Any part of the body susceptible of becoming excited, of being a seat of pleasure, is an erotogenic zone. Freud nevertheless used the term to refer primarily to a number of specific areas, notably, the genitals, mouth, and anus. These zones he saw as locations of particular instincts known as "component instincts." In neurosis, on his account, nongenital erotogenic zones come to function as substitutes for the genitals. The idea of erotogenic zones was inseparable from the theory of libidinal stages, each of which, at a certain age, is fixed upon a particular zone.
Freud found support in the work of the pediatrician S. Lindner for his assertion that the child pursues the kind of sucking that develops anaclitically from feeding at the breast, for the pleasure obtained from excitation of the oral erotogenic zone. "The child's lips, in our view, behave like an erotogenic zone, and no doubt stimulation by the warm flow of milk is the cause of the pleasurable sensation" (1905d, p. 181). Sexual activity centered on an erotogenic zone rests first on its utility for self-preservation but is subsequently repeated independently of that function. Erotogenic zones are thus seen as the source of the sexual instinct, its place of origin, and (for the appropriate instinct) its place of residence.
Freud nevertheless broadened his definition of an erotogenic zone well beyond its original link with a bodily function, noting that "any other part of the skin or mucous membrane can take over the functions of an erotogenic zone, and must therefore have some aptitude in that direction" (1905d, p. 183). An area may be affected by chance as the child explores the body and discovers its potential for pleasure through an association with the simultaneous pleasure of sucking. For the adult who represses the sexual nature of the genitals, this opens up the regressive possibility of instating any part of the body as an erotogenic zone. In this case, hysterogenic zones present the same characteristics as erotogenic ones.
How is pleasure produced at the level of the erotogenic zone? The pressure of the need for satisfaction, which is of central origin, is projected outward, stimulating a peripheral erotogenic zone, whose manipulation, in a manner analogous to sucking on the breast, relieves the feelings aroused and so generates satisfaction. The erotogenic zone may also be stimulated directly, in which case it by itself creates a need, which, to be satisfied, calls for further stimulation of the zone in question.
Each particular erotogenic zone (the mouth, anus, genital organs) is wedded to a habitual stimulation that will vary according to the life stage reached. Like the labial zone before it, the anal zone is eroticized by means of an anaclitic dependence on a corresponding bodily function, in this case excretion. The genital zone (the penis in the case of a boy, the clitoris in that of a girl) first becomes erotogenic through an anaclitic relationship with the function of micturition, the first sexual excitation of this zone constituting the point of departure for a normal sexual life. Freud (1908b) associated specific character types with adult fixations on the erotogenic nature of this or that zone.
The sexual life of early childhood is not confined to the stimulation of erotogenic zones, for so-called component instincts can emerge independently of those zones. The instinct to see and be seen, even though it is not autoerotic in nature and calls for an outside object, may turn the eye into the equivalent of an erotogenic zone. Likewise, the cruelty component of the sexual instinct, which seems at first even more independent of the erotogenic zones, is in fact linked to the instinct for mastery and to the musculature. By contrast, the skin of the buttocks, because of the chastisements it so often receives, can easily become an erotogenic zone and the site of passive masochistic pleasure.
With the introduction of narcissism, Freud added an important dimension to the theory of erotogenic zones by joining it with the ego-libido: "We can decide to regard erotogenicity as a general characteristic of all organs and may then speak of an increase or decrease of it in a particular part of the body. For every such change in the erotogenicity of the organs there might then be a parallel change of libidinal cathexis in the ego" (1914c, p. 84). The withdrawal of libido into the ego and the libido's cathexis of organs, as erotogenic zones now become painful and sensitive, may be thought to underlie hypochondria, and in such cases of hypochondria, health can be restored only by redeploying libido to objects external to the subject's own body.
The erotism aroused in these zones is essentially polymorphous in the young child. Save in the case of perversion, the child's erotism is later unified under the primacy of the genital zone, but the fate of this infantile sexuality varies: repressions, reaction-formations, and sublimations come into play as ways of dealing with the excitations emanating from the erotogenic zones, excitations that are normally unusable, or largely unusable, for the adult. In such cases, the instinctual object of the drive is often modified. Sándor Ferenczi (1916) showed, for instance, that an interest in money was founded on the anal erotogenic zone and the possibility of establishing a symbolic link between feces and money.
In this light, and in view of the potentially infinite number of transformations of instincts deriving from the erotogenic zones, it is fair to say that any form of human activity might be attributable to erotogenic sources. The psychoanalytic theory of the erotogenic zones appears to fall under the rubric of autoerotism, for it is the component instincts, independent of these zones, that are said to be directed straight at the object. Yet, as has often been pointed out, it would seem impossible to dissociate the emergence of these multiple erotogenic zones from pleasure-generating encounters with the object, especially in the context of maternal care.
It is worth mentioning that theorists since Freud have considered other erotogenic zones, such as those that affect the functions of respiration and hearing.
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Anaclisis/anaclitic; Anality; Anal-sadistic stage; Autoeroticism; Body image; Breastfeeding; Character formation; Cruelty; Drive/instinct; Erotogenicity; Eroticism, oral; Exhibitionism; Feminine sexuality; Libidinal stage; Libido; Masochism; Masturbation; Maternal; Object, choice of/change of; Oedipus complex; Orality; Organization; Organ pleasure; Pictogram; Pregenital; Primary object; Psychosexual development; Sexuality; Skin; Stage; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality .
Ferenczi, Sándor (1916). Stages in the development of the sense of reality. In his Contributions to psycho-analysis. Boston: Richard Badger.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1908b). Character and anal erotism. SE, 9: 167-175.
——. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.