The terms "activity" and "passivity" were already in use before Freud. For example, Richard von Krafft-Ebbing used them to compare sadism and masochism. Freud initially employed the terms within the framework of the theory of psychosexuality and, more specifically, with respect to the drives, creating paired opposites associated with masculine/feminine. He then used these terms in his dynamic analysis of ego as agency.
For both paired opposites, "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (Freud, 1915c) is a key reference. In it Freud referred to activity/passivity as one of "three polarities" that govern "our mental life as a whole" (p. 133), along with the pairs ego/outside world and pleasure/unpleasure. But even in 1896 Freud had already evoked the polarity of activity/passivity in his theory of seduction, which he based on clinical findings and individual histories of neuroses. Hysteria, he wrote at the time, results from "sexual passivity during the pre-sexual period" (1896b, p. 163) that is reacted to by indifference, contempt, or fear. In contrast, in obsessional neurosis, (Zwangsneurose ) pleasure is active: the seduced infant actively, aggressively, repeats an experienced sexual attack on another infant. This alteration of the sexual attack experienced by the child from passive to active can also occur in masturbatory activity.
Freud subsequently modified his views by acknowledging a "spontaneous" infantile sexuality not forcibly induced by an adult seducer. This was the theme of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). In this work Freud described libidinal development as proceeding from "a number of separate instincts and erotogenic zones, which, independently of one another, have pursued a certain sort of pleasure as their sole sexual aim" (p. 207) and have gradually unified under genital sexuality, which becomes primary. Therefore, the "opposition found in all sexual life clearly manifests itself" within a development stage, whether it be the second pregenital or anal-sadistic phase. This is an opposition not between masculine and feminine but between active and passive. Freud noted, "The activity is put into operation by the instinct for mastery through the agency of the somatic musculature; the organ which, more than any other, represents the passive sexual aim is the erotogenic mucous membrane of the anus" (p. 198). This association comes into play during the anal sadistic phase, since, for Freud, earlier sexual activity, that of oral, or "cannibalistic," organization, does not yet display these "opposing currents."
Primarily within a clinical framework Freud noted the opposition of active and passive with respect to homosexuality as well as the opposites sadism/masochism and voyeurism/exhibitionism. He wrote that sexual intent "manifests itself in a dualistic form: active and passive." A 1915 addition to the Three Essays generalized these ideas, designating activity and passivity as "universal characteristics of sexual life" (p. 159).
In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c) Freud further elaborated these ideas, which led him from the use of clinical findings to an analysis of the internal mechanism of the drive. Every drive is active in itself; it is a "piece of activity" (p. 122). However, the aim of the drive, which is always satisfaction, can be achieved by various means. One way is the "change from activity to passivity" (p. 127). For instance, in sadism/masochism, the active goal of tormenting and watching is replaced by the passive goal of being tormented, of being watched. Therefore, three simultaneous or successive positions of the subject with respect to the object can result in satisfaction: active, passive (a reversal back to oneself), and "reflected means" (observing oneself, self-inflicted pain). This flexibility of the instinctive aims of the drive contrasts with the fixity of perverse sexuality.
In developing his theory of psychosexuality, Freud closely linked the pairs activity/passivity and masculine/feminine, which he sometimes used as synonyms. In some texts, in fact, Freud's clinical observations shows them to be nearly indistinguishable, for example, in the Wolf Man's regression from passive desires to masochistic and feminine desires toward his father (1918b ). Later and in a context less closely associated with individual clinical analysis, Freud insisted on the importance of not "indentify[ing] activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness" (1930a, p. 106).
As for the role of active and passive in the theory of the ego, Freud, in 1915, emphasized that transformations of the drive by repression and reversal protect the psychic apparatus. These transformations depend on "the narcissistic organization of the ego and bear the stamp of that phase. They perhaps correspond to the attempts at defense which at higher stages of the development of the ego are effected by other means" (p. 132). The transformations between active and passive imply a narcissistic consistency and a drive that is also no longer "poorly connected and independent" (Freud, 1915c).
After 1920 and his introduction of the structural theory (ego, id, superego), Freud could refer to a passive ego confronting an id, or a masochistic or feminine ego confronting a sadistic superego (1928b). He then renewed his study of psychoses, melancholy, and trauma. It was around this time that Freud introduced the death drive and its essentially destructive effect through unbinding. With the notion of unbinding Freud could better distinguish the activity of the drive from its potential for destructive aggression. The internal organization of sadism/masochism (mastery, sadism, primary and secondary masochism) could then be conceived as protecting the psyche by binding the death drive(1924c). The repetition compulsion also reintroduces psychic binding through the interplay of activity and passivity in the face of trauma. This occurs during the child's play when the child "makes the transition from passivity to activity [in order to] psychically control her impressions of life." These perspectives are extensively explored in contemporary psychoanalytic work.
See also: Homosexuality; Instinctual impulse; Masculinity/femininity; Sadomasochism; Turning around.
Freud, Sigmund. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.
——. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
——. (1918b ). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
——. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.
——. (1928b). Dostoevsky and parricide. SE, 21: 173-196.
——. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.