Infantile Sexual Curiosity

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Infantile sexual curiosity must be distinguished from the "investigative drive" in that the former directly cathects sexuality. Secondarily, it can stimulate the activity of the latter, which is also directed at non-sexual objects and gives rise to theories (infantile sexual theories). For Freud, in fact, the investigative drive is "awoken" (geweckt ) by sexual curiosity, which responds to the "selfish" interest of self-protection from the birth of younger siblings.

Sexual curiosity initially involves an interest in seeing the genital organs and sexual relations (scopophilic drive). This visual pleasure can develop into voyeurism without necessarily leading to a sublimated cathexis of the enigma surrounding sexuality and of enigmas in general. Although sexual curiosity is linked to the investigative drive and constitutes the form in which it first emerges, the quest for the sight of an object of desire nevertheless continues to play a predominant role. It may be surprising that Freud should accord this preeminent position to sexual curiosity, to the extent of regarding it as the starting point of the child's investigative activity, whereas in fact the child displays from the earliest months an all-consuming curiosity about everything that surrounds him.

In fact, this curiosity already differs from the scopophilic drive both through its choice of an absent object, the mother's penis (cf. Little Hans, 1909b), as a preferred object and because it is not restricted to the pleasure of seeing but immediately develops into a need for self-comparison with the object being looked at ("The ego is always the standard by which one measures the external world," 1909b, p. 107). Unlike the scopophilic drive, which can undergo a perverse development (voyeurism) or invent the absent object by remaining fixated on it (fetishism), sexual curiosity goes beyond this register by cathecting its enigmatic dimension. In this sense, it is already undergoing a sublimatory development, even if the investigation has not yet been formulated as an independent objective. The existence of an enigma presupposes the existence of a premonitory knowledge that is not necessarily possessed. In the "Wolf Man" case (1918b [1914]), concerning the primal scene, Freud hypothesizes that the understanding of the sexual process, as well as its meaning, is conceivable even at such an early age, if it is compared with the instinctive knowledge of animals (instinktives Wissen ). This curiosity would then be the disposition to cathect a scene of which the meaning is intuited, giving it an enigmatic quality. However, the value of the scene in question derives only from that which is not visible, that is to say its meaning, as distinct from what is directly perceived. Sexual curiosity differs from voyeuristic pleasure in the same way, as can be stated following Freud: "An advance in intellectuality consists in deciding against direct sense-perception in favour of what are known as the higher intellectual processesthat is, memories, reflections and inferences" (1939a, [1934-38], pp. 117-118).

Sexual curiosity (epistemophilia) was extensively discussed by Melanie Klein, who emphasized that it precedes the child's understanding of language and, because of his immaturity, contributes a great deal of frustration and a sense of ignorance that reinforce the castration complex. Melanie Klein also emphasizes the connection of this curiosity with sadism and the anal-sadistic libidinal position, which makes the child want to appropriate the contents of the body and particularly the mother's body, which is thought to possess the penis and the babies.

Sexual curiosity does not necessarily mean that the child is asking questions about sexuality. Rather, this seems in fact to be displaced, with the child posing innumerable, often stereotypical questions to which he does not appear to expect answers because they substitute for those questions that repression prevents him from asking and in regard to which alone he could be satisfied.

Infantile sexual curiosity, in its denied form (inhibition, disgust) or its obsessional form, plays an important role in infantile symptomatology. It has important consequences for learning at school (Klein, 1923). Freud takes this viewpoint a step further by considering the failure of infantile sexual curiosity as a paralyzing factor in later life: "The impression caused by this failure in the first attempt at intellectual independence appears to be of a lasting and deeply depressing kind" (1910c, p. 79).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy" (Little Hans); Myth of origins; "On the Sexual Theories of Children"; Phallic stage; Phobias in children; "Sexual Enlightenment of Children, The"; Thought.


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

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

Moses and monotheism: three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Klein, Melanie. (1923). The development of a child. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 4, 419-474.

Mellor-Picaut, Sophie. (1980). La vision et l'énigme. Topique, 25.