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The term erotogenicity designates the capacity of any part of the body, whether muco-cutaneous surfaces or internal organs, to become the site of sexual excitation.

Rarely used by Freud, the term first appeared in "On Narcissism: An Introduction." (1914c) Freud wrote: "Let us now, taking any part of the body, describe its activity of sending sexually exciting stimuli to the mind as its "erotogenicity," and let us further reflect that the considerations on which our theory of sexuality was based have long accustomed us to the notion that certain other parts of the bodythe "erotogenic" zonesmay act as substitutes for the genitals and behave analogously to them. We have then only one more step to take. 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" (p. 84).

This term erotogenicity, or erogeneity, appeared contemporaneously with a conceptual change whereby Freud partitioned the libido (into the ego libido and narcissistic libido), this being indispensable in order to explain the processes at work in the psychoses, the "actual neuroses" (particularly hypochondria), and love life. This energetic and quantitative meaning of erogenicity is directly linked to the concepts of libido, ego, and object. It would thus modify though not replace the qualitative conception of the erogenous zones from which it derived and which were previously defined as the sources of the autoerotic component instincts (partial drives).

Freud very early recognized the sexual excitability (Erregbarkeit ) of certain parts of the body apart from the genital zones, in the strict sense, and referred to these as erogenous zones. This expression is derived from Charcot's hysterogenic zones, a term used to designate "more or less delimited regions of the body, on which pressure or merely rubbing determines, more or less rapidly, the phenomenon of the aura, which is sometimes succeeded, if we continue to apply pressure, by an hysterical attack. These points, or rather these surfaces, also have the property of being the seat of permanent sensitivity." (Charcot, 1890). When speaking of the case of Elisabeth von R. in Studies on Hysteria, Freud extended the meaning of hysterogenic zone by giving it its full value as a corporal inscription of a mnemic trace and describing the sexual pleasure within the conversion symptom. Elisabeth von R's pains always started from a particular point on the right thigh and the analysis revealed that her father used to rest his leg there when she was caring for him. Freud states: "In this way she gave me the explanation that I needed of the emergence of what was an atypical hysterogenic zone" (1895d, 148). The notion of hysterogenic zone came to be modified between Charcot and Freud because it now meant a place with a sexual "stimulability" (Reizbarkeit ) that was determined by the subject's history and not by anatomy.

The equivalence between erogeneity and hysterogeneity is clearly defined in two of Freud's letters to Wilhelm Fliess, one dated December 6, 1896, in which the term erogenous zone appears for the first time, the other dated November 14, 1897, in which he wrote: "I have often suspected that something organic played a part in repression; I have told you before that it is a question of the attitude adopted to former sexual zones. . . . We must suppose that in infancy sexual release is not so much localized as it becomes later, so that zones which are later abandoned (and possibly the whole surface of the body) stimulate to some extent the production of something that is analogous to the later release of sexuality" (p. 232). These sexual zones that are abandoned in the course of development constitute infantile sexuality proper, and are recathected in perversions and neuroses. In Three Essays Freud shows that through the action of displacement and condensation these erogenous zones "then behave exactly like the genitals (1905d, p. 183) and produce the symptoms that are conceived of as substitutes for sexual satisfaction. The paradigm is that of hysteria: "erotogenic and hysterogenic zones show the same characteristics" (1905d, p. 184).

He then goes on to describe the development phases of infantile sexual organization (oral, anal, and phallic). The erogenous zones are the source of the component sexual impulses that seek autoerotic satisfaction until they are subordinated to and take part in genital activity. Freud's model for the excitation of the erogenous zones is based on the erection, including the tension (unpleasure) it mobilizes, and the demand for discharge (pleasure) that it prescribes. The fact that certain parts of the body are predestined to be erogenous is explained by the Freudian concept of anaclisis. The term is used to designate the relationship of leaning and implication that exists between the sexual instincts and the needs of self-preservation. For example, Freud postulates for the oral instinct that, "the satisfaction of the erotogenic zone is associated, in the first instance, with the satisfaction of the need for nourishment" (1905d, p. 181).

Without recanting on this theory of erogenous zones as presented above, Freud modified his conception of erogeneity in 1914 toward an energy-based and quantitative model where the hysteria paradigm is replaced by that of hypochondria. It was now the whole body that behaved like a male genital organ. The distribution of the libido and its capacity to go beyond the frontiers of narcissism conditioned suffering and love equally.

Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d) describes the relationship between the ego-function of an organ and erogeneity: "It has been discovered as a general fact that the ego-function of an organ is impaired if its erotogenicityits sexual significanceis increased. It behaves, if I may be allowed a rather absurd analogy, like a maid-servant who refuses to go on cooking because her master has started a love-affair with her" (pp. 89-90). Freud gives other examples of inhibitions following a risk of conflict between the ego and the superego, as when profit and success are prohibited and when failure satisfies a need for self-punishment. Thus, in the second theory of the instincts erogeneity is equivalent to a libidinal satisfaction that can be accomplished up to and including self-punishment and self-destruction as in, for example, moral masochism.

The Freudian notion that erogenous activity is anaclitic in relation to the satisfaction of the fundamental needs of self-preservation favored the theoretical illusion of a progressive organization of instinctual stages with maturation being almost biologically determined. This conceptual model compromises the importance of the Other and its constitutive intervention in infantile sexuality. By referring to anaclisis in another sense, the choice of love object being based on the model of the mother who feeds or the father who protects, Freud's 1914 text introduces another perspective, but not without some hesitation and aporia.

Jacques Lacan (1964-1966) developed a theoretical model that denies the genetic point of view of instinctual stages and its "naturally" programmed organization. He writes: "There is no relation of engendering between one component instinct and the next," and states: "The passage from the oral instinct to the anal is not produced by a process of maturation but by means of the intervention of something that has nothing to do with instinctsby the intervention, the reversal, of the demand of the Other."

Serge Leclaire (1968) demonstrated that erogeneity depends closely on the "sexual value" projected onto the child's body by another. The mother who caresses her child's dimple with her finger inscribes a difference there, a flaw, a point of focus, an erogenous center: "What makes the erotogenic inscription possible is the fact that the caressing finger is itself, for the mother, an erotogenic zone. This finger, in its essential libidinal value, can be called a "letter-holder" or inscriber to the extent that, as an erotogenic zone of the mother, a letter fixes into its flesh the interbal of an exquisite difference" (p. 50).

Roland Gori

See also: Erotogenic zone; Fetishism; Hypochondria; Inhibition; Libidinal development; Organ pleasure.


Charcot, Jean Martin. (1890). Oeuvres complètes. Leçons sur les maladies du système nerveux. Paris: ProgrèsMédicale.

Freud, Sigmund. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.

. (1926d). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966). Position de l'Inconsuent.Écrits. Paris: Seuil. (Original work published 1964)

Leclaire, Serge. (1999). Psychoanalyzing: on the order of the unconscious and the practice of the letter. (Peggy Kamuf, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1968)

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