Genital Stage

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A stage or phase of psychosexual development, the genital stage is characterized by the organization of the component instincts under the primacy of the genital zone. It is divided into two periods separated by the latency period: first, the infantile genital organization, or phallic phase, dominated by the phallus, that is, by the male genital organ alone, and, secondly, the genital organization properly so-called, which is established at puberty.

Many authors feel that the terms "genital stage" or "genital organization" should be reserved for this second period, and that the "infantile genital organization" or "phallic phase" should properly be classed with the (oral and anal) pregenital organizations that precede latency. Freud himself at first described the genital organization as linked to the discovery of the sexual object at the time of puberty (1905d). Under the primacy of the genital zone, a prerequisite to the union of the sexes, the component instincts of the young child's "polymorphously perverse" sexuality were unified and integrated into sexual activity as fore-pleasure.

In a paper of 1923, "The Infantile Genital Organization," intended as a complement to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud moved away from the standpoint of biological maturation, reduced the significance previously accorded to puberty, and described an organization that approximated "(in about the fifth year) to the definitive form taken by [sexuality] in the adult" (1923e, p. 141).

There are two important points here. Object-choices, as first made during this phase, are in every way analogous to post-pubertal choices, and this is "the closest approximation possible in childhood to the final form taken by sexual life after puberty" (p. 142). The second and even more important point is that the infantile genital organization, which is simultaneous with the emergence of the Oedipus complex, is marked by the presence of a particular sexual theory: the child at this time conceives of but one kind of genital, namely the male sexual organ. This is the reason for the denomination "phallic phase": "At the same time, the main characteristic of this 'infantile genital organization' is its difference from the final genital organization of the adult. This consists in the fact that, for both sexes, only one genital, namely the male one, comes into account. What is present, therefore, is not a primacy of the genitals, but a primacy of the phallus." (p. 142)

The idea of the primacy of the male genital organ thus became the foundation of the general theory of the castration complex, of which Freud sought thence-forward to frame feminine as well as masculine versions: "the significance of the castration complex can only be rightly appreciated if its origin in the phase of phallic primacy is also taken into account" (p.144). In An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, Freud placed the phallic phase as a pregenital organization following the oral and anal organizations, and reserved the term "genital organization" or "phase" for the pubertal period only. He reasserted the idea that "The complete organization is only achieved at puberty, in a fourth, genital phase" (1940a, p. 155).

It is worth recalling here the importance of the notion of organization. Each phase of development sets up a functional system that organizes not only the current state of mental operation but also its future state. Thus, in 1923, Freud summarized the transformations that the polarity between the sexes undergoes during infantile sexual development as follows: "At the stage of the pregenital sadistic-anal organization, there is as yet no question of male and female; the antithesis between active and passive is the dominant one. At the following stage of infantile genital organization, which we now know about, maleness exists, but not femaleness. The antithesis here is between having a male genital and being castrated. It is not until development has reached its completion at puberty that the sexual polarity coincides with male and female " (1923e, p. 145).

Even though the evolution of Freud's view of psychosexual development led him to assimilate infantile sexuality more and more to adult sexuality, he did not alter his initial assertion: he continued to maintain that it was only with the advent of the sexual organization of puberty that the component instincts were definitively unified and a hierarchy established; the child could not emerge from the anarchy of the component instincts until, at puberty, the primacy of the genital zone was assured.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Adolescent crisis; Genital love; Phobias in children; Stage (or phase).


Brusset, Bernard. (1992). Le Développement libidinal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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

. (1923e). The infantile genital organization (An interpolation into the theory of sexuality). SE, 19: 141-145.

. (1940a). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Further Reading

Dorsey, Denise. (1996). Castration anxiety or feminine genital anxiety? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 44 (S), 283-302.

Harley, Marjorie. (1961). Some observations on the relationship between genitality and structural development at adolescence. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9, 434-460.

Roiphe, Herman. (1968). On an early genital phase: With an addendum on genesis. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23, 348-368.