality of all human beings, with a forced repression of various aspects of this in order to become gendered members of society provides an explanation for the numerous variations within either sex and the ways in which failure to completely achieve this results in various forms of neurosis. It also indicates the role society plays in formulating these gender positions, especially from within a patriarchal society. The Oedipus complex becomes questionable, however, in that it seems to endorse the consequent gender roles and hierarchical structure of society without creating a position for possibility for change. Much of feminist critique of Freud and the Oedipus complex has focused on creating a space for women, accepting difference as the launching pad for understanding gender positions, rather than Freud’s starting point of sameness. Freud’s theories have been extremely revolutionary in exposing the underlying, sometimes contradictory, mechanisms directing not only society but also the individual. The Oedipus complex shows how some of the psychical processes come into play. It may be used as a starting point for both men’s and women’s research into gender identity, but as has been discussed by many psychoanalysists and feminists can not be the sole basis for such research as it limits possibility of empowerment and change.
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