Penis Envy

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The little girl notices the strikingly visible and well-proportioned penis of a brother or playmate, immediately recognizing it as the superior counterpart of her own small and hidden little organ and from then on she is subject to penis envy. She has seen it, knows that she does not have it, and wants it. This is the way Freud describes penis envy in Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes (1925j).

The first allusion to envy in relation to the penis appears in On the Sexual Theories of Children in 1908; the little girl then declares "that she would rather be a boy." Freud uses the term Penisneid for the first time in Observations and Analyses Drawn from Analytical Practice (1913h). He uses it again in On Narcissism in 1914. It constitutes the girl's castration complex whereas anxiety concerning the penis constitutes the boy's castration complex. The castration complex leads to "masculine protest," a term invented by Adler and which he attached to ego instincts and not to sexual instincts.

In The Sexual Theories of Children (1908c), Freud says that the little girl would rather be a boy but then the accent is put, not on the situation of boys in general, but on the possession of the male sexual organ in itself. The girl reproaches her mother with not having given her one and turns away from her to take the father as a love object. Penis envy and the castration complex thus bring her into the Oedipus complex out of which, unlike the boy, she will never emerge (cf. The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex, 1924d). The desire for a penis is replaced by the desire for a child by the father. But, whereas the boy identifies with the rival and forbidding father and thus constitutes a solid superego, the girl does not manage to produce a superego of the same quality. The result is a series of feminine characteristics: the woman "displays a lesser sense of justice, a lesser inclination to submit herself to the great necessities of life," "she more often allows herself to be guided in her decisions by tender and hostile sentiments." In short, we must not allow ourselves "to be misled by the argumentations of feminists who want to impose on us a complete parity of position and appreciation between the sexes."

Freud's position is linked to his phallocentrism and he failed to assess the degree to which it derived from the patriarchal culture in which he lived. He studied only the case of boys in depth and deducted from it, mutatis mutandis, conclusions concerning girls. He could not conceive of women except in negative terms: in order to become a woman, a man would have to renounce his penis. He was unable to conceive of women in a positive manner, as equipped with organs in which the man is lacking. He could conceive that a man might be afraid of women who want to take his penis from him. He could not conceive of men desiring femininity, maternity, or breasts. Women could have the fantasy of being no more than castrated men. Freud asserted that the castration of women was a reality that they had to accept. He thus forced them into a feeling of inferiority from which it is difficult to see a way out.

Children of both sexes are subjected to trauma when they learn that, whether boy or girl, neither one is the totality of the human being. Each one relies on their peer group for self-valorization and to devalorize the other. It is in this more general framework that we must situate castration anxiety and penis envy. Penis envy does not consist in wanting to change sex but fits into the narcissistic continuity: the girl would like to have the narcissistic and social advantages linked with the possession of a penis, rather than the organ itself (Horney, 1922), especially if she has the experience of her father and mother putting more value on the male child.

Colette Chiland

See also: Biological bedrock; Castration complex; Envy; Feminine sexuality; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Femininity; Femininity, refusal of; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Oedipus complex; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Phallic mother; Phallic stage; Psychology of Women, The. A Psychoanalytic Interpretation ; Puerperal psychoses; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes"; Wish for a baby.


Freud, Sigmund. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.

. (1913h). Observations and analyses drawn from analytical practice.

. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 241-258.

. (1932a). The acquisition and control of fire. SE, 22: 183-193.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis, SE, 22: 1-182.

Horney, Karen. (1967). Feminine psychology. New York: W.W. Norton. (Original work published 1922)

Further Reading

Grossman, William I., Stewart, Walter A. (1976). Penis envy: From childhood wish to developmental metaphor. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 24, 193-212.

Kirsten Dahl, E. (1996). The concept of penis envy revisited: A child analyst listens to adult women. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 51, 303-325.